Whittier Design House: A Model of Quake Recovery

Times Staff Writer

When Virginia Boles looks out the front window of the historic home, she sees cars slow down. Drivers sometimes pull to the curb and stare.

For nearly a year, the Smullen-Bailey House, which was severely damaged in the October, 1987, earthquake, has been a major point of interest on Painter Avenue. The Whittier Historical Society selected the 73-year-old home as the 1989 Whittier Design House, a fund-raising project in which the group supervises restoration of a historic home every two years.

Work crews and interior designers bustling about the house often capture the attention of passers-by.


“I’m surprised there hasn’t been an (auto) accident yet,” said Boles, chairwoman of the Design House project. “Everybody seems to have a fascination with this house.”

Those curiosities can be satisfied starting today, when the Design House opens with a $40-a-person dinner on the back patio. The home will be open for tours for about a month beginning Tuesday. The Historical Society also plans to hold a number of themed brunches and dinners.

Boles said the society selected an earthquake-damaged house and the theme “Whittier: Rebuilding By Design” as a way of demonstrating that the city could recover from the disaster and still retain its historic charm.

“We felt that it would be a wonderful thing for the city of Whittier to see this rebuilt,” Boles said. “I’m just thrilled to pieces with what the designers have done.”

The house also was selected because of its prominence in the neighborhood, Boles said. In 1916, local oilman William S. Smullen bought two lots on Painter Avenue just south of Beverly Boulevard, and his two-story English-shingle style home built there became the envy of the neighborhood.

Distinctive brick facades, walkways and arches dominated the front view of the house, with a fireplace capped by three short smokestacks. Inside, the home featured wooden floors that glowed as sunlight streamed through several sets of French doors.


But the house gradually deteriorated as it changed owners over the years, from Smullen to oilman Walton Brown to Robert Bailey (a descendant of Whittier’s founders, Jonathan and Rebecca Bailey). By the time Dennis and Patty Thomas bought the home in 1987 from the estate of Catherine Bailey, it needed extensive repairs.

The Thomases lived in the house for about two months before the earthquake hit, leaving gaping holes in walls and ceilings, collapsing their cherished fireplace and jerking the 3,000-square-foot house off its foundation.

The couple spent about $200,000 on the house, including pouring a new foundation and installing oak floors throughout, before turning it over to the Historical Society in December, 1988.

The Historical Society then located interior designers, landscapers, painters, bricklayers and others who donated their time and goods to the Design House project, Boles said. Some of the bricks laid at the Smullen-Bailey house are from the Harvey Apartments, a 99-year-old Whittier landmark that was demolished because of earthquake damage.

The forest green paint used on the outside of the home’s second story is identical to the previous color, Boles said, because a local paint store happened to have a couple of gallons of the color left from the last time the house was painted.

“It was a wonderful find,” Boles said.

And the society received some help with the yard work from a crew of about 10 wards from the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys, a medium-security state institution in Whittier for juvenile offenders.


400 Volunteers Helped

Altogether, Boles estimates about 400 volunteers will have helped with the house before it closes to public viewing on May 21.

The loaned furniture will be auctioned by the designers on May 22, but the wallpaper, paint and tile work will remain. Proceeds from the auction will be used to compensate the designers for donating their services, Boles said. The Thomases will reclaim the house in June, moving in their own furniture from storage.

The Historical Society will raise its money through tours of the house for $12 a person and meals priced from $15 to $40. There will be dinners every Wednesday night, and a Mother’s Day brunch May 14. The group also will operate a gift shop in the Design House, 6045 Painter Ave.

The 950-member society hopes the Design House will raise $75,000 to pay for operating the Whittier Museum, said Joe Da Rold, the museum’s executive director. The society has overseen the restoration of other Design Houses in 1985 and 1987, which earned the group a total of about $80,000.


Displaced owners say it hasn’t been easy--nor free. Page 6.