Category Archives: Halls of History

Halls of History—The woman belongs in the home….

Halls of History

When I was young and living with my wise old grandmother in Kingsville, Texas, I looked forward to the days when the Fall and Spring catalogs arrived from Sears. We also received the Montgomery Ward catalogs, but there was nothing like the catalogs from Sears. Dreamland….

Of course, catalog offerings changed over the years, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I discovered kit houses, a common name for the Sears catalog homes sold as Sears Modern Homes.

Sears reported that more than 70,000 kit homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. More than 370 different home designs in various architectural styles and sizes were offered.

Although sold mostly along the East Coast and in Midwestern states, they have been found in Canada, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Alaska and California. Which takes us to Ocean Beach, a neighborhood of San Diego. Recently I discovered that there might be a Sears kit house at 4921 Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach. Looks like this:

4921 Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach, San Diego, California

4921 Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach, San Diego, California

Sears Modern Homes offered the latest and greatest technology available to home buyers in the early 20th Century, including electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. Eventually, asphalt shingles and drywall (instead of the messy lathe and plaster) were offered. Kits were usually shipped by railroad and included most of the materials needed to build the house. Perhaps this is where the great Christmas adage—Some assembly required.—came from….

A few years after Sears quit selling kit homes, all sales records were destroyed in a corporate house cleaning. Sad. Since many of these kit homes were not documented when they were built, finding them today usually requires detailed research for correct identification, especially since there were competitors: Aladdin (which offered the first mail order kit homes in 1906), Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling, and Wardway Homes.

Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses in 1908, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans. It featured 44 house styles costing $360 to $2,890.

Sales grew, and Sears expanded production, shipping, and sales offices to sites throughout the United States. In order to meet demand and lower costs, Sears purchased lumber mills in Cairo, Illinois, and Port Newark, New Jersey, as well as the Norwood Sash and Door Company in Norwood, Ohio.

Sears first offered precut and fitted lumber, pioneered by Aladdin, in 1916. Prior to 1916, the Sears-supplied lumber had to be cut on site to appropriate lengths. The pre-1916 houses are considered “catalog houses” but are not not considered to be kit houses. A Sears Modern Home kit could have 25 tons of materials and over 30,000 parts. Yep. Some assembly required….

Sears started offering financing in 1912, with early loans for 5-15 years at 5-6 percent interest. Sales peaked in 1929, being hit hard by the Great Depression, which led to payment defaults and strain on the catalog house program. Sears even stopped selling homes for a short time in 1934 and, after liquidating $11 million in defaulted debt, quit financing altogether by 1934.

4921 Voltaire Street, Ocean Beach, San Diego, California

The home at 4921 Voltaire Street was built by William Feigley, recently arrived from Kansas. The city has dubbed it the William and Ona Feigley Spec House #1. Sadly, the life of the Feigley House appears to be coming to an end. It has been vacant for years after having been gutted in the 1980s to convert it to a doctor’s office. The doctor left in 1989, and records of its use since then are spotty. There have been lots of complaints about squatters and trash, though.

The new owners of the property want to tear down the Feigley House and build a two-story building with commercial space on the ground floor and two apartments on the upper floor, and a rooftop deck so they can see the ocean. The Ocean Beach Planning Board gave near-unanimous approval after the original design was altered to present a more Craftsman look. It appears that a portion of the front entrance might be retained and incorporated into the new building. However….

In October 2016, the Historic Resources Board recommended designating the Feigley House as a historic resource, which would pretty much prevent its destruction. According to the Board’s report, the Feigley House has maintained integrity in terms of design, materials, and feeling. Assistant Planner Suzanne Seguer, one of the report’s authors, said, “Nearly a century after its construction, the prized characteristics of its Craftsman-style architecture continue to shine through. Specifically, the resource exhibits a gable roof with wide eave overhang, wood cladding, decorative beams, a partial width porch with tapered square columns, wood-frame sash windows, and decorative attic vents,.”

Interesting, the owner’s representative charged that its kit house origin didn’t enhance but actually weakened historical value. The “Historic Resource Research Report,” prepared by the architectural firm Brian F. Smith and Associates for the owners, asserted the Feigley House bears a telling resemblance to a “Crescent” kit home, one of the 120 models described in the Sears “HonorBilt Modern Homes” 1921 catalog. Thus, the home is “not architecturally significant,” according to Scott Moomjian, an attorney who has represented owners with historic properties, told the board. He continued, saying that even if the Feigley House had not been damaged by insect infestation, neglect, and weathering, it would still be nothing but a “common, undistinguished, and ordinary Craftsman home” that falls far short of being “considered an important architectural specimen.”

Neighbors seem to agree with Moomjian, which isn’t really surprising considering the condition of the house. Which would you rather live next door to, a brand new building or a decrepit old buildng?

The Feigley House’s status as a Sears home is not 100% certain, though, which possibly caused only three Board members to vote for historic designation, short of the required six votes. Personally I find kit homes to be intriguing, interesting, and important.

The Crescent, on page 29 of the 1921 catalog (between the Ardara and Martha Washington) and costing as little as $1,704, was described as being for “folks who like a touch of individuality with good taste.” The cost included “all the millwork, kitchen cupboard, flooring, shingles, siding, finishing lumber, building paper, eaves trough, downspout, roofing, sash weights, hardware, porch screens, painting material, lumber and lath.” Everything except “cement, brick and plaster.”

I found it interesting that the Sears Modern Homes plans were “passed upon by women experts.” “Architects and women advisors plan economy of space…. We plan the arrangement of the kitchen to save steps for the housewife.”

Ah, yes, the woman belongs in the home….

I'm Zoey the Cool Cat, and I approve this post

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Out & About—Maybe I can buy a wheel spoke instead of a brick

Out & About

When I arrived in San Diego in April 1993, I passed a huge military installation, the Naval Training Center (NTC), on my way to the beaches each day. The NTC was founded in 1923 and eventually grew from an initial 200 acres to 550 acres. The 1993 Base Realignment and Closure Commission put NTC on the to-be-closed list, and that is exactly what happened, although it took until 1997 to get everyone out of there.

NTC now is the site of Liberty Station, a very cool mixed-use community—homes, businesses, a high school, many arts organizations, restaurants, a 9-hole golf course, grocery stores, parks, the historic North Chapel….

Many of the old buildings have been retrofitted for earthquakes and re-purposed. When I was visiting a couple of the waterfront parks a few days ago, I discovered Building 191, perhaps the only building that still exists but which has not been re-purposed yet. Looks like this:

Building 191, Naval Training Center San Diego

Building 191, Naval Training Center San Diego

Building 191, Naval Training Center San Diego

Building 191, Naval Training Center San Diego

Building 191, measuring 20’x80′, was built in 1942 as a maintenance building according to some sources or as a recreation building according to other sources. I’m going to go with a recreation building; it just seems way too big to be a maintenance building.

The area where Building 191 sits was planned to be a 46-acre park. However, the flight path for San Diego International Airport is directly over Building 191, so the Runway Protection Zone use and restrictions prevent it from being converted to any use which would result in large numbers of people using it. Thus the City of San Diego was going to use it for storage and not as a building that would have public access; so maybe it was a maintenance building after all………

Building 191 also was found to have asbestos-containing materials (ACM) and lead-based paint present. Before transferring Building 191 to the City, the Navy abated the building so that it did not contain friable, accessible, or damaged ACM. Those of us in real estate with ACM experience know that “abatement” could have several meanings other than removal, usually encapsulation. Encapsulation could include painting; it would be quite ironic if the Navy’s abatement included encapsulation painting with lead-based paint even though there currently are no requirements for the
abatement of lead-based paint. In any event, any rehabilitation to Building 191 would have to have an asbestos survey completed to determine locations and condition of any remaining ACM.

In researching Building 191, I found a document March 1, 2017, about the San Diego County Bike Coalition (SDCBC) desiring to acquire Building 191 and creating a new bicycling center for Liberty Station. SDCBC, a non-profit, is interested in the building because it straddles a major spur on the San Diego bike path system and could connect Harbor Drive with the Bayshore Parkway, providing a save means for cyclists to get to downtown and points farther south.

According to an SDCBC spokesperson, Building 191 is an old maintenance shed that the City wants to demolish because it doesn’t have the funds to do all that is required to re-purpose it. SDCBC’s vision includes adding porticos and decks around the outside to help make the building usable without moving interior hallways. Building 191 could be a meeting place for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and other cycling organizations, both for profit and not for profit. Even a cycling museum about the history of cycling is in the vision.

Historic bicycle

Well, when they start fundraising, I think I’ll contribute. Most fundraising enterprises in which I have participated allowed me to buy a brick. Maybe I can buy a wheel spoke instead of a brick this time….

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Out & About—It’s all in the pronunciation

Out & About

In my research for my book on the history of railroads in San Diego County, I kept coming across a station called “Hipass.” I couldn’t find any information about it, possibly because I kept pronouncing it “hip ass.” Once I discovered it was “hi pass” it was easy to find it. Here’s a picture of its current name:

Tecate Divide—"hipass"

Divides are the highest point on a mountain range, often being marked with a sign and a pullout or parking area to admire the view.

Although Tecate Divide, or “Hipass,” is only 3,890 feet high, it’s at mile marker 25, which means it’s basically 25 miles from downtown San Diego, which is at 0 feet elevation. So those poor trains had to struggle up 3,890 feet in only 25 miles, quite a task when you’re hauling many thousands of tons of freight and passenger cars. Most steam locomotives of the era produced around 2,000 horsepower and weighed 100 tons. Imagine 2,000 horses pulling just the locomotive itself for 25 miles up to 3,890 feet. Poor horses.

Tecate Divide is the point where rivers on the western side drain to the Pacific Ocean and rivers on the eastern side drain to the Salton Sea, the Colorado River, and the Gulf of California.

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time!

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Out & About—Cruise historic Highway 80

Out & About

More sights from my driving tour of Old Highway 80 through East San Diego County.

Cruise Highway 80

The Alpine Town Hall (two pictures below) was built in 1899 and served through 1999. Alpine began in the 1870s as a local center for ranching. The building currently is owned by the Alpine Woman’s Club which pretty much has to missions: to preserve the town hall and to provide scholarships to Alpine graduating seniors heading to college.

Alpine town hall in Alpine CA

Alpine town hall in Alpine CA

The Descanso Junction Restaurant is quite popular. I was there around 8:00 a.m., and it was packed. Descanso Junction’s original name was Bohemia Grove, and the original name of the restaurant was El Nido. That’s my car at the left parked next to the truck.

Descanso Junction Restaurant

The Descanso Town Hall was built in 1898. It still is a popular venue for local events and is one of the few community halls still operating in the mountains.

Descanso Town Hall

The Perkins Store has been in operation since 1875. The store in the picture below was built in 1939 after the original store burned.

Perkins Store

The old Guatay Service Station dates from the 1920s but is now just a shell of its former self. The round metal shed was the service bay.

Ruins of the Guatay Service Station

Behind the service station ruins sits a cool stone house, also built in the 1920s and still being used as a private residence.

Stone house

The immensely popular Frosty Burger in Pine Valley occupies another 1920s-era service station. I can highly recommend Frosty Burger. It can get cold in the high desert mountains, and Frosty Burger has only outdoor seating, so take a jacket or plan on eating in your warm car.

Frosty Burger in Pine Valley

The Pine Valley Inn was the main business in Pine Valley for many years. The main dining hall (right in the picture below) is still used as a restaurant, and the rental cabins, although remodeled and updated, still are in use. One of the rental cabins can be seen at the left.

Pine Valley Inn

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time!

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Trains—A short history of the Colton Crossing

Halls of History

If you look back at the rich people in history, they pretty much were land barons, newspaper publishers, or railroad tycoons. In some cases, they were all three because many state and federal governments gave free land to people who were willing to build railroads on that land. The only people who could afford to build a railroad were newspaper publishers, so they became land barons and railroad tycoons.

Many of the railroad tycoons, like Leland Stanford (Stanford University) and Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt University), are considered now to have been robber barons, a derogatory metaphor of social criticism originally applied to certain late 19th-century American businessmen who used unscrupulous methods to get rich. The robber baron list is long and includes many names familiar to us today from many industries, such as Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Library fame, Marshall Field of Marshall Field’s, J.P. Morgan of J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Charles M. Schwab of Bethlehem Steel.

In San Diego history we have our own personality who made the robber baron list:
John D. Spreckels, making his claim via the water transport, sugar, and railroad businesses. He built the San Diego & Arizona Railway (SD&A) from San Diego to Yuma. It was during my early research into the SD&A for a railroad book that I’m writing that I discovered the Colton Crossing.Union Pacific on the flyover at Colton (CA) Crossing

The SD&A’s construction costs were said to be underwritten by Spreckels but in actuality were underwritten by the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP). After the transcontinental railroad was completed with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory UT in 1869 by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, focus shifted to a southern transcontinental route, either from Los Angeles or San Diego to points east. SP was first to market and pretty much dominated Southern California railroad interests until 1883 when the Colton Crossing was built.

Colton Crossing is a railway crossing in Colton CA and the site of one of the most intense frog wars in railroad construction history. A frog is where two railroad lines cross each other, and a frog war often occurred when those two railroad lines belonged to different railroads. In the case of Colton Crossing, the two lines belonged to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF), trying to gain a foothold in Southern California, and the California Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the SP.

California Southern’s construction crew was ready to install the frog tracks when an SP locomotive arrived pulling a single freight car, and stopped. The SP engineer drove the train back and forth slowly at the crossing point in order to prevent the California Southern crew from installing the crossing. SP had hired Virgil Earp to guard its tracks in Colton, and he rode in the cab of the SP locomotive.

Colton Crossing mapThe citizens of Colton supported SP, but SP had bypassed nearby San Bernardino, leaving its residents upset. Railroads at that time could make or break a community. San Bernardino hoped that the California Southern line would put their city back on the map.

Ultimately, California Southern obtained a court order on August 11, 1883, in its favor but it still took California Governor Robert Waterman’s involvement in ordering the county sheriff to enforce the court order.

On the morning of September 13, events reached a head in a confrontation known as the “Battle of the Crossing.” Citizens from Colton and San Bernardino gathered on either side of the tracks with the SP locomotive between them. Men on both sides carried picks and shovels, as well as revolvers and shotguns. Virgil Earp stood in the gangway between the locomotive cab and tender facing the San Bernardino citizens, revolver in hand. It was believed that the freight car, a gondola, held SP men with rifles and other weapons, crouching below the walls of the car so as not to be seen.

The Colton Crossing in today’s world is very busy with trains from Union Pacific (east-west), BNSF (north-south), Amtrak (Southwest Chief on BNSF tracks and Sunset Limited on UP tracks), and Metrolink (BNSF tracks). In the 2000’s, Colton Crossing got so busy that Union Pacific decided to build a flyover, a bridge over BNSF’s tracks, to alleviate delays for both railroads.

Colton Crossing and the West Colton railroad yard, within a mile of each other, are great places to watch railroad action, and that’s what I did on February 5. Here are some videos of the action I saw just in the three hours I was hanging out.

BNSF southbound on the lower tracks
There are two “helper” engines on the rear,
one of which is a Norfolk Southern engine.

Union Pacific westbound on the upper flyover tracks

Metrolink southbound on the lower tracks

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time!

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Out & About—Who wants to drink brown water?

Out & About

My wise old grandmother told me that if I didn’t study history, I’d be doomed to repeat it. That seems to imply that all history is bad which, of course, it’s not. But since she was born during World War II, got married during the Great Depression, lived through World War II, had her oldest son serve in the Air Force during the Korean War, had her youngest son serve in the Army during the Vietnam War, I think I know what she was getting at.

I do love history, especially war history. It just boggles my mind how easily people on one side of an imaginary line are only too happy to kill people on the other side of an imaginary line.

My other favorite history specialty is ruins. For some reason I love old ruins. Makes me wonder what happened that caused something that was built to fall into neglect.

The mountains and desert of East San Diego County are full of ruins. Many of the old homesteads, resorts, and service buildings fell out of favor when they were bypassed by modern roads and highways.

On my January 2017 foray into East San Diego County, I found the ruins of Buckman Springs, known as Indian Springs during the 1870s and Emery Soda Springs during the 1880s. It was a small settlement on the road east from San Diego to Yuma AZ, and the mineral springs were well known throughout Southern California and were a common stop for mountain travelers.

From the 1870s to the late 1910s, it was home to the Buckman Springs Lithia Water bottling plant. Lithia Water was marketed as a table soda but was never successful because the water was discolored. I mean, who wants to drink brown water?

Ruins found in January 2017:

The Buckman House
Amos Buckman house

Amos Buckman house

Amos Buckman house

The 1880s bottling plant
Buckman Springs bottling plant

Spring-fed water tank
Buckman Springs spring-fed water tank

The 1912 bottling plant
1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

Best graffiti on the 1912 building
“Drinking brew and having fun
Cause we’re the Class of ’81”
1912 Buckman Springs bottling plant

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time!

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