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Unlocking the Past

Discovering Your Home's History Can Help Bring It to Life, Unraveling the Mysteries of Its Design--and Its Former Occupants

September 21, 1997|SUSAN CARRIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

sage Southern lady once said that horses, husbands and houses should all come with their histories attached.

Although few homes come with such documentation, the history of a house can unravel mysteries, heighten understanding and deepen appreciation of even a modest abode.

Take, for example, Bob and Maria Kennedy's home, a 1,100-square-foot 1922 Craftsman that they are meticulously restoring.

Maria Kennedy has brought the family's home to life by delving into the history of the house and its designer and builder, Eben Putnam Bomer.

In spite of the bungalow's small size and the modest Covina neighborhood, Kennedy sensed something extraordinary about the home from the moment she swung open the oversized front door.

She looked beyond the decorating offenses of prior owners--the stucco exterior, the painted wainscoting and built-ins, the "updated" bathrooms--and saw meticulous craftsmanship and caring.

"The first thing that caught my eye was the formal dining room," Kennedy said. "The room is unusually large and elaborate for a home of this size. And the built-in china cabinet is crafted in a Greek Revival style, an unusual touch for a Craftsman bungalow."

Kennedy's curiosity about the dining room launched her on a quest to solve the architectural mysteries of her house. She started with a telephone call to the local historical society. A few weeks later, a volunteer brought her a slip of paper containing two cryptic pieces of information: the name E. P. Bomer and the year 1922.

After visits to the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor's Office, the Family History Center of the Mormon Church in Westwood, the Baldwin Park Historical Society and the local library, Kennedy tracked down Bomer's obituary in a 1926 newspaper.

She discovered that builder Eben Putnam Bomer, born in 1853 to a prominent New England family, was the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Major Gen. Israel Putnam.

Design Made Sense

"Suddenly, the house's design started to make sense," Kennedy said. "The dining room was Bomer's way of re-creating the formal dinners of his childhood in Boston."

The Putnam Bomer family eventually settled in Marietta, Ohio, where even rural farmhouses have a classical air, thanks to Greek Revival touches such as cornices and pilasters. Those same touches are reflected in the built-in cabinet.

With leads provided by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Kennedy was able to follow Bomer's westward migration from Ohio to Iowa to California, where he started an orange grove in Orange County.

The Kennedys are reminded of Bomer's citrus business every time they reach for a linen napkin from the china cabinet; the drawers are fashioned from produce crates.

Each new tidbit of information about Bomer's life provided Kennedy with further leads, which she pursued like a tenacious detective, making phone calls and gathering information from county records, genealogical resources and libraries all over Southern California.

Gradually, the pieces, such as a building permit and the 1926 obituary, began to fit together.

"When I had time to reflect, I realized that Bomer died six months after applying for a permit to build the sleeping porch," she said. "That sleeping porch was a dying man's last hope of recovery. It's always been my favorite room in the house."

Like many who are motivated to research the histories of their homes, Kennedy started out with a love for the home and a passion for history.

"The more I learned about Bomer, the more obsessed I became," she said. "To me, he represents America at its best. You can see a time capsule of the westward expansion through his life. You can also see the ingenuity of the man in every detail of the home."

The same kind of love for her 1929 Pasadena home prompted Jane Applegarth, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker, to investigate her house's history.

"I wanted to find the answers to a few basic questions," she said. "Did the previous owners love the home as much as I do? What did they do for a living? How has the home transformed over the years?"

Although Applegarth has personally researched home histories for many of her real estate clients, she turned over the research on her own home to Tim Gregory, a Pasadena freelance historian who has researched hundreds of houses.

Gregory's work as a building biographer often turns him into a mystery-solving sleuth. One client wanted to know why his house had a large foyer and two front doors. The design made sense once Gregory discovered that the original owner was a doctor who practiced medicine from his home.

Another house with a full finished basement, a rare find in Altadena, turned out to have been a speak-easy during the Prohibition era.

For Applegarth, Gregory traced the evolution of the house from 1,500 square feet to its current 2,400 square feet. As the house expanded over the years, the maid's quarters were converted to a laundry room, the entry was eliminated, one bedroom was added and another expanded.

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