Putting it back together

Posted: April 26th, 2013 | Featured, Homes & Garden, Lifestyle | No Comments

Something missing in your old house? William Van Dusen would like to help

House Calls | Michael Good

One hundred years ago, it took David Dryden and a crew of about a dozen people with hand tools over a month or so to build a three-bedroom arts-and-crafts bungalow. Today, it takes a hostile guy in a loader an afternoon to turn a Dryden house into a pile of splinters.

A distressed, Spanish-style mantel (Photo by William Van Dusen)

A distressed, Spanish-style mantel (Photo by William Van Dusen)

In 1913, a bookcase and columns might have taken a couple days to build, and cost three dollars in materials. Today, a contractor with the idea to “open the place up” can tear out those bookcases in a couple hours. A china cabinet that was the centerpiece of a bungalow might have taken a week to build, stain and finish, and countless hours over the years to maintain with coat after coat of shellac. But it only takes half an hour and a bucket of paint to bury that piece of architectural history beneath a drippy layer of chartreuse, eco-friendly, low-odor, water-based paint.

Doing the wrong thing is fast and easy. Undoing the wrong thing is long, hard and expensive, and sometimes dangerous and smelly. That’s why the homeowner who decides to restore his or her house to original condition is relatively rare. And the person who knows how to restore it is rarer still. It takes a unique mix of skill, experience and temperament – on the part of the homeowner and the craftsman – to resurrect a damaged house.

After a career of building stuff out of wood, including cabinets and millwork, trellises and garden gates for new construction, William Van Dusen thought he’d get back to his roots, which began with making replicas of historic furniture when he was 17. While still holding on to his day job, doing “real high end” commercial woodworking, Van Dusen started building a 1,000-square foot millwork shop on his property in Lakeside, Calif. He bought equipment and tools: a shaper, joiner, drum sander, 100-year-old bandsaw and a veneer press. His plan was to replicate and install wood trim for historic houses, and he started out working for contractors.

“But I had mixed results,” he said now, nearly five years later. “The economic downturn was hitting, and contractors were having a lot of problems with people not being solvent.” He laughed and added: “And with paying me.”

So Van Dusen switched to plan B, saying, “I kind of decided just to work with homeowners directly.” This soon led to a new, revised plan B, because not all homeowners wanted to replace every stick of missing millwork in their houses. Some just wanted to restore one item: a bookcase, for example. Others didn’t want their bookcase to be completely historic, because they wanted it to house a stereo or a DVD player.

“A couple of years ago I would have just said no,” he said, because when he started his millwork business he was still a bit of a purist.

He grew up in San Diego. His grandmother had shown him around San Diego’s streetcar suburbs in her ’62 Corvair, teaching him an appreciation for history. His grandfather had in fact been a historical figure: a civil aviation pioneer who’d been the first to land a plane at Lindberg Field when it was established. And it was what he calls “the historic aspect” that drew him to carpentry, making that early American furniture in the first place.

But the realities of the recession and the needs of the homeowners changed Van Dusen’s perspective. “Now I seem to be concentrating on the one thing, the focal point, that can really transform a house. Old houses can be money pits. I want to give people something to feel good about, like a mantel or bookcase: sort of a focal point that ties things together and gives people a certain kind of feeling,” he said.

Van Dusen is by temperament a woodworker and not a poet, but talk to him long enough and you’ll hear more about feelings than about wood grain.

“It’s how you feel about things that matters,” he said. “Say you’ve got an old house, and you spent $100,000 on electrical and plumbing. Why not spend $10,000 instead on something that you can connect to, that makes you connect to your house? I’ve learned it over the years from seeing how people react to what I’ve made. They feel complete.”

(Photo by William Van Dusen)

(Photo by William Van Dusen)

This isn’t Van Dusen’s first adventure in millwork. Back in the day, after he found out that he couldn’t make a living selling early American furniture at crafts fairs, he started Julian Millworking, making brackets and trim and gingerbread. Eventually, he realized there were only so many 19th century buildings in the backcountry that needed carved corbels, and he left the past behind, moved to the city and started working for contracting firms on modern buildings, like the Getty Center in Los Angeles, where he built most of the garden structures.

Now, 40 years later, Van Dusen has come full circle, again working with history. He even found himself back in the old neighborhood, so to speak, down the road from Julian in Santa Ysabel, Calif. Instead of replicating the gingerbread of old mining-era Julian houses, he built display shelves for the Santa Ysabel General Store, which Save Our Heritage Organisation had recently purchased and restored.

“I don’t consider myself a preservationist or a restoration person,” he said. “I try to keep things as correct as I can. I try to help people get their house back to what it could have been, what it should have been [and] what it was.”

Van Dusen said he is self-educated and spends time researching with local builders in the neighborhoods and going on numerous home tours. His role is to help people, and he said the focus has changed from previous clients who would want to boast about how much money they spent on a project, or even a front door.

“But that’s not how the clients I work with are now. It’s not like the money isn’t really important. It’s just that it isn’t a priority,” he said. “That’s not why they’re working on their houses. It’s not for impressing other people. It’s for themselves. That’s where I’m heading now with my business.”

If you feel like something is missing in your old house, contact Van Dusen at 619-443-7689 or

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