A sage Southern lady once said that horses, husbands and houses should all come with their histories attached.
Although few homes come with such documentation, the history of a house can unravel mysteries, heighten
understanding and deepen appreciation of even a modest abode. Take, for example, Bob and Maria Kennedy’s
home, a 1,100-square-foot 1922 Craftsman that they are meticulously restoring. Maria Kennedy has brought the
family’s home to life by delving into the history of the house and its designer and builder, Eben Putnam Bomer.
In spite of the bungalow’s small size and the modest Covina neighborhood, Kennedy sensed something
extraordinary about the home from the moment she swung open the oversized front door. She looked beyond the
decorating offenses of prior owners–the stucco exterior, the painted wainscoting and built-ins, the “updated”
bathrooms–and saw meticulous craftsmanship and caring. “The first thing that caught my eye was the formal
dining room,” Kennedy said. “The room is unusually large and elaborate for a home of this size. And the built-in
china cabinet is crafted in a Greek Revival style, an unusual touch for a Craftsman bungalow.”
Kennedy’s curiosity about the dining room launched her on a quest to solve the architectural mysteries of her
house. She started with a telephone call to the local historical society. A few weeks later, a volunteer brought her
a slip of paper containing two cryptic pieces of information: the name E. P. Bomer and the year 1922.
After visits to the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor’s Office, the Family History Center of the Mormon Church
in Westwood, the Baldwin Park Historical Society and the local library, Kennedy tracked down Bomer’s obituary
in a 1926 newspaper.
She discovered that builder Eben Putnam Bomer, born in 1853 to a prominent New England family, was the
grandson of Revolutionary War hero Major Gen. Israel Putnam. Design Made Sense “Suddenly, the house’s
design started to make sense,” Kennedy said.
“The dining room was Bomer’s way of re-creating the formal dinners of his childhood in Boston.” The Putnam
Bomer family eventually settled in Marietta, Ohio, where even rural farmhouses have a classical air, thanks to
Greek Revival touches such as cornices and pilasters. Those same touches are reflected in the built-in cabinet.
With leads provided by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Kennedy was able to follow Bomer’s
westward migration from Ohio to Iowa to California, where he started an orange grove in Orange County.
The Kennedys are reminded of Bomer’s citrus business every time they reach for a linen napkin from the china
cabinet; the drawers are fashioned from produce crates. Each new tidbit of information about Bomer’s life
provided Kennedy with further leads, which she pursued like a tenacious detective, making phone calls and
gathering information from county records, genealogical resources and libraries all over Southern California.
Gradually, the pieces, such as a building permit and the 1926 obituary, began to fit together.
“When I had time to reflect, I realized that Bomer died six months after applying for a permit to build the
sleeping porch,” she said. “That sleeping porch was a dying man’s last hope of recovery. It’s always been my
favorite room in the house.”
Like many who are motivated to research the histories of their homes, Kennedy started out with a love for the
home and a passion for history. “The more I learned about Bomer, the more obsessed I became,” she said.
“To me, he represents America at its best. You can see a time capsule of the westward expansion through his
life. You can also see the ingenuity of the man in every detail of the home.”
The same kind of love for her 1929 Pasadena home prompted Jane Applegarth, a real estate agent for Coldwell
Banker, to investigate her house’s history. “I wanted to find the answers to a few basic questions,” she said.
“Did the previous owners love the home as much as I do? What did they do for a living? How has the home
transformed over the years?”
Although Applegarth has personally researched home histories for many of her real estate clients, she turned
over the research on her own home to Tim Gregory, a Pasadena freelance historian who has researched
hundreds of houses.
Gregory’s work as a building biographer often turns him into a mystery-solving sleuth. One client wanted to
know why his house had a large foyer and two front doors. The design made sense once Gregory discovered
that the original owner was a doctor who practiced medicine from his home.
Another house with a full finished basement, a rare find in Altadena, turned out to have been a speak-easy
during the Prohibition era. For Applegarth, Gregory traced the evolution of the house from 1,500 square feet to
its current 2,400 square feet. As the house expanded over the years, the maid’s quarters were converted to a
laundry room, the entry was eliminated, one bedroom was added and another expanded.
The history also helped Applegarth become knowledgeable about the home’s former owners, such as a
Presbyterian minister and an executive for an electric company.
Marguerite Duncan Abrams, the president of Pasadena Heritage, loves to recall the story of a Pasadena home
with a split personality. A few years ago, the new owners arrived at her office carrying two sets of light fixtures.
One set of silver-plated sconces was intricately scrolled like an elaborate tea set. The other set was iron, hand
hammered into the shape of dragons, complete with forked tongues. Duncan Abrams recognized that both sets,
although vastly different in style, originated from the same era.
Digging and Discovery
Duncan Abrams did a little digging and discovered that the original homeowner, a developer who favored a “wild,
back-to-nature look,” installed the dragon sconces. A few months later, he sold the house to a refined Maine
family, who added the silver tea service sconces.
With a little more digging, Duncan Abrams learned that the family from Maine owned the Hinds Co., producer
of a popular line of honey and almond creams and lotions. “Before long, you have not just a history of your
house but a social history and a history of the development of the area,” said Duncan Abrams.
She added that Pasadena offers home researchers a unique set of resources–the Pasadena Historical Museum,
the Centennial Room of the city’s public library, the city’s design and historic preservation staff.
In Southern California, she said, “We’re lucky because there are a number of communities that have one person
who is absolutely great at collecting records. Altadena, Pasadena, South Pasadena and Monrovia all have at
least one such person.”
In Redondo Beach, that person was resident historian Gloria Snyder, who spent a lifetime compiling historical
information. If someone in Redondo Beach wanted a history, Snyder happily plunged into her files.
Her death this year has left a gap, but Snyder leaves behind a sizable archival legacy, which the city of Redondo
Beach is in the process of cataloging.
Jonathan Eubanks, the past chairman of Redondo Beach’s preservation commission, said that much of the city’s
unusual history is reflected in the homes.
In the first half of the 20th century, gambling, although never legal, was a thriving local business. A searchlight
to signal the arrival of federal authorities was found in one home. Other homes had included trap doors leading
to hidden gambling dens.
But, as Maria Kennedy learned, homes needn’t hint of ghosts or a shady past cloaked in speak-easies or illegal
gambling to be fascinating. For the Kennedys, the life of Eben Putnam Bomer has proven equally spellbinding.
Bomer is so much a part of their lives that their youngest son, 2-year-old Andrew, answers to the nickname
“Bomer” and the family visits Bomer’s grave in Burbank every Memorial Day. Kennedy recently hit historian’s
pay dirt when she used an Internet search to track down Bomer’s great-granddaughter, Judy Mac Rostie Dwyer,
in Orlando, Fla.
Dwyer said she was thrilled when she received a call from the “family living in the home built by my
great-grandfather.” By coincidence, Dwyer and her husband, Mike, were scheduled to be in San Diego for a
business trip the next week, and they added the Bomer-Kennedy home to their itinerary.
Dwyer, who developed an interest in family history about two years ago, had all of the missing pieces to
Kennedy’s puzzle. She showed up at her great-grandfather’s home armed with detailed genealogies and family
photos, including early shots of Bomer and his wife, Sadie.
During the visit, the Kennedys played a recording of “With Someone Like You,” a song that Bomer frequently
crooned in the bungalow’s backyard. The recollection and the recording were both supplied by Stan Smith, an
82-year-old Covina musician who was a young boy when he knew Bomer.
The song sums up Bomer’s sentiments about his house and, 75 years later, echoes the Kennedy family’s
feelings for their historically rich home:
“We’ll find that perfect place
where joys will never cease
out there beneath the starry skies.
We’ll build a sweet little nest
somewhere out in the West
and let the rest of the world go by.”
Susan Carrier is a Los Angeles freelance writer.