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Two Future Presidents Slept Here

The modest San Joaquin Valley home where a young Bush family briefly lived in 1949 is being turned into a museum.

October 11, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Monticello, Mount Vernon, Hyde Park, east Bakersfield.

That last one might be short on pillars and porticoes, but it's good for twice as many presidents as each of the others.

For about three months in 1949, an oil-field equipment salesman named George Bush lived on a quiet street in east Bakersfield with his pregnant wife, Barbara, and their 3-year-old son, also named George. Last month, Kern County officials approved the transformation of the family's modest rental -- a two-bedroom white frame house in a neighborhood now heavily Latino -- into a museum.

"We thought it was important that the house do some good," said its owner, Republican political consultant Mark Abernathy, who plans to build a reading center for neighborhood children in the museum's backyard. "It's almost like a duty."

In a town where the biggest luminaries have been the likes of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, the fleeting, long-ago sojourn of the Bush family left barely a point of light.

At the Greater Bakersfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, officials said they hadn't heard about any Bush museum.

Across from the erstwhile Bush place at 2101 Monterey St., Lupe Fernandez was incredulous when she learned that the Bushes had lived in the neighborhood: "Yeah, right -- you're dreaming!" she said.

A real estate broker on her way to work, Fernandez, a mother of six, was dropping off her 1-year-old daughter, Darlene, at her sister's house. She glanced wistfully over at the long-vacant, chain-link-enclosed bungalow that played a bit part in the pageant of U.S. history.

"My kids have gone over to play in that yard I don't know how many times," she said. "Last July Fourth, we put on a little fireworks show over there."

When it opens as a museum in 2007, the Bush home will welcome busloads of students gazing at furnishings of the late 1940s and walking in the footsteps of the presidents known to insiders as 41 and 43. Elsewhere, visitors can experience a similar presidential twofer only at the so-called Old House, a rambling New England manse in Quincy, Mass., that was home to 2 and 6 -- John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams.

At 950 square feet, the Bush house is bigger than Abe Lincoln's log cabin but still on the smallish side. Three houses its size could easily fit into the East Room of the White House.

Guiding a visitor through the property, Abernathy pointed out the coved ceilings, the scrollwork on shelves and cabinets, the original tile on the bathroom and kitchen counters, and the hardwood floors mostly covered by green shag carpeting.

"Our goal is to restore it to exactly the way it was when they were here in 1949," said Abernathy, adding that help will be provided by the Bush family, the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and the Kern County Museum.

There will be Bush family photos -- one shows a beaming 3-year-old W. on a wooden horse with a cowboy gun -- as well as items from the oil fields that made Bakersfield boom.

"The living room will look just like their living room," said Abernathy, a longtime advisor to U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield). "You might even see toys scattered around on the floor."

In the backyard, a new building will house four classrooms to be used mostly for after-school reading groups. Literacy has been one of Barbara Bush's chief interests, and classes at a site brushed by history will fill a pressing community need, Abernathy said.

"My hope is that kids will come here and say if two presidents lived right here in Bakersfield, maybe I can accomplish great things too," he said.

After serving in World War II as a Navy pilot and graduating from Yale in 1948, George H.W. Bush was hired by Dresser Industries, an oil-field supply firm whose board members included his father, investment banker Prescott Bush.

Soon H.W. was on the road selling drill bits for the company, which was acquired by Halliburton in 1998.

In a letter to Thomas, H.W. had good things to say about his brief stay in Bakersfield, according to Abernathy.

"He remembered buying sweet corn by the roadside," Abernathy said. "He said it was the sweetest he ever had."

In a campaign swing through Bakersfield in 2004, the current President Bush drew some chuckles when he spoke about not being able to remember the "quality time" he spent there 55 years earlier.

Aware of the Bush home's historic value, Abernathy bought it from its longtime owners in 2000 for $65,000. He said its restoration and the classroom addition will cost about $500,000 in private donations.

History buffs and Bush aficionados might like to know that the Bakersfield house isn't the only such project: In Midland, Texas, a house occupied by the Bushes from 1952 to 1955 is under development as a museum called the George W. Bush Childhood Home.

Between Bakersfield and Midland, the peripatetic Bushes stayed in Compton for six months, but visitors there won't find even a plaque. The family had an apartment in a sprawling complex called Santa Fe Gardens, which eventually became a dilapidated drug haven.

A few years ago, it was condemned and razed by the Compton Unified School District, which is building administrative offices on the site.

"We're putting it to good use," said district spokeswoman Christine Sanchez.

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