“House. Free to good home.”
At least that was my takeaway after reading a story in a local newspaper about preservationists trying to save a historic house from demolition in Oxnard. All that was needed was someone willing to move and restore it.
Written by RICK HAZELTINE
It was the year 2000 and the house that sat on once-fertile farmland off Gonzales Road across from a Walmart was going to be reduced to a pile of rubble and trucked to a landfill to make way for condominiums or yet another strip mall.
The house had been built in 1894 by Leonard J. Rose Jr., whose father was one of the wealthiest men in Los Angeles, a state senator and recognized as the first breeder of thoroughbred race horses in California. One of the main streets leading to the ranch, named Roseland after it was built, became Rose Avenue.
After a little sleuthing, I reached the law firm representing the owners. The lawyer said he would send me a copy of an architect’s report that estimated it would cost at least $1 million to restore the house where it stood, which didn’t take into account the expenses involved in moving and reassembling it. He added that it had to be off the property in four months or it would be bulldozed. That part was non-negotiable.
I told him I was still interested. His parting words came back to haunt me more than once over the next five years: “Anyone wanting to take this on would have to have a hole in their head.”
I was their man.
On the move
Now, I just needed to find someone who could move it.
That hunt led to Ted Hollinger, owner of Master House Movers in Canoga Park. Hollinger, in his mid-60s, was exactly what you’d expect of a second-generation house mover from Chicago—a bit crusty, a man of few words and an astute judge of character.
I met Hollinger at the house to make sure it could actually be moved.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“We can move it,” Hollinger replied.
Good enough for me.
Next I met the lawyer at the property and signed a contract that gave my wife, Sandy, and me the house for free. That was the last time we would hear the word “free” in regard to anything about Roseland.
The house would have to be cut into three pieces to fit the maximum width allowed on public streets and the roof removed to the attic floor so it could fit under telephone, cable and electrical wires and stoplights during transport.
The moving cost was actually reasonable: $15,000 for each section and $5,000 to prepare the house.
It’s amazing how simple it is to cut a house into three pieces and move it. A couple of saws did the trick in a single day. The sections were hoisted about five feet in the air with pneumatic jacks and held there with blocks of wood. Steel beams and sets of truck wheels made the bed. A truck cab was backed up to each section, hooked up and it was ready to go.
As I stood looking at the now see-through and roofless sections of a once impressive residence, the word “historic” didn’t come to mind, although those of the lawyer did.
Hollinger checked the work and then turned and asked, “Why did you want to move this house?”
I said something about saving a piece of Ventura County history, Sandy and I loving old houses, yadda, yadda, yadda. Finally, I said:
“I like a good challenge.”
Hollinger looked at me with a glint in his eye: “You should be a very happy man.”
A house has to be moved between midnight and 6 a.m. because of the need to truck the heavy load at a glacial pace and the frequent stops and wide turns across lanes of traffic.
A few hours before the house was to hit the road, I nervously asked Hollinger if he thought there would be much damage in the move.
“Naw,” he chuckled. “The houses do a lot better than the owners.”
I took those as words of advice and went home to sleep.
The next morning, the three sections stood on the lot, just a few inches separating each one. Not that it looked anything like something people would live in.
It took about four years before we could call the house home. Although we had a permit from Oxnard to move the house, it took a year to get permits from the county to put it back together. Plans had to be drawn by an architect as if it were a new construction. Fees had to be paid, utilities brought in and hooked up.
More importantly, we had to find someone we believed could do the job of putting it back together.
People who live in old houses become emotionally attached to them. Restoring an old house, especially an historic one, creates a sense of responsibility—to the original builders and to the lives of the people who came before.
We were fortunate to find Colborn & Associates of Santa Paula,
a general contractor specializing in restoring old houses. Specifically, project manager Brian Perzel, who had done work on the Piru Mansion and other historic structures.
Perzel was an old-house guy. Whenever a subcontractor would come to bid on the project, Perzel would eye him suspiciously. He greeted comments such as, “It looks like a pile of kindling” and “Why don’t you burn it and start over” with a “thanks for stopping by, but we won’t need your services.” Or maybe something less polite.
Once we had the permits, it was about three years before we could move in. Most of that was due to working in fits and starts as Sandy and I struggled to pull together enough money to keep the work going.
During the dead times, we’d spend nearly every hour not devoted to work or parenthood to stripping 100 years of paint from interior woodwork and the outside clapboards.
I’ve been asked many times if I’d ever regretted taking on the project. My answer: only once.
It was sometime before the second story was rebuilt and a big storm was expected. We covered the roof area in tarps, but it wasn’t enough as the wind brushed them aside and the skies opened.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs to the second level. It was built as a service staircase, steep and narrow with walls on both sides.
That day the rain came flooding down the stairs like a waterfall.
A torrent of water poured down into the dining room and to the ground between two sections of the still-unattached house.
I think I cried. It was hard to tell with all the rain.
The good, however, far outweighed the rough spots. Like when the architect discovered the original pocket doors between the living and dining rooms, each four feet wide and adorned with Eastlake Victorian hardware. They had been sealed in the wall. And removing a drop ceiling in the kitchen revealed the original bead board, which we restored.
Much of the original hardware, such as window pulls, had disappeared while the house sat vacant and boarded up in Oxnard. A family member had removed all the interior doors but one and the fireplace surround in the dining room.
But with the pocket doors and another remaining door, we knew the original doors had five panels and we could see the molding profile. We had solid wood doors and molding
made to match. Perzel also made a new fireplace surround based on old photographs of the original fireplace.
For being more than 100 years old, the house was surprisingly intact and in excellent shape. Very little wood suffered from dry rot or termite damage, a testament to the old-growth lumber used when it was built.
Roseland will be 120 years old this year. Now, about 14 years since the move, the house is pretty much finished . . . as much as a project like this can be anyway. There’s always something to be done, which is part of the fun of owning an old house.
People frequently ask if I would do it again. What they are really asking is, “Should I do it?”
My answer is always the same: “In a heartbeat.”
Although I think you’d have to have a hole in your head.
THE STORY OF ROSELAND
Leonard J. Rose built Roseland in 1894 after having moved to Ventura to make his own way in the world. Rose Avenue gets its name from the family ranch, where he had a large walnut farm, dabbled in cattle and was an early pioneer in developing the city of Ventura. He helped fund the sewer system and subdivided lots. He also built a grand Victorian hotel in downtown Ventura—the Rose Hotel—which is no longer standing.
While living in Ventura, L.J. and his wife, Fannie Fargo Rose, had the grand (for the time) home built. The Rose family included four children, and L.J. said in a biography he wrote about his father that he wanted his kids to experience growing up on a ranch, much as he had.
Constructed at the height of the Victorian era, the interiors of the living and dining rooms had ornate wallpaper, pieces of which were discovered during restoration. When completed, the house was dubbed Roseland.
At the turn of the century one of the first tennis courts in the county was built on the property. The Rose family, however, fell on difficult financial times and sold the property to Dominick McGrath, the patriarch of one of the county’s founding families.
The home’s original architectural style was in line with English country. When McGrath purchased the property around 1910, the house was given a more Arts and Crafts aesthetic. Plaster replaced wallpaper and the brick fireplace chimneys were replaced with stone.
Roseland remained in the McGrath family until 2000, having been encroached upon over the years by commercial developments. The Rose family eventually settled in San Diego after failed attempts to farm in Mexico.