Orville Houg followed a flashlight beam through the daytime darkness of the boarded-up San Marino mansion that for decades has fascinated schoolchildren, baffled adults and irritated officials in this affluent enclave.
The mysterious structure has now been unmasked, its Mediterranean-style, pastel-stucco front discovered to be an exaggerated facade masking a crumbling, two-story stucco and wood-frame house with a leaky tar-paper roof and a shaky river-rock foundation. A small wood-frame structure, not much bigger than a shack, is melded onto the rear of the house.
A local real estate agent, Houg was doing what many people in this small town confess they have always wanted to do: He was taking a peek around the estate of Helen Morgenthaler, a reclusive eccentric whose father made a comfortable living in the wall-covering business.
Even before Helen Morgenthaler's recent death, local and county officials, citing property maintenance statutes, had begun cutting away jungle-thick brush and trees that covered the nearly two-acre site and blocked all but the front view of the home.
The county's Public Guardian agency, which had been handling Morgenthaler's affairs since January, put the 3,000-square-foot house on the market in August. And with her death Oct. 29 at the age of 88, Morgenthaler and her home have become the talk of the town.
"I thought it was a fabulous, big mansion like everybody else," said real estate agent Kim Atkinson-Melin, who is handling the property's sale with Houg.
She was wrong.
On his recent tour, Houg turned the flashlight on an intricately carved wooden fireplace mantel. "This is the only thing that has value . . . and it's downhill from there," he said.
The structure now standing on the property apparently came together in a piecemeal fashion, with some parts dating from just before the turn of the century.
According to the skimpy historical material available, the original structure was a house on stilts that was later replaced by the stucco house. It is not clear how, when or why the facade front came to be.
Morgenthaler apparently told one friend that her mother cruised the streets of San Marino and Beverly Hills looking for housing ideas and then added the facade while her father was out of town. But some local historians have cast doubt on that theory.
At one time the two-story home was said to be quite nice, but it never matched the majesty of its front.
Now this tear-down house on a 400-by-200-foot lot has become one of the hottest properties in the Western San Gabriel Valley. The lot is large enough to allow for construction of three to five houses selling for up to $1.5 million each, Houg said.
The asking price is $4 million, but a new--perhaps lower--figure will likely be set.
Even with a housing downturn, Houg and Atkinson-Melin said, they have been astonished by the number of calls they have received on the property. "I've had well over 180 inquiries since August," Houg said.
Real estate agents, probate attorneys, developers and heirs are sorting out the intricacies of the estate in the 1700 block of West Drive.
Still, the woman who lived there--behind electrified barbed-wire fences, alone, except for her snapping guard dogs--remains an enigma.
A lifelong San Gabriel Valley resident who was married briefly but had no children, Morgenthaler grew up in the house with her sister and parents.
Morgenthaler's own words, in a rambling oral history filed at the San Marino Public Library, reveal a few odd details of her life. She said her great-grandfather was an Austrian prince and a grandfather "owned the first large building in Chicago."
She described her father as "king to the decorator trade" who "only got the very finest things in the house," such as the hand-painted French furniture and "the most beautiful cut glass chandeliers you ever saw."
In its prime, she said, the grounds surrounding her house had a grove of 50 orange trees, Concord grapevines, blackberries, "persimmons that made the best persimmon pudding" and "Chelsea plums that were out of this world."
But the once-fine gardens became chaotic, and officials of San Marino repeatedly asked her to trim back the growth.
In recent times, Morgenthaler lived in retirement homes. Through a court order, officials with the county's Public Guardian, part of the Department of Mental Health, took over her affairs.
Citing privacy laws, Christopher Fierro, deputy director of the department, said he could only say that his office enters a case "when someone is substantially unable to manage financial affairs or is subject to undue influence or fraud."
Through a county intermediary, her heirs--a niece in Florida and one in Virginia--declined a request for interviews.
But through friends and acquaintances a picture--albeit a fuzzy one--emerges.
"She was quite a mysterious lady . . . a crusty lady," said Sydney Baxter, administrator of Casa La Villa, a Pasadena retirement home where Morgenthaler lived. "I probably knew her better than anyone here, but I don't have much light to shed."
"She knew people thought of her as (eccentric)," added Thomas W. Sullivan, a Pasadena real estate agent who lived four blocks from Morgenthaler and, out of curiosity, visited her from time to time.
She told him that she patented a process of dying grasses used in wallpaper, that she was married briefly, and that as a child she played with the children of railroad and real estate giant Henry Huntington. Her home's front door archway--carved to resemble a cascading grapevine--came from a movie set, she told him.
"She admitted she wasn't very friendly with her neighbors," he said.
The other day, as Houg and Atkinson-Melin walked the parched grounds filled with the stumps of fruit trees, Atkinson-Melin said: "It's going to be sad when the house goes, because San Marino has been talking about it for 50 years."