In some ways, our old houses are like unintentional time capsules. The guys who built them long ago — and who have patched them together over the years — were resourceful, using materials at hand to get the job done. When we opened up a bathroom wall recently, we found handfuls of heavy wrapping paper used to prop up an electrical junction box (gulp). Packing materials from the original porcelain fixtures were used for shims or to frame out the medicine cabinet. Old newspapers were used all the time for insulation. These little treasures give us a moment’s glimpse into the past: people here in this room were trying to solve a problem and they used what they could get their hands on.
One of my favorite time treasures is a series of sketches found on the rough shiplap sheathing underneath the clapboard exterior of the house.
Our builder, William B. Donahue (or his mason), used some unusual brick patterns on his chimney exteriors (I’ve found four other Donahue houses in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post). On the outside face of the firebox he used brick to create crosses, patterns and other symbols. When we were replacing some cracked siding a few years back, I found a series of sketches on the sheathing right next to the chimney that showed he was thinking about a cross.
Strangely, he didn’t put a pattern in our brick, but the sketches show he was thinking about it. Elsewhere — pretty much everywhere when we take something apart — are quickly scrawled measurements in pencil, signs of a carpenter at work almost 100 years ago.
Over the years, past homeowners and their families have surrendered all kinds of items, lost to the crack at the edge of the floor, the space behind the plate rail trim, or that hole where the radiator pipe goes downstairs. We’ve found an ivory diaper pin, a buffalo-head nickel and a lovely heart-shaped locket that escaped from a necklace. On the back is the inscription “From grandpa.” How long did someone look for that? Did grandpa replace it with another keepsake when no one could find the precious lost locket?
Who knows what else is here in the walls, under the floors, lost in the garden bed, or scribbled in some long covered-up corner. Whenever we’re working on the house, I’m always on the lookout.
What have you found?
We still have a pint of Gorden’s gin, unopened, that was found in the basement shop of our Alameda house, laying on the top of a heating duct, and out of view. It has a wire-down cap, not a screw cap, and my dad tells me that this likely places it in the 1940’s. The house was built in 1939, so that brackets it pretty closely.
Unlike your locket, this one has a plausible explanation, given its location: it was intentionally hidden and not meant to be found accidentally, but then forgotten.
Also found in similar stash locations in the basement, but perhaps not the same motive: A life magazine from 1944 circa D-day, and a wood carving set. Finally, way back in a partially excavated area not covered with finished concrete, two empty beer cans from a California brewery named Derby – most likely, from the workers who dug the foundation!
John, this is very cool. You live in an archive (just like we all do). So, are you tempted to open the bottle?
we once found a jewelry box taped to the underside of a kitchen drawer filled with costume jewelry. also, when redoing the floor in my mom’s house, we found newspapers from the forties (it was in the mid 70’s)
Very interesting. . . most likely we also have a William B. Donahue house (unless other builders also were fond of brick designs on the exterior of chimneys). We have a very interesting one on ours and we’ve highlighted it using trim paint colors and a small spotlight that shows if off at night. We’re at 2807 NE Mason.
Thanks for dropping by the Alameda History blog, and for making a comment about the fireplace and chimney. I’m in the process of creating a database of building permits for all the houses in Alameda, but haven’t made it to Mason yet, so I’m not sure if your house is a Donahue or not. I’ll be downtown looking at permits next week and will take a look.
After having a look while out for a walk, my hunch is that your house is not a Donahue, but a look at the permit will let us know for sure. You’ve done a very nice job with the landscaping and the paint, by the way. Looks great. Decorative chimney brick work, typically done right behind the firebox like in your chimney, was a fairly common practice for builders of the era. There is a Donahue house at the SE corner of 27th and Skidmore where the chimney was recently rebuilt. The symbol he chose for that chimney brickwork when he built the house in 1912 was a swastika (before its notorious use). It’s also common to see letters and geometric patterns. Yours is a particularly nice example, highlighted by the paint you’ve chosen.
I’ll be in touch with you in the next couple weeks regarding your builder…and could send you a copy of the original construction permit if you like.
I lived at the home at 2905 NE 32nd Place. Among its many suites, one had a closet with a built-in safe. In the late 1960’s, I decided to open it. Apparently no one before had ever thought to do that, and I know others had lived there since Mr. Abe Gilbert had the house built. (He owned a hardware store, and the attic of this house is filled with hundreds of drawers and dozens of little rooms.)
Anyway, the safe contained several watches, a solid gold saw trinket, several shares of stock in long forgotten companies, and many other interesting items. The little saw was engraved with the name ‘Abe’.
I’m sure there are a few other stories about this house that I haven’t heard, but would love to read about some day. (Hint.)
Hi Garey. Thanks for dropping by the blog and for sharing this great story about Abe and the time treasures you’ve found. Makes you want to know more about Abe, doesn’t it? I’ve done a little looking into the history of your house and find that it was built in the fall of 1933 and winter of 1934 by Frank Read, who was a prolific builder here in Northeast during the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve profiled him on the blog here, which you can find here. I had a look at the plumbing permits for your house and it looks like Abe was busy. I’ll send them along to you on e-mail. Thanks again for sharing this story.
I found reference to this house (2905 NE 32nd Place) at http://nwda-db.wsulibs.wsu.edu/findaid/ark:/80444/xv47212
This reference is about Richard Sundeleaf, who I guess was the designer, as opposed to builder.
For the record, this house has seven bathrooms, three full suites (sitting room, bedroom, bathroom), three ‘other’ bedrooms, five fireplaces, two kitchens, two furnaces, and two water heaters (or it did when I lived there). And with all that, it is a comfy, nice place to live. I would love to see it again.
I enjoy your web site. If you ever expand to Dolf Park, I’ll be an even bigger fan.