Driving over the gravel road that swoops around the front of the historic ranch house we bounce in our seats. Climbing slightly in elevation acres of empty farmland stretch out before us on the way out to the Pacific Ocean. A variety of hearty coastal grasses blanket the field in thick tufts and thin seed laden stalks that brush against the breeze. Green rolling hills cradle the estate to the East with larger forested hills beyond.
The view of the ocean often times obscured by wispy fog or diffused by sea mist was clear for our visit. The ocean carved inland up the coast to the crescent shaped Half Moon Bay.
The James Johnston House built in 1853 doesn’t have a stitch of architectural ornamentation but manages to be the most striking historic home on the Half Moon Bay coast. From head-on, the home is two stories, painted simply in white with ample glass pained windows trimmed by forest green shutters as the home’s sole decoration.
Approaching the house from the side reveals something unusual: the roofline slopes down to one story in the back. Ah yes, it’s the two stories becoming one at the back that catches Californians cruising past the site off guard. I liken this architectural maneuver to a hi-low dress hemline but on a building. This style of home is called “saltbox” and was a popular colonial design originating around the 1650s on the East Coast.
James Johnston, a gold rush entrepreneur, built his saltbox home while established Californio families lived in Spanish adobe and his American peers were putting up in vogue Victorians. Johnston’s sentimental choice of architecture was based on the home he grew up in, in Ohio.
Whizzing by on the highway before I knew much about the James Johnston House, I thought that it could be a Civil War movie set. I’d never seen another structure like it. An out-of-fashion Yankee Colonial in gold rush era California connected the frontier to the deep rooted nation established back East.
The home became abandoned over time and was unprotected from the stormy coast and grazing farm animals. A picture of the home from 1965 shows the back one story level had been hacked off, the exterior paint stripped and window frames void of glass. The coastal community and outside preservationists recognized the uniqueness of the structure and worked over many years (mid-1960s to present) to bring the Johnston House back to life.
Walking up to the house, visitors pass a rose garden with white picket fence. A pair of partially salvaged fence posts atop weathered wood pillars mark the walkway.
Entering the home through the back door, the brown shingled roof hovers inches away from our heads. The one story section of the home houses a small gift shop and museum office. Victorian costumed docents greet us and start the tour at the front of the house. Our tour guide wears sneakers with his black pants and burgundy vest, eager to show us around.
Original Johnston family furnishings are on display throughout the house along with period correct decorations. A sample of the original wallpaper was found preserved inside a Catholic alter within the home. The paper, mostly white featuring strokes of silver, was recreated and placed on the walls. The white of the paper keeps the interior of the home bright and cheerful on cloudy days.
One bedroom was left unpainted so that visitors can see the fine locally sourced redwood paneling that was used as building material. A patch of wall beam is uncovered by paneling to display the mortice-and-tenon construction work used to create the home.
The living space that was created by the dramatic roof slant is triangular in shape and runs the whole length of the home. I stood comfortably at the start of the room but ducking is required to occupy the lower region. The space was used to house ranch workers and was also available to coastal travelers needing shelter for the night.
The docents comment that they find new items in the house during the monthly tours. A “new” child’s rocking horse in the kids room or a new painting on the wall of the living room. Continued restoration projects and gardening help bring the house back to life inside and out. The coastal architectural curiosity reminds passersby of another time and another place.
The home is open to tours January through September on third Saturdays between 11am and 3pm.