Category Archives: travel

Haunted California Coast

I was totally going to skip the classic haunted house post for a lighthearted write-up on cute little early 20th Century beach houses. But with a dark and stormy afternoon at Half Moon Bay fogging up the lens of my point-and-shoot faster than I could wipe it clean, our recent weekend getaway – and my post plans – turned out to be a wash, no pun intended.

Exploring the famously pumpkin-happy beach towns just south of San Francisco was a treat despite the weather, but at times I couldn’t help wishing we’d just made a detour to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose instead.

 As luck would have it, we stumbled upon another historic haunted building – the Moss Beach Distillery.

Photos from

I don’t know about you, but when I think of speakeasies, my mind turns to Chicago and New York. But apparently one of the most successful of the illegal ventures was located right here, perched on the bank of a particularly rough piece of coastline best known for the annual big wave surf contest Mavericks.


Rum runners would lug booze up the steep cliffs and into vehicles headed for San Francisco speakeasies, all under the cover of fog and darkness. Of course, some of the liquor seemed to always end up in the basement of the little stucco building, then known as “Frank’s Place,” where owner Frank Torres mingled with silent film stars and Bay Area politicians. And thanks to his high-up connections, “Frank’s Place” was never raided.

 But not everybody had a good time. According to legend, one of the patrons was a young, married mother carrying on an affair with the bar’s piano player. On one of her many trips to and from the restaurant, she was killed in a car crash. Members of the restaurant staff claim to have seen the woman’s ghost, always dressed in blue, searching the restaurant for her lover. Occasionally, they report unexplained phenomena, like altered dates in the computer system, earrings that go missing from female customers and levitating checkbooks. The Blue Lady has even been featured Unsolved Mysteries – in fact, I remember seeing the episode at my grandparents’ house, where my brother and I always crammed in as many episodes of UM as we could (for some reason, our parents  just weren’t fans of the seedy storylines and cheesy reenactments).

We didn’t have an opportunity to eat in the restaurant. But I have dined at another supposedly haunted eatery – and stayed in the place’s haunted hotel.

The quirkily constructed chalet-style Brookdale Inn in the Santa Cruz Mountains is as famous for the creek that runs right through the restaurant as it is for the child ghosts said to haunt the premises (apparently they drowned in the stream).

Photos from Brookdale Inn & Spa

I don’t even believe in ghosts, and being left alone in one of the creaky, semi-rundown rooms in the 1890s building for five minutes gave me the creeps.Then again, everything in the overgrown redwoods surrounding Santa Cruz can feel a bit cobwebby and creepy.

And of course, there’s the granddaddy of all California haunted houses – the infamous Winchester Mystery House.

Photos from photo gallery

You might already know the story. Sarah Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, visits a psychic after the death of her husband in the early 1880s. The medium convinces her that the Winchester family is cursed because of the lives taken by her husband’s rifles. Somehow, Sarah gets it in her head that she needs to move west and build a house to honor the spirits – and to appease them, she must never stop building.

Over the next 38 years, she uses her multi-million dollar inheritance to fabricate a sprawling, fantastical Victorian mansion with 160 rooms and seven stories (though the highest buildings were reduced to a measly four stories after the 1906 earthquake).


But this wasn’t an ordinary large house. Remember, she had to keep building, even if her blueprints didn’t exactly make sense. That meant adding 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 10,000 window panes, two basements and three elevators.

It meant installing staircases that led to the ceiling

putting in doors that opened not to decks, but to multi-story drops

and using patterns that contained eery details and her lucky number, 13, whenever possible (this is the window in the 13th bathroom).

There was also the much talked about tiny upstairs Séance room, though some say her belief in the paranormal has been embellished – and it was relatively common for Victorian era society to hold séances and consult psychics.

In the end, continued construction couldn’t prevent the inevitable – Sarah Winchester died in 1922, after which time the behemoth residence finally came to rest.

Whether or not you believe in ghost stories, the Winchester Mystery House is one of the best examples of Queen Anne architecture on the West Coast. I’ve been on the tour twice, and I’m still itching to go back – maybe someday I’ll make one of the All Hallows’ Eve flashlight tours.

So that’s my haunted house/restaurant/hotel roundup. Hope everyone has a scary good Halloween!

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Filed under California, famous houses, historic houses, old houses, travel, Victorian

Indian Summer Blues

Normally I’m knee-deep in pumpkins and pinecones this time of year. But with yet another 85 degree day upon us, I just haven’t found my autumn decorating groove. It feels too much like summer.

 The most I’ve been able to muster is some mums, a wreath and a trio of pumpkins for the front porch.

The boyfriend took it a step further, posing a skeleton on our bench.

Apparently he’s resting after some grueling yard work (and possibly a groin injury?).

I used to love a good, long Indian summer. I still enjoy warm weather, but I think I’ve been spoiled by our visits to New York City during the past two Octobers. We fell in love with fall on the East Coast, where it was already coat weather and the leaves blazed red and orange in Central Park, along the Potomac on a side trip to Washington D.C. and – of course – in Sleepy Hollow, the namesake setting of Washington Irving’s classic tale.

Nothing puts me in the Halloween mindset quite like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whether it’s the book, the Disney cartoon or the Tim Burton film. And nothing says autumn quite like old buildings, creepy scarecrows and cemeteries.

Maybe I just need to go traipsing around in a local graveyard to find my Halloween spirit.

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Filed under autumn, old houses, travel

Tour Guide

Access to cool apps was the reason I bought my iPhone – yet I’m usually too much of a cheapskate to actually pay for them. But I may have to make an exception for some of the new historic architecture apps.

It started when I learned about FanGuide’s collection of mobile guides featuring stories, photos, maps, audio and video of Prairie School style architecture in Illinois and modern architecture in L.A.

I can’t wait to try out the Los Angeles app, but, while I appreciate Frank Lloyd Wright as much as the next girl, it got me wondering if there were any programs focused on the kind of older architecture that’s more my forte.

Turns out New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah (all on my vacay wish list) have walking tour apps centered on historic homes, buildings and districts. There’s also a similar app for Montreal.

On the west coast, What Happened Here? offers up historic trivia based on sites in San Francisco and L.A. (for instance, did you know the first electronic image was transmitted from the bottom of Telegraph Hill, marking the birth of TV? Or where Robert Louis Stevenson lived and wrote in San Fran?)

It’s a little early for Halloween, but Wicked Walks provides information about supposedly haunted old houses and locales across the U.S.

Finally, Historic Places is a more general app that searches your current location for districts, sites, buildings and objects with historical significance.

So that’s the run-down for now. I’m crossing my fingers that some techie Craftsman fans are hard at work on a few bungalow neighborhood tours at this very moment.

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Filed under bungalow, historic houses, mid-century modern, old houses, travel, Victorian

Hi Ho, Silver

I heart old houses – on wheels.

 It all started with Sunset. Ever since my July issue arrived, I’ve been pining for the shiny silver Airstream on the cover.


I always thought Airstreams were cute with their gleaming aluminum and  spacey shape. But lately I’ve been noticing the retro trailers nonstop – on our trip to Ferndale, camping in the mountains last weekend, cruising down the freeway through our town. I’m officially obsessed.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Renovated Airstreams for home, work or play have recently been featured in the aforementioned Sunset, as well as at Design Sponge, Dwell, The Tiny Life (pictured below) and the Washington Post.


We’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately – which I love, don’t get me wrong – but I miss the coziness of our little, old house when staying in hotel rooms. And I miss the convenience of showers and a stove when I’m sleeping in a tent (I know, I’m really bad at roughing it). Wouldn’t it be cool to take a familiar place –showers, stove, maybe even the pets – on the road with you?

There’s just one obstacle. New and gently used Airstreams are expensive. Really expensive. Like, you-could-buy-two-or-three-small–cars-for-the-price-of-one-small-Airstream expensive. The only way it’s going to happen anytime soon is if we buy a used rig in not-so-hot condition, gut it and start over, which would be quite the undertaking – though it has been done.

Until that happens, though, I can satisfy my dreams of silver glory by drooling over the mid-century inspired photos in this book.

Ordering lunch from this Airstream window next time I’m in Seattle.

Borrowing someone else’s trailer for a night.

Or by settling on one that’s more my size.

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Filed under mid-century modern, renovation, retro, travel

Humboldt Gingerbread

If there’s a dream job for an old house lover, it’s got to be running a bed-and-breakfast like the Gingerbread Mansion, a famously ornate Victorian home in Ferndale, Calif.

As it turns out, the position might be available. We noticed the inn was closed during our annual visit, and locals confirmed that the mansion is now bank-owned – and could soon be up for sale (for around 900K, we were told).

Personally I don’t know that I’d make a good inn owner since I’m not the best at making small talk with strangers. But it might be worth a shot to live in a place like this.

The Victorian Inn down the street – our usual lodging – isn’t too shabby, either.

Photo by tmvogel/Flickr

Of course, even the Gingerbread’s gingerbread looks like store-bought cookies compared to the ornamentation on another local stunner, the Carson Mansion.

Possibly the most outrageous Victorian building in California – well, except for the storied Winchester Mystery House – lumber baron William Carson’s green-shingled castle is a NorCal coast landmark.

Just across the street, Carson had a humble little abode built for his son as a wedding gift. Today it’s known as the Pink Lady.

Ferndale (pictured below) has been called the best preserved Victorian village in California by the Los Angeles Times, and This Old House voted Eureka one of the Best Places to Buy a Queen Anne in the U.S.

I’m not sure why Humboldt County has done such an unusually amazing job preserving its historic architecture. Maybe they didn’t have the economic means to bulldoze and rebuild with the rest of the state, considering Eureka’s median income is roughly half the California average. Maybe the arts and culture-focused residents saw the unique beauty in their whimsical old buildings when everyone else valued sleek, modern and new. Maybe there’s just something magical about the fog-shrouded communities bordering redwood forests, Humboldt Bay and the mysterious Lost Coast, an area of the Golden State that is – remarkably– still untouched.

Whatever the reason, the result is a trip back in time.


Filed under famous houses, historic houses, old houses, travel, Victorian

Victorian Gardens

When the thermometer inches towards 100 degrees and my garden is looking sad and wilted, I dream of the lush, green gardens of Ferndale.

Every summer we spend a weekend in the remarkably well-preserved Victorian village on the Northern California coast.

Ferndale yards epitomize the old house garden – you know, the kind of garden your grandma had. Think big bushy hydrangeas, dahlias the size of your head, climbing roses, shaped shrubs and tucked away patios with tiny tables and chairs – formal English garden meets whimsical cottage garden, if you will. Of course, Ferndale is better known for its old houses, dairy cows and some of the movies filmed here than it is for its landscaping, but I’ll get to that another day.

When we get there, we always park under these guys, the gumdrop trees.

Plants of all kinds thrive in the town’s temperate coastal air.

One of the bed-and-breakfasts, the Gingerbread Mansion, is known for its Victorian gardens, full of fuschia, fountains and hummingbirds.

But my favorite garden in town is a lot more informal. It’s the farm garden at Fern Cottage, built in 1886 by the pioneering Russ family and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Never mind the hose in this photo. It’s a working farm – see the wooden chicken coop in the back?

My thumb isn’t green enough to recreate these landscapes in the climate at home, but that’s just an excuse to keep coming back.


Filed under garden, historic houses, old houses, travel, Victorian

Southern Eye Candy

I expected to find country music, humidity and Andrew Jackson in Nashville.

What I didn’t expect to find was such a cool collection of old houses.

See, when we planned the Southern trip we took earlier this month, we specifically scheduled a stop in Asheville, North Carolina because I’m a bungalow freak and Asheville is supposed to be a bungalow paradise – sort of like the Pasadena of the South, minus the smog. They even hold an annual Arts and Crafts Conference at the very arts-and-crafts Grove Park Inn.

But somehow we managed to miss most of the bungalows, partly because we were in the wrong neighborhoods (Victorian and Craftsman-inspired mini mansions – and castle-inspired real mansions – rather than the modest cottages I was after).

And partly because we just plain ran out of time.

So I couldn’t believe my luck when, soon after arriving in Music City, we drove through row-upon-row of – you guessed it – bungalows.

And Tudors, four-squares and colonials. And some styles that I just couldn’t place. Some were residences; some now housed record labels and recording studios.

So I did what any old house lover would do – I broke out my camera and started snapping away like a madwoman, hoping to bring some Southern inspiration home with me.


I only wish we had more time to visit the many historic places in the Nashville area. If you’re going to judge a place by how it preserves its old buildings, Nashville is top-notch.

Plus, it’s got character.


Filed under bungalow, exteriors, old houses, travel

Living Large

I admit it – I’m guilty of grass is greener syndrome. In my little suburban apartment, I thought all I needed to be happy was an old house and closet space.

Now that I’m in my 1942 one-story with three (tiny) closets, and I find myself dreaming of an even older two-story with a guest bedroom and more than bathroom – and more closet space.

But in reality, I don’t really need those things. I’m simply intrigued by what I don’t have – give me a Craftsman and I’ll dream about living out the rest of my days in a Queen Anne, a Queen Anne and I’ll dream about life in a Craftsman.  

I think to some extent, everyone feels that way – everyone except the one-time residents of the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C.

What more could you possibly want when you have 25,000 square feet of living space and an 8,000-acre backyard?

With 250 rooms and four acres under one roof – not to mention the treasure trove of European antiques and art inside – the Biltmore is the largest privately-owned home in the U.S. and truly a study in opulence. In a time when most folks hadn’t heard of indoor plumbing, the late 19th Century chateau of George and Edith Vanderbilt had 43 bathrooms.


Photography isn’t allowed inside, but you can check out a slideshow of interior pictures on the Biltmore website.

Suffice to say, it makes the historic Grove Park Inn, which we also toured in Asheville, look like a modest shack (albeit a shack with a killer view).

FYI, if you ever make it out to the Biltmore, try to figure out how much time you’ll spend there – then triple it. Between the museum of a house, the gardens designed by renowned landscape artist (and Central Park designer) Frederick Law Olmsted, the stable house turned shopping center, restaurant and ice cream parlor, we were there for over four hours.

Funny thing, though – as much as I enjoyed winding up and down the many spiral staircases, and around the many garden pathways, all I could think about was how much I appreciated the simplicity of my ordinary cottage.

The truth is, I like my 960-square-foot house. I’m lucky I have what I do – if you’ve ever been fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to tour an Ikea, you’ll see neatly organized living spaces in 500 square feet or less – I’ve got no excuses.

Sure, less space means freedom. But it also means less cleaning, organizing and decorating – and, in a way, requires more creativity. Besides, I like to do actual living in my living room – kind of hard to accomplish when you’ve got like 30 of them.

I could use some of that closet space, though.

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Filed under exteriors, famous houses, interiors, travel

My first salvage yard

I’ve always read that architectural salvage yards are great places to find period materials for old houses. But to my dismay, they all seemed to be located on the East Coast.

 I guess I wasn’t looking hard enough. Last weekend, I happened upon my very first salvage yard in Berkeley – Ohmega Salvage.


Need an army of claw foot bathtubs? Apparently this is the place to find it.


Or how about a 1930s-era sink in blue, mint or peach?

Or matching toilets?


You know, what this salvage yard really needs is a vintage urinal. Oh, look, they’ve got one!  


Doors, windows, address tiles – you name it, they’ve got it.

And just down the street is Omega Too, which originally began as an annex to the salvage, according to the store’s blog. Today, new owners sell restored and reproduction lights, tubs, sinks, doors and ironworks like curtain rods and address letters.   

We didn’t buy anything at the salvage that day, but when we’re ready to replace our white aluminum back door with something older – or if we get a hankering for a bathroom the color of a Cadbury mini-egg – we know where to look.

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Filed under old houses, restoration, travel

Pacific Northwest Paradise

Damn you, Portland, Oregon. 

 Just when I think I could be content settling down less than 100 miles from where I was born, you stir up my grass-is-greener wanderlust. 

With your street after street of charming bungalows and four-squares, which often seem to house charming families and charming cats. Portland really does feel like the city that wants to be a town – a collection of neighborhoods more than a metropolis. 





And your numerous retro neon signs, vintage clothing stores and yummy food carts. And your many vintage guitars. And coffee shops filled with bike-riding, tattooed hipsters. 


Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

And your city block-sized bookstore that overwhelms and humbles me, while surreptitiously stealing away hours of my day. 

And your many, many breweries (hiccup). 


 And of course, your crazy donuts. Sure, they’re nowhere near the best I’ve tasted – and after being featured on the Food Network and No Reservations, they’re tooth-achingly trendy – but the treats at Voodoo Doughnut are still inventive and fun. 



Besides, this is the closest thing people like me will come to getting into a nightclub. Seriously, look at this line. 


If only I was allowed to pump my own gas in Oregon instead of waiting on a teenage attendant, I think I might stay here for good.


Filed under bungalow, old houses, travel