Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Growing up in California: The Story of a House

Almost everything new comes from California, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the trend to tear down houses (often purchased for seven figures) and build bigger ones on the same lots began in the Golden State. When I learned that this had happened to the California house of my childhood, I wrote this piece for the Los Altos Town Crier.

They have built a new house at 918 Echo Drive. They tore down the original—or most of it anyway—and the new owners are putting up one of those beautiful, multimillion dollar mansions that people have become so used to in California’s Santa Clara Valley. To my sister and me, who grew up at 918 Echo, the change is almost unbelievable.

My father built our first house on that lot himself. He worked a 40-hour week at his engineering job in San Francisco, and then, every Saturday and Sunday from 1948 to 1950, he came to Los Altos with an Army buddy and the two of them spent two full days as home builders. While the house was going up, my father, my mother and my sister Kimberly lived in rented rooms in downtown Palo Alto—a place my mother still refers to as “Denman’s Dump.” In those days you took what rentals you could find: apartments were very hard to come by in the first years after World War II.

My parents had really wanted to buy a house in Palo Alto, but it was an established city and prices just seemed too high. My father, an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the war, had experience building things now and decided he could do it again in Los Altos. My mother reluctantly agreed.

“It seemed so far out in the country,” she says today. “I was worried I would be lonely out there so far fom everything.” The San Francisco Bay Area is now wall-to-wall people. Los Altos turned out to be a charming enclave in a sea of sprawl. But that was all in the future when my father picked up his hammer and started framing the house at 918 Echo.
The entire project—land, plans, materials and labor (mostly my dad’s) The house was completed in time for Christmas. I joined the family and moved in just few months later.

It was such a pretty little house! Stained red with white trim, it was bright as an Amish barn. The used-bricks that made up the front porch, the wide chimney and the fireplace were rescued from an old building in San Francisco.

It was a one-story, two-bedroom, one-bath home with a dining room off the living room and another room off the kitchen we called the Green Room, which served as our den. It was in the Green Room that we placed our first television set and it was here my sister and I watched the Mickey Mouse Club and learned to dance watching American Bandstand. The couch in the Green Room was a hide-a-bed that pulled out for the use of visiting family members who were nice enough not to mention the lumps.

The backyard was divided into two sections. The first was a landscaped garden that really belonged to my mother. In it she planted pink ivy geraniums along the walks and brightened the dry California ground with her white, pink, and lavender flowers. On the back porch, she rocked me in her lap and read to me in the soft sunlight.

From the porch you stepped down onto a concrete patio where we ate outside in the summer on our red-stained picnic table (made by my dad to match the house) and where we held our birthday parties. The patio was surrounded by a well-tended lawn, mowed by my dad with a non-electric, non-gasoline-powered push mower. It made a whack whack sound that was soft on the ears.

At the far end of the lawn, Mom and Dad planted a line of cherry trees and pink oleander that screened the landscaped yard from the service yard behind it. The service yard was the province of my father, my sister, and me. Dad built us a swing set in the service yard with a teeter-totter, parallel bars, and a sandbox. In order to avoid fights over who got to use what and for how long, the set included a kitchen timer nailed to a post that was immediately dubbed the “turn timer” because we kids used it to time our “turns.”

On Saturdays, Dad put on his old clothes, raked leaves, trimmed hedges, and mowed lawns, then made a rubbish pile of clippings in the service yard that he burned. Imagine how non-ecological we were! The air was so clear and the population so low, it never occurred to anyone we might be polluting the air.

There was a grape stake fence between our backyard and the empty lot next door. If you were on the swing and got it going high enough, you could see over the fence and beyond the empty lot to the purple hills of the Coast Range. If it was late in the day, you might see the smoke rising from the Southern Pacific and Peninsular Daylight, the train that ran along the tracks where Foothill Expressway is now. When you saw the train, you knew it was after 5 p.m. and time to go in to dinner. The S. P. & P. Daylight ran just once in the morning, taking commuters to San Francisco, and once in the evening, bringing them back home to the Santa Clara Valley. In the summer, if you were out playing in the yard near lunchtime, you knew it was midday when you heard the noon whistle from the canning factories over by the Bay. I don’t know when they stopped blowing that noon whistle, but it was a handy timekeeper for us kids.

There was a vacant lot next door to us that we turned into a baseball field each spring. And in the summer, everyone in the neighborhood harvested the apricots from the trees in the lot for jam and pies and the dried ‘cots we all made back then. If you had told me that someone else really owned the fruit from those trees, I would have been surprised. I thought the apricots on every vacant lot in town were fair game for all comers.

Because of the vacant lot we occasionally had an invasion of gophers into our front lawn. My father cared for that lawn with such diligence that any gopher entered it at its peril. I have a clear memory of him standing one evening at dusk in the front yard of our house, his .22 rifle pointed down at a gopher hole. Imagine the calls to any suburban police department today if someone saw a crazed Army veteran aiming a loaded rifle at the local wildlife in his front yard! “I really didn’t like those gophers,” says my father.

One evening, we were eating dinner at the kitchen table and I accidentally dropped my fork. So did my sister. Mom and Dad looked at each other and my father said, “Let’s go outside for a minute. Just leave everything where it is.” We walked out the front door and stood in the yard as the low summer sun twinkled through the leaves of the apricot trees.

“What was that?” I asked my father.

“That was an earthquake,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. Just an earthquake,” and we went back inside and finished our dinner while Dad explained what an earthquake was.

After ten years in the little red house, my mother began to have a yen to own the house across the street. It was much larger than ours, with a huge living room that had a beamed ceiling and a fireplace that covered one entire wall. It had a country kitchen and—get this—two bathrooms! What luxury! It cost $30,000 or three times the price of our first home.

My Dad bought the new house for my mother and we moved across the street. It was a lovely house, but I never thought it was as nice as our first home. We no longer had a dining room so my mother sold her dining room set. I had always liked the way 918 sat perched above the road, and we were now on the low side of the street. But our new house was grander, and it was nice for my sister and me not to have to share a bathroom.

More than forty years later, my parents are still living at the “new” house on Echo Drive in Los Altos, California, surrounded by what is now called Silicon Valley. My father stopped mowing the lawn himself just a few years ago and now the gardener uses a power mower and a noisy leaf blower on the day he does the yard. From the picture window in my Mom and Dad’s country kitchen you can still look across the street to the house my father built. At least you could until the tear down.

I’m hoping the new owners of the house I grew up in will enjoy living there. Los Altos may be surrounded today by Silicon Valley and its thousands of employees, but it is still a great place to live. The new family will have advantages we could not afford: I suspect no one there will ever have to share a bathroom, and I know no one will ever again have to sleep on a lumpy hide-a-bed! It goes without saying that there are no longer any rifle-toting gopher hunters hanging about on the front lawn.

But there won’t be a handmade picnic table in the back, nor a Dad-made swing set, complete with “turn timer.” And you won’t be able to see the smoke from the S.P. & P. Daylight against the hills or hear the noon whistle from the factories over by the Bay. There won’t be a vacant lot next door just the right size for baseball, nor free apricots for all on the nearby trees. So the new owners have a big job amidst the wealth that surrounds them. They will have to work hard to make their big new house as nice as the little red house was when the Chapman family first moved in those long years ago. It was a small house, it is true. But it seemed liked a mansion to us.

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