My Demanding Mistress

Tending to an architectural gem in Los Angeles

by Rodney Kemerer

I am a happily married man. Yet I have a mistress. She is large, heavy and 87 years old. In fact, she looks like a house because, yes, wait for it, she is a house.

We met on the real estate version of online dating, the MLS (Multiple Listing Service). First time on the market in 26 years (read: divorced or widowed after 26 years of marriage). The listing looked promising but with that age and size I knew that there would be a lot of baggage — and more than would fit in the designated Trunk Room in the attic.

Our first date was on a rainy Tuesday morning at 11. Casual, no coffee, no pressure, just a meet and greet. In the rain she was beautiful, aged gracefully with a perfect patina of wisdom and gentle moss growing on her handmade terra cotta roof tiles. She was unique, yet I felt I had known her all of my life. We did not say much that first morning. I went from room to room looking for signs of decay and abuse. Found none. What I found was a remarkably designed and built home that clearly had been maintained.

She had survived the Great Depression, 17 recorded earthquakes, World War II and the worst decorating decade in human history, the 1960s. Sure, she had her white shag carpet in the living room, but it was hiding the most beautiful wide-plank oak floors pegged with walnut. Perhaps a new outfit would make her smile again.

In those pre-internet days I could not use Google to find her history. No drunken party pictures. Instead, I drove to downtown Los Angeles to the Hall of Records to see what I could find. The records said it all, only three owners including her builder in her previous 61 years and only two building permits — one for the house and one for her swimming pool added many years later. I also learned she was the only building built by the George R. Kress — known for literally reshaping early Los Angeles with his building moving business.

This told me she was truly a great house. With past owners who held on to her for a long time and owners who did not change her, even though they had enough time and money to transform anything.

She survived and was waiting for me.

Her charms had attracted other suitors that week; in fact, marriage proposals appeared. Like the mating peacock, I had to have the biggest display of feathers to win my new mistress’ heart. In a complicated display of financial finery, I became her new owner within the week.

We have now been together 26 years and have settled into a comfortable relationship that is based on mutual respect and the enjoyment of each other’s company.

Image by Rodney Kemerer

On my part, I lavish her with attention and praise and on her part, she paces her repair needs so that I have breathing room between projects. The nature of our relationship is that it moves at a pace we both can accept.

Sure, we have had our fights. The third or fourth mainline water leak, the last one on a Christmas Eve, tested our relationship. We did not exchange gifts that season. Most of our fights are plumbing related. A touchy subject that we both acknowledge and only discuss when necessary.

Some of her demands have been unusual over our years together. Locating more beautiful terra cotta roof tiles for repairs proved to be a four-year search. Her tiles had been handmade by the legendary Gladding McBean Co., and the search took me all over California. I subscribed to roofing contractor magazines, placed want ads and sometimes found myself standing on top of my car with binoculars looking at tiled roofs that were going to be torn off. It is hard to explain this type of devotion.

Eventually the tiles were located just a few miles away when two school bungalows were being re-roofed. I found my prize. In what can only be described as fate, it turned out the school had the same birth date as my mistress, 1931. The roof tiles had aged in the same time and climate. A perfect match. I purchased them all and she was very pleased. Oddly, we had no plumbing issue that year. She knows how to repay a favor.

Like many aging Los Angeles beauties, she longed to be restored to her former glory.

Of course, once she discovered I was such a devoted lover, she upped her demands to include some of her original furnishings, chairs, tables, lamps, china and most recently, her original grand piano. These could not be reproductions, no – they had to be the original pieces. I reached out to various relatives of former owners, who held the key to this treasure chest. The cost? Priceless. I found many of them, one by one, through years of detailed research, and brought them home to her.

Of course she has made people think that it was her own magnetic pull that brought them back, and perhaps she is right.

After these 20-plus years together my thoughts now rest in the future.

Who will love my mistress next? Who will tend her woodwork and original windows with their roll-up copper screens? Who will tend the scrapbooks of our time together, the shared history that all relationships hold close? In the way she chose me from the available suitors, I trust she will choose wisely again.

When the For Sale sign eventually goes up, let’s hope for rain.

She always looks her best in the rain.

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