By Michael Good | House Calls
Louise Mary Severin finally getting the respect she deserves
There’s little in Louise Mary Severin’s background that would suggest she’d someday become one of San Diego’s more prolific pre-war builders. Her father was a barber. Her mother was a homemaker. No one in her family had a background as a builder, architect or carpenter. And she married a car salesman — from a family of car salesmen.
Yet by 1926, she was buying lots, pulling permits and building houses throughout Kensington, Normal Heights, North Park and Mission Hills. She wasn’t just a builder, she was a designer as well, and the houses she created were distinctive, carefully constructed and highly livable — and much in demand, both during her lifetime and today. Her husband followed her into the building business, and his four brothers followed him. Louise’s mother even got in on the act, financing her early projects.
All told, the Severin family built hundreds if not thousands of houses in San Diego. In 1951 alone, the Severin Company built 125 houses in Grossmont. Their output ranged from the hand-crafted hacienda-style bungalows built one-at-a-time in the 1920s in San Diego’s swankier streetcar suburbs to the mass-produced tract homes of the 1960s that line Southern California’s freeways.
Louise’s husband, Hilmer T. Severin, got the whole ball (or tire) rolling in 1919, when he and his brother Earl designed, built and marketed an automobile, the Severin Roadster. Louise was the secretary-treasurer of the company. By 1922, however, it had all gone bust. But if only the brothers had come up with a slightly better business plan (like one that didn’t involve defrauding their stockholders) it might be possible today to drive to Severin Manor in Grossmont by way of Severin Drive in La Mesa, in your Severin automobile. Instead, you’ll just have to settle for two out of three.
In 2003, historian Ron May was doing research for a Mills Act application for a property in Kensington. The house on Rochester Drive was a simple, little hacienda-style Spanish bungalow. To his surprise, the builder was a woman. The house had a few unique characteristics: a U-shaped plan with a front patio enclosed by a wall, deeply textured rustic stucco walls and a tapered chimney with a rectangular inset. It only took a quick drive around the neighborhood for May to see that there were others like it. Of the 19 similar-looking houses on Lymer, Rochester and Norfolk Terrace in Kensington Manor Unit 1, he found, by checking water permits filed when the houses were completed, nine were by Louise M. Severin.
May’s late wife (and research partner) Dale Ballou May was particularly intrigued. How could this rare female builder have been overlooked? Dale convinced Ron to pull out all the stops, and that led to locating a living relative of Louise Severin. William “Erik” DeCamp is the grandson of Louise’s sister Stella (his father was also a builder, and part of the family business; his mother was named Mary Louise, after Louise Mary). Despite the added information and photographs provided by Erik, Ron’s efforts to get Louise recognized as a master builder were “met with resistance” by the city.
“I vigorously defended her as a candidate for historical significance,” Ron said. The city staff remained unconvinced, he added, but the Historical Resource Board agreed unanimously, and Severin is now considered a master builder. “It underscored how difficult it was to get a woman recognized for her accomplishments,” Ron said.
After the failure of Severin Motor Co., Louise and Hilmer moved to San Diego and Louise apprenticed in the building trades. She learned carpentry, plastering, flooring, roofing, concrete and estimating. She passed the contractor’s exam, got her license and went to work.
Hilmer served in a role typically played by a woman, as helper, gofer and paper shuffler — the spouse who signed the water permit. Louise typically purchased several lots at a time and built with the entire neighborhood streetscape in mind, not just an individual home. She built in Kensington Manor, where Richard Requa was the supervising architect, and his general disdain for applied ornament, fussiness and phoniness is apparent in her work. She also worked with Roy Lichty, whose son-in-law Cliff May was instrumental in the development of the ranch house. But Ron May was unable to establish any link between either of these men and Louise Severin, although Cliff May’s widow, Jean, did remember her as a high-energy woman who always wore a big, floppy hat.
Early-20th-century women designers and builders were able to succeed in a male-dominated profession because they had large female support groups. They belonged to women’s clubs and associations and alumni groups. We don’t know how Louise Severin dealt with the challenges. Maybe she and Hilmer had a particularly tight bond. Maybe she was just tough.
William “Erik” DeCamp describes Louise and Hilmer as leading a sort of bohemian existence: living out of boxes, surviving on take-out food, moving from one recently completed house to the next whenever their present home got sold out from under them. For someone who built homes, and who gave a lot of thought to how women would live in them — it’s that comfort and grace that women homeowners often praise — Louise never quite had one herself, at least not for long. Over the years, she and Hilmer rarely stayed anywhere for more than a year. And she had a lot of temporary homes to choose from. A San Diego Union article on March 19, 1933 reported she had built 91 so far, “mostly in Talmadge Park, Kensington Manor and Marston Hills.”
In 1935, a house Louise built at 4720 Norma Drive became the first in San Diego to qualify for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) financing. FHA financing transformed the building industry. It made it possible for more people to buy houses, and gave builders confidence they could recoup their investment. The FHA also specified how they wanted houses built and favored developers that built many houses, not just a few.
Guy Lichty, developer of Talmadge Park, understood the FHA. He constructed Talmadge Park to its specifications, and he recruited Louise to build there. By the late 1930s, Talmadge Park was the hottest development in San Diego.
Louise and Hilmer moved to Los Angeles at the end of the decade. By 1940, they were living in a sort of professional equilibrium. They described their respective jobs with the exact same words in that year’s census: home builder and contractor. During the war years, Ron May said, they built FHA houses for “defense contractors and returning veterans.” They moved to Santa Monica. Louise built houses in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. In May 1949, one of those houses was listed for sale for $48,900, a huge sum in a day when tract houses sold for $5,000. (That colonial ranch is currently valued at $9 million.) The 1949 ad in the L.A. Times calls it a “Louise Mary Severin design.” You’ve reached a sort of immortality when real estate agents use your name as a selling point.
A few months later, on Sept. 22,1949, Louise was supervising a tree trimmer as he was clearing a lot she was about to build on. The branch he was cutting fell on her, striking her head. She died that day in the hospital. She was 58. A local newspaper account, in which the tree-trimmer tries to deflect blame, was picked up by the wire services, rewritten and published around the country. From the St. Louis Star and Times:
“Woman Spurns Advice; Falling Limb Kills Her.” Los Angeles, Sept. 23. — (UP) — Mrs. Hilmer Severin 58, stopped under a tree and watched John Neri sawing a limb high above her. He warned her, “That’s not a very good place to stand, lady.” She walked away, then came back and stood directly under the limb just as it fell. She was hit on the head and died soon after yesterday at Santa Monica Hospital.
Louise Mary Severin didn’t get much respect in death (or a decent obituary). And she didn’t get remembered very well by posterity, either, until a couple of historians came along and pressed the issue. But she did get respect in life — after all, she got to build some marvelous houses, and a great number of them still stand, and are still providing comfort, utility and beauty to those who dwell in them. That’s more than most builders can say today — no matter their gender.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.