Things you didn’t know about your vintage house

Posted: January 26th, 2018 | Featured, HouseCalls | No Comments

Rats. Clowns. Lawyers. It could get scary.

By Michael Good

Old houses are full of secrets. Sometimes they are secrets we really would rather not know. Your contractor calls down from the attic: Hey, did you know you had a fire up here? The electrician discovers the remains of a rat in the walls. No, wait — two rats! And everywhere you look, you see evidence of former owners with a shortage of taste and an excess of paint. If you feel you can take it, read on.

1. It was pink. In your kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms, on your door casings, picture rails and baseboards, beneath the layers of white, off-white, Arizona white and Navajo white, lurks a layer of pure unadulterated Pepto-Bismol pink. Pink was popular in the 1920s and had a revival in the ’50s and ’60s. Despite the revulsion it causes today, someday pink will come back, and you are going to have to defend your house against it.

Decorative painting on a rusticated wooden beam in a Spanish style house. (Photo by Michael Good)

2. Your house is trying to talk to you. Color forensics is one of the few rewards of stripping paint: You’ll find a history of misbegotten colors, but down in the final layer you might also find a tasteful (even original) option. If you need further inspiration (or corroboration), Sherwin Williams makes an historic palette.

Going historic can be freeing. There are fewer color choices than the modern fan deck, which can be overwhelming. Just don’t fall back on the least inspired of options: white.

Even white wasn’t really white back in the day. White in 1910 was cream, and had hints of yellow, brown or, even, pink. Think pearlescent. Plaster walls were often tinted. And paint wasn’t always applied flat: It was rag rolled, sponged and layered in washes, coated with glazes or varnish.

A high-quality vintage gumwood “faux bois” on a Douglas fir window casing (some of the paint has already been removed by heat gun).

Wood trim was also stained in strong colors: forest green, bright yellow and various degrees of red or mahogany. And sometimes faux grained. Just for fun, not necessarily to save money.

3. With time, all will be revealed. It takes some contemplation and education to really understand and appreciate your old house. A change in the seasonal light can reveal an impression that tells you where a molding once belonged. Visiting houses in the neighborhood (and other neighborhoods) can reveal a lost twin. And hours of combing old photographs at the History Center or notices of completion at the public library can also reveal some hidden truths about your house.

If you want to move along the process of discovery: Original wall colors and textures are sometimes hidden inside bookcases, behind china cabinet drawers, and behind window and door casings. Closets often go unpainted for years, and sometimes the original sponged-on ceilings, with a cloud-like effect, can be found there. Or you can always chip off the non-original ceiling texture to find what had originally been there. And you never know when someone might stop in front of your house while you’re sitting on the porch and say, “Hey, I used to live here. It was pink!”

4. Your house was made by artists and craftsmen. In Europe, where many of San Diego’s turn-of-the-20th-century builders, designers and tradesmen originated, there was a tradition of apprenticeship steeped in 2,000 years of history. In America, students went through a very rigorous manual arts training program in the public schools that provided a formal education in design as well as craftsmanship.

5. A lot has gone missing over the years. You know the usual suspects: dining room buffet, living room bookcases, fireplace tile and wood trim. But there were many other standard features in even the most humble bungalow: picture rails (sometimes nearly flush with the ceiling), matching custom light fixtures, exterior wood screens, stencils, free-hand artistic decoration and other paint treatments, elaborate plaster textures, roller blinds, breakfast nooks, swinging café kitchen doors, art deco tile bathrooms, and back porch storage cabinets for dairy delivery (complete with a dial to indicate your desires, such as butter, cream or a personal visit from the milkman).

This kitchen door in a Kensington Spanish was originally painted with a white primer, followed by a crème-colored oil. Later the original round escutcheon was replaced by a rectangular art deco example and over time the door was painted two different shades of blue. (Photo by Michael Good)

Then there are the items that no one really misses: the water heaters that didn’t have a thermostat and tended to explode, the dripping and not very chilly ice box, the un-insulated gas oven that turned the kitchen into a sauna, and the 10-gallon-flush toilet (actually, some homeowners miss that, because it worked).

6. Somebody famous lived in your house. Well, maybe not famous-famous. But interesting-famous. Some of my favorites from houses I’ve worked on and researched recently: the original owner of the Chicken Pie Shop (who lived in Kensington). A Mission Hills-based Navy ship captain (youngest in the nation at the time of his commission), who became a civil service commissioner and drove the mayor from office (apparently, things at City Hall weren’t ship-shape). And then there’s the guy who came up with the idea of putting tuna in a can and making sandwiches out of it — he revolutionized lunch.

7. Someone infamous lived in your house. This is a lot more interesting than someone famous. Infamy requires the cooperation of the press. To paraphrase a 20th-century poet, newspapers in fin de siècle America needed lawyers, guns and marriage. I hit the trifecta recently when trying to learn more about those decorators who had painted clouds on my ceiling. Who were these artists? Were they itinerant paint-spattered wretches, living a hand-to-mouth existence? Or were they model citizens involved in the day-to-day civic life of this great metropolis?

By pure coincidence, I happened upon Evan MacLennan, who Donald Covington wrote about in a 1993 article for the Journal of San Diego History. MacLennan lent his artistry to the William Wheeler-designed Swiss Chalet house at 2457 Capitan, with its “heavy re-sawn timbers stained in dark moss green” and the “curly maple” trim with 12 hand-rubbed coats of finish. “Special decorative features included stencils and free-hand paintings by the artist, Evan MacLennan,” wrote historian Covington, author of the book on Burlingame and North Park.

In 1912, MacLennan lived a few blocks away on 32nd Street in a Mission-style bungalow where he and his wife hosted “Scotch” parties (according to the San Diego Union). Guests danced to the Highland fling and the Scotch reel, and McLennan and his wife Anna sang “The Crookit Bawbee” and “Bonnie Doon.”

But there is a dark side to this story, too.

When MacLennan immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland in 1908, it was in the company of Anna, who was then married to another man, Charles H. Biggs, a former clown, swimming instructor, dish washer, steamship steward and streetcar conductor. Biggs was then a car dispatcher for the United Railroads in San Francisco, which kept him away at night. MacLennan claimed he was Anna’s cousin, and moved right in. But Biggs began to suspect if they were cousins, they were the kissing kind.

According to court testimony, Biggs came home early one evening to find the doors locked. He spied the couple through the rear window. MacLennan spied back, making a face, which, according to Charles, caused him great distress. (You’d think a former clown would be used to that.) Fisticuffs ensued, with MacLennan emerging the victor. The trial made for good copy in the Chronicle and Call, especially MacLennan’s love letters, which were printed in full, with accompanying poetry, “by Bobbie Burns.”

This old-growth Douglas fir mantel was hidden behind white paint for 50 or so years until refinished in 2014. (Photo by Michael Good)

MacLennan claimed in court it was all a joke, that he was just trying to help his cousin out by making her inattentive husband jealous, but after Charles divorced Anna, the “cousins” married. They took up residence in Denver, Colorado where she shot him in the back one night while he was adjusting his tie after threatening to leave over a disagreement about ventilation (he wanted the door closed, she wanted it open).

In newspaper accounts (the story was picked up by papers everywhere), MacLennan’s wounds were described as “mortal,” but he survived, even if the marriage did not. He and Anna parted ways in 1915 — he ran an ad in the San Diego Union in August 1916, declaring, “As I am not living with my wife, I will not be responsible for any debts incurred by her. Signed Evan MacLennan.”

She responded with: “Evan MacLennan has not supported me since May 15, 1915; his notice is somewhat superfluous (signed) Nan MacLennan nee Galloway.”

Apparently this rejoinder was not enough to set her mind at ease. Anna returned to the Bay Area and was committed to Mendocino State Hospital — by her sister. “She suffers from spells during which she becomes crazy about men,” a physician wrote, adding: “Is irascible, quarrelsome, and dangerous. Tried to kill both husbands.” And this is a problem, how?

But apparently the Mendocino treatment worked: A few weeks later she was discharged, fully “recovered.” If Anna MacLennan nee Galloway shot any more husbands, she must have done it under a different name.

Evan MacLennan recovered too, his reputation relatively unscathed. He married again, to another Scottish woman, and was granted U.S. citizenship in 1928. Vouching for him on the application were the proprietors of the two leading paint companies in town: S.R. Frazee and James A. Moore.

In the 1920s, MacLennan formed a painting company with his brother and bought a house in Mission Hills. He ran MacLennan Bros. well into the 1950s, and became a high-ranking officer in the Scottish Rite. He managed to dodge both scandal and bullets until his death at the age of 80 in 1959.

If you live in Burlingame, South Park or Mission Hills, Evan MacLennan’s handiwork may well be somewhere in your house, perhaps hidden under layers of artlessly applied paint. All it takes is a little digging.

— Contact Michael Good at


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