Two years ago, architectural historian Cynthia Ward and her family needed a bigger home. Their old house was becoming too crowded for the four teenagers who constantly fought over their shared rooms, but the Wards were not willing to settle for a regular tract house in Orange County. They wanted something with a history Since all of their friends knew of their passion, when a house in the Anaheim Colony Historic District was put up for sale in August 2003, Ward received four phone calls, within the first hour.
When Ward and her Realtor first visited the house, they were greeted by hostile tenants who were using the building as a half- way house. Ward only saw the stairs, the living room, and the dining room before a group of angry men kicked her out. The house looked awful and smelled worse. But Ward saw beyond the shag carpeting, the odor of smoke, and the anachronistic Pacific Bell pay phone at the entryway. Beneath the thick layer of white paint, she saw intricate carvings of woodwork along the banister, the moldings around the walls and the coffered dining-room ceiling. She felt the patterns with her fingertips and almost sobbed. “Woodwork like this is rare, especially in Southern California,” she says.
As she would later find out, this house not only possessed vintage decorative details, but was also one of the 110,000 houses Sears, Roebuck and Co. had sold through its Modern Homes catalogs between the years of 1908 and 1940.
In 1908, the Owens family, who were immigrants from Wales, moved from Colorado to Anaheim. They bought an orchard bordered by what is now Harbor Blvd. and North St. and joined the already thriving citrus business. Like many others, the Owenses picked up a copy of what could be Sears’s first housing catalog, browsed through its many options and bought the plans and building materials for the house named “Woodland” from Sears. They hired a contractor and built this seven- bedroom, 2,400square-foot house for an assessed value of $1,250, according to tax records.
The Owenses customized the house’s front appearance – they chose an engaged porch, set within the footprint of the house, over the original porch designed to span the entire front of the house, added flower pots around the house, and selected old growth redwood for the entire house.
Since then, this home’s ownership has been transferred numerous times. During the Great Depression, like many houses, it became an apartment home, hosting numerous families under its roof. The original designs were either covered up by paint or replaced by modern pieces.
The two-story house, now mainly white, with a dark grey roof and matching window frames, sits at a corner of Lemon and Wilhelmina streets. The steps in the front lead up to a porch where a swing sways in the summer breeze. Inside, tins of paint occupy the entry hall, pieces of wood lean against the half-scraped walls, and clusters of unpacked boxes dwell in the corners of each room.
The Wards bought the house for $439,000. A 14-month escrow and $75,000 worth of electrical wires, plumbing, central heat, mold remediation and removal, and reconstruction of the water-damaged wall and floor later, they moved in.
The newly-installed central heat system did not yet work and the electrical work was half completed, that December night, the couple had leakage from the bathroom, the couple had to camp out in the downstairs bedroom. Lying on their air mattress, Cynthia Ward counted the newly made cracks on the ceiling. Richard was quiet, but Cynthia knew that he thought she had gone mad, moving out of their fully restored Craftsman home into this wreck. Somewhere between the halogen light and the frost on the windows, they fell asleep.
But to Cynthia, this was the beginning of a new adventure. Two months into living at the new house, when Ward rebuilt the walls in her study, she noticed an area where the wall material skipped from lath and plaster to wallboard. She had always wanted to open up a door to her study from the outside of the house but did not want to destroy the original fenestration. She raced outside in pouring rain, ripped out the shingles of the exterior, and learned that the house originally had an entry to the study from the outside. Even better, she found a vintage door that fitted perfectly and said she thanked the house for making her dreams come true.
A more recent discovery occurred when a friend offered Ward an antique china hutch. Although she adored the hutch, its size meant she needed to cut a hole in the dining room wall to set it in. As a historian, Ward hesitated at the thought of destroying the house’s original structure. Coincidentally, when she was about to put up a temporary burlap wall treatment to hide the damage on the other side of the dining room wall, Cynthia felt something bumpy beneath the wallpaper. She tore down the paper and saw a ghost of plaster that covered what seemed like a space for a doorway or a built-in. This discovery solved her conundrum. Goosebumps crept down her arms. She chuckled at the games the house played with her.
She had always loved uncovering the secrets of the house herself. Many of her clients prefer to blast into a historical house with a work crew and demand that the restoration be done quickly. Ward, on the other hand, learned to scrape the paint off of the wall, strip it with chemicals, color it with stain, and varnish it with polish. She learned to pay personal attention to the house and let it reveal its own secrets.
The surprises and discoveries, however, were not all positive. Just when the Wards found a fireplace hidden behind a wall in the master bedroom, something that she and her husband had wanted since they were first dating, she also found a 12-footlong bee hive tucked in the fireplace’s chimney – the reason that the fireplace was shoved behind layers of plaster and paint in the first place. Stuck in the chimney, the bee hive was brown and reeked of a pungent sour odor due to the fermented honey mead throughout the years. When the pest control technician arrived, even he could not believe what he found. He told Ward that many of the hives in the neighborhood were probably offshoots of the mother hive in her chimney. Facing this unexpected obstacle, on top of the money she had already spent on putting in the heaters, the water system and the electric circuits, Ward wondered how many more of these unexpected challenges to expect.
Curtains in the front, bidding on Ebay for rare house hardware. But she sees into the future, right before the house’s 100th birthday. She sees sunlight shining through lace curtains, reflecting on the golden, possibly paisley, wall papers. A built-in china hutch set into the wall. A vintage brass lamp lit above an Edwardian dining table set with fine china and linen cloths, with the perfect rug underneath. And finally, the coffered redwood ceiling above the room, with its five tiers of decorative design, stripped of white paint, stained and polished.