Halls of History — The Cardiff Mystery House

Halls of History

When I was in Wrightwood Village a week ago, I immediately noticed that there was not a single brick or stucco home. All were wood. That’s because Wrightwood is built directly on top of the San Andreas Fault. As has been regularly seen in earthquakes throughout the world, brick and stucco homes don’t do so well in earthquakes.

Consequently, building codes in California have changed significantly since the Loma Prieta (World Series) earthquake of 1989 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994. Thus, whenever I see a brick building in my part of the world, I’m pretty sure it was built before 1989.

Recently I found a two-story brick building in Cardiff near the Cardiff Elementary School.

Cardiff Mystery House

There was only one window in the place, although it looks like there were many more that were “boarded up” with brick.

Google Maps shows it as a gray rectangle in a public park.

Location of Cardiff Mystery House

It took a lot of research to find out about this house, known locally as the Cardiff Mystery House.

I did find lots of interesting guesses:

  1. A haunted house to keep the kids close to the school during recess.
  2. The original Cardiff schoolhouse.
  3. The old Cardiff jailhouse.
  4. The Cardiff power station from the 1970s.
  5. A secret lookout or radar facility to guard against a West Coast attack by the Japanese in World War II. Note that many spotter bunkers were established along the California coast after Pearl Harbor but they all are camouflaged bunkers rather than being 2-story structures.

None of those appear to be correct, but #1 and #5 are fun to imagine.

Apparently the “house” was built in the 1940s by Bell Telephone as a telephone relay station to connect services throughout Southern California. It held large, low-voltage batteries that amplified every phone’s handset and powered the phone’s ring.

Bell designed it as house structure to avoid a possible air attack by the Japanese, which would have knocked out communications.

In the 1990s, Bob Sinclair, the founder and owner of Pannikin Coffee and Tea, bought the Cardiff Bell Telephone house, intending to repurpose it for his growing coffee shop chain, something he was good at doing. In fact, he bought the old Encinitas railroad depot, moved it to Leucadia, renovated it, and turned it into a coffee house, shown below.

Former ATSF railroad depot in Encinitas, California

I found the Encinitas railroad depot a couple of years ago and did a blog post about it, which you can find here.

The Cardiff Mystery House was deemed non-earthquake proof, thus requiring massive retrofits to make it suitable for a a coffee house, not to mention that it probably would not have the requisite number of parking spaces.

The school district bought the property from Sinclair in 2001 and now uses it to store the school’s equipment and carnival supplies. Surrounding the building is a student garden.

There are at least two more surviving Bell Telephone houses, identical to the Cardiff house both in size and architecture. I actually have seen both of them but didn’t have time to stop and explore them. One is in the San Onofre State Beach campground, visible when driving southbound I-5, just west of the California Highway Patrol weigh station. The other is at the west end of Ortega Highway 74, in San Juan Capistrano.

I guess you know that I’m going to have to go by those two and take pictures, yes?

Cardiff Mystery House

Cardiff Mystery House

Cardiff Mystery House

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