Sunday, May 6, 2018

Side Tracking -- Houses Again

While cruising real estate listings in a neighborhood where I lived in Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Valley (1954-59) I came across this:


I remember this listed house quite well. I don't recall the people who lived there, but I do recall the house. It's on the corner of the street where I lived and its floor plan is identical to our house down at the other end of the street. This house has been heavily rehabbed for sale but with the usual update exceptions, it's much as I remember our house back in the day.

It's quite a small house, though it is photographed with a Real Estate Marketing Fisheye Lens® to make it appear enormous. 

I was five or six when we moved in to our house down the street --and to my eye then, the house did seem rather large (I think it was June, 1954, so I would have been five.) The house was brand spanking new, still stinking of paint and varnish, gobs of dried stucco on the bare, dusty ground, no fencing except on the property line along the drainage ditch in back, Yes it was new but very, very stark and plain.

The house in the picture is the first house on the block, and our house was the last house on the block. A blacktop driveway had just been laid at our house. There were no sewers, no gutters, no sidewalks, no curbing. The street was paved, more or less, and there was electricity and running water, so there was that, but otherwise... not much.

I can't say I liked living there for the first year or so because the house we had come from was such a cozy and homelike place, built pre-war, surrounded with lush greenery, I really didn't want to leave it for... this one. This one that echoed with your footsteps. This one in a rough and raw neighborhood on what seemed like the edge of nowhere. Wild hillscapes abutted the development. Coyotes would howl the night away. Orange groves were still in operation behind our place.

But I got used to it. We lived there five years, longer than any other place up to that point in my young life, and I got used to it.

In some ways, the renovation of the listing house is so spanking fresh and raw, despite the interior glitz and brand new nursery plants and rolled out lawn in front, it feels a lot like our place did not long after we moved in. Actually, we set to work very quickly putting in landscaping. There were lawns front and back, shrubbery and roses galore within a few months, even a "water feature" in back where we kept frogs and turtles. 


The exterior or our house was painted white with hunter green trim. The driveway was blacktop not concrete. There were no lawns or trees on the property or anywhere nearby when we moved in. The garage door was solid, it had no windows. There was an open field to the right -- houses wouldn't be built there for another several years (I believe 1957).

In the living room looking toward the front door: the door had no window, so the hall was kind of dark. The walls were a neutral beige. The floors were oak hardwood. To the left of the front door (right as you enter) there was a doorway to the "den" or third bedroom. It's been closed off in this remodel, but the way the light hits the wall, you can almost make out where it was. There was no recessed lighting. We had an old Philco console radio. No TeeVee until sometime after we moved in, and then the TeeVee went in the den.

Our furniture was Early American, maple and homespun, with brass lamps on the tables and a braided rug on the floor. As I look at this picture I can hear the echo in the room and throughout the house due the bare travertine tile floors. But our house with wood, tile and linoleum flooring echoed too, as we had few rugs or curtains and the rugs we had were small.



Two other views of the living room with the dining area beyond. I think the overused term, "flooded with light might be appropriate. When we moved in, it sure seemed  like it. 

The bank of windows in the lower picture faces north, so it shouldn't have been too bright, but it was. We had curtains, but they didn't go up immediately, and they proved too small when they did get hung, so my mother either made or bought unbleached muslin tiered cafe curtains which she hung on brass rods with brass clips. (I know she bought a Brother sewing machine but she couldn't figure out how to work it, so I'm not sure now if she made the curtains. I know that was her idea, but she may not have followed through.)

The curtains cut some of the glare. The high window in the dining room faces west, and you can imagine what the afternoon sun was like. The one salvation was that it was so smoggy most of the time, you hardly ever saw the unfiltered sun.

The picture window in the living room had a wonderful view out over the orange groves to the San Gabriel Mountains about eight or ten miles north. Of course the view depended on how thick the smog was. Smog often obscured the mountains completely. Nowadays, they say it's not nearly so bad, even in the San Gabriel Valley where smog was once the worst in the Los Angeles Basin.

The kitchen and bathroom are the most heavily remodeled in this reno-flip. They're almost unrecognizable to me compared to their original appearance and what they looked like in our house. 

The layout of the kitchen is similar to what I recall, and yet not. There was a sink and tile countertop and cabinets on the right and a door to the side yard in our house, and on the left there was a stove and refrigerator, a closet with a water heater, and to the left of that I believe there was a broom closet. There were, as I recall, no cabinets or countertops on the left side of the room. Just beyond where you see housing for a refrigerator in the picture is a door to the front hall way, and beyond that is a tiny breakfast area across from which, in our house -- and no doubt in this one before the reno -- there was just enough space and the hook ups for an automatic washer, not a wringer washer that needed a tub (though I suppose the kitchen sink would have done in a pinch) and not enough room for or hookups for a dryer.

We had a Kenmore washer like this one:


As I recall, the counter top and back splash was medium green tile with a dark green edging. The cabinets were off white as were the walls. The flooring was a grey mottled linoleum with scattered red and green designs -- not florals, more like deco patterns. The refrigerator was to the left of the stove and the water heater closet was to the left of the refrigerator. 

We had a compact Wedgewood gas stove and cycled through one refrigerator after another. For some reason, my mother thought a new refrigerator was "too expensive," so she bought used ones for $50 or so, mostly pre-war models, and when they conked out, as they inevitably did after 6 months or a year, she'd buy another one. We had a Frigidaire (c. 1939), a couple of Crosleys (c. 1939, 1940), a GE (date unknown), and a Servel gas refrigerator (c. 1941) which necessitated installing a gas line from the stove but which survived and operated until 1957 when my mother broke down and bought a new Coldspot refrigerator from Sears. I think we kept that until 1963 or 64, schlepping it from house to house. After we got a new frost-free fridge, the old Coldspot lived in the garage as spare. As far as I know, it kept functioning well into the '70s and was probably still there when my mother moved out of that house in the mid-'80s.

I remember all this stuff which is kinda weird but there you go.

I'm curious about what they did with the water heater and the laundry area in the flip-house because they aren't where they were, and moving them is not exactly a "cosmetic" matter. I suspect that the linen closet in the bedroom hallway was pressed into service for laundry equipment (it's behind the shuttered doors in the picture below):

This would explain some of the changes to the bathroom, too.

This picture makes it almost unrecognizable to me. 

The bathroom I remember had a stall shower, a separate bathtub, and a cabinet with a single bowl sink. The door at the end of the room in the picture goes I don't know where -- maybe that's where the water heater is? If so, it would need venting. At any rate, that's where the tub used to be and the shower was where the tub is. The cabinet and counter on the left replaces the one that had been there. As I recall, it had a pink tiled countertop edged with blood red tiles and the tile around the tub and shower were also pink as was the tile floor. Pretty!!(/s). It was actually pretty fancy for the time. While the rest of the house may have been plain and spartan the bathroom was luxe. Comparatively. 

The bedrooms are plain, and except for closet doors, are pretty much the way they were:

The front bedroom which we used as a den/teevee room. There was a door to the front hallway that's been closed off on the right, and a closet which isn't shown in the picture. On the left, next to the desk is the door to the bedroom hall.


Here are pictures of the other two bedrooms. The first two pictures are of the back bedroom. The last is of the other front bedroom, across the hall from the bedroom above.




Except for the fact that the floors in our house were oak, they look and feel a lot like the bedrooms in our house, what with very few furnishings, beige walls, and bright light through the windows. 

My bedroom would have been like the one pictured directly above. It wasn't very big, maybe 11x11 or so-- though it looks much larger in the picture -- and as I recall, my room was furnished with only a single bed. There was nothing else, not a chair, desk, dresser, nightstand or bedside lamp. The bed was against the wall rather than against the windows, and my memory is that for a long time there were no curtains on the windows, though there were roller shades. The windows faced the open fields and hills to the east, so the early morning sun would sometimes wake me up. The mitigation was that the smog was often thick enough to cut the glare, and the hills to the east were close enough and high enough to block the actual dawn. The sun didn't come in the windows till half an hour or so after dawn.

When construction started on the houses east of us, I was a little sad and miffed. The way our house was situated, it felt like we were in the country -- at least from the bedroom side. And for a year or so after we moved in, the view from the living room windows to the north was of orange groves and the mountains not far in the distance. This rural feel was actually new to me -- I'd always lived with close neighbors in fairly tightly packed communities until then. But once I got used to living in a semi-rural area (though it didn't stay that way) I liked it.

The orange groves were ripped out and the trees were burned in 1955 or 56 and an elementary school was built on part of the bare land. I started third grade there when it opened. What we called "cracker box" houses were built on the remaining land. Those houses are now very desirable Mid Century Modern examples, some of them very well preserved, others not so much.

Though built mid-century, our house was not actually Mid-Century style, and I think that's one reason why the overhauled example that's listed for sale now has had the kind of thorough-going "contemporary" renovation it has. There was no charm, no style to our house at all. None to the essentially identical house listed either. In fact, none of the houses in this section of the development had anything like "style." They were quick-built cookie cutter houses intended to fill a void and a need for post War housing as fast and efficiently as possible. 

It took me a long time, but eventually I realized that the floor plan was actually that of a standard bungalow that could be traced back to the turn of the century. The standard bungalow floor plan had been built in California and all over the country by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, between about 1910 and 1930, and the basic floor plan continued to be used right up to the outbreak of WWII when house construction largely stopped for the duration. 

When the post war construction boom got under way, the same basic floor plan was still employed, but our house and ones like it had a twist. The floor plan had been "reversed" -- that is the front of the house had been turned to the rear of the lot, and what faced the street was actually the back of the house -- if it had been built as a standard bungalow. The front door would have been the back door, the front porch would have been the rear screen porch where there would likely have been laundry tubs and the ice box or refrigerator, and the door in the center of the living room wall that goes out to the back yard would have been the front door, and there probably would have been a front porch too, though many of the houses built in the '30s didn't have front porches, just an entry stoop.

My mother grew up in a California bungalow, so I can understand why this house might have appealed to her instinctively, though she might not have been conscious of the evocation. To me, it was just another move to yet another house. We'd already lived in three different houses in Santa Maria, and this house would be the third house we lived in in the San Gabriel Valley. This by the time I was five. It was actually the seventh house I'd lived in as I was born in Iowa and had lived in my father's house for the brief time I was there.

Moving that often is disruptive to be sure, but to me it was normal, and until I got much older, moving was exciting. Then I came to dread moving. 

We lived in our last house in Sacramento for more than 20 years, and getting ready to move to New Mexico in 2012 was a months-long process. It was a... pain. The move itself was liberating, but not the preps. 

Moving as often as I did as a child, though, seemed easy. I'm sure it wasn't, but back then, it was just part of life.

So many things seemed "just part of life" in  those days, and one day before I pass on I might tell some of those stories. In the meantime, I just wanted to note the house where I lived from 1954 to '59 and the current listing for the house just like it down the street.

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