The Hand-Made Home.

During my time in the Bay Area over the past month, I’ve spent a lot of time looking around at new and curious things that have cropped up since I moved away. The list has focused on three areas (architecture / food / landscape) and how they have changed, or, more tellingly, look different to me now that I’m living back on the east coast.  In the architecture category, I’m thrilled to be reminded of the marvels of living in a detached home in the middle of a city (some with front lawns….amazing!).  In the food category, I am pleased to say that my borough of Brooklyn is definitely running neck-and-neck with the artisanal flavors that Bay Area cuisine is known for.  And finally, the landscapes I’m seeing – while not a fair comparison between the sweeping vistas of San Francisco Bay versus New York’s stunning skyline views – remind me that both are inspiring to the visitor, and bring me full circle back to the subject of architecture and its place in our world.

“Old Town” Placerville

On this note, I am thrilled to share a bit about one of my Bay Area adventures out in the Sierra Nevada foothills – Placerville, to be precise – where I visited the childhood home of my good friend, Jane.  While a visit like this, on a day like July Fourth, would be a wonderful trip in itself, it was especially significant for me because I have been waiting years – literally – for her to invite me to her family home.

We used to sit around the lunch table when we worked together and she would share stories about where she grew up – how she and her sister would run around barefoot, eating food straight out of the garden, riding their ponies bareback, and stomping on grapes in a barrel to help make her father’s homemade wine.  All fun stuff, except the story got even better when she would talk about her parents and how they came to Placerville in the first place.

Jane’s parents met in Switzerland, where her dad was stationed after his active duty service in the Korean War.  Her father, an American, did not speak German. Her mother, of Swiss origin, did not speak English.  Yet they met in the same coffee shop several days in a row, and, after a short time, barring the language barrier, they fell in love.  They married and lived in Switzerland for many years until job opportunities dried up and it was time to make a new plan.  Jane’s paternal grandfather suggested that his son take his family back home, to California, where he would provide them with a plot of land from his farm.  Wife and children in hand, Jane’s father took his family to Placerville, or “Hangtown” as it’s locally known (thanks to its history as the source of government and rule during the gold rush days) and it is here that they made their new home.

A glimpse of the house, from the garden pathways.

Living in a trailer for eight months, Jane’s parents built their home from scratch on that plot of land, with no previous training or knowledge of how to do so. Jane’s father’s family helped, turning it into a regular “barn raising.”  As I learned during my visit, they made a few updates over the years and, in fact, they are still making updates as they see fit.

Besides the home, they started work on the gardens shortly after they got settled. These gardens grew over the years, to a point where the family was able to almost fully survive on the food they grew in the garden, in addition to the eggs they got from their chickens.  Jane’s mom also had a spinning wheel with which she spun the yarn to make many of the family’s clothes.  In short, they lived almost as far off the grid as anyone I’ve ever met.  Despite purchases of some dairy (milk, cheese on occasion), baking supplies (Jane’s mom still makes bread on an almost daily basis) and paper products (toilet paper, storage bags now and again), they are almost fully self-sufficient on their 3-4 acre plot of land.

Early-day food shopping, with much more to come.

Our day-long visit included tours of the home and the gardens, in addition to a beautiful lunch prepared by Jane’s parents, Les and Magi.  I am thrilled to have been a part of their world – if only for a day – and to learn about the beauty and value of a hand-made house. The story continues in the following pictures – just a small glimpse of the labor of love that brought a little bit of the old American West alive for me in our modern-day world.

Hearty wisteria keeps the interior of the home cool.
Our lunchtime spread (complete with spaetzle!).
Following Magi down the hand-made pathway to the first garden.
The raised beds in the first garden. Everything is on a drip irrigation system and monitored on a daily basis.
The second garden – much larger than the first – contains over a dozen fruit trees, trained to grow horizontally to make fruit-picking easy and accessible.
One of the many shaded sitting areas in the garden. Jane’s parents often take a morning coffee break to survey their handiwork.
Low-growing boxwood is used as a border throughout the garden. Used in this manner more commonly in Europe, it serves as a wonderful critter deterrent (hedgehogs hate burrowing through the roots).
An interior view of the dining area (foreground), glassed-in sitting room (background) and 2nd floor catwalk, connecting the bedrooms (right) to the former spinning room, now library (left).
The perfectly planned, perfectly sized kitchen. We spent a large part of the interior tour discussing the merits of a well-planned kitchen. Magi planned everything to be easily accessible, and the open plan (as with the house overall) makes chatting with friends and family during meal prep an effortless task.
The front door, which actually serves as the back door. The shingles stop halfway up the house, exactly where the ladder ended.
Varied windows live harmoniously together on one side of the house.
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