By MICHAEL GOOD | Uptown News
Did the ‘20s really roar? And how loud?
You’ll get some answers, and a look inside some historic homes of the era, when Mission Hills Heritage hosts “Mission Hills Architecture in the Roaring ‘20s.” The tour of eight period homes is Sept. 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
While we can’t vouch for the entire decade, the ‘20s really did come in with something of a roar. Or maybe it was just the sound of 50 million thirsty men bellowing. On Jan. 20, 1920, the Volstead Act went into effect, making it illegal to drink alcoholic beverages.
The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in national elections, was ratified the previous summer. There was a lot of shouting over that as well — mostly by male politicians, who in 1919 debated the issue in statehouses around the country.
For women, equality in the voting booth didn’t translate into equality in the workplace, Congress or the courthouse. But there was one arena where women did gain greater representation — the home. Architects, designers and builders, as well as manufacturers of paint, tile, wallpaper, window coverings, flooring, sinks, faucets, toilets, refrigerators, stoves and bath tubs, were anxious to find out what women wanted, and make it for them. Because of the flu epidemic of 1918, America had discovered the germ theory of disease. Women took the science to heart. They wanted their kitchens and baths to be clean and well ventilated. And they wouldn’t mind if you made them efficient, luxurious and glamorous while you were at it.
In the 1920s, Americans went to the movies nearly once a week. Women wanted glamour and escape at the pictures, and they didn’t see why they shouldn’t get a little fantasy at home, too. And so, the arts and crafts bungalow, with its minimalist design and modest mindset, was out. The romantic revival, with its allusions to the passion and drama of Tudor England and Moorish Spain, was in.
There was another social revolution brewing in the 1920s. Between the cataclysmic bookends of the decade — Prohibition and the 1929 stock market crash — a less-obvious social tsunami snuck up on the nation in the summer of 1925. That was when, for the first time, more people lived in cities and towns than on the family farm. For many intrepid families, the homestead in Nebraska hadn’t worked out. There was too little land, too little water, and too much work for not enough money. As those reformed farmers, and their wives, poured into America’s towns and cities, they were looking for a different way of living, a different style of house, and a different American dream — in California.
On March 4, 1925, the San Diego Union reported that on the previous day, 36 building permits had been issued in the city. This was a record, both for a day and for the year to date, with 1,432 permits issued since the first of the year, compared to 1,183 permits during the same time period in 1924.
In that same issue of the Union, it was reported that Hurlburt & Tifal had filed a permit, for John W. Snyder, for an $8,000 frame residence and garage at the end of the streetcar line on Fort Stockton Drive in Mission Hills. In many ways, this 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom Tudor was prototype of the era. It was a high-end house, modest in size but rich in details and artistry. The people who built it and the people who lived in it were prototypical, too. It’s one of the houses on the MHH home tour.
Ralph E. Hurlburt and Charles W. Tifal were two of the more prolific builders of the 1920s. In 1924, they announced in an ad that they had 20 houses currently under construction. (Most contractors built one or two at a time.). They produced a brochure (which today can be found online) that illustrates the breadth and detail of their oeuvre. Much of what Hurlburt & Tifal achieved in the ‘20s has been lost to time: bas relief applied decoration, rag rolled walls with unique plaster textures, rusticated cast stone fireplaces and walls, stenciled and hand-painted decoration on walls and wood beams, faux-painted wooden doors, ironwork on windows and in doorways and wooden roofs with bent and irregularly coursed shingles.
Charles Tifal learned his trade in a time-honored way: from his father and brother. He was born in Wisconsin, but lived and worked in San Diego, Monrovia, Los Angeles and Seattle before returning to San Diego at the start of the 1920s. Before settling down in San Diego, Tifal lived and worked with his brother, who was a cabinetmaker.
Hurlburt grew up in Utica, Nebraska, a farming town on the rail line to Lincoln. He first visited San Diego when he was 7, in 1895, with his uncle J.B. Liggett. Liggett moved to San Diego and formed an architectural firm, Liggett and Stelzer, with architect Louis A. Stelzer. He also operated a lumberyard, Southern Lumber. It’s likely Hurlburt learned the building trades from his uncle, and he might have learned about home design from Stelzer. By the time he registered for the draft in 1917, Hurlburt was as general contractor. He applied for officer training, which he received in the Panama-California buildings in Balboa Park. Like many young recruits in San Diego, he learned about Spanish Colonial architecture by living in it.
The third part of the triumvirate was John W. Snyder. Snyder also had a farming background because his family had a lemon ranch in Chula Vista. He was a teacher at the State Normal School when his mother died, leaving him to run her real estate empire. Snyder owned an entire block Downtown, where his office was located, and had offices around the county, including in Mission Hills.
The house the three men created was purchased in 1927 by Lloyd P. Dolan and his new bride, the former Alice Douglas. He was an executive at “the gas company.” She was a sorority girl and member of the Zlac rowing club, who every few months, hosted teas and bridge parties at the house on Fort Stockton.
Lloyd and Alice were both from Colorado. It’s likely they met there since Lloyd’s father was a plumber in Denver and Alice’s father, William Douglas, peddled plumbing supplies in that same town. They both moved out West with their parents, part of that steady flow from arid farmland to California, land of milk and honey and irrigation. Dolan’s father had a ranch in addition to the plumbing business. Lloyd worked there as a ranch hand when he registered for the draft in 1917. In the space marked “reason for exemption,” he wrote: “Stock to feed.”
In 1929, the couple had a daughter. The timing coincided with a general slowdown in the tea and bridge circuit in San Diego. Because of the Depression, social events in the 1930s started to require, as today, a philanthropic component. But the question has to be asked: Was it just tea they were drinking? Statistically, Prohibition didn’t decrease alcohol consumption, it increased it, along with organized crime, police corruption and general hypocrisy. The American public voted to repeal Prohibition in 1934. As for the Dolans, there’s little to indicate they partook in any of the debauchery that characterized that decade of decadence. No arrests for liquor manufacturing for this respectable couple. But there is a trapdoor in a closet that leads to the basement — perfect for hiding an imported case of Canadian whiskey.
Maybe it has something to do with the house — some Tudor mojo — but the people associated with it had a lot in common. They came from farm country. They were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. They had active social lives, as reported in the society pages. The men had more than one profession or trade, and toggled back and forth between them during their lifetime. They were ambitious and didn’t always play it safe. They married relatively late in life, stayed married and didn’t have many kids. Tifal had two, both daughters. Hurlburt had one, a son. The Dolans had one, a daughter named Alicia. Snyder had two kids, a boy and a girl.
The 1930s brought many changes. Hurlburt and Tifal went their separate ways. Tifal continued building on a smaller scale. Hurlburt partnered up with George Marston to build houses both in Marston Hills and Presidio Hills.
In an odd twist, Lloyd P. Dolan went back to ranching. He still had “stock to feed,” apparently, but now in Rancho Santa Fe. Odder still, Snyder got out of real estate in the mid-1950s and became a parole officer for the County of Los Angeles.
Alicia Dolan married in 1957 and moved to a tract house in La Jolla, on the shoulder of Mount Soledad. In a bit of irony, her new husband, Robert A. Collins, worked for Burgener and Tavares, the developers of Clairemont, which at one time was the biggest housing development in the country. Where Hurlburt and Tifal had 20 houses under construction at a time, Burgener and Tavares were building seven houses a day. For comparison, the house on Fort Stockton took about three months to build.
In 1961, Lloyd Dolan died. Alice Dolan sold the Tudor house to a Coca Cola executive, Clarence Vaughn, who a couple years later sold to Mattie and James Waxon, who moved in with their son and daughter Sharon. The house, incredibly, had hardly changed since the 1920s. The walls still had their stencils over the doorways and hand-applied oil paint. The color scheme was orange and gold. The intense 1920s colors were too much for Mattie Waxon. “She just couldn’t live in an orange house,” says Sharon, who is now Sharon Jackson. Mattie and James met at Convair, where they both worked during the Second World War. They didn’t have time for charming tea parties. “Mom and dad worked continuously, that’s how they made ends meet, God bless them for that,” says Sharon.
Sharon had her wedding reception in the house in 1967, moved away for a time, but now is back in Mission Hills. She lives just a couple blocks away, on Pine Street. Her daughter moved away for a while too, but now has returned, and recently bought a house on Presidio Drive, complete with a porte cochere and an artistic bas relief ceiling in living room. It looks like something Hurlburt & Tifal might have done.
Sharon plans to keep the house in the family. Her parents lived there until they died. “The house is special to us,” she says. “We live in a 4,000-square-foot house on Pine. We’ve often said if we wanted to downsize, that would be a perfect house for us.” On Sept. 21, the charming little Tudor on Fort Stockton will have a new generation of visitors thinking the same thing.
— Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.