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We had come down from our Berkeley home to the unfamiliar territory of Southern California to attend a meeting of the Newhall family companies. Scott was much more familiar with the territory than I was. After the meeting and the lunch, he said, "I want to show you something."
We drove westward and a sign informed us that we were entering Ventura County. About five miles further another sign said, "Piru." We followed the arrows and drove between a few small stores and small, aging houses before turning uphill.
Before our eyes rose an out-of-context classic Victorian house, the kind that my mother's generation referred to as a "mansion," complete with scrollwork and a reddish sandstone tower. It appeared unoccupied, though not neglected.
Earlier that day, we had been talking to Tom and Marilyn Nielsen. They had just learned that the next step for Tom on the executive ladder of The Newhall Land and Farming Co. would be to move from the company's San Francisco office. The Nielsens had three young children, and it was a problem where they would settle in the Newhall-Piru area.
Thomas H. Nielsen in 2016.
"Have you seen the Piru mansion?" We volunteered to look into it. We discovered it was located on the Warring ranch, and orange-growing area whose big house was not being used by any of the Warrings. Yes, the Warring family agreed, they would rent it for a nominal sum to anyone who would look after it. The Nielsens moved in.
* * *
The history of the house went back to the 1880s. In 1889, David Caleb Cook, a devoutly religious man, had been publishing one of the world's first Sunday school papers in Elgin, Ill. It was a successful enterprise, and he grew comfortably rich through various publishing projects.
But then Mr. Cook fell ill, with persistent coughing spells. The doctors agreed that the only solution for him would be a beneficent climate. The cold Illinois winters and hot, breathless summers were taking their toll.
According to stories that are told today, he sent out emissaries to sample the climate in various parts of California and the West. They found the climate he sought in Piru. He bought 14,000 acres of a former Spanish land grant and proceeded to build a classic Victorian house.
Architectural historians generally attribute the design of the house to the renowned firm of Joseph and Cather Newsom, famous for their renditions of the Queen Anne style, of which the Piru mansion is an outstanding example. Be that as it may, no original plans or other evidence has been found to establish the origin of the mansion's design.
A strict Methodist, Mr. Cook provided for construction of a church a few blocks from his mansion in Piru. He also specified, tradition says, that the acreage be planted with fruits identified in the Bible with the Garden of Eden — dates, grapes, pomegranates, figs, apricots and olives.
It was a fine setting for the Nielsen family, with three young children in elementary school, but it was, after all, a rented house. So after a couple of years in the mansion, when the summons came for Tom Nielsen to undertake a major corporate job, he could not hesitate.
* * *
Scott and I, after a long career at the San Francisco Chronicle, had recently bought the small weekly Newhall Signal in an effort to step out on our own. We were still commuting from San Francisco and were looking for a place to live.
Scott telephoned me in San Francisco. "Guess what? The Nielsens are moving north. The mansion will be empty..."
We quickly negotiated rent with the Warrings. The mansion was part of an estate and could not be sold until other estate matters were settled. But the Warrings agreed to let us rent, as the Nielsens had, while we figured out the complications of simultaneously buying a newspaper and moving.
We discovered that the Warring family was eager to sell the mansion, as soon as the terms of the estate would allow. We became the owners and started looking through all available second-hand shops for Victorian furniture. It began to acquire a Victorian look. But it needed paint.
Furthermore, it had been built originally with no bathrooms — just a three-hole outhouse up a long path from the house. Later occupants had installed three bathrooms at various times — two side-by-side upstairs and one directly below downstairs, all served by a single sewer pipe.
* * *
We were saved from the inconvenience of a worn-out house in an unexpected way. A distant relative left us a modest inheritance, and we figured to spend some of it on a complete paint job for the run-down mansion. We got estimates and hired a contractor.
The first thing, of course, was to remove the old paint that lay, six layers thick, on the chipped trim. It was full of cracks, like an alligator's hide, and hard as a rock.
Among the painters was a young lady whose hands weren't powerful enough to manipulate the scraper. She decided to solve the problem by using a small blowtorch to burn off the hard layers of paint.
Unfortunately there was a stiff north wind blowing. A flake of paint blew into the attic. With a terrible roar the whole house went up in a shower of sparks and black smoke — furniture, clothes, books and all. Nothing was saved but the pillars across the front. The house was just eight years shy of its 100th birthday.
We had a good insurance policy. It was only over time that we came to realize how lucky we were. We got an architect to duplicate the exterior of the house, and to the interior we added a bathroom for each of the bedrooms, plus good central heating and air conditioning.
Meanwhile, Scott devoted part of his energies to landscaping that would do justice to the old design. Eventually we served our first family Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room, where even the stained glass had been duplicated. One of our sons remarked in wonder, "I can't believe this ever burned!"
* * *
It took nearly three years to bring the house back from that 1981 devastation. The second came more than a decade later. It was the Northridge Earthquake, which effectively ruined shopping centers and numerous homes. It happened in the early morning, a very rude awakening for all of us — but lucky because there was little traffic on the roads and no shoppers in the collapsed Northridge mall.
Dishes tumbled, plaster ceilings in the mansion cracked, several garden sprinklers erupted like geysers. Little by little, the damage was repaired and the mansion was once more completely functioning.
The mansion served as an active family home until Scott's death in 1992. Both before and since then, it has been a locale for filming and for events of various sorts — formal dinners, swimming parties, teas, meetings picnics — the gamut of affairs by which people support good causes.
The mansion, completely rebuilt since the fire, is now virtually new. The hope is that it will continue giving pleasure to small parties and large family gatherings until its 200th birthday in 2089. All it needs is paint from time to time ... and no blowtorches, please!
Ruth and Scott Newhall owned The Signal newspaper from 1963 to 1978 and ran it until 1988.