A Curious Saltbox on California’s Coast

Johnston House, Photo by John Barrows

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.

Johnston House – Photo by John Barrows

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.

Side View Photo by John Barrows

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.

Bedroom Photo by John Barrows

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.

Kitchen Photo by John Barrows

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.

http://www.johnstonhouse.org/

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3 Historical Peninsula Gardens to Visit

Gazebo at Gamble Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Looking for a quick escape from the daily grind? A local garden may be just the place to breathe deep and collect your thoughts. There’s a number of in bloom historical garden get-a-ways throughout the San Francisco Peninsula. Grab your sun hat and check out these relaxing respites.

Gamble Garden, Palo Alto CA

Gamble House, Photo by John Barrows

Gamble Garden is tucked away in Old Palo Alto, a neighborhood of older homes with architectural variety. The garden surrounds the 1902 home of Elizabeth Frances Gamble descendant of Procter & Gamble’s co-founder. The garden is close to the Stanford Shopping Center and University Avenue, a perfect spot for a mid-day retreat.

Scarecrow at Gamble, Photo by John Barrows

An edible herb garden with sun faded scarecrow greets visitors entering the gardens from the back of the property. Sunshine fills the gravel lined walkways off the central gazebo. A bush trimmed into the Easter Bunny patiently awaits the seasons to change back to spring.

Gamble Garden Sundial, Photo by John Barrows

At the far side of the property a tranquil water fountain trickles, its sound mingles with that of the breeze flowing through the tops of surrounding trees. A circular rose garden, encompassed by a 6-foot tall hedge, offers droopy white blooms shedding petals to the ground.

Rose at Gamble, Photo by John Barrows

Benches dot the property situated under shade trees invite guests to stay awhile. Watch birds, bees and squirrels move about their daily garden life.

Filoli, Woodside CA

The Peninsula is home to an English country estate museum house and extensive gardens. The home at Filoli estate was completed in 1917 with the gardens following soon after. Filoli is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Filoli Pools, Photo by Eva Barrows

Prepare to meander and contemplate in Filoli’s many gardens. Soak up the sun’s piercing warmth with clear blue sky overhead framed by a variety of swaying tree tops. Eye catching lush green lawns complement red brick footpaths. The fountains and reflecting pools produce the soothing sounds of water.

Garden Passage at Filoli, Photo by Eva Barrows

As the afternoon progresses, watch the fog push over the coastal redwood hills at the foot of the property. The seeping dry ice effect of the cascading fog creates a feeling of magic.

Wonder further back into the gardens, passing through archways in ten-foot tall hedge walls. Discover a variety of vegetation throughout the property: rose garden, herb garden, and squash gardens to name a few.

Filoli Manor, Photo by Eva Barrows

Find activities enjoyed by the inhabitants of the estate placed throughout the garden. A relaxing spa like pool house offers seating for visitors steps away from the sparkling swimming pool. Tennis courts are a short walk from the home and placed at the outskirts of the garden. Walk all of the way to the back of the gardens and find the “High Place” a great place to look out over the estate.

Central Park Rose Garden and Japanese Garden, San Mateo CA

Central Park Rose Garden, Photo by John Barrows

San Mateo’s Central Park was once the site of a mansion estate. The ornate brick and iron fence lining El Camino and the cast iron dog statue guarding the rose garden are remnants from that time. The rose garden with trellis gazebo and the many tree varieties throughout the park are cared for by the San Mateo Arboretum Society.

Central Park Rose, Photo by John Barrows

The rose garden is full of colorful flowers abuzz with honey bee activity. Sniff the buds of pink, yellow, white and red roses. Check the names on the plates next to each rose variety because they can be pretty funny like “Hot Cocoa” or “Barbra Streisand.” A row of benches line the garden under shade trees, a perfect place for visitors to sit and smell the roses.

Central Park Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Don’t miss the Japanese Garden in Central Park. It’s walled off by a traditional Japanese wood wall with a large gated entrance. Step inside to experience a peaceful escape in the middle of downtown San Mateo. The garden is built around a central koi pond with tons of large and playful koi pushing around tree debris at the water’s surface and splashing in water spouts.

Buddha in Japanese Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Walk around the pond on a slim pathway, under dangling trees or cross the water on stone bridges. Several pagoda temples and statues made of stone or bamboo are placed throughout the grounds. Relax on the tea house benches to take in the colorful fish and idyllic scenery.

Japanese Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Visiting the Gardens:

Gamble Garden
https://www.gamblegarden.org/
1431 Waverley Street, Palo Alto CA 94301
Free admission
Garden open daily during daylight hours
Main House open Monday through Friday 9 am-2 pm

Filoli Estate
https://filoli.org/
86 Cañada Road, Woodside, California 94062
Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 5 pm
General Admission $20 adults

Central Park San Mateo
Rose Garden
http://www.sanmateoarboretum.org/
Open day light hours

Japanese Garden
http://www.cityofsanmateo.org/3319/Central-Park-Japanese-Garden
Monday through Friday 10 am to 4 pm
Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm

Free admission
50 E 5th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401

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Twice Removed: Lathrop House, Redwood City, CA

Lathrop House, Photo by Eva Barrows
Lathrop House, Photo by Eva Barrows

The Lathrop House wasn’t always located only three-yards back from a busy downtown street with no front or back yard. Just the opposite is true. It was originally a grand estate with a number of service buildings surrounding it, unattached kitchen, outhouse…that sort of thing. All on beautifully landscaped and gardened acreage in Redwood City, CA.

But now, the ornate by modern standards, home is cruelly close to a street full of people rushing to the towering superior court house across the street. Encroaching new construction behind the home and on all sides, make it seem as though the Lathrop House is the structure that doesn’t belong.

The house is no stranger to being made to move. It was moved to the back of its own land to make room for a school and then moved again by a new owner. That’s a lot of moving especially for something built in 1863.

The Redwood City Heritage Association opens the house twice a month for visitors to explore the interior. I recommend going on the third Saturday of the month to avoid the crazy parking situation on the other day it’s open, the second Wednesday of the month. Yes, parking really is that bad.

Visitors have full access to the first and second floors of the home with a docent tour. Lathrop House was constructed with local redwood. The owners decided to have the redwood look like more “expensive” wood by having the visible trim painted to look like oak. Original wallpaper was uncovered in the house during restoration. There was enough left to be reproduced for a full repapering of the home.

My favorite part of the tour was the walk-in closet off the master bedroom. The docent advised that the closet may not have been original to the home. Some Victorian era clothing was on display and a wool swimsuit hung on one of the closet doors caught my attention. I always pictured wool swimsuits being made from thick wool that would be heavy with water once it got wet. However, the wool cloth was very thin and did not feel scratchy to the touch.

While I was inside the Lathrop House, I got to peek into what life was like 150 years ago for about forty-five minutes. Then I walked out into the loud, growing and groaning modern world and couldn’t help wishing I could stay in the past a little while longer.

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