A Brief History of the Farm House

Once we had learned something of Victorian homes and the way Victorians used them, we set out to learn something of the Farm House's history. While our research is incomplete, we already know enough to give us a good understanding of how the Farm House has managed to persevere so largely unchanged for so long.

Detail of 1903 mapThe Farm House was built by Mrs. Jennie A. Keil in 1888, on an acre of land at the northeast corner of Illinois Street and Mentor Avenue, a few miles northeast of downtown Pasadena. That part of the city had only been open to development for three years, and it was for the most part occupied by orange groves and farmland. Judging from a 1903 "bird's-eye view" map of the city, the area was even then still sparsely populated; there are three other buildings within the range of a good loud shout from the roof of the Farm House, and only a few dozen structures standing between it and the mountains several miles to the northeast. The house still had its full acre at that time, but at some point soon thereafter four lots were carved from its south flank, leaving the Farm House with its present third of an acre.

We don't have complete deed records yet, so we don't know precisely when Mrs. Keil sold the Farm House to the Wilson family, who sold it to us. It does appear evident from notes in the city records that Mrs. Keil still owned the house in 1906, and the first reference to the Wilson family we have found is a 1907 city directory listing of "Lucian H. Wilson, student" at the Farm House's address, so the house may well have changed hands in the interim.

Lucian's name shows up again on a Pasadena Star-News subscription list dated January 6, 1914, but his mother Anne J. Wilson does not appear on our radar screen until 1924, listed in a city directory as the widow of A. C. Wilson. We don't know when A. C. passed away, but we do know that Anne remained in the house until her death at age 106. Her marathon tenure in the Farm House is the reason the house has remained fairly pristine, for by all the evidence Anne herself was quite doggedly constant in the face of great change. Judging from the record, she possessed all the hardiness and indomitable spirit that maintained the Pioneers as they forged their way across this vast continent in the face of incredible hardships.

The Farm House was built without electrical or sewer services, and possibly without gas or running water as well (although in any event it had indoor plumbing by around the turn of the century). This is not surprising, given the remoteness of its location when it was built. Nevertheless, one would reasonably expect that these utilities would have been installed as they became readily available.

The sewer extension was installed along Mentor Avenue in 1910, when the neighborhood began to be developed in earnest, yet the Farm House was not connected to it until 1929. The house did not get any form of heat besides its fireplaces until a gas floor heater was installed in 1944. Most notably, the house was not electrified until 1950, and judging by the name on the electrification permit the work was done on the initiative of a daughter or niece. It's not clear how the house was illuminated before then, for there is no evidence of gas lighting, and even now there are no hard-wired lighting fixtures in any room but the kitchen.

Allow me to put the above dates in the perspective of Anne's life span. Now, the only hard fact we have about it is that she lived to be 106; we don't know the year of her birth. We nonetheless do know that her grandson Richard, to whom she willed the house, was listed as owner in 1971. Thus, the latest she could have been born was 1865. This means that she lived in the Farm House without benefit of electricity until she was at least 85 years old. Evidently, Anne liked her home the way she had found it, and felt no compulsion to be a slave to fashion.

There aren't many evident alterations to the house beyond those already mentioned. At some point, the rear veranda was enclosed and converted into a utility/laundry room, and in the mid-Thirties a tiny addition to the rear of the first floor, containing a bathroom, was built (evidently without permit). The room to which it is connected was converted to a bedroom: a small closet was added with space borrowed from the kitchen, and the fireplace opening was bricked up.

The kitchen is the only room that has been altered beyond recognition of its original condition. The only hint thereof is an obvious patching job on the exterior indicating the onetime presence of an exit from the kitchen to the back yard, in line with the front door. Beyond this, the kitchen bears evidence of alterations dating from the 1910s to the 1950s, with the last alteration occurring in 1955, when an electric stove and oven were added.

Richard Wilson let the Farm House deteriorate badly. Perhaps the burden of maintaining an aging house on a large lot was simply too much for a man who was already in his late fifties or early sixties when he inherited the house from his grandmother. Whatever the reason, his stewardship of the Farm House was marked by a succession of citations by the city for code violations, culminating in a withdrawal of the house's occupancy permit on July 9, 1979.

According to a neighbor who has lived next door to the Farm House for a decade, Mr. Wilson would occasionally stay in the house for a few weeks at a time, but for the most part the house has stood vacant for as long as the neighbor has been there. He had little else to add to our story, with the exception of the following anecdote.

It seems that before the real estate company tidied up the grounds in preparation for the sale, there was a large thicket of brambly growth that stood to one side of the house. One day the neighbor's children, who liked to play on the Farm House grounds, came to their father and with great excitement told him that they had found something in the thicket--something big. Upon investigation, the neighbor discovered a pristine '35 Mercury coupe entombed within.

What is the story behind this remarkable discovery? What other stories lie shrouded in the mists of the Farm House's long history? We'll probably never know, for the only one who could answer these questions, Mr. Wilson, is a man who values his privacy highly--so highly, in fact, that even his own real estate agent was allowed to communicate with him only through an intermediary. Undoubtedly, Mr. Wilson would tell us that such matters are none of our business. We must reluctantly agree.

Next: The House and Grounds

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