When the house owns you
Love, dedication and historic homes.
by Rachel D. Creagan
photography by Denisse Leung
During La Verne’s early orchard days, their foundations were built to last, with attention to detail and the use of custom craftsman techniques. Today, many are being meticulously restored and stand as historical silos. The La Verne Historical Society, with the city, is officially recognizing 23 (and counting) of these historically significant homes built between 1880 and 1930 by placing bronze markers streetside that tell the stories they have to tell.
The Larimer house
“The first thing you need to realize about an old home is that you don’t own the house as much as the house owns you,” says Sherry Best, owner of the La Verne historical house that she and husband John are in the middle of restoring. John and Sherry live in a 1908 light pink farmhouse that once was centered in the heart of a massive orange grove on Bradford Street, above Foothill Boulevard. Its bronze marker states that original owner and builder John A. Larimer managed the Richards Orange Grove on Garey Avenue, one of the largest in the area. John Larimer came to Lordsburg from Tennessee in 1891 and married Suzie Zug of San Dimas in 1900. The family lived in the home until 1926. Since, the house has served as a single-family household with certain characteristics modified from its original look.
The house front presents a Victorian facade. Pink and green fish-scaled shingles accent the second floor open-air deck. The lower porch holds delicate white-spindled woodwork that complements the etched glass and wood front door. However, this is not originally a victorian home but a craftsman style home. A previous owner added the porch. A craftsman home is one built according to plans published by Gustav Stickley, an iconic figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Eventually, the Bests plan to restore the porch to its original appearance. When they purchased the home 10 years ago, there was much repair work to be done. Under the Mills Act, passed to encourage property owners to preserve California’s dwindling legacy of historic buildings, the couple was rewarded with lower property taxes. They say the money saved is dwarfed by the money being put back into the house.
Refinished oak floors of the grand room beacon your entrance. Originally, the open area was split as a front parlor and a back room, but during a 1920s remodel, it became one large room. The house back was added then; part of the house now sits on a concrete slab while the rest covers the basement. An upstairs bedroom was turned into a bathroom, and the Bests believe this is when the fireplace was added. “We like uncovering how things were,” says Sherry. They have become detectives in figuring out the original look. “If we don’t remember what our past is, we can’t really appreciate our present,” says Sherry. “The American public is trained to believe that everything has to be done immediately, and that faster and newer is better,” she says. A principle of good restoration is that “when you own an old home, you must live with it and work with it slowly,” says Sherry. “People make mistakes when they jump in and try to get everything done immediately, but it’s a process,” adds John.
Finding restoration work experts committed to the couple’s ideal of using original materials was a big challenge. They are restoring the stairs and upstairs hallway, which requires precision. “We waited until we found the right people who were going to treat the materials right and try to integrate resources so it looks as it did,” says Sherry. A wood restoration expert has stripped off the layers of painted wood, conditioning it to its original luster. They have plans for a plasterer to scrape and skim the ceilings that are currently a textured Spanish-style. They have hired a carpenter to build a built-in bookcase; a paperhanger will re-paper the walls with embossed, paintable wallpaper. This will give the walls a pressed-tin appearance, appropriate to the time. Once completed, the Douglas Fur wood floors will be refinished. Sherry notes that the original owners floored the downstairs with the harder, more expensive wood where company gathered and used less expensive wood upstairs in the bedrooms.
They wanted an authentic historic backyard look that also met their backyard farming interests. Chickens supply them with fresh eggs and roam through an array of fruit trees. Sherry is known for her delicious fruit jams from these trees. Vegetable plants are in abundance and supply most of their needs. The modern era creeps in with an outdoor light system, installed for entertainment purposes. A sprinkler system and a wrought iron fence lines the house. It is a sensable balance: capturing the past while making sure everything is sustainable for the future.
John, grew up in an old home in Pasadena. He works as a housing consultant for the homeless and mentally ill in Los Angeles and owns Cost Plus Mattress with his brother in La Verne. Sherry grew up in an old home in Whittier and works as a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, teaching in the division of special education counseling. Ten years in, they say they are only half way done with their planned work. One must enjoy the journey, they say.
The Johnson house
A newspaper clipping marked May 11, 1911, states the California Craftsman home on Magnolia Avenue, adjacent to Kuns Park, was designed and built by James Melvin Johnson at the same time and on the same block as Henry L. Kuns’ home. Johnson owned the Lordsburg garage and machine shop and maintained streets for the city of Lordsburg. He married Ora Lamb Kuns, youngest daughter of Henry, in 1906. They met at Lordsburg Academy, now the University of La Verne, in 1902. The couple and their three young daughters moved into the home on Sept. 3, 1911. Though they only lived there four years before moving to Chino in 1915, the home remains to be called the “Johnson House.”
The Clinton DeWhitt family moved in next. They sold it to citrus rancher William D. Somerville in 1920. Somerville managed the “Evergreen Ranch” in La Verne. He left the area in 1928 and rented the house out to college students until 1933, when he sold the house for $2,200 to R.O. Bell, who owned a feed business on D Street. Bell began to refurbish the now rundown residence before selling it to William Smythe, a retired painter from San Dimas, in 1942. Smythe installed a floor furnace in the front entrance that same year. The Smythe family, who raised chickens and sold eggs, sold the house to David and Terri Sardeson in 1980. Spring 1982, Steve Albrigo, a mechanical engineer, bought the property for $121,000 and is the current owner. Steve and wife Paula treat their home with love, dedication and admiration, as they reflect on their continuing restoration journey.
The couple share a love for the character of old homes, with no need to modernize. “If you’re going to buy an old home, then plan to take care of it,” says Paula. Steve, an incredible craftsman himself, started work on the house by installing a new roof and house fan. He re-plastered the water damaged ceilings, replaced the broken ropes that work the double hung windows and planted backyard fruit trees. Since old homes supply little storage space, in the late 1980s, a large linen closet was built in the upstairs hall. Downstairs, iron-rods lie across the entrances of the living and dining rooms, showing where heavy drapes once hung to keep the downstairs rooms warm. Today, one still hangs over the staircase during the cold winter months. At night, the drape is opened so heat can rise and warm the upstairs rooms. Old houses tend to be drafty and cold in the winter while hot and musty on summer days. Ingenuity must be used to offset this; hence the curtains and also warm day window venting strategies.
In 2003, the wood floors were refinished. Many paint layers were stripped from the ceiling woodwork, the banister in the upstairs hall, along with a bookcase and wood storage bench in the living room. They worked with a wood refinisher, who re-stained the old, new, and damaged wood to match the original color. The following year, they rebuilt the mantle in the living room to its original look by exactly replacing damaged hearth tiles with handcrafted tiles. The wallpaper, light switches and light fixtures all reflect the original period. Old California Lantern, a company that specializes in custom period light fixtures, provided the replicas.
The sinking north front porch floor and steps were reconstructed in 2010. The crumbling stone column was rebuilt, with each stone put back in its original space. Two new steel and wooden columns were added to the south porch for extra support for the second floor, along with two new support pilasters. The house was repainted and re-roofed in early 2011. Still awaiting restoration is the kitchen, which they plan to accomplish in 2012. The couple recently re-landscaped their yard with all California native plants, the result of careful research at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont. “We see the restoration process as a labor of love,” says Paula. The house exudes a feeling of value. “It is almost a feeling of honor to be able to take care of a home that has withstood all the years and people,” she says.
Arliss Johnson, youngest son of the original owner, visited the Albrigos. Though he did not live in the house, being born 13 years after his family’s move, he did provide them with the family history. Writing in a letter to the Albrigos, he said he could feel his mother’s imprint on the house design, “utilitarian but friendly and comfortable.” He talked of many fond memories at his grandfather’s house down the street, and how the park across the street (Kuns Park) was his favorite place to play. In that park, trees planted by his grandfather Henry Kuns stand as some of the oldest trees in the city of La Verne.
On Nov. 13, 2011, the couple held a 100th birthday party for their home. Guided home and garden tours were offered. In addition, guests were invited to enjoy birthday cake and refreshments on the back patio. Landscape design specialist Joel Shaffer was there to answer questions about the landscape design, along with a Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens representative, who answered questions about the native plants. Honorary guests Ruth Ora Johnson and Kathleen Johnson, granddaughters of James M. Johnson, attended the celebration.
Historical marker program
The La Verne Historical Society conducts research on La Verne’s structures to determine whether they meet approval standards, following the submission of an application by the homeowners. The home must be maintained true to its original crafting. If the home passes muster, Galen Beery, president of the Historical Society, forwards to the city a proposed marker draft for its final review.
Self-selected homeowners invest tens of thousands of dollars in their restoration. Yet, old homes are not for every one. They were built without much storage space. Kitchens were bare essential work areas. Electrical outlets were limited to one plug per room. Air conditioning was non-existent, as was viable insulation.
Nevertheless, old homeowners find great joy in being connected with history. The homes connect them to the past, and remind all of a lost but now rediscovered way of life.
Bronze marker homes
• 2236 Third St., David Blickenstaff Home, 1912
• 2380 Third St., Isaac Eikenberry House, 1912
• 2341 Third St., Dr. Frank Shirk Home, 1910
• 2478 Bonita Ave., Hortense Lear Home, 1921
• 2259 Third St., The McClellan House, 1909
• 2309 Third St., The Bowman Home, 1927
• 2553 Magnolia, The Lomeli Adobe, 1957
• 2141 Sixth St., Hazel Snoke Home, 1890
• 2449 Magnolia, Henry L. Kuns Home, 1911
• 2308 Third St., The Huck Residence, 1900
• 2446 Park Ave., The Overholtzer Home, 1914
• 1655 Fifth St., Durward-Bowers Home, 1914
• 2417 Magnolia, J.M. Johnson Home, 1911
• 2219 Third St., The Neher-Vaniman Home, 1907
• 1622 Bonita Ave., The Inman Conety Home, 1912
• 2607 Sedalia, The Meredith Home, 1887
• 2369 Third St., The Moomaw House, 1911
• 2040 Second St., The Hanawalt House, 1908
• 2610 Bonita Ave., Harvey Hanawalt House, 1906
• 2210 Bonita Ave., The Hauch Residence, 1913-14
• 2368 Third St., The Brandt House, 1922
• 3949 Bradford St. John A. Larimer 1908
For more information about historically marked homes, visit www.lavernehistoricalsociety.org.