Renovation Jobs Can Yield Vivid Views of the Dim Past

Times Staff Writer

Delving into the past has an allure for architects who specialize in renovation, not only because of their fascination with other eras but also because of the surprises they sometimes find there--of this world and otherwise.

James Wilson of 30th Street Architects remembers the eerie atmosphere when he started working several years ago on the farm buildings that were the core of the original Irvine ranch, now Old Town Irvine. Poking through the dust and cobwebs, and scaring off the occasional rat, Wilson discovered old machinery stored in the 1885 lima-bean warehouse, where he figures no one had been for about 30 years.

Wilson said he had a strong impression of the workers sorting out lima beans. “You kinda feel the people who have worked there over the years,” he said.

In the mid-1960s, Robert Borders, principal of Robert Borders & Associates, was commissioned to restore the old Singer mansion in San Marino. Built in the 1920s, the rambling house had 14 bathrooms and a guest cottage with a garage big enough to hold a tractor-trailer rig.


When Borders walked into the house, he was met by a “full-blown” pipe organ in the living room. Poking around a circular room that once served as the library, Borders made measurements and realized that some space was unaccounted for. “We determined there had to be a space behind the wall,” Borders said.

He found a lever behind one of the bookcases, pulled it and opened a door to a secret room. On the wall were coat hooks, and by one, scratch marks. Borders pulled the hook and another door opened, this one leading down to a wine cellar.

In a short time, Borders discovered that the entire house was lined with secret passageways, giving whoever used them access to every room in the house. He doesn’t know if the new owner, a former head of the Los Angeles office of the FBI, ever used them.

Probably one of the spookiest experiences any of the architects have had, though, was the “presence” Borders awakened when making an addition to his former home in Cypress. After construction started, his children began noticing odd occurrences, like finding deposits of ashes in the shower or drops of blood sprinkled in bathroom sinks. When the addition was finished, the family dog refused to go near the area. “I was reluctant to believe” in anything such as a ghost, Borders said.


For a couple of years, the occurrences seemed amusing. Then one day, they turned disturbing. It happened while Borders was playing an old pinball machine in the new area. He sensed his son creeping up behind him. Thinking his son was going to tickle him in the ribs, Borders planned to wait until he thought the boy was almost upon him before swinging around and countering the teasing surprise.

Before he could, however, he felt a sharp, painful punch in the middle of his back. He swung around. No one was there.

After that, Borders decided to call “people who specialize in these things” to take care of the problem, which they did. The family was never bothered again.