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Back to Its Old Self Again : Family Restores Lemon Grove Home to 1890s Glory

March 02, 1987|STACY FINZ | Times Staff Writer

LEMON GROVE — In the midst of Lemon Grove suburbia, where all that remains of the once-lush citrus groves is a large plaster lemon, stands a reminder of the past. Near dozens of single-family dwellings is a two-story Victorian home, built in 1895 on what was then ranch land.

According to its present owners, Rurik and Marjorie Kallis, the house was ready for condemnation when they bought it in 1971 for $25,000. But with several years of research, the couple and their 16-year-old son, Erik, have completely restored it to its original glory.

By using old pictures and contacting former residents of the house, they were able to restore each room's original design and ambiance. This was no easy task because the place was a shambles when the family bought it, Marjorie Kallis said.

Surrounded by a brick walkway, the blue building with its white trim looks like something from a fairy tale. Situated on one acre, the sprawling four-bedroom, two-bathroom house has a living room, two parlors and two fireplaces.

A beautiful Douglas fir staircase is the focal point of the massive entryway that opens into the living room. The entire house is furnished in antiques, and old photographs of the original owners hang on the walls. The Kallises still use the home's original claw-foot bathtub.

At one time, row upon row of lemon and orange trees blanketed the valley. But now, from a little picture window in an upstairs room the Kallises use as a study, all one can see are the rooftops of stucco and wood houses, and California 94.

Back in 1931 during Prohibition, the groves were just a front for a bootlegging operation run by Walter Trudeau in the back room and basement of the house, the Kallises said. In those days, it wasn't unusual to see large, fancy cars drive up to the home at 2 a.m. and make pickups.

After Prohibition, Trudeau opened a wholesale liquor company and a dance hall downtown. He used the leftover maple flooring from the hall in the house, and would brag that he was the only one to have a dance floor in his home. That floor still exists.

Before moving to San Diego, the Kallises lived in Orange County in what Marjorie Kallis called "a very modern" home. The couple and their son moved here after Rurik Kallis landed a job teaching art at United States International University.

After purchasing the Lemon Grove ranch house, the family started the first phase of restoration. The Kallises gutted the entire bottom level of the house and lived on the second story. When the lower level was livable, they began to work on the top story.

They tore down six condemned Victorian houses in San Diego for lumber for the restoration. They managed to salvage heart redwood and Douglas fir with no knots from the old houses.

"You can't afford to buy this kind of wood today," Marjorie Kallis said. "But that was the wood we had to use if we wanted to get the house back to the way it was when the original owners, the Geers, had it."

In the fall of 1895, Levi Geer moved from Michigan to his newly purchased 60-acre ranch in Lemon Grove. Suffering from consumption, Geer came to California for his health. He built the house that year, and lived there until he died in 1899.

"The couple that owned it before us told us that they had had a weird experience in the house," Marjorie Kallis said. "When they first moved in, they slept in the side parlor in sleeping bags. It was then that (she) had a vision of a dead man lying in a coffin. After doing our research on the house, we found out that the man (she) described was Levi Geer. It was very common in those days to hold wakes in the side parlor."

Since the Kallises learned of the story, they said, they have had a few unusual experiences.

"A few times doors have slammed shut," Kallis said. "It could have been the wind, but the doors are pretty heavy."

In 1899, the house was bought by Henery Hill, a Montana congressman. The Kallises said Hill's son, a Lemon Grove resident, died before they started the restoration. Thus the couple had to rely on latter tenants for information on the home.

They gathered much of their data from records of the Lemon Grove Congregational Church, through which they learned of a musical that was held at the house in 1908 to raise money for the church, and an ice cream social held by the Geers in 1897.

Three years after the Kallises had begun living in the Victorian home, they contacted the Schnitzleins and their three children, who had lived in the house in 1912 but traded it for an apartment building in Long Beach. Still living in the apartment in 1974, the Schnitzlein parents were 106 years old. Their children, who were 12, 16 and 20 years old when they lived in the ranch house, told the Kallises a lot about the original floor plan of the house.

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