The Before Picture

Photo by James BunoanAnaheim: Seven-bedroom, two-bath house in the Anaheim Historic District

Occupants: Cynthia, Richard, Kristina, Elizabeth, Jonathan and Matthew Ward

Paid: $439,000 in 2004

The Wards' two-story 1908 manse looks finished; but that, Anaheim Historical Society president Cynthia Ward confides, is because she waters the weeds so if you drive by fast enough, they'll look like a 200-year-old English lawn. This year, she promises, they'll break out the rototiller—right after they finish the kitchen, perhaps, or get another bathroom working or strip another yard of old-growth redwood molding.

Those who don't understand this—who aren't themselves afflicted—must think it sad the Wards sold a perfectly good, restored home elsewhere in Anaheim's historic residential district to take on a leaky, 97-year-old, former men's halfway house with bad plumbing, bad electrical, bad floors, gallons of paint covering egg-and-dart molding—and a 14-month escrow. But if this is how you are, this is what you do.

“We had this really great 1913 Craftsman,” Ward explains. “It was about done, and like idiots, we needed a new project.” They found all but their life's work—and a real dining room—here in a modified Woodland.

Woodland was the properly prosaic moniker for one of several houses of various styles sold by Sears, Roebuck N Co. in its 1908 catalog—or, more precisely, the name of its blueprints.

“The Woodland is of the type of architecture that meets with favor wherever it is built,” the catalog raved. In 1908, Sears would sell you a book-thick sheaf of plans—hardbound. You found a contractor, and when the plans arrived, he built your house. A few years later, Ward tells me, Sears would sell you the plans and most of the lumber, shipping it in about three boxcars for $2,491—but then the Great Depression forced Sears to foreclose on its own catalog homes, and the post-World War II housing-development boom changed us from a nation of Do-It-Yourselfers to a nation of Can't-Someone-Else-Do-Iters.

The Wards have this history down cold, but having just moved in December into their modified Woodland (different porch and interior layout), they're still coming to grips with what they've acquired. The coffered dining-room ceiling (gridded with exposed beams and elaborate molding) is the stuff dreams are made of, as is the elaborate egg-shaped and dart-shaped carvings along much of the molding. Of course, they've placed their order for new vintage-look “penny head” hexagonal bathroom-floor tiles and found narrow quartersawn oak for the other rooms.

Yet before the Wards can start stripping off all the paint layers, replacing sliding redwood doors and opening up long-closed closets, they have to finish the kitchen (a total redo), work on the bathrooms and, sometime next summer, put a new hipped roof over the whole thing. And, oh, yeah, clean up after that 12-foot-long, 20-year-old beehive behind the boarded-up fireplace upstairs.

“The tenants had bees, and instead of dealing with it, they just boarded it up,” Ward says. Looking up the flue, the bee expert asked Cynthia and husband Richard, “You ever see Amityville?” They had. “He ended up in a full bee suit on a scissor lift,” she says with a laugh. She can laugh, now. “We were the neighborhood side show.”

That's how restoration goes: still up at 2 a.m., sweating over a hot heat gun, loosening paint while everyone's asleep. Knowing you'll have to tear off all those pieces of '40s asbestos siding hiding the real redwood: “The siding salesman was smart,” Ward says. “He went down the street, and you can still see some of the houses he hit.” But they also know it won't always be this way; their greatest reward—if they can just settle down and live with it—lies ahead, when all the redwood is finally rubbed out. It's in the moldings, the banister, the sliding doors, the window frames and, especially, the coffered dining-room ceiling.

“I've waited my whole life for that ceiling,” Ward says. “When we looked at the house, we got as far as that ceiling before [the tenants] thre-w us out. We had to make an offer sight unseen.” Not quite sight unseen; they'd seen just enough—and they knew what they were looking for.

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