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A Major Work in Progress : Renovation of Decades-Old Santa Ana Home Is a Labor of Love


SANTA ANA — Anyone who owns a home has been seized at one time or another by the urge to remodel.

For the lucky few, it passes.

For the rest, it signals the start of what more often than not becomes a time- and cash-consuming trial of personal endurance, emotional stability and the strength of those wedding vows.

And that's in cases when the house was perfectly acceptable when the eager buyers coughed up their earnest money and signed the purchase contract on the dotted line.

Which brings us to the Biscottis, Jeff and Rolinda, a couple who show no outward signs of instability.

They had been married for four years--Jeff was 29 and Rolinda was 30--when they shocked family and friends by buying a house that they, assorted family members and a truckload of subcontractors spent three years working on before the couple could move into it.

And now, to the normal pressures that come with a major renovation, the Biscottis have added a new one: they have agreed to let The Times document their efforts during the next year in a series of articles that will give readers an inside look at a major work in progress.

The Biscotti home--formally know as the Duggan House after its builder, early Santa Ana insurance executive William Lee Duggan--is a 3,000-square-foot, two-story, wood-framed Colonial Revival built in about 1905 in a then-fashionable neighborhood on Sycamore and Pine streets, near Main and 1st streets.

In 1986, after spending years as a rooming house, the Duggan House was earmarked for the wrecker's ball, scheduled to be torn down in the name of redevelopment to make way for a senior citizens housing complex.

The combined efforts of the Historic French Park Assn. and the city resulted in a last-minute rescue, and the house was moved in September, 1987, to a city-owned lot a dozen blocks and five slow and agonizing hours away.

Although just a typical middle-class businessman's home in 1905, by today's standards the Duggan House makes opulent use of stained and varnished wood, fine carpentry and handcrafted plaster. It has four bedrooms upstairs, and the downstairs features a double parlor, formal dining and living rooms and a spacious entryway graced by a curving wooden staircase.

It also had a tiny 6-by-8-foot kitchen that failed to meet even minimal building code requirements, and its only bathroom, located upstairs, was described by Rolinda as "totally non-functional."

Still, the couple fell in love with the place when they saw it on a French Park home tour in April, 1988, and made an offer that was accepted that same month.

Three and a half years later, on Nov. 1, 1991, they moved in.

In the sometimes interminable stretch between buying and bedding down for the first time in an upstairs bedroom, the Biscotti family grew by one--daughter Victoria was born in June, 1989--and the Biscotti bank account shrank by about $80,000.

Jeff Biscotti's carpentry skills blossomed, and Rolinda discovered the wonders wallpaper stripping can perform on the human back.

The couple opened the back of the house and added about 300 square feet to the old kitchen to create a large country kitchen, service room and bathroom. Upstairs, they gutted the old bathroom and began building a new one inside the old shell.

Along the way, they discovered that they were having fun--despite the occasional crises, the total lack of free time in which to do anything other than work on the house and the constant need to budget, budget, budget.

"People ask why we live in an old house, and why an old house in the middle of Santa Ana," Jeff Biscotti said, surveying his Lacy Street neighborhood on a recent rainy evening.

"It's because there is something special about older homes. And because this is a neighborhood. People know each other and are committed to preserving some of the history of the city. We have an apartment next door, and some people think that's horrible. But the people who live there are the nicest neighbors you could ask for. And there's a history here, and that's something you don't get in Irvine."

That history came home to the Biscottis about two years ago when a neighbor introduced them to Betty Hilligass, granddaughter of William and Clara Duggan, the home's builders and original owners.

"Betty has just been wonderful," Rolinda said. "She's told us stories about the place and helped us understand where things were and how it was furnished and what it looked like when it was still pretty new."

Among the Biscottis' prized possessions is a photograph of the house taken just a few years after it was built. It was given to them by Hilligass, who lives nearby. She also gave the couple pictures of the Duggans.

The picture of the house is especially valuable because it helps guide the Biscottis as they prepare to paint the exterior and landscape--the next big projects on their list of things to do.

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