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A Bit of History in Deed : Mission Hills’ Oldest House, Once a Gleam in Steamship Captain’s Eye, Is for Sale

Times Staff Writer

Some people consider age an inconvenience--an embarrassment.

They worry about wrinkles and hardened arteries and broken hips from falling too hard. They get their faces lifted, or someone’s hair transplanted onto their bald heads.

But people have different feelings about houses. Most people like old houses, especially ones that have kept their age with dignity. The best old houses are the ones that transcend the category of “fixer-upper,” and have a sense of history as well.

The house on Orizaba Avenue in Mission Hills is like that. It’s the oldest house in one of the city’s oldest communities--it was built in 1888--and it’s for sale. The asking price is $750,000.

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If you see the kitchen, you might think that’s a tad too high. It’s the one part of the place that needs modernization. (The kitchen looks like it might be more comfortable with Civil War chili than nouvelle cuisine.)

In the middle part of the 19th Century, the Orizaba was a steamship that chugged between San Francisco and San Diego. It was captained by Henry James Johnston, who used a point high atop Mission Hills to steer the Orizaba toward San Diego.

Inspired, Johnston bought the very 60 acres he considered his beacon, for $16.25. He died before the property could be developed, but bequeathed the land to his wife. She then transferred ownership to daughter Sarah Johnston Miller, who built the house exactly 100 years ago.

Mike Kovac, the agent in charge of selling the house, said the banister and many of the ornate furnishings inside the four-bedroom, 4,100-square-foot home came from the Orizaba.

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The interior of the place has about it the look of fine old wood, gleaming and solid. It seems to talk to all who enter. Unlike the chrome and glass palaces of the 1980s, this old joint seems to creak and chat with its own sense of personality and panache.

The current owner of the house is Harry Howton, a 45-year-old president of a computer software firm. Howton, owner of the home for seven years--and the ninth owner in a century--wants to sell because his family is changing.

One daughter is already at Stanford, another is on her way to Yale, and Howton travels a lot. For him and his wife and son to spend much time kicking around in such an airy castle “almost feels vulgar,” he said. So they’re looking for a smaller place in La Jolla, near The White Rabbit, a children’s bookstore founded by his wife, a publishing executive at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Howton is wistful about selling the place, which is tucked between Bandini and Arden, right in the middle of Orizaba. He actually likes the sound of jet engines in the morning, as they rev up on the runway at Lindbergh Field. But he especially likes the call of reveille in the a.m., from the nearby Marine recruit station.

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“And, sometimes, if the wind is right,” he said, “you can hear taps at night. I know I’ll miss that.”

And that’s ironic. Howton knows as well as anyone that age brings change. Change for him means his own kind of taps--a sad goodby to a fine old home.


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