By Michael Good
As historic houses go, La Jolla’s Windemere certainly has the pedigree. Irving Gill designed it and, architecturally, it’s a fascinating blend of beach cottage and Craftsman, with a vaguely oriental mien. It’s all built out of old-growth redwood, paneled on both walls and ceiling. And it’s a house with a name, not an address – what could be more historic, and romantic, than that?
All of this was going through my mind recently as I stood in the low-ceilinged living room of this 1894 structure, which apparently had not seen the light of day, or a dust mop, since the Eisenhower Administration. As the guy who might be refinishing all of that redwood, I was a little overwhelmed. So I was caught off-guard when the new owner asked what I think of as THE question:
“What other historic houses have you worked on?”
My immediate reaction was, well, they’re all historic. Instead, I said, “David Owen Dryden’s personal home,” because that was the one I was working on at the time.
I could see she wasn’t familiar (or impressed) with Dryden, one of San Diego’s more celebrated master builders. My mind skipped through other recent projects, famous and not so famous builders, interesting owners, intriguing architectural details – all the inviting houses that I wouldn’t mind living in myself. But there was nothing to measure up to Gill, even this rather pedestrian and modest example of his work. Gill was a seminal architect, a visionary that inspired many of the 20th century architects that came after him. He died virtually forgotten (he was picking avocadoes for a living when his heart gave out). His death certificate listed his occupation as “laborer.” Had Esther McCoy’s “Five California Architects” not revived Gill’s reputation in 1960, Windemere would be just another run-down beach cottage.
No topic more thoroughly divides the old-house community, and provokes more controversy among the misinformed and unconverted, than the subject of historic designation. Homeowners worry that their house isn’t historic, and therefore isn’t that important, unique or valuable. Or they worry it is historic, and they are therefore going to be constrained by some silly rules preventing them from living in it the way they see fit.
The Mills Act, which provides a tax break for owners of historic residences, might have seemed anything but controversial in 1972. But it has turned political in recent years. Taxpayers fret the city is losing tax revenue. The mayor seems to agree, saying too many Mills Act contracts have been granted (there are some 650 in the San Diego area). Conversely, a recent study by Andrew J. Narwold, a USD economics professor, estimates that rather than losing money, local governments might expect a net tax revenue gain of $14,000 per house per year in neighborhoods with a Mills Act house.
Many new homeowners often ask if I think their house is historic. (I’m probably the wrong person to ask because, obviously, my answer is always yes.) As for the next question – how to find out – the easiest answer is to hire a professional. Companies such as Legacy 106 have the experience, expertise and contacts to get homes qualified for the Mills Act. But for some people that might not be the most satisfying way to go.
The easiest way to begin this process is by going to the downtown library and looking through the city directory. (SOHO’s website sohosandiego.org offers more detailed information on how to research your home.) These directories list a residence by address and year so you can find out who was living in your house in, for example, 1920. You can then look up those names in the San Diego Union index and find out who they were.
One of the owners of my house was F.B. Naylor. I learned he was the local Buick dealer, as well as a member of the city’s parks board. He was instrumental in getting the nine-hole golf course built in Balboa Park. But what I found most interesting about him was that he was a bit of a cad. He abandoned his family for a young secretary, and never paid a dime of alimony or child support. My house was his love nest. His perfidy was eventually revealed by the San Diego Union not, presumably, because they were in the practice of helping cash-strapped divorcees, but because he dared to challenge their man on the parks board, superintendent John Morley. Once Naylor tried to unseat Morley, the Union began a series of articles about his unpaid alimony. Naylor backed down. Morley continued to run Balboa Park, and eventually a section of it was named after him, as well as a neighborhood (the one where I live, ironically).
But does that mean my house is historic? The Historical Resources Board might agree that Naylor was a significant figure – while he was selling Buicks and building golf courses, not while he was hiding out in my house.
For me, the question of what makes one building historic and another old touches on our very assumptions about the importance of history and what we consider valuable. A home is more than a tax write-off. It’s a reflection of who we are, and a reflection of the people who built it and once lived there. When I read the obituaries of F.B. Naylor – or for that matter David Dryden, who lived just across the street – I can’t help but get a “for whom the bell tolls” feeling. Because some day I, too, will be a part of my house’s history and someone else, perhaps someone like me, will walk in my door and say, “Gee, I wonder who lived here?”