HOUSES and neighborhoods seduce us. They always have. What starts with limitations -- cost and location -- often blossoms into habits of living and cherished memories. Our love affair began in Pasadena eight years ago.
It was the fall of 1999. We knew we wanted to be close to Caltech, where I was teaching at the time, and near the Huntington Library, where my wife, Jenny, works. So we drew an imaginary rectangle on a map of Pasadena, hoping that somewhere inside this space we would find our perfect home and our perfect neighborhood.
When we first saw it, the house hid behind 20 years of benign neglect. It was a Mission Revival with old wooden awnings sagging atop wrought iron braces. In the yard, worn-out grass fought a losing battle with brown spots and weeds. Here and there, a few succulents hung on.
Built in 1923, the house was tired. The bathrooms needed work -- a lot of work. Every window had heavy iron bars on it. An apartment attached to the garage was decrepit, and a freestanding building out back, with an incinerator plunked down in a corner, was a mess.
The owner had been in the leather business in downtown Los Angeles. He had retired years earlier and brought his inventory home with him. Bolts of leather stood stacked in rooms and corners of the house: raw leather, finished leather and leather in some stage in-between. A couple of rooms were off-limits because we couldn’t open the doors; leather was in the way.
Our real estate agent apologized to us on the sidewalk as we left.
“I really like it,” Jenny whispered to me.
It was old, charming, needed work, and it was in our rectangle. We bought it. We fixed it up. We moved in a year later, with 10 days to spare before Jenny gave birth to our daughter. Our house suits us, and we love it. On evenings, dusk’s light fills the house. Twilight suits it.
OVER the last seven years, we have made our mark here, and have come to recognize that change is what a home -- and a neighborhood -- is all about. But change is less an erasure of the past than a slow accretion of the present. Like a palimpsest, our homes become layered with the history of our lives.
But our changes have been gradual and slow, due in part to concerns about cost, a certain lack of urgency and, most important, the feeling that we didn’t want to disrupt the other owners’ vision of what the house could and should be. We respected the past, and we also felt guilty for meddling with it.
We rehabilitated the apartment. We converted the incinerator building into a finger-painting studio for our kids, and we reset the tiles on the roof so that their varied colors were evenly spread out. The roofer we hired, a limber man with thick forearms, called out to me one day from atop the roof.
“Hey, how old is this house?”
When I told him, he laughed and said, “I’m almost old enough to have been the guy who set these tiles the first time.” He was 80.
Years later, my wife and I had a ride-along in one of the Pasadena Police Department helicopters. We flew over our house. The roof looked beautiful.
On a wall over at Caltech, I’ve seen an aerial photograph of our neighborhood taken sometime around 1924. I can just make out our house at the far edge. I recognize it from its porch and an oak tree in the frontyard. Not long after the house was built, the porch was closed in, and we cut down the oak less than a year ago. It had never been healthy, the arborist told us. It took half a day for the chain saws to remove it and the stump grinder to pulverize the trunk.
Looking at that old photograph is not unlike the experience of staring at your neighborhood on a website, say Zillow.com. From high above, the neighborhood seems like a blurred jigsaw puzzle until you start identifying the landmarks. In that old photograph, the neighborhood is filled with orange trees.
The street lamps look new. I had to squint when I looked at it, trying to make sense of things that don’t look the same anymore and haven’t for decades: homes, orange trees, even the ways the streets run.
I think I know which house is the original farmhouse for that extensive grove. It’s the beautiful Craftsman home that still stands just around the corner from us, big, stately and dark. Given the city today, it’s hard to imagine row after row of citrus trees lapping against it like some fragrant sea in the old days.
OUR neighborhood is filled with houses from the first 30 or so years of the 20th century. Most probably date from the 1910s and 1920s. It isn’t hard to pick out the houses by the decade they were built: the small bungalows from the 1910s, Mission-style homes like ours from the 1920s and a few modest Depression-era houses.
Caltech rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s, and Caltech faculty members most likely bought homes in our neighborhood then, just as they do now. Architecture and affluence often progress hand in hand.
Two blocks north of us sits a house that was once the toast of the neighborhood. Built in the late 1910s by a prominent Pasadena civil engineer, it was said, at the time, to have more electric appliances and electric features than any house west of the Mississippi.
I’ve seen the proud newspaper stories written about it when it was built. These days, as you look at the house from out in front on the sidewalk, you can just barely make out its former grandeur. It looks sad and regal all at once.
The big Craftsman around the corner that once sat amid the oranges is probably from early in the century, 1910 or thereabout. But as the citrus market got more competitive and Florida oranges hit the national market, it made a lot more sense to carve up the groves into house lots.
THE 1920s saw a huge population boom throughout Los Angeles County. Soon, the economy of homes started to make a lot more sense -- dollar wise -- than the economy of oranges and orange juice.
We know who built our house in 1923. He was a contractor. He probably started out as a carpenter or mason; he may have worked on other homes on our street. He lived in a ramshackle house just to the east of ours. He probably built a few spec houses in our neighborhood as citrus gradually, inexorably, gave way to subdivision.
Ours was probably a spec house too, which was a good bet in the 1920s. We once heard an old neighborhood rumor that the house was built for a member of the Wrigley family, which seems unlikely. The Wrigleys were building far grander homes than ours in the era, not to mention buying such places as Catalina Island. People chewed a lot of gum in the 1920s.
HOUSING slowed during the Great Depression, of course, but the population of greater Los Angeles continued to grow. When you think of the Depression and stories such as those of John Steinbeck’s Joad family, it is important to remember that more people coming to California in those hard years turned left at Barstow than right. Many went to the Central Valley. Most came to Los Angeles.
A dozen years later, when World War II was over, folks who had been scrimping and saving, as well as thousands and thousands of returning GIs, happily took out mortgages and bought their first homes. Our neighborhood has some of those houses, and they stand out. A few were built in the last 20 years. Something old got knocked down and a big house, usually with a garage out front, rose in its place. They are perfectly nice houses, but they look out of place.
A house across the street from ours has just been purchased and is apparently going to be torn down to make way for something bigger, something with another story atop its charming footprint. People in the neighborhood aren’t too sure this is what we want to happen.
Getting the neighborhood designated as a historic district would make it harder to knock down old houses. It’s not too difficult to get an old neighborhood named a historic district. Signatures and some committed individuals are about all you need. But sometimes, I suppose, a reverence for the past is seen as an impediment to progress.
It seems like a good idea to us. History is a very real part of what our neighborhood is today. The past is like that golden light of dusk. It graces our home and our lives within it. We’d be diminished without it, and we don’t want it to go away. Or at least we don’t want it to go away entirely.
William Deverell teaches history at USC.