Taken for Granite: Photos of Restoration of Decorative Plaster at the Workman House, 1978

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When it comes to the early history of the Workman House, from its construction in 1842 until its remodeling by 1870, we know a great deal less than we’d like, while there was probably more documentation about it that has been lost to the vicissitudes of time. To the best of current knowledge, the original adobe core of three rooms (said to be bedrooms on the west and east ends and a living room and dining room in the center) was built, if not at the same time (it is possible that two rooms were constructed together and a third added later) then almost certainly within a close proximity in time.

The flat-roofed structure, which was raised because of the highly unusual fact that there is a basement under the middle room of the trio, measured 19′ deep (north to south) by 72′ wide (west to east) also had porches on the north and south sides, and we assume that it had the typical whitewashed plaster coating over the adobe bricks, which had to be maintained regularly to protect that core material from water intrusion.

Workman Residence N View ca 1870
The penciled and stipped plaster wall mimicking grante blocks can be seen immediately to the left of where William Workman stood in profile on the stairs and next to the porch post to his right in this circa 1872 photo of the Workman House by William M. Godfrey. Descriptions of the finished plasterwork, however, go back to at least fall 1856.

At some point, two adobe rooms were added at the northwest and northeast corners, with the latter still standing and all that remains of the former are remnants of wall footings in the crawl space below an existing circa 1870 brick room. It is speculated that these rooms, which may have only had access to the porches and not to the main part of the house, were used for the benefit of travelers, much like the Rowland House did when it was built in 1855.

By fall 1855, when an account of the funeral of William Workman’s brother David was published in the Los Angeles Star, two wings of adobe bricks and of 150′ length were added to the south. These were primarily work spaces, including a blacksmith shop, storage for saddles and other accoutrements, grain storage, a ranch store, a private school room for the benefit of the children of William and Nicolasa Workman’s daughter, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, and her husband, F.P.F. Temple, and others.

Workman Residence North Porch Stripping Plaster
This 27 April 1978 Polaroid photograph by restoration architect Raymond Girvigian shows the north wall of the 1840s adobe portion of the Workman House to the right of the front door and the extensive work done in stripping the wall and showing the layers down to the adobe.

The assumption is that this major expansion was made possible because of the dramatic change in the family’s financial fortunes due to the Gold Rush. It was not that William Workman went prospecting for the precious metal, although his son-in-law Temple did, but, rather, that the thousands of cattle pastured on his over 24,000 acre half of Rancho La Puente (co-owned with John Rowland), were in high demand as a food source for the gold miners and other recent arrivals to California.

While the addition of ten rooms more than quadrupled the number of spaces and probably came close to tripling the square footage from under 1,400 to over 4,200, there was also an opportunity to add some ornamentation to what was probably somewhat of a minimally decorated structure, at least on the outside (it was said that the interiors of adobe houses of the well-to-do during the Gold Rush years had fine furniture, expensive rugs and other elements that belied the often simple exteriors.)

Workman Residence North Porch Looking South
Another Girvigian photo from 27 April 1978 shows the section of the north wall to the right of the front entrance, with exposed adobe at the top and bottom and the stripping process being conducted. Note the lath on the ceiling, as well. The windows were later replaced with single-hung sash windows like those found in the 1870s.

Our earliest documentation of this came with the October 1856 visit of artist Henry Miller, who was roaming California to paint views of the missions. Miller, who was tasked with providing the Workmans with designs for a chapel, named St. Nicholas’ after Nicolasa Workman and the construction of which began the next May, provided a simple description of the family residence, writing, “the house is well-finished, and painted with oil colors on the inside and outside, imitating marble and afterwards varnished.” The reference to the use of oil paint and that this work was done both inside and out is particularly noteworthy, while the identification of the mimicry of marble also stands out.

Not quite two years later, in 1858, the California State Agricultural Society, in a tour of ranches and farms throughout the state, stopped off at the Workman House and provided a more concise description: “his [William Workman’s] buildings are of adobe, colored and penciled to represent stone.” Note the specificity of “stone” and the use of the words “colored and penciled,” which does not seem to comport precisely with how Miller described the building.

Workman Residence North Porch East Side
This Girvigian image is dated 15 August 1978 and shows the east side of the north porch leading into an adobe room built after the main core to the right. Note the exposure of the wall down to adobe and a viewing window was later placed just off the top left of the door showing adobe bricks and the heavy wood door lintel, which is partially visible here at the upper right of the door.

It is possible that there was a change in this decorative feature of the house and one is tempted to wonder if the massive Fort Tejon earthquake, taking place along the San Andreas Fault and estimated at 7.9 on the Richter scale (we have not had one approaching that size since), of 9 January 1857 caused some damage that necessitated redoing this finish work with a new look. The Los Angeles Star of 17 January reported that “on the whole, no damage of any consequence, has been sustained by our citizens, although elsewhere considerable property has been destroyed” and added that “private houses are also cracked, some of them very considerably.

More tellingly, the paper recorded that the Mission San Gabriel had severe cracks and that “at the Monte [El Monte] . . . several houses were greatly cracked” as these areas east of Los Angeles appeared to have been experienced shaking “much more severe than in the city.” Lemuel Carpenter, residing several miles southwest in the Los Nietos area, found that his adobe house “is very much cracked.” As a sidenote, the Star stated that “on a ranch [La Merced] belonging to Mr. Temple, on the San Gabriel River, the earth for a considerable distance was rent asunder, leaving a ditch some three feet wide.”

Workman Residence North Porch East Wall
Also dated 15 August 1978, this photo by Girvigian shows the same entrance at the east end of the north porch, but showing the wall completely stripped down to adobe and what may have been some protective coating applied to the sections toward the bottom.

So, who knows if the temblor did cause a remaking of the plaster finish on the Workman House, between Miller’s description and that of the agricultural society? The next known published account of visitors to the Workmans was by John Q.A. Warren in 1860, but he did not mention the finish.

Five years later, the agricultural society made a return visit and it said, “the house is a well-built adobe, cemented,” while adding that “this and Mr. Temple’s are the best built adobes we have seen in the State.” The use of “cemented” may be a corollary to the organization’s 1858 statement about “colored and penciled to represent stone,” including “stippling,” which was the simiulation of holes in the granite with many minute dots of black paint.

Workman Residence South Porch West End
A Girvigian Polaroid, from about June 1978, of the portion of the south porch to the left of the door into the living room/dining room of the adobe core. Because this area had long been converted into a screened porch with separate rooms, the ceiling was redone with joists as opposed to the north porch’s use of lath.

Whatever the case, the earliest photograph of the Workman House, dating to about 1872, does show finish with the penciling outlining blocks, especially a section just to the left of where William Workman stands in profile on the stairs to the north porch. While we cannot say with certainty that there wasn’t any further renovation or remaking of the finish, it looks as if this detailing continued to exist, although covered over by what looks like a dark-colored plaster also outlined into large blocks until the City of Industry undertook the major restoration of the Homestead in the late 1970s and early 1980s preceding the museum’s opening forty years ago this spring.

Architect Raymond Girvigian, best known for his work on the restoration of the state capitol, also during the late Seventies, took several Polaroid photos showing the process of stripping the old plaster and the finishing of the new layer applied to those section that were retained (when the museum opened, framed openings with plexiglass windows showed a few portions of the old finish, albeit with gouges already made so that the new plaster could adhere to the old.)

Workman Residence South Porch East End
Girivigian’s view, also from June 1978, of the south porch to the right of the front entrance, with the varying levels of finish and a large portion of exposed adobe. Another of the display windows was placed over the door at the right to show the bricks and heavy wood lintel.

Girvigian, who is now in his mid-Nineties, took these images between April and December 1978, and they are fascinating in showing the decay that was present, the several levels of wall finishes, the stripping of some portions and the gouging of others for the new layer, and, finally, the penciling and stippling conducted by the architect’s sister-in-law and artist Dorothy Nersesian (who also worked on the repainting of the basement vault, front door plaster surround, front patio wall plaster carvings, the main hall balcony brackets, and other elements of the restoration project), with chair rails of wood also present on these walls.

Since Nersesian completed her work in finishing the restored plaster, there have been several instances during which there have been the repair of cracks and the reaplication of penciling and stippling, including by artist Ed Pinson and his associate Bob Burchman (who also worked on repainting the La Casa Nueva door surround).

Workman Residence North Porch Decorative Painting
This 5 December 1978 Girvigian photo shows his sister-in-law, Dorothy Nersesian, applying the penciling of the outlines of the replicated granite blocks on the restored plaster wall on the north porch. Compare this view with the others of the same area above.

As is so often the case with restored buildings, visitors have no idea of what is involved with the intensive work that is undertaken, and which is at least given the briefest of glimpses through the photos by Girvigian highlighted here, during resotration and in subsequent maintenance. Hopefully, this post provides at least a little understanding of the processes and an appreciation for the talents of restorers like the architect, Nersesian and those who worked with her, Pinson and Burchard, and others who have made vital contributions to the Homestead over the last 45 or so years.

2 thoughts

  1. It’s good to know that the imitating stone walls have existed with Workman House since way back to 1850’s. Prior to reading this post, I always thought the mimicry of granite on the exterior walls was newly designed by Ezra F. Kysor, the possible architect for the major renovation of Workman House around the 1870, particularly when I learned Kysor’s another work of the same time in downtown Los Angeles – Pico House had the same penciled and stippled granite-look walls.

  2. Hi Larry, thanks for the comment. What Kysor did add (presuming he was the architect) was the application of stucco to mimic blocks over the red brick additions to the house. So, this gives us two faux finishes from different eras on this remarkable historic structure!

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