A sage Southern lady once said that horses, husbands and houses should all come with their histories attached.
Although few homes come with such documentation, the history of a house can unravel mysteries, heighten
understanding and deepen appreciation of even a modest abode. Take, for example, Bob and Maria Kennedy's home,
a 1,100-square-foot 1922 Craftsman that they are meticulously restoring. Maria Kennedy has brought the family's
home to life by delving into the history of the house and its designer and builder, Eben Putnam Bomer.
In spite of the bungalow's small size and the modest Covina neighborhood, Kennedy sensed something extraordinary
about the home from the moment she swung open the oversized front door. She looked beyond the decorating
offenses of prior owners--the stucco exterior, the painted wainscoting and built-ins, the "updated" bathrooms--and
saw meticulous craftsmanship and caring. "The first thing that caught my eye was the formal dining room," Kennedy
said. "The room is unusually large and elaborate for a home of this size. And the built-in china cabinet is crafted in a
Greek Revival style, an unusual touch for a Craftsman bungalow."
Kennedy's curiosity about the dining room launched her on a quest to solve the architectural mysteries of her house.
She started with a telephone call to the local historical society. A few weeks later, a volunteer brought her a slip of
paper containing two cryptic pieces of information: the name E. P. Bomer and the year 1922.
After visits to the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor's Office, the Family History Center of the Mormon Church in
Westwood, the Baldwin Park Historical Society and the local library, Kennedy tracked down Bomer's obituary in a
She discovered that builder Eben Putnam Bomer, born in 1853 to a prominent New England family, was the grandson
of Revolutionary War hero Major Gen. Israel Putnam. Design Made Sense "Suddenly, the house's design started to
make sense," Kennedy said.
"The dining room was Bomer's way of re-creating the formal dinners of his childhood in Boston." The Putnam Bomer
family eventually settled in Marietta, Ohio, where even rural farmhouses have a classical air, thanks to Greek
Revival touches such as cornices and pilasters. Those same touches are reflected in the built-in cabinet.
With leads provided by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Kennedy was able to follow Bomer's
westward migration from Ohio to Iowa to California, where he started an orange grove in Orange County.
The Kennedys are reminded of Bomer's citrus business every time they reach for a linen napkin from the china
cabinet; the drawers are fashioned from produce crates. Each new tidbit of information about Bomer's life provided
Kennedy with further leads, which she pursued like a tenacious detective, making phone calls and gathering
information from county records, genealogical resources and libraries all over Southern California. Gradually, the
pieces, such as a building permit and the 1926 obituary, began to fit together.
"When I had time to reflect, I realized that Bomer died six months after applying for a permit to build the sleeping
porch," she said. "That sleeping porch was a dying man's last hope of recovery. It's always been my favorite room in
Like many who are motivated to research the histories of their homes, Kennedy started out with a love for the home
and a passion for history. "The more I learned about Bomer, the more obsessed I became," she said. "To me, he
represents America at its best. You can see a time capsule of the westward expansion through his life. You can also
see the ingenuity of the man in every detail of the home."
The same kind of love for her 1929 Pasadena home prompted Jane Applegarth, a real estate agent for Coldwell
Banker, to investigate her house's history. "I wanted to find the answers to a few basic questions," she said. "Did the
previous owners love the home as much as I do? What did they do for a living? How has the home transformed over
Although Applegarth has personally researched home histories for many of her real estate clients, she turned over
the research on her own home to Tim Gregory, a Pasadena freelance historian who has researched hundreds of
Gregory's work as a building biographer often turns him into a mystery-solving sleuth. One client wanted to know why
his house had a large foyer and two front doors. The design made sense once Gregory discovered that the original
owner was a doctor who practiced medicine from his home.
Another house with a full finished basement, a rare find in Altadena, turned out to have been a speak-easy during the
Prohibition era. For Applegarth, Gregory traced the evolution of the house from 1,500 square feet to its current 2,400
square feet. As the house expanded over the years, the maid's quarters were converted to a laundry room, the entry
was eliminated, one bedroom was added and another expanded.
The history also helped Applegarth become knowledgeable about the home's former owners, such as a Presbyterian
minister and an executive for an electric company.
Marguerite Duncan Abrams, the president of Pasadena Heritage, loves to recall the story of a Pasadena home with a
split personality. A few years ago, the new owners arrived at her office carrying two sets of light fixtures. One set of
silver-plated sconces was intricately scrolled like an elaborate tea set. The other set was iron, hand hammered into
the shape of dragons, complete with forked tongues. Duncan Abrams recognized that both sets, although vastly
different in style, originated from the same era.
Duncan Abrams did a little digging and discovered that the original homeowner, a developer who favored a "wild,
back-to-nature look," installed the dragon sconces. A few months later, he sold the house to a refined Maine family,
who added the silver tea service sconces.
With a little more digging, Duncan Abrams learned that the family from Maine owned the Hinds Co., producer of a
popular line of honey and almond creams and lotions. "Before long, you have not just a history of your house but a
social history and a history of the development of the area," said Duncan Abrams.
She added that Pasadena offers home researchers a unique set of resources--the Pasadena Historical Museum, the
Centennial Room of the city's public library, the city's design and historic preservation staff.
In Southern California, she said, "We're lucky because there are a number of communities that have one person who
is absolutely great at collecting records. Altadena, Pasadena, South Pasadena and Monrovia all have at least one
In Redondo Beach, that person was resident historian Gloria Snyder, who spent a lifetime compiling historical
information. If someone in Redondo Beach wanted a history, Snyder happily plunged into her files.
Her death this year has left a gap, but Snyder leaves behind a sizable archival legacy, which the city of Redondo
Beach is in the process of cataloging.
Jonathan Eubanks, the past chairman of Redondo Beach's preservation commission, said that much of the city's
unusual history is reflected in the homes.
In the first half of the 20th century, gambling, although never legal, was a thriving local business. A searchlight to
signal the arrival of federal authorities was found in one home. Other homes had included trap doors leading to hidden
But, as Maria Kennedy learned, homes needn't hint of ghosts or a shady past cloaked in speak-easies or illegal
gambling to be fascinating. For the Kennedys, the life of Eben Putnam Bomer has proven equally spellbinding. Bomer
is so much a part of their lives that their youngest son, 2-year-old Andrew, answers to the nickname "Bomer" and the
family visits Bomer's grave in Burbank every Memorial Day. Kennedy recently hit historian's pay dirt when she used
an Internet search to track down Bomer's great-granddaughter, Judy Mac Rostie Dwyer, in Orlando, Fla.
Dwyer said she was thrilled when she received a call from the "family living in the home built by my
great-grandfather." By coincidence, Dwyer and her husband, Mike, were scheduled to be in San Diego for a business
trip the next week, and they added the Bomer-Kennedy home to their itinerary.
Dwyer, who developed an interest in family history about two years ago, had all of the missing pieces to Kennedy's
puzzle. She showed up at her great-grandfather's home armed with detailed genealogies and family photos, including
early shots of Bomer and his wife, Sadie.
During the visit, the Kennedys played a recording of "With Someone Like You," a song that Bomer frequently
crooned in the bungalow's backyard. The recollection and the recording were both supplied by Stan Smith, an
82-year-old Covina musician who was a young boy when he knew Bomer.
The song sums up Bomer's sentiments about his house and, 75 years later, echoes the Kennedy family's feelings for
their historically rich home:
"We'll find that perfect place
where joys will never cease
out there beneath the starry skies.
We'll build a sweet little nest
somewhere out in the West
and let the rest of the world go by."
Susan Carrier is a Los Angeles freelance writer.