Receipts that tell a story

#564 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 2008, Hills Newspapers

In 1905 when our new listing, a lovely Berkeley brown shingled house, was built, the wood floor boards were laid by carpenters and then a man brought a machine to make the surface smooth and even. I know this because the owner kept a file of receipts for all phases of construction and the file includes a bill with a photo of the machine and the man who ran it.

The machine is about the size of a small tractor with wide rollers instead of wheels and a platform on top for the operator to stand on. The charge was $50 for what must have taken many days to accomplish as the house has 2 stories and includes a library, sizeable sleeping porch and attic, all of which have wooden floors.

All wood used for construction of the house cost $1400, about half for sanding and milling, half for lumber. Most wood is redwood but a small amount of spruce was used as well and 2 loads of salvaged wood (cost $10) were carted from the “old gymnasium” at the University.

Total construction cost was around $4,500. This includes the fee paid to noted architect Julia Morgan. Her receipt for home design is in the file for $200.

Other receipts show that plumbing cost $470; electric wiring, including meter and light fixtures, $128; water heater, $5. Maybe the best buy was for a pair of triangular wood carvings, each about two-feet wide, that are installed over the wide front doorway – $2. The carvings, produced by an industrial arts school in San Francisco, are beautiful and are still in place.

The original cook stove burned coal. I found this out by reading an inventory of belongings made by the owner’s wife. She wrote in pencil on a plain paper tablet, and the list looks very complete, even including items such as kitchen brushes and the dishpan.

The laundry, adjacent to the kitchen, and at that time open to the outside with screen doors at either end, was furnished with a gas stove and boiler for hot wash water, a wringer, clothes rack, and 2 ironing boards. The area was also used to store a set of extra table linens (or maybe they had just been ironed the day the inventory was made and hadn’t been put away yet?) and a floor polisher for all those many smooth wooden floors.

Less was in the kitchen and pantry than I would have expected: Only 2 frying pans, for instance, and 1 crockery teapot. But the owners had many dishes and china: 3 sets with all sort of special-use pieces such as “individual butters” and finger bowls and a chocolate pot.

Bed sheets, mattresses, flower vases and garden tools, curtains and cushions, pictures and baskets – all are noted. We wonder if the reason for making the list was for fire insurance purposes or perhaps because it was needed for the county. For many years, until around 1970, a personal property tax was levied annually for homeowners and renters alike.

Julia Morgan’s original drawings are in a museum library but we have copies and they are fascinating to read. There have been some changes over the years but by looking at the blueprints it’s easy to see that much of the house remains just as it was built.

During the time the house was being constructed, the owner was working in La Jolla. He left his father and brother, both skilled carpenters, to work on the house and to give him news of progress. The brother wrote nearly everyday telling when the lathers would be arriving, how long the plastering would need to dry, and also wrote about problems encountered.

“Have not packed the floor under the bath room (sic) yet,” one letter said. “Though the sawdust is here, the plumber and the electrics man both say that you will be sorry if you put any of it in between the floors as there is always dampness around the pipes and the sawdust will decay and give off a very unpleasant odor.”

“The electrics man said that he has just been to a house to fix up the wires where they had taken out all of the packing around the pipes for the reason stated above. So I have held off to hear from you.”

Receipt for 2 bags of sawdust is in the batches of papers but no further word is available about whether any was used for insulation under the bath room.

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