The History of a House
When my dad was a young teenager, it was discovered that he contracted some special kind of arthritis that was effecting the development of his legs. On the recommendation of the family doctor, he accompanied one of his aunts and her husband to the ship yards in the cities of Oakland and Alameda, in California. The couple were seeking employment in the shipyards being built in these towns. It was thought that the warmer climates there, would benefit the efforts to treat my dad’s oncoming arthritic condition. For sure, remaining in the often frozen Midwest climate of the family’s home, Chicago, Illinois (notoriously known as the “Windy City”), would only hasten the development of the arthritis.
While he was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pop watched the building of both the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. Utilizing bikes, buses, and a little later, inexpensive jalopies, and making frequent use of the several ferries traversing the Bay prior to the completion of the bridges, Pop explored the farmlands, the woodlands and the mountains all around the San Francisco Bay.
Pop’s father, an immigrant from Italy, was the meek and mild parish gardener in a modest neighborhood in a Chicago suburb. My dad was the second to the last in a family with five kids. On his return to Chicago, with the healthiest of legs, he rebelled against the strong family ties to the church and he rebelled against
the closed-in, over-run and congested urban lifestyle in the city scape of Chicago. He married a young girl from a rich, farm family in the great flat-lands of Indiana. Within a year of the birth of their second child (my
sister), Pop moved his little family to his beloved San Francisco Bay Area. He rented an old farm house in the sparsely populated “truck farm” community in the Almaden Valley, several miles south of the small city of San Jose.
Before I attended kindergarten classes at the Almaden Elementary School, I had my own farm companion, a smallish mutt we adopted from the Humane Society in Santa Clara. My mom named the pup “Trixie” which I shortened to “Trix,” as I didn’t want to have my sidekick to have a “girly” sounding name, even if she was a female. And, still before starting kindergarten, I was earning some wages pasting labels on the ends of tomato packing crates, making a penny per label.
The well established farmer/landowner we rented our little house from, made sure, through all of my growing up, that I had plenty of work to do, on this, our extended family’s 20 acre plot. As well, our farmer/landlord managed several other ranches every harvest season. Our house and his more modern, low slung, “ranch style” house sat within 100 yards of each other, on the edges of the 20 acres.
When I was about ten years old, our landlord/farmer and my parents came up with an interesting scheme. On the western edge of our 20 acre plot, there ran a creek across the entire border of the place. We called these sometimes waterways “storm ditches,” as they only contained water when there was enough rain to make for some substantial run off from the surrounding mountains and hillsides. When there was enough run off, these dry, steep sided ditches were filled to overflowing with ugly, nasty, fast moving brown and frothing storm water. We kids were filled with frightening stories of how these furious waterways would sweep cattle off their feet and carry them down to the Bay at speeds that even our fastest cars couldn’t keep up with. We were rightfully scared as hell of these rushing, water filled channels. Indeed, they were very dangerous.
But this danger only occurred for only a few weeks, and then, only every few years. Basically, we had a pretty arid climate, and such rains were infrequent. While dry, these ditches were never considered much more than unchangeable scars in the land. However, the ditches were never tampered with, for when the torrents were set upon us, these fast running ditches kept our rich, black land topsoil from being flooded and stripped away.
The storm ditch on the west side of our property had a course that zig-zagged through the western most acre of our farm. It was lined with a series of black walnut trees on either bank, each being about a hundred feet from its neighbors. In the summer they were lush and verdant, full of the rich, dense black walnuts, so difficult to break open. In the winter, they were bare skeletons of themselves, just minimal stick figures of themselves, against the gray, Russian winter-like skies.
The scheme that my elders had cooked up was to survey out the western acre of the property, for the zig-zagging of the creek, this acre was untillable, useless to the functions of the farm, and officially sell this newly measured parcel to my parents. On the front of the acre, my parents could erect their own, more modern house and have some stray land in the back for animals, sheds, whatever. The meandering creek broke the land up but that was only on the tail end of the acre. I remember, to my childish mind, this acre was 72 feet wide and a million feet long.
As the willy-nilly, insanely frantic development of the Santa Clara Valley was only beginning in earnest, at this time, the conservative, old farmers of our neighborhood were feeling fat and sassy about their place in the world. This sub-urban development was taking place near Moffet Field and in San Jose, so many, many miles away. We were generations away from it effecting us. The center of San Jose was just about ten miles away. Such a distance was a very satisfactory buffer against the money crazy city slickers that were looking to ruin the county with their tract houses and commercial developments. Little did these farmers know, that by the end of the decade, the 1960s, when the astronauts first landed on the moon, little did they know that the rich flat lands of the Almaden Valley would be covered in asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks and curbs, all to service the mild variety of cookie-cutter tract homes, all looking so very bland, very efficient, so very much like each other.
However, back in the first year of that decade, my parents got the title to the narrow acre with the creek running through it, all 72 feet by a million feet of it.
I remember so many lengthy and curious conversations by my parents and the farmer and his wife, about how to best prepare the land for our new landholder status. These conversations taking place in the old house that the farmer had grown up in, and that we had been renting for the last several years, an old, worn out farmhouse coming near to the end of its usefulness. Listening to the adults, all excited and wishful, we kids (two by my parents, two by the farmer and his wife) had visions of castles and casbahs, with swimming pools surrounded by opulent and lush gardens, sparkling in our eyes.
Rather than build a casbah from scratch, on our 72 foot wide acre, the adults finally decided to purchase a very sound and substantial residence which had been condemned by the city of Santa Clara, it being in the path of one of President Eisenhower’s Autobahn-like freeways to be built. This 30 year old structure was of a rather well heeled and architecturally sophisticated nature. Once plopped down on our acre in Almaden, it would be an instant architectural landmark in the neighborhood for its distinctly different appearance.
Our new house was to be severed from its foundation, carefully jacked up and then carefully lowered onto a collection of strategically placed house moving dollies. Once it was ready to roll, the house would be pulled by a great, big Mack truck, at a very slow rate, along a very specifically determined route, which afforded the minimal number of light stanchions to be removed and trees to be cut down to accommodate this hugely oversized load. The moving company had to get special house moving permits from several municipalities that this load would traverse, on its passage from Santa Clara to Almaden. Personally, I was tickled pink for all the details and governmental red tape that our house required to really become ours. Seldom did the city governments do anything for us farmers but hassle us. Now, the bureaucrats and their silly rules and regulations were enforced for OUR benefit, not theirs.
If I remember correctly, it was supposed to have taken about three or four days to roll our new house from Santa Clara to Almaden, a distance of about fifteen miles. However, after all
was said and done, this trip actually took about two weeks. Why, you ask? Well, what we first heard was that tires on the moving dollies were blowing out. They must be using old and faulty tires on these devices holding our house up above the road bed. New tires were put on the dollies, but they still burst. The house was blocking traffic and it was way off of its schedule. Finally, someone discovered the real problem. It wasn’t the tires, it was the house itself.
Here, in Los Gatos, most all of us have seen the old style construction technique of using “lathe and plaster” to cover the walls of the skeleton of older stud frame houses. For those who don’t know what lathe and plaster is, it’s where rough cut redwood lathes are nailed to the studs of the house frame covering all of the walls. About a quarter of an inch of space is left between the lathes to allow the wet, muddy plaster to seep into these openings between the lathes, to hold the plaster in place as it dries. It’s an old, and very tried and true, method of securing plaster to vertical walls and ceilings of all sorts of structures.
The problem with moving our Santa Clara house, and all of the popping tires, was that who ever designed and specified how this house was to be built, wanted this house to be a very, very well insulated building. Lathe and plaster was to be applied both to interior and exterior walls of the house. However, more than this, to even further insulate this structure, whoever specified the building of this place, required that a second layer of lathe and plaster be applied to both the interior and exterior walls.
Essentially, the house weighed about twice as much as everyone estimated. None of the engineers or the construction specialists who estimated the costs of this moving project bothered to check out the thickness of the walls. These “experts” assumed the building was made of normal, classic single layer lathe and plaster construction. All of us farm boys laughed with great satisfaction, these moving guys were moving a rolling cave. It was a big house built with a whole lot of cement, just about twice as much cement as anyone realized (cement being our “little kid,” simple word for plaster). And it took them a week of popped tires to figure that out.
As it turns out, when the adult professionals finally discovered the real problem, the double lathe and plaster, both interior and exterior, the house moving company placed a whole bunch of additional house moving dollies under the building. After they got the house moving again, the San Jose Mercury put an article on the front page of the daily newspaper detailed the problems with the journey of our house. For about a week or so, I was a celebrity at our elementary school.
Finally, one day, after I came home after my classes, I looked across the fields from our old house to our vacant acre to the west on the edge of our property, and here was the light green Santa Clara house standing high on the moving dollies, right in place on our family’s acre. I spent the next two days doing back flips, checking out our new residence. I watched them lower the structure down onto the cement foundation which my dad had contracted to be built some weeks before. The house lowered down onto this foundation perfectly. That was great, we were all concerned that there would be measurement discrepancies that would cause the new foundation to be broken up and adjusted to fit the reality of the actual house. Such adjustments would be very expensive, and luckily, none were needed.
They cemented the house to its new foundation. Not much could be done to the structure until this seal was completely cured. While we waited, a back hoe was brought in and a hole and drain field were dug for the septic tank. More than a hundred yards out in the back lot, where the meandering creek cut across the land, the well diggers were busy drilling down into the earth and pumping up tons of mud for our own water well. Things were moving right along. This bare acre was quickly becoming a free standing and self contained homestead for us.
By now, I was eleven or even twelve years old. With all of this industrious activity teaming all around me, I was simply an electric fuzz ball of excitable energy, sticking my nose into every nook and cranny of the well dig, the completion of the drain field, the hooking up of the electrical wiring to the new phone pole at the road. Wowie-Zowee, this was just all too very cool to be a part of. Of course, the construction workers didn’t want me to become part of it, but I was as stubborn and persistent as I could be. Seldom were my parents hanging around to call me off. Tom Sawyer, himself, could not have been more of a pain-in-the-ass, nosy little kid than I was in this period when the new house was being put into working order. Needless to say, I was having a gas.
And so, it came to be that our little family from the vague and distant haunts of the American Mid-West became legitimate land holders in the Almaden Valley, if only first generation landholders. This newly acquired status took a lot of pressure off me. At school and in my ‘same-aged’ social circles, all of my buddies took great pride in their heritage, all of them able to provide chapter and verse as to how their family had arrived in Almaden, so very long ago, each family developing each of their own special holdings. During such discussions, of course, I was silent and humbled, I had no such background to boast about and, certainly, no one wanted to hear about the city . . . Chicago. And, frankly, I really didn’t have any stories about the city, as we left it before I had any memories.
Now I was legitimate, if only on a single acre scale. I could tell the tales of our septic tank and its drain field, how the well diggers broke boring shafts every hundred feet or so. Now I had all sorts of stories to tell about how our place had developed, if only in the last few months. I was becoming a more comfortable citizen of this special, little Almaden society.
When our house had been occupying its original site, it was sprawled out over a very large lot in Santa Clara. There was the main house with its three bedrooms and very large living room and separate dining room, each of these common rooms having coved ceilings and simple plaster relief designs overhead. Adjoining the house proper was a breeze way leading to a large, two and half car garage, which also had two small offices and a bathroom built into its rear wall. This was no tract house, let me tell you. The problem was, our lot was only 72 feet wide and there was no way to get the house to be set on it, in its original configuration. The garage and its ante rooms, were cut from the house. The separated garage was to be set down on the new lot about twenty feet from the back of the main house. There would be a patio, to be installed at some future time, to connect the two separate buildings. In order to bring the main house into a realistic dimensions to be pulled down the public roads, the bedroom which I was to occupy, was cut from the original structure. In fact, when the house was moved, it was actually a small train of three separate buildings, trundling down the highways and byways of the Santa Clara Valley. For a pre-teen, such as myself, such a procession was a very big deal to be part of. And it even made it into the newspapers.
For about the only time in my life, I was very proud to be a little kid celebrity. Though we didn’t have the heritage of history, we did have the heritage of spectacle. After the guys at school saw the pictures of our house blocking traffic as a result of the blown out tires in the local newspaper, I was the center of attention for a few days, without having to say a word to anyone. Without having to brag about anything, for this little while, I was a silent and modest hero at the school. Our family was the one that made the the headlines with the “rolling cave house.”
In my early days, when I was like six or seven years old, my dad would take me with him to the site of some torn down old cottage or barn, soon to be cleared out by its owner, to be plowed over and turned into tillable land. Pop would go to these demolition sites and salvage as much of the building materials as he could. I was his disinterested and frustrated assistant. Pop would put a hammer into my hands, or sometimes a set of pliers, to remove nails from the long strips of wooden siding, or the ancient and broken “2 X 4” studs that were strewn about the demolition site. I always found this to be a fruitless and frustrating occupation for us, as what were we supposed to do with this salvaged wood.
And then, even more cryptic to my young mind, we went to several nests of old brick walls where I was now taught how to turn over the head of a claw hammer so that the claw end of the hammer was now the prime tool of the day. In this setting, Pop taught me to knock the old mortar off of the body of the the bricks themselves.
Pop would load the newly stripped bricks into the trunk of our old cars and haul them to a back corner around our old water tower, which sat not too far from the back door of our old farm house.
I came to hate these piles of salvaged wood and chipped out bricks. All they meant to me was a whole bunch of tedious and empty efforts to clean them up for some unknown reason.
However, of course, with the coming of the new house, as we came to call the newly arrived residence, all of these nasty bricks and the used lumber all came into play (I used to refer to them as “sticks and stones” that broke my bones). Several yards of cement were mixed and poured by my dad and me, to provide the patio floor between the house and the garage. This done some years after the house arrived. The bricks were used in a series of planter boxes which surrounded the house. Pop installed a back lawn behind the huge garage (it was so big, some of the old locals called it a “barn,” the sort of out building they were used to). And having a rear lawn at an Almaden residence was actually kind of a luxury, as most of the residence’s rear walls faced the farm yard, full of barns, sheds, tractors and trucks. Pop fenced in this lawn with the reclaimed lumber painted white. When we eventually built a shed to house the electric pump that provided the water from our well, this shed designed to be big enough to house an old strawberry tractor that Pop bought from a neighbor, the pile of used lumber was just about depleted.
I guess there was a reason that Pop had me chip the mortar off the bricks, and straighten out the old, rusty nails, so they could be removed from the old wood. I guess there was a reason, but, grudgingly, I refused to acknowledge it. The memories of that grumpy little kid stuck with me.
My intention was to put a Google Maps picture of the house here. However, upon seeing it in its current state, I decided not to use the pic.
Whoever currently owns the place tore out all of the brick planters. A huge magnolia tree grew in the middle of the front yard. A monstrous, flaming red bougainvillea bush stretched out high over the front door. Low, crawling junipers lined the walks and the front deck. A smooth barked lemon tree shaded the eastern edge of the front lawn and a camellia shrub grew up past the top of the roof in front of the kitchen window.
All of that is gone now. The front of the house has been denuded. It was heartbreaking. What I saw on the google street view was a bare front yard with several, small plants in pots and on the front porch there was a purple overstuffed chair loafing about. It looked like the house frontage you might see in a neighborhood near the Eastridge shopping mall.
I decided not to post a picture like that.
After being bed ridden for several years, my mom died in 1999. My dad sold the “new house,” married a realty lady in Sacramento, and within a year, he died of a stoke. Without my mom to do the family business, my Pop, who didn’t do business, never had a will. Pop was the benefactor to his second wife.