A dancer honors her mother — and the past — by restoring a piece of architectural history
By Michael Good
Today’s new homeowners tend to rush into things. And you can hardly blame them.
First, they rush into making an offer on a house — because they’ve learned from experience that in this overheated market those who wait get outbid. Then they rush into closing, because the sellers and the real estate agents and the lenders want a quick escrow. And then, once they actually own their dream home, they rush into remodeling, because their former house has been sold and their furniture is in storage and the kids are about to start school, and they can’t afford to rent another house, and, well, at this point hurrying has become a habit.
But Anna Wilcoxson took her sweet time when it came to restoring her vintage house on Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills. In fact, she thought about it for about 50 years before hiring an architect and contractor.
“My mother bought the house in 1956, when I was 1 year old,” she said. Some of her earliest memories are of looking around and thinking about what she would change — if she ever got the chance.
There was a lot to daydream about. Two items were particularly irksome: the brick cladding in the front of the house, and the small upstairs room — also at the front of the house — that had once been an open balcony.
“I always knew it had been changed, and I always knew it should be changed back,” she said. “I dreamed of it. But my mom liked the extra room.”
The house had been put through a number of changes over the years, by a number of people who perhaps should have thought a little longer before taking up the hammer.
“There was a housing shortage before and after the war, and they filled in the upper balcony and added a room in the back, with a master bedroom and a closet,” she said.
At some point, the house had been divided into two dwellings. It was put back before Anna’s family bought it in the 1950s. “But there was a gas outlet in the bedroom closet, where the kitchen stove had been,” she said.
In the 1970s, Anna’s mother added a room on the back. “She took out the porch and just added a box on the back, with aluminum windows. I took over the room and made it my ballet room. I danced in there — she didn’t mind. She said, ‘Oh, knock yourself out.’ That’s how the Rec Room became the Ballet Room,” she said.
Anna eventually put the experience to good use: She established a ballet school in the neighborhood, Center City Ballet, just a few blocks away on Fort Stockton. And as the years went by, she continued to daydream about the house on Sunset, and what she would do if she had her way.
In 2014, nearly 60 years after buying the house, Anna’s mother passed away, and Anna inherited the place. At last, she was free to put things right again.
“I wouldn’t touch it until she was gone,” she said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” she pauses, and then of course she says it. “She told me, ‘You better not take that brick off or I’ll come back to haunt you.’”
In Anna’s mother’s defense, wrapping the front of the house in brick wasn’t a completely wacky idea. Prairie-style houses are sometimes half brick, half stucco, and often have some sort of banding that adds to the horizontal nature of the house — although usually it’s higher up on the wall. And usually the house is in the Midwest. San Diego’s version of the style, which was started by architects like Irving Gill, who had lived or worked in the Midwest and were familiar with the style, tended to be a little more minimalist. And, in truth, putting a course of brick on the bottom third of a ranch house was kind of a 1950s thing. Looking at the “before” picture of the house, you can see why Anna couldn’t wait to tear it off. Except, of course, she did wait.
The house on Sunset was built in 1912 by the Pacific Building Company. The firm was innovative for a number of reasons — it offered financing for homebuyers and had its own design staff. Oscar W. Cotton founded it in 1908, and remained in charge until 1928.
Anna believes that Irving Gill was the chief architect of the firm. I couldn’t confirm that, but many of Gill’s former protégés were on staff. Frank Mead (Gill’s former partner) and Richard Requa (Gill’s former foreman) designed at least one house for Pacific Building Company, the 1911 George and Anna Barney residence, on Seventh Avenue. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John Lloyd Wright, was chief designer for Pacific Building Company. And John’s brother, Lloyd Wright, worked in Gill’s office and illustrated many of Gill’s buildings. The two Wright brothers, Gill and Gill’s nephew Louis, were friendly.
According to Gill’s biographer Thomas Hines, the brothers lived in one of Gill’s experimental “workers cottages” and the four played music together, sometimes for four or five hours at a time. (John on violin, Lloyd on cello and Louis on piano.) So Gill was something of a mentor to the house’s likely designer, John Lloyd Wright — but he was a mentor to many young architects and draftsman of the era. His influence can be found on many Mission Hills Prairie-style houses, including Anna’s house on Sunset, which has transom windows similar to those Gill used on the Hawley house on Panorama Drive. The house on Sunset looks like something Gill might have done. Or John Lloyd Wright might have done while trying to draw an Irving Gill house.
“I just think Irving Gill is great,” Anna said. “I just love what he did. He was just wonderful. The Ellen Browning Scripps house in La Jolla is one of his great buildings. And the Bishop’s School.”
When Anna finally got her chance to restore her mother’s former house, she proceeded with considerable caution.
“When you have a house like this, you need to do things in a way that’s beautiful and cohesive,” she said. “It’s just what you do.”
Anna hired contractor Jim Stafford to do the windows. He in turn brought in contractor Rhett Lessler for what turned into a major project, with restoration of the stucco exterior, the missing porch, the “eyebrow” that runs around the top of the roofline and a new addition. Architect Kim Grant designed the project. The Ballet Room was converted into a modern kitchen and family room. The ballet bar got moved to a little guest cottage with a wooden floor.
“It was all-encompassing,” Anna said. “All the molding was duplicated to create this seamless look. You really can’t tell what is new and what is old. It just turned out beautiful. My mom would be so proud, even if the brick is gone.”
She must be proud — because she hasn’t come back to haunt the place. Or has she? Anna laughed. “There was this rose bush she planted and during the construction, we had to pull it up. It was dormant for two years, and then we replanted it, and now it’s alive again. She was an amazing lady. She was a completely fantastic person. She picked the house. She lived to be 99 and a half. She died two months short of 100. I think people should just feel blessed when something works out as well as this did, and we should just appreciate these old homes. They’re just so precious.”
On May 18, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) recognized Anna’s efforts to restore her mother’s house during its People in Preservation Awards. The ceremony was held in the garden of the Irving Gill-designed Marston House, which Anna’s mother would no doubt have appreciated. Other homeowners were recognized, including Devin and DeLayne Harmon of Kensington, who were profiled in this column last fall. Also recognized were homeowners Genevieve Legér and Chris Woods, Kyle and Tim Malone of Kensington and Kevin and Laurie Kravets of Inspiration Heights.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.