By Michael Good | HouseCalls
The ultimate of the antique world is the signed piece. This is an object whose provenance is beyond questioning, because the craftsman who made it has carved, branded, etched or scrawled his name into the surface.
Over the years, “signed” has come to mean “labeled by the factory.” And today hardly any furniture is worth signing, because it isn’t worth keeping more than a few years.
Be that as it may, wouldn’t it be nice if finding out who built your old house were as simple as turning over a chair and reading a signature?
As it turns out, sometimes it is. (If you’re good with a heat gun.) In the West End neighborhood of North Park, some builders did sign their work, writing their names above the hall doorway (before painting it over).
John T. Vawter, a San Diego architect who also lived and worked in Los Angeles, left his signature (a stylized letter “V”) on the shingles of the Frank C. Hill House near downtown LA.
Vawter and his partner Emmor Brooke Weaver left a number of signs on their quirkiest commission, the Amy Strong Castle, near Mt. Woodson. The walls of this amuse-l’oeil is decorated with symbols and mysterious writing. (There’s probably a signature in there somewhere.)
Sometimes the scribbles in an old house are as a sign of nothing — except my own folly. I once found what I thought was the name of a builder on the back of baseboard for a 1912 house in South Park. I’d heard of Swedish contractors and Norwegian contractors — so somehow I got it in my mind that this guy was French (maybe it was the florid, cursive writing). My helper and I tried to decipher the writing aloud, giving it a French spin, “Clo-zay!” “Clo-zette!” Finally, the light came on — dimly. “Closet.”
Lumberyard employees are as fond of writing on wood as editors are of writing on paper. At the Devin and Delayne Harmon residence on Marlborough Drive, I found the name “Donahue” written on the side of a drawer in a closet dresser. The name popped up on three other pieces of wood as we deconstructed and refinished various parts of the house.
But this sign was a red herring — the lumberyard had misspelled the customer’s name. An internet search for a contractor named Donahue turned up a contractor named Ed Donahoe. Searches for Ed Donahoe led to stories about his partnership with Carl B. Hays and, finally, photographs of the house under construction. (The two things that didn’t turn up were the name of the architect and the name of the lumberyard.)
A few blocks away and a few months later on Hilldale Road, I found another contractor’s name written in a similar cursive style on the inside of a breakfast nook sideboard. Unlike Donohoe, Paul McCoy is a recognized master builder. Like Donahoe, he often worked with Carl B. Hays. (But then, everyone worked with Hays; he’s credited with building more than 600 houses in North Park alone during the 1920s.)
Not all old house writing is done by professionals. I’ve found a child’s crayon scrawls inside a drawer. (And I’ve met the now-grown child, when she came by a yard sale to say she’d once lived in my house.)
Builders found other ways to sign their work than with a carpenter’s pencil. For Nathan Rigdon, it was the octagonal column. For his sometime partner Morris Irvin, it was the eyebrow porch. Master builders and architects could be restless. Their signatures changed. Rigdon moved away from his cast stone fireplaces and window seats to his octagonal columns — but held on to his tendency to push windows together on adjoining walls. When he moved to Los Angeles, he switched to Spanish.
In the 1920s, Americans became obsessed with the then-new archeological discoveries in Mesoamerica and Egypt. Mayan and Egyptian iconography began to show up — illogically — in 1920s Spanish Revival houses. American Indian symbols, ancient European motifs and secret society signs were popular too. Everyone was living a hidden life already, making moonshine in the bathtub, and communicating with secret hand gestures and passwords through their speakeasy front door. Whatever the signs and symbols, for homeowners the message was the same: “Come on in — we’ve got whiskey!”
Many of those front doors with their little speakeasy windows were adorned with burned-in decorative symbols (although most of those symbols have since been sanded away). The snow cloud, the Slavic sun wheel, the Egyptian Eye of Horus (which was also a Freemason symbol) show up willy-nilly in pyrographic door designs.
Southern Californians were introduced to Mayan images and symbols at the Panama California Exposition from 1915-17. (The plaster reproductions of the Mayan ruins from Quirigua are still on display at the Museum of Man.) The head of the expedition, Edgar L. Hewitt, misread the signs and symbols. He concluded that the Mayans were peaceful. They were not. (They enjoyed internecine warfare, decapitation of prisoners and ritualistic bloodletting.)
He was wrong about the makers of the stelae, too, claiming that the Mayans didn’t sign their work. We now know otherwise. Like artists today, they just wanted a little recognition. Between the bloodletting and the decapitation.
The best example I’ve seen of Mayan tile work in San Diego is the fireplace at Devin and Delayne’s Spanish Revival house in Kensington. (There are a couple of lesser quality versions for sale currently on eBay.)
The fireplace is covered with Mayan symbols, taken from the structures at Palenque, Mexico, but as far as I know, it lacks an actual signature. Not that it matters, since everyone agrees it’s the work of Rufus Keeler, chief designer for the Calco tile company. (He installed another example in his own house.)
Like furniture makers of old, lumber mills signed their work with a stamp. And logging companies branded their logs so they could be rounded up like lost cattle if they got loose. I came across a lumber stamp a few weeks ago while working on a Sim Bruce Richards house in Solana Beach.
Richards built the place for Herschell Larrick, Jr., who’s father was a lumberman himself — first at Benson Lumber in San Diego, later at Solana Beach Lumber at the corner of Lomas Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The stamp was on the backside of a tongue-and-groove knotty cedar board that I was salvaging from the inside of a storage closet. I was using the well-preserved boards in the back to replaced the weather damaged ones at the front. The stamp was hard to read. I could barely make out “Solana” and “Cedar.”
A couple hours on the internet and I found an image of the stamp, in a 1950s newspaper ad for Incense Cedar boards from Solana Beach Cedar and Milling Co. I also found a 1960 newspaper photograph showing Herschell Larrick Jr., the proprietor of Solana Beach Cedar and Milling Co. demonstrating his new invention for staining cedar.
It involved some plastic piping and a felt-covered roller. The photo seemed particularly apt, since this was what I was doing all these years later to those same boards from his mill (without his clever invention to speed things along).
To me, this seemed a sign that the effort we were going through to salvage this 57-year-old wood was somehow merited. It wasn’t just that we were restoring a cool midcentury modern house with a lot of wood (paneled with cedar both inside and out). It wasn’t just that the architect was one of the great San Diego modernists.
It was that the owner supplied the wood from his own lumberyard to build his house — and probably supplied the cedar for Richards’ many other cedar-paneled houses. It hinted at a relationship that hadn’t previously been revealed.
After refinishing the board with the Solana Cedar stamp on it, I nailed it in a place of prominence to the right of the front door, replacing a board that had a big crack in it and had been poorly repaired with caulk. I left the stamp preserved inside the wall like a message across time for another restorer to discover, perhaps in another 57 years, and if he or she’s really curious he or she can find this article on the internet and get the story.
That is, as long as the internet hasn’t gone the way of the signed antique.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.