by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 1970s and very early 1980s, the restoration of the Homestead’s two historic houses took divergent paths. At La Casa Nueva, both the exterior and interior were done to represent the 1920s appearance of the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built by the Temple family.
At the Workman House, however, which consists of an 1840s adobe core with brick corners and a second floor added by 1870, the decision was to forego work on the interior in favor of the recreation of the exterior to how it looked in that latter period. As part of that work, plaster and stucco that was covering the brick and adobe surfaces was removed with the intention of recreating that work.
It was observed that the east side of the home, consisting of an original adobe wall for the first floor and a circa 1870 brick wall on the second, had some issues relating to bowing of the adobe, due to the intrusion of moisture, that needed to be addressed. So, the stucco was removed one day in early 1977 and work crews went home for the day.
What was not done then, but would certainly be these days, is that the wall was not properly shored up (see the first image above for what was intended). When workers arrived the next day, they were stunned to discover that most of the walls on the east side of the house failed overnight leaving a gaping opening with broken adobe bricks and red bricks littering the ground next to the building.
Once the shock wore off, it was decided to build a wall made of CMU (Concrete Masonry Unit) or concrete block where the adobe wall had been and then to place half-sized adobe bricks on the inside as if the wall was entirely made of that material. For the second floor, original bricks were relaid and mortared on top of the CMU wall. Moreover, five of the original wood brackets at the roof level were destroyed by the collapse and so these had to be remade and reinstalled.
Obviously, once the rebuilt walls were covered with stucco, there’d be no way for visitors to know what had been done. For years, the interior of that wall in the east room showed those half bricks of adobe over the CMU to give that appearance of the original. About a decade ago, we were able to have renovation work done so that this wall was covered with drywall and plaster, hiding the results of the late 1970s even more.
At the time the rebuilding of the east wall took place, Polaroid photographs (familiar to those of a certain age—in fact, on a road trip that summer from Huntington Beach to Chicago and back, I took dozens of Polaroids with a new camera I got for my birthday) were taken to document the work done on this reconstruction of the wall.
Some of these are the highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection for this post and dramatically show the damage and the repair work done, with one of the images taken on this day in 1977.
The first image shows what the plan was originally. See how the original adobe wall is in place, though the brick portion on the second floor is not in view. Workers stand in a trench due so that part of a rebar mesh screen rests on the bed of the trench while the majority of it was curved so that it could provide protection for the exposed adobe.
The second photo starkly shows the damage and the gaping wound left by the collapse. Because it was winter, plastic sheeting was placed for protection. For those who have toured the house in the last decade or so, it is interesting to see what the interior of the east room looked like over forty years ago, including those crazy Art Deco-like light fixtures hanging from the ceiling!
The next photo shows masons at work as the lowest courses of CMU were being laid from the trench. Taken from slightly more north than the first view, a portion of the room to the north of the east room is in view. Towards the back or southern section of the structure, you can see that at least some of adobe wall was left intact by the collapse in what was long a kitchen, but this too was replaced with CMU and adobe facing on the interior.
The fourth view shows the CMU laid in, scaffolding erected, and red brick piled on the scaffold boards as the masons prepared to lay down the courses of brick for the second floor section. A gap is noticeable where about a half-dozen of the brackets at the roof eaves were destroyed and later were reconstructed. Note also the composite roof, which was redone with wood shake shingles as would have been on the house when it was remodeled over a century before.
Once the CMU portion was completed, masons then mounted scaffolding to get to the second floor level and lay down courses of red brick to finish the reconstruction of the wall, as shown in the fifth photo.
The sixth photo shows work nearly completed and the original window replaced at the left foreground where the 1940s-era kitchen was located. The door at the center, the arched window above that on the second floor and the window at the right towards the north of the house were not yet replaced.
Once the wall was finished, the seventh image shows that the windows frames and door were reinstalled, See also how there are stacks of original adobe bricks laid against the CMU portion next to the door. These bricks were later taken down to the basement for storage.
Obviously, the collapse of the east wall of the Workman House was a significant setback for the restoration work on the building’s exterior and caused major delays on the remainder of the project at the structure. Despite the clear loss of original adobe material and the decision to use CMU as the principal material for the reconstruction, visitors today could not tell any of this. These photos are the documentation we have about this particularly difficult part of the Workman House restoration project over four decades ago.