I’m starting to work minutely on the core of the farmhouse: a room we call the office, and the hallway. As I clean, scrape and paint, I uncover clues to the past residents—who they were and how they lived.
What we call our Desert Dairy was built in 1930 and 1932: two buildings recorded by San Bernadino County, a barn and a house. There are remnants of outbuildings that also served the dairy: an outhouse, a shed with a refrigerated room (with a wood door over 12” thick), and a secondary milking barn. There was water and the area must have been lush. I imagine a couple from the mid-west (Utah because we are off Utah Trail), pre-Dust Bowl, and pre-Homestead Act of 1938 (in which you could get 5 acres of land and build a 400 square foot Jackrabbit Homestead)—I think our acreage was originally larger to support a dairy farm.
Our original house was probably less than 600 square feet, and had neither bathroom nor electricity (explains why we have almost no light switches). A large porch wrapped around the eastern and southern sides, which was quickly enclosed. In fact, the original owners enlarged the house by 9’ on every side (like a donut), adding a bathroom and formal kitchen, and pushing the fireplace to the interior of the house, along with exterior windows and door openings. The basement, or root cellar, is dug out below the original house, and the trapdoor (a la Wizard of Oz), once on the exterior of the house, is now in the laundry room floor. And yes, it’s a bit scary.
The original farmhouse was painted green, and the trim was bright aqua and orange (super cool that we chose green and orange as our colors, without knowing this!). We are hoping to hold on to our beautiful fireplace, and saving as many details of the original building as we can.
Here are my imaginings on the past owners…
From 1930 to 1960 our property functioned as a dairy farm. With young children, they lived the rural life (the population of Twentynine Palms in 1970 was only about 5000), and then sold the farm because the water ran out and the children moved to LA. We found evidence of blacksmithing, canning, old milk crates… but this family remains in shadow for me.
The next family that moved in was the one that sold the property to us. The owner was four years old when she moved to the property, and she sold it to us in her late 60s. Her father and brother were miners, which explain the abundance of exotic rocks all around the house. Her father was also an artist, and made plaster and concrete casts.
Today I scrubbed the narrow hallway which includes the original closets with wallpapered cabinets: up high they were blackened with cigarette smoke, and low they were covered with splashes of coffee and dirt. I imagine all the encounters that occurred in that hallway: early morning bumping and late night drunken brawling. You can’t pass without rubbing shoulders. But I’m grateful to have the original panels, which I love.
All the original doors are still in the house, including pocket doors that separate the living room from the kitchen. Solid paneled doors are pocked and gashed with living that sometimes looks violent. As the second family sunk into poverty, life became hard. There is evidence of culture--we found encyclopedias and sets of china in the yard--but we saw fear, too—the master bedroom had multiple bolt locks on the door, as if the owner barricaded herself in.
This is not a luxurious house, by a long shot. It’s a hard-working, tough-living house that is dusty and beyond worn, but still functional. Drama and pain happened here, you can feel it. But people also loved the simple life—they sat around bonfires, they dreamed of finding gold, they raised children whose names are still on paint cans in the shed. In the end, they sold their property as a trash dump and rented space to drug addicts in order to survive.
We’re going to do better.
the office, with hand painted floor inspired by hallway panels.
The hallway, patched and cleaned up.
I arrived back in SoCal from being away in Sweden and France, and within two days was driving back out to our desert property to see what had survived the first month of real heat. And although Ted said we now have water, we do not. The well is fixed, the bacteria in the water shocked, the electricity flowing. But we have a broken pipe between the well and the house (probably caused by the trash pickers). Our contractor can't convince any of his workers to return to work in 107 degree temperatures, in a house with no water or AC.
So... I bought a portable AC to keep at least one room cool. And it worked! Kid .02 and I were able to work and sleep in that one room. And what to do when you can't go outside? Paint!
Here's my beautiful lad pulling hardware from the bedroom walls, which used to be a dusky pink and now will be bright white (for the time being). As I work in the house, a picture forms of the previous owner as a woman who was once happy, but later lost control of her life. She had three locks on the bedroom door, very sad.
Saturday night we went out to an opening at JTAG and a Pride show at Art Queen. Also popped into La Matadora, great embroidery show, very smart.
Next morning I got up early (yay for jet lag!) and painted part of the living room, white and green. Ted hates green paint, but was willing to do it if we can eventually make a cactus wallpaper here. Fine with me--patterns will help hide all the large holes that must have held up a mirror.
By 1pm it got too hot to work. A friend brought out 100 gallon tanks to water the two olive trees that are looking bad (like on their last leaf). It was definitely old school, hooking hoses up to the tanks in the back of his truck, and sucking the water into the hose with his mouth.
Next weekend will return, and have appointments with the electrician to start to update the house, a solar company, an AC company, and a couple friends who will come by to view the disaster. AND a handyman to dig a trench to fix the broken pipe. I hope, I hope, I hope.
OK, I know this is trivial, but color is very important to us painters. So from the beginning we've been discussing what color to paint the inside of the house (exterior, currently a desaturated pink, will have to wait). Window trim is/will be white.
Kid.02 likes faded, sandy colors and suggested these (the brown is the color of the floors):
When you live in the city there are lots of colors everywhere you go, which we normally don't even notice. In the country, going outside in the desert means beige and blue in the daytime. I think that's why dusk and dawn are so amazing there. And night is inky dark. I've only experienced living in a minimal color palette a couple times before, in the redwoods of Northern California (green and purple, a combo I find depressing), and in Turkey where the desert colors are also stark.
We spent about six months looking for the right property in Twentynine Palms. We seriously considered two different motels, but they had zoning and code problems, making them too expensive (I'm on first name basis with the planning person at the City). When we saw the Dairy online, we initially didn't consider it because it looked so completely broken down. But those are often the interesting properties. We went out to see it, several times, and then made an offer which was eventually accepted.
When we arrived at the property for the walk through, the previous owner was still there packing, with half a dozen “friends” helping themselves to her stuff. The owner had never known another home—she lived there since childhood and is probably in her late 60s now. Her parents willed her the property, and now she and her four lame, blind, and grizzled dogs and one cat are moving into an RV (we don’t know what happened to the parrot). We are trying not to get involved.
Let’s just say, she was traumatized. As anyone would be.
But that was no excuse for not being out of the house after closing. Anna was the bad cop, refusing to let anyone inside, and Ted played the good cop, helping them load Uhauls of stuff from the patio and parking lot. And still they were not done, so we gave them three hours the next day (after that, vehicles would be impounded).
And then they were gone. Hopefully for good, although I have my doubts. These were not people who have a lot of options. And the property is basically a trash dump of all their stuff.
Below are screen shots of their photos from the real estate website. Looks enticing, right? The photographer used the hoarder's technique--no ground or floor shots:
Anna does most of the writing. Ted does most of the photos. But sometimes we switch. We are repairing a distressed property in 29 Palms, California, and eventually hope to run an artist residency there.