By Michael Good | House Calls
You’ll want to stay awhile after you tour this Craftsman house in Mission Hills
When the Craftsman revival began in the late 1980s, there were basically two ways to get ideas about how to restore a house: You could read a book or go on a home tour.
Some of those books — many with variations of the word “bungalow” on their cover — are still available, although the bookstores where you could once peruse their pages are gone.
As for the home tours, some historic associations are still soldiering on, but as popularity wanes, tours have become more of a resource drain than a cash cow. Mission Hills Heritage sees the tours, walks and lectures as more of an education tool than an income stream. Their goal, from my perspective, is to preserve what is left of the original architecture of this unique neighborhood, which doesn’t really have an equal in San Diego.
This year’s tour on Sept. 23 — titled “Craftsman, Then & Now” — runs the gamut from a new house that looks old to a number of authentically old, historically designated houses that have been updated to live like new.
The Melhorn/King House, San Diego Historical Landmark No. 318, is a particularly fine example of cobblestone clad vernacular arts and crafts architecture, circa 1913. Martin V. Melhorn was a contractor who, with carpenter John J. Wahrenberger, built a number of similar low-slung, woodsy, shingled houses with broad front porches and deep overhanging eaves in this corner of Mission Hills. Nelson and Eileen King were the first owners of the house.
Today, this cobblestone cottage on a tree-shaded corner of Ingalls and Washington Place is owned by Joan Crone, who has shaped it to her unique sensibilities and needs. It’s now a bed and breakfast.
“I’ve been here for nearly 40 years,” Joan said as we sit in the living room in wing chairs that she has arranged so that we are facing in opposite directions, to accommodate the deafness in her left ear.
“My husband and I divorced,” she said. “And I had bought this house myself, and refurbished it, with the idea of selling it. And the trade was, I got this house and he got the money from the other house. Would you believe I paid $65,000 for this? It was a good time to buy a house and fix it up. I could see how these old arts and crafts-style houses were being torn down everywhere. And it just broke my heart.”
What attracted her to this particular house?
“Well,” she said, “I knew the people who owned it. He was a homicide detective … She couldn’t stand his working at night. So anyway, they got divorced. And then they got back together again. And they moved to Bend, Oregon. They’ve been very happy ever since. I had a couple of dinners here. We were good friends with their children and our children. So it was a house that I was familiar with and always admired, even though it was in pretty bad shape.”
Was there something in particular that you liked about the house?
“It just had a very warm feeling about it. The rooms were a really nice size, still are. And I think part of it was I had good times every time I came over here. That was part of it.”
Joan studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She worked as a photographer for a while, but with two boys and a husband who was the headmaster of nearby Francis Parker School, her plate was pretty full. Now that her children are grown (one son lives nearby and teaches at Francis Parker), she’s again expressing her artistic side, creating books that qualify as art objects in a studio she has built at the back of the house.
The Craftsman style was meant to appeal to the artist in all of us. The idea was that, with some effort and study, we could all be artists, rather than cogs in the wheel of Industrial America. The houses themselves celebrated the craftsmanship of the people who built them. And the homeowners, in turn, decorated their houses with personal items of their own device — curtains they’d sewn themselves, table runners decorated with stitchery, landscape paintings, pottery, simple furniture that could be assembled by the owner.
In a sense, then, the arts and crafts, or Craftsman, bungalow is an assemblage of artistically arranged hand-made objects. There are the built-in elements: the tile fireplace, wooden mantel, bookcases, china cabinet, baseboards, picture rail, door and window casings. And there are the owner-supplied decorative items: the furniture and furnishings.
The Melhorn/King House has box beam ceilings and a fold-down writing desk with cubbyholes to organize and file correspondence. There is stained and leaded glass in the china cabinet, which is unusually massive. The box beams, which float in the middle of the ceiling, are a bit quirky.
“At first the box beams bothered me,” Joan said. “Why did he do that? But then I realized without the beams, he wouldn’t have had a way to put lights up there.”
If Melhorn had extended the beams to the walls, per usual practice, they would have conflicted with the built-up crown molding, which he favored.
“There are 36 mitered corners in those things,” Joan said, looking up. “And they are all just perfectly done. I like that.”
Joan worked as a house painter for a time, doing the trim on one of the Irving Gill Prairie Style cottages on Eighth Avenue, so she’s examined a few miters in her day.
In the arts and crafts spirit, a number of objects in the dining room are hand-decorated by Joan’s mother. The chairs, china and pottery are hand-painted. Joan’s grandmother did the stitchery covering a side table, beneath a pot her mother decorated.
On the bed in the back bedroom is a quilt that Joan and her mother and grandmother made together, sitting on the porch of her grandfather’s house, which has since been torn down. There’s a photograph of the house in the hall.
Joan had the idea, pretty early on in her restoration of the house, to turn it into a bed and breakfast. She would live in an addition in the back, complete with a kitchen and bath.
She showed me upstairs, where there is a wood-paneled sitting room, lined with books, and an airy bedroom that is surrounded on three sides by windows, much like a sleeping porch from the era.
Back downstairs, we sat down at her work table and she showed me one of her art pieces, which resembles a flip book in some ways, but reminds me as much of some kind of magical device, which can be turned inside out and upside down and spell out different messages and take on different shapes and patterns. It’s unusually quiet in the warmly lit studio. I ask her about the bed and breakfast business. There doesn’t seem to be anyone staying in the house on this weekday in the middle of August.
“I used to have pretty steady business. But lately, with Airbnb, people are just renting out their houses. There used to be eight bed and breakfasts in this area. And Airbnb has just ruined it for the old-fashioned bed and breakfasts.” Of those eight, two remain.
Speaking of one, Joan said, “She does a roaring business because she signed up with Airbnb. But I’m reluctant to do that. They don’t care if you have anyone on campus, so to speak. And I have a lot of antiques in here and I treasure my books, and I’ve heard terrible tales. You don’t know who’s going to come. I do talk first to the people who come here. I’m amazed at what I can learn from a short conversation on the phone.”
Before she could get approval from the city for her business, Joan had to demonstrate that she had adequate off street parking, and a “special type” of dishwasher. All the Airbnb hosts have to demonstrate is that they know how to use the Airbnb app on their phone. The company now has 2 million listings in 190 countries and is valued at $25 billion.
As she showed me all the books in her library downstairs, Joan asked why I decided to write about her house instead of the others on the tour. It seemed to me, getting a real appreciation for the Craftsman style requires some time.
“I thought your house was interesting because if people want to really get a feel for the place…”
“They can sit down and read a book?”
“Well, yes. But what I was thinking is that if they want to really get the Craftsman experience, they can always fork over some money and rent a room from you for a night.”
She laughed. “Well, that would be lovely.”
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.