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DESIGN : Dwellings of a Bygone Era : Glendale's Verdugo Casa, the oldest house in the city, and Casa Adobe de San Rafael, with its mud-brick masonry, are reminders of a previous century in California.

September 10, 1993|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Vaughn writes regularly about architecture for Valley Life. and

Imagine the San Fernando Valley 200 years ago.

It is a wilderness roamed by Mexican soldiers and Gabrieleno Indians. Spanish settlers are erecting pueblos. Franciscan monks are spreading the word of God.

Jose Maria Verdugo, a retired Spanish soldier, has been granted 36,403 acres of San Fernando territory by Spanish Governor Pedro Fages. His land becomes the wilds later tamed as towns: Glendale, Burbank, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Flintridge, Montrose, La Canada and west Pasadena.

Upon this land, over the next few decades, Verdugo's progeny would build adobes, plant crops and raise cattle. Although their empire was eventually disassembled due to ruinous financial circumstances, and most of their small casas were razed to make way for modern structures, two adobes from the Verdugo legacy remain standing in Glendale.

Jose Maria Verdugo willed the northern region of his rancho to his blind daughter, Catalina. The bequest encompassed a vista of mountains, canyons, streams, willows, sycamores and oaks that Catalina would never see.

Here she lived with her favorite nephew, Teodoro, in a small two-room adobe, constructed circa 1860. Her cottage is the oldest house in Glendale.

Winding paths on the grounds of Verdugo Casa lead the visitor past sumac, buckeye, tall pines and imposing shade trees. Statuary dots the lush, tranquil garden. Benches have been set out for quiet contemplation.

Not far from the entrance is a blackened stump, the remains of a once-towering tree called "The Oak of Peace." It was here that Andres Pico, a Mexican general, met with an American officer, Lt. Col. John C. Fremont, to discuss terms for a Mexican surrender of California territory on Jan. 11, 1847.

The visitor must walk through peaceful gardens to reach Catalina's adobe. It is a small home, with a shady clearing in front. The patio is large, decorated with dark Mission furniture. The home's frame has been refinished in whitewash stucco. When Catalina lived here, the premises consisted solely of a living room and a bedroom. During the 1890s, however, a dining room and bathroom were added.

Today, the adobe's interior is empty. The city of Glendale purchased Verdugo Casa from private owners in 1989. Although the house is not open to the public, its tranquil grounds are.

Tomas and Maria Sanchez, distant relatives of Jose Maria Verdugo, moved to Glendale in 1870 after debt forced them to surrender their Los Angeles home. Tomas Sanchez was a former Los Angeles County sheriff, known throughout California for his bravery as a bandit chaser.

From 1870-72, he constructed the large adobe that stands at 1330 Dorothy Drive. Here he lived with his wife and 21 children on 100 acres of surrounding land. On the acreage, he planted eucalyptus trees, vegetables, fruits and berries.

The adobe's sturdy walls are 18 inches thick, crafted by Sanchez for protection from rain and hot sun. The home's wavy-glass panes are original. The adobe's frame has been stuccoed and whitewashed to prevent deterioration of its 120-year-old mud-brick masonry.

A corredor, or covered porch, wraps around the adobe's exterior. From here, the Sanchezes could watch the once-abundant Los Angeles River flowing in the distance.

Inside is a large sala, or formal drawing room, where Sanchez held lavish fiestas for guests. On rainy days, he gathered here with his wife and children to play piano, read, tell stories and relax.

Today, the sala has been decorated with Mission-style furniture, like that used by the Sanchezes. Pieces include a 160-year-old elephant-leg piano, sofa and chairs. Decorative fans used by Spanish women of the era hang on the sala 's west wall.

Adjoining this room is an antesala or family room. Here, Tomas and Maria Sanchez dined and relaxed by the home's only fireplace, which provided heat for the adobe. In a cabinet are displayed notions of the era--a mustache cup, egg warmer and shaving mug, among others.

Two bedrooms, or recamaras, are at the north side of the house. Within the main bedroom is a dark, Gothic-inspired Eastlake-style bed, sewing machine and chest owned by Maria Verdugo. Across from the bed is a large dresser that had been shipped to California by covered wagon. As was common in Roman Catholic homes of the period, the room features a prayer wall decorated with religious icons.

The Sanchezes ate meals in the cocina, a large, covered veranda outside their home. In 1970, an enclosed kitchen was built at this site. Within the kitchen is a small stove of the kind used by Gold Rushers to cook beans and coffee.

Casa Adobe de San Rafael changed hands several times after Tomas Sanchez's death. In 1930, it was purchased by the California Medicinal Wine Co., which produced "medicinal wines" during Prohibition.

The company's owner, Frank Vai, began to uproot the property's giant eucalyptuses. He purportedly planned to demolish the adobe and subdivide the land.

Were it not for a concerned neighbor, Mrs. W. W. Williams, who stormed the grounds with other local women and according to legend "stood between the trees and the woodchoppers," Casa Adobe de San Rafael may have been destroyed. But the town's women persuaded Glendale city officials to purchase the tract (by this time only 1.2 acres) for $40,000 in 1932.

With this sale, Glendale became the first city in Southern California to buy a historic site to ensure its preservation. Casa Adobe de San Rafael is open to the public. Volunteers from the Glendale Beautiful organization offer tours of the home and grounds.

At Christmastime, the organization hosts Fiesta de Las Luminarias, featuring music, edibles and entertainment.

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Tours of Casa Adobe de San Rafael, 1330 Dorothy Drive, Glendale.

* Hours: 1 to 3 p.m. the first Sunday of every month.

* Price: Free.

* Call: Glendale Beautiful, (818) 548-2147.

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