San Diego 'Downtown, Open Sunday, 2-5, 3 story, 3 fireplaces, Old Mansion, needs restoration, 3450 sf house. $249,000." -- ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"Boy, if these walls could talk." -- woman at open house.
I used to live in an oozing-oodles-of-charm Spanish guest house on Torrance Street in south Mission Hills. One of the living room walls was covered with faux-brick, painted white. Someone, I forget who, told me that there was a lewd mural behind that brick façade, a remnant of the days when the guest house, its sister structure, and the main house on the ridge above served as a brothel during WWII. We got the tenants of the main house to show us around and saw that the master bedroom had been painted a deep, glossy red, sort of like nail polish -- further evidence of a naughty past. (We never did peek behind the brick.)
I found it fascinating to think what houses go through. Here I was, settling down and starting a family in rooms where servicemen had once been serviced. Extraordinary.
When the house on Washington that housed the Crypt -- Leather, Erotica, and a Whole Lot More! -- went up for sale, I tried picturing an average family moving in from the Midwest, setting up house, and then one day finding unsettling artifacts -- a harness in the attic, manacles in the closet.
"That old place has a lot of stories, but I've tried to forget them all and go on with life," says Ed, a growly, throaty-voiced former resident of the Old Mansion. "I got out of there as fast as I could after Jack bought it and everything else -- it went to hell fast." Jack, the current owner, bought the place in 1967 for around $25,000 cash.
When Ed and his wife moved in, sometime during the early '60s, the house had already been converted from a stately single-family dwelling to a boarding house. "For $50 a month, they were just rooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hall. There were seven rooms upstairs." Ed lived in one-half of the ground floor. One tenant "...hanged himself in the kitchen. Just lonesome and tired of living, I guess. He was probably in his late 60s. Most everybody was older."
I asked what Ed meant by "went to hell fast." "I tried to stay away from all that stuff. I worked all the time, and so did my wife. We didn't mix in with any of that stuff over there at all." But you knew about it? "Oh, yeah. Yeah, sure, couldn't miss it, you know." Before I could ask what "it" was, he concluded, "So, I don't really know anything. He started butchering up the place."
He also started hiding it. Despite its size, the house is easy to miss, because it is almost entirely shrouded behind a thick stand of trees, planted by Jack. Looking at it from across the street, the only signs of the hand of man are the black iron fence, the bright red "For Sale" sign, and the crumbling concrete steps, painted an oddly vibrant cornflower blue, receding into the green darkness. As you look more closely, you notice the pile of junk off to the side -- couches, tables, chairs, broken windows -- and a corner of the first floor, the siding a dull mint.
Walking along the side, you begin to understand the cornflower steps: a barred window is trimmed with bright orange, a portion of wooden fence is half-aqua, half-orange, as if the painter ran out of one color or changed his mind halfway through. An addition on the back of the house is entirely orange. Everything is overgrown; ivy sprawls along the walls.
Inside, the house presents a series of disconcerting contrasts. The redwood arches, the huge sliding doors between two downstairs rooms, the majestic staircase making sharp left turns as it marches up to the second floor, all in contrast to the makeshift flimsiness of plywood walls and two-by-four shelves that serve to make kitchens distinct and bathrooms private. (The house is licensed for six units; Jack managed to squeeze in nine, most with at least a tiny battered sink, some with a small stove.)
The staid elegance of large, dim rooms (a dimness deepened by the vegetation that chokes whatever light attempts to sneak through the windows) wars against the crazy color scheme: the front hall sports royal blue walls, in places spotted with lime-green, midnight blue walls, orange walls, and an aqua doorjamb and door. The kitchen is a throbbing alternation between orange and red; the dining room, mostly orange, though in places the handsome heavy brown wainscotting and faded textured wallpaper still testify to former elegance. In one upstairs room, red, mint green, royal blue, and chartreuse collide in a single corner.
A house this large, this grand, should proceed from glory to glory. The third story should be a revelation, that after the grandeur of the first floor, the spaciousness of the second floor, there should be more -- a wondrous plenitude! Instead, the sheer quantity of crowbarred-in patchwork rooms and bizarre coloring produces an overwhelming mishmash -- it becomes difficult to keep track of space, to maintain a sense of place. It would take a trained eye to see what was, what could be again, without a blueprint.
An admiration for old magnificence, a sense of injustice arising from what should be and what is, makes me want to see this house restored. It also makes me wonder, like the woman at the open house, how this came to pass.
A neighbor who has lived nearby for many years says there were rumors about the house, that it was a drop-off for illegal immigrants, and that there were "spooky relationships" there. But, she says, "everything was very discreet, under the cover of darkness. If you want the general opinion of the neighborhood, it was always felt that it was a weird house, with all those trees, that weird things were going on.