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Photo by Jeanne RiceSanta Ana: Five-Bedroom, One-Bath House in the French Park Area
Paid: $85,000 in 1998
Grandma's house never looked thisgood—or, actually, it would have looked better without 30 years of bad drywall, biker gangs and 10W-30-weight motor oil, attorney Paul Giles explains as he leads me through his two-store manse in French Park, a residential district just northeast of downtown Santa Ana and its courthouses, delicious taco trucks and shoeshine man. And history.
"Santa Ana is the county seat," explains Giles, a big man who has his period terminology straight, "and if you had wealth or pretensions of wealth, this is where you lived. And then your children would move to Floral Park. In the '60s and '70s, when Grandma died and no one had any feeling for the houses any more, they were chopped up to make boarding houses."
His house is an émigré: built in 1907 but not actually entering French Park in 1929, the year the stock market crashed, when local optometrist Dr. White moved it there, possibly from an original location at 17th Street and Grand Avenue. White, whose offices were on Main Street nearby, didn't live there, though; the first resident was the vividly named but little-known Mrs. Claycomb. Later, the '60s and '70s saw it become a boarding house for bikers, who dismembered at least one Harley upstairs, soaking the floor and ceiling below with oil. Nice.
A section of floor is actually still in plywood under a rug and remains to be replaced by hardwood. Most of the rest of the house, though, has been unchopped: non-load-bearing walls have been torn out, banisters have been buffed, and much of the quarter-sawn oak and Douglas fir flooring here has been revived, a generation after it all went to hell. And people like Giles and his partner, Joe Cook, are living the lives of Rileys. Or, to be precise, the lives of Spurgeons, Rosses and Frenches, for aided by wealth or timing, Orange County's early rulers managed to name streets in their honor.
The Gileses of today don't have that kind of luck—there's no more empty streets around here—but they were lucky enough to find French Park eight years ago when many of the former homes of optometrists, attorneys and doctors were still boarded up and could be had for $85,000 after a bidding war. Jealous yet?
"We had to wear hardhats and carry flashlights," Giles says, remembering the first walk-through. "It was like when they found the Titanic, that huge prow looming in the moonlight, and the staircase was like that."
Today, the winding, natural-wood front stairs are spotless, but the sitting room where we talk is one of a very few rooms with a wholly finished feel: paneled doors restored and re-hung, wood floors refinished, and blanketing everything is a leafy reproduction William Morris wallpaper. Overhead, opposite a vintage built-in cabinet salvaged from a French Park house that got torn down, a message from his partner is stenciled: "The Functional Should Not be the Envy of the Beautiful." It's a paraphrase of something they read by a famous architect—and obviously an aphorism they not only live by, but also live in.
The house, a mixture of the blocky Foursquare—square, minimalist—and the better-known Colonial Revival, embodies that, mixing in more detailed, Victorian architectural touches: ornate eaves, staircases, a painted-on kitchen-floor rug with the austere serenity of the Arts & Crafts movement and its squared-off, natural-wood touches.
There's a peace here, Giles tells me, and as we wander around—through the parlor with its ornate furniture, up to the simple, small bedrooms (it was the style at the time) and the monstrous master bath made out of two rooms combined—and stare at his camphor tree (medicinal purposes) out back, I finally see it.
It's in the wood. He may live next door to a parking lot, just a minute away from 17th Street, but with an unfinished deck, cracked lacquer and too much plywood, there's the peace here that comes from being ensconced in several trees' worth of real hardwood. And, increasingly, the satisfaction of a restoration job well done.
"You know," Giles says, "it's been the most fulfilling thing I've done."
And the work continues.
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