I grew up in a small house, very small for a family of five. We lived in Whittier, California. Nominally, a city, but, in truth, one small portion of the endless sprawl concealing the surface of the coastal plain of Los Angeles County like amoeboid creatures encrusting ranch houses and strip malls upon the forsaken earth that once fostered great swaths of orange groves, walnut trees, and coast live oaks.
Whittier, founded in 1898 by Quakers, did have an old part of town with charming bungalow houses. That’s not where we lived. We lived in the flats. A mile or two down from the hills, where a newer neighborhood called Friendly Hills housed the local doctors and lawyers in stretched-out versions of the California ranch house. I guess you could call where my family lived a ranch house, a diminutive version of one. And why would anyone place these houses in the typology of a ranch house? There weren’t any ranches nearby, no cows or cowboys, no haciendas or dancing Spanish damsels. The vast Spanish and Mexican rancheros were subsumed as spoils of war by the Americans. Subdivided first into small farms and eventually into housing tracts designed to reap wealth for real estate developers and house Midwesterners fleeing from frozen winters to claim their place in the land of endless sunshine, nonexistent winters, and aerospace corporations manufacturing weapons of war.
Dad, a geologist working for Union Oil, and Mom, a nurse working at Whittier Hospital, shared the master bedroom. Lydia, my sister, the middle child, occupied her own tiny bedroom. My kid brother, Timmy, the runt of the litter, and I, Frederick Edward Littleton, lodged in the third bedroom. It couldn’t have been much more than 150 square feet, 75 square feet for each of us, except I was the big brother, so I got 85 square feet, and Tim got 65 square feet. My parents placed Tim in the bedroom with me once he turned a year old. Before that, he’d been sleeping in a crib in my parents’ bedroom. I was six years old when our brotherly cohabitation commenced, and since I was the oldest, and he was the youngest, I never had a private room for the remainder of my childhood.
Due to the way the local school district drew the lines to determine who attended which high school, I ended up at La Vista de los Árboles, or known more prosaically as Tree View High School. And there were a handful of large old oak trees just outside the entrance to the high school. Los Árboles sat in the heart of the Friendly Hills subdivision and most of my fellow students were the sons and daughters of the local elite. One of them, Glenn Jackson, became a good friend.
Glenn was tall, gangly, and athletic. He invited me over to his house, and this house was like nothing I’d ever seen. I remember the first time I walked into Glenn’s house. There was a foyer, or, in other words, a whole friggin entry room with a fifteen-foot-high cathedral ceiling lined with cedar planks and held up with ebony trusses. The front door was composed mostly of stained-glass panels set into multiple wooden frames that altogether composed the image of a purple wisteria vine overflowing with flowers. There were two six-foot-long mahogany benches, one on each side of the foyer.
“Wow, Glenn! This is amazing.” I had said as we sat down on opposite sides of the foyer to remove our street shoes.
“Yeah, pretty nice,” he said.
“What kind of doctor is your father?” I asked as I looked down at my socks for holes, which luckily I did not find. I then slipped on my tennis shoes.
“He’s a heart surgeon. He has patients from all over the country, even a few from Canada.”
“I guess so, but he’s just my dad to me. Let’s go check out the rest of the house. Then we’ll hit the tennis court. We can take a dip in the pool after that.”
“Oh, man, I brought my tennis racket but no swimming trunks,” I said as we walked through an arts and crafts living room, walls lined with dark wood from the floor to about five feet up, massive redwood beams on the ceiling and a floor to ceiling window providing a view of the garden and tennis court.
“No worries. We’ve got a whole slew of extra trunks and flippers and beach balls. Let’s play a set first.”
“Fantastic, but I’ll probably be sweat ridden after a set with you.”
“That’s what our pool room with the shower is for. Tennis, shower, swim. Then we can get some snacks. Mathilda just baked some of her amazing chocolate chip cookies. I’ll ask her to bring them out after we’re done swimming.”
“She’s our live-in maid.”
“You have a live-in maid?” I asked as we reached the tennis court.
“Darn right we do! Don’t you?”
“Glenn, I don’t even have my own bedroom. I’m still sharing it with my kid brother.”
Two years after beating Glenn six games to four at his childhood home in Friendly Hills, I found myself residing with two roommates in Isla Vista, California, the student ghetto adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara campus. I had moved up in the world. I had my own bedroom. Although, with Rob living in the room next to mine and Pablo living in a ginned-up bedroom with walls composed of several Indian throw blankets, each with a Mandala design in purple or blue, hung from one of the living room ceiling beams, this was not exactly a palace.
I couldn’t see the ocean from the west-facing glass wall of my bedroom, but I could hear it. I would open the louvered windows that were placed at the bottom three feet of the glass wall and lie down on my futon to fall asleep at night. I felt an ocean breeze whirl about the room and over my face, and I listened to the muted roaring of waves two blocks away. They sang a gentle lullaby that seduced me into a tranquil sleep.
When the sun shone, which was most of the time in Isla Vista, I’d head down to the beach for a run and a dip in the ocean, diving beneath the waves and emerging a quarter-mile beyond the shore, swimming parallel to the thirty-foot cliffs defining the landward edge of the beach. But I couldn’t simply swim and run through college; I didn’t want to live with roommates for the rest of my life. I could just see myself as a 35-year-old beach bum dealing dope to pay the rent and living in a bachelor pad with three or four other such guys. No thanks!
I’d taken a few art history classes. In one of them, I discovered the work of Greene and Greene, the great California architects of arts and crafts mansions. We even took a field trip to the classic arts and crafts Gamble house in Pasadena. The joinery of the woodwork, the stained-glass windows fused with the main entrance, the high polish of the redwood banisters on the interior stairway, all astounding. I also completed a class in Japanese art history. Fun stuff, but how would I ever make a living, a good living, studying art history? I declared a political science major and hit the books. The Magna Carta, the American constitution, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton. I studied the aforesaid and more. Next stop: law school. And it had to be one of the best of the lot.
I aced my classes and the LSAT, got my degree and applied to the Ivy League and the top west coast schools. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley. They all rejected me. Apparently, no west coast brats from the beach party school of UC Santa Barbara were desired. Well, fuck them! I was accepted at UC Hastings College of Law. Okay, not the pinnacle of law schools, but still a damn good law school.
I ended up living in a rambling six-bedroom, three-story Victorian house on McAllister Street. We were all law students at Hastings. The place was a mess. No one washed their dishes, no one swept the floors. Half the time I’d come home from studying at the Hastings library and found Chinese takeout containers with Moo Shu Pancakes and pork buns still residing in boxes sitting atop the kitchen countertop. My bedroom was fairly large, almost 200 square feet, and I kept it clean. But this was not a fun place to live. It was cheap and convenient and reasonably quiet due to the fact that the gaggle of resident law students spent the majority of their time studying.
Hard to believe that was a decade ago. I graduated. I clerked for a California Supreme Court justice, I passed the California bar exam, and I hit the jackpot. I was hired as an associate at the old San Francisco firm of Norris and Gellman, founded in 1878 by, you guessed it: Mr. Norris and Mr. Gellman, two upstanding young lawyers with wealthy fathers, part of the social and financial elite of late 19th century San Francisco.
After surviving the first six months of 60-hour weeks and mind-numbing legal work, I decided now was the time for yours truly, Frederick Edward Littleton, Esquire, to live alone. No more roommates, no more leftover Chinese takeout festering in the kitchen, no more rotting Victorian houses shared with bleary-eyed law students who became sleep-deprived attorneys. Enough was enough.
I put in a few hours of work on a sunny Saturday in March, and then I hoofed it up to the top of Nob Hill, to the corner of Jones and Clay. I stood in front of a four-story building with a series of squared-out bay windows extending from the sides of the building, topped by a cornice with dentil molding. The landlord, a short middle-aged man with a bald head, opened the front door, greeted me with a Russian accented, “Hello, young man,” and escorted me up a series of stairs to a top-floor one-bedroom apartment that faced east with a view of the Bay Bridge. He told me the rent was $4000 a month. I told him I’d think about it and left. With my hefty salary at Norris and Gellman, I could afford that. I could walk to the office from my Nob Hill apartment. That’s city living.
I walked north on Jones and then east on Jackson until I hit Montgomery. A few steps up Montgomery, I walked into William Stout Architectural Books. I found this bookstore shortly after starting at Norris and Gellman. I was wandering around on foot one Saturday afternoon after putting yet more hours in at work. I had walked down the block of Jackson Street between Sansome and Montgomery, gazing into the arts and antique shops housed in some of the few remaining buildings in the city constructed in the 1850s and 1860s. When I turned the corner at Jackson and walked north on Montgomery, I discovered William Stout Architectural Books. And what a discovery that was! I ambled among the tables and bookshelves of over 70,000 books. Architecture. Interior design. Furniture design. Garden design. Sometimes practising law was stimulating, challenging, even fun; other times it was nothing more than a slog through contracts and precedents. Browsing the books at William Stout, this was pure joy.
After my first sighting of William Stout Books, I visited it about once a week. And here I was again. I picked up a hefty book entitled, “The Great Palaces of Europe,” placed it on top of some other books at a nearby table and opened it at random. Ca’ d’Oro, House of Gold, a Venetian 15th-century Gothic palace. The main façade, facing the Grand Canal, originally glowed with gold leaf that had faded over seasons of summer heat and winter rain to reveal ivory-colored Istrian stone. The arches on each of the three levels of the palace became more delicate as they ascended from the lower loggia to the upper balcony. I turned the page. As I studied a photo of Gothic quatrefoils sitting atop the columns on the second-story balcony, I smelled jasmine perfume and sensed someone standing beside me.
“Quite lovely,” I heard a woman’s voice say. “I just got back from there.”
I turned my head to my right, and looked down a bit, to see a young woman standing next to me, looking at “The Great Palaces of Europe” with me. Her wavy, black hair poured forth from underneath a black wool cap. She wore a red plaid lumberjack shirt, tight blue jeans and beige hiking boots. “You were in Venice? At the Ca’ d’Oro?” I asked.
She smiled up at me. “Yes! I was inside the Ca’ d’Oro. There’s a museum in the palace, so you can see both the museum and the interior courtyard.”
“I’d like to live in a palace,” I said.
“Wouldn’t that be just too much? Overwhelming?”
“Not at all. Where you live is an expression of who you are and of your place in the world.”
“And where do you live now, if I may ask? Oh, and by the way, I’m Lizzie Lightbourne.”
“Great name!” I said. “I’m Fred Littleton, and currently I’m living in a rambling, decaying Victorian house on McAllister with a bunch of other young lawyers. However, I just checked out a one-bedroom apartment in Nob Hill. No more roommates for me.”
“So you must be a young lawyer yourself?” she half asked and half stated.
“Yes, I’m an associate at Norris and Gellman, an old San Francisco law firm. And what about you, Lizzie, do you have roommates?”
“Only my pet dog, a basset hound. I named him Kafka. The two of us live in an old brick warehouse at the base of Telegraph Hill. I have lots of space, but it does get cold when the fog rolls in.”
“I see. You and Kafka in a converted warehouse. You must be an artist.”
“I’m a ceramicist. I craft vases and clay sculptures.”
“I’d love to see your work.” I turned the page of the palaces book revealing the mosaic floor of the inner courtyard, composed of diamonds and circles in blues and tans. “How about a café latte at Caffe Trieste, Ms. Lightbourne?”
“That sounds fun, Mr. Littleton.”
I got to know Lizzie Lightbourne quite a bit better after that initial meeting at William Stout Books. She’d just broken off a relationship with a well-known middle-aged painter. The last time I’d had a girlfriend, I was still searching for a major at UC Santa Barbara. I met Aimi Haruki in my Japanese Art History class. That lasted about six months and we went our separate ways.
Lizzie and I became a couple. I moved into that one-bedroom apartment on Jones Street. I got to know her dog, Kafka, and to appreciate her art nouveau-inspired ceramics with curvilinear branches, leaves and flowers, female faces and flowing drapery. Both our careers prospered. Lizzie had two gallery exhibits at the John Pence Gallery. I expanded my knowledge of contracts, IPOs, and intellectual property.
At age 32, I became the youngest partner in the history of Norris and Gellman. One year later, I proposed marriage to Lizzie and she accepted. We planned a small wedding at City Hall and a reception for friends and family at her home and studio near Telegraph Hill. Then, we’d be off to Venice, where I could see the Ca’ d’Oro in person.
The question on my mind was where we would live upon our return from Italy. Lizzie could certainly keep her artist’s lair for herself, but it would be solely her studio, not her home. We both wanted to make a home together. I’d been saving most of the salary I made as an associate and my first year’s share of the firm’s profits as a newly christened partner. I had also made some shrewd investments in technology companies. And, just to be clear, no insider trading was involved. We didn’t represent the companies I invested in. The upshot was that I now had substantial funds saved and available for the purchase of my first palace. The home I would share with my wife. The home where we would raise our children. The home where we would entertain our friends and colleagues. The home that would proclaim to the world my family’s standing in the social hierarchy. I intended to aim as high as my capital would take me.
He certainly knew how to dress. A double-breasted suit in a dark gray, closing in on black, with a herringbone pattern defined by a subtly lighter shade of gray, tailored in Italian style to present his slender build. A turquoise tie popped against his classic white dress shirt, with a matching turquoise handkerchief peeking out of his suit coat breast pocket. His black hair, cut to a medium length, went nicely with his suit. He looked to be about 38 years old. Lizzie and I sat with him at a round table at a sidewalk café on Market Street, around the corner from the Jewish Museum.
“Bartolomeo Franchetti,” I read aloud from the business card he’d just handed me. “Licensed real estate agent.” I put the card in my shirt pocket.
“Just call me Bart,” he said and flashed us a Hollywood smile. “I’m so happy to meet the two of you here today. Fred told me on the phone that you were in Venice just a few weeks ago. I absolutely adore Venice. I bet you had the time of your lives.”
“I loved it,” said Lizzie. “The light, the colors, the paintings, the mosaics in San Marcos’ Basilica. I even painted a few watercolors while we were there.”
“Fantastic! And what about you, Fred? What did you most enjoy?”
“The palaces along the Grand Canal,” I said. “We were on a vaporetto one evening around twilight cruising down the Grand Canal. The lights were on in the windows and the facades were reflected into the water of the canal. Truly magical.”
“Fred wants to live in a palace,” said Lizzie. She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “I’m certainly open to looking at some San Francisco palaces, but I might want something cosier.”
“Personally,” said Bart, placing his right hand on his chest for a moment. “I don’t see any conflict. Maybe, we can find you a cosy palace.”
Bart, Lizzie and I stood in the foyer of a San Francisco palace. Redwood panels lined the walls and ceiling, with the library to the west side, the living room to the east and a stairway to the north leading up to the second of four stories. Bart guided us into the living room that continued the theme of redwood-lined walls and ceiling. A brick fireplace occupied center place on the north wall, expansive windows to either side of the fireplace looked out over the north side of Pacific Heights as it cascaded down to the Marina District, the waters of the Golden Gate and the hills of Marin County. The living room ceiling rose to twenty feet. Yet more windows opened views to the east and west. A grand piano sat proudly in the eastern corner.
Lizzie placed her hand on my elbow. “Oh, my God! This is amazing. But I’m pretty confident that this is beyond our price range,” she said.
Bart laughed softly. “Yes, Lizzie, I do believe you’re right about that. However, I wanted both of you to see this place. This is a real San Francisco palace. It dates to the 1880s. A businessman named William Babcock gave it to this daughter as a wedding gift.”
“Quite a wedding gift!” I said as I gazed up at the crystal chandeliers.
“Let’s check out the library,” said Bart.
We walked back across the oak parquet floors of the foyer and into the library, a room with redwood paneling, coffered ceilings, a fireplace with an ornately carved wood surround, and built-in bookshelves. Bart placed his hand on one of the bookshelves and gave it a light push. The bookshelf pivoted on hinges to one side to reveal a wet bar.
“This is certainly amusing, guys,” Lizzie said, “but, along with the outrageous price, I couldn’t imagine padding around here in my bare feet with my pet basset hound following me around. This place simply reeks of old money. And lots of it.”
“Okay, Lizzie,” I said. “I get the point.” I let my eyes roam around the room, at the carved wooden spiraling columns to each side of the built-in bookshelves, the tall, stylized flowers carved into the wood surround of the fireplace, the sweeping set of windows overlooking the side garden. I, for one, could imagine myself hanging out in this library. I could sit on the built-in couch set beneath the windows, prop up my feet on the coffee table, and spend a couple of hours reading a good book. I could sit in here with a good friend and converse about our adventures and misadventures in our everyday lives. Lizzie might feel ill at ease here, but I felt right at home.
“Okay, you two,” said Bart. “Let’s go check out some other places. Maybe we could discover a cosy palace that doesn’t reek of old money.”
We viewed four other homes for sale that day. One of them, in Noe Valley, dated from the 1890s and had a historic Edwardian façade with a stylized sun on two wooden panels above the main front windows. But once you walked inside, the place was aggressively modern with large panels of glass on the back side of the living room, steel banisters on the interior stairways, sandblasted glass on the floor of the upstairs landing, white walls and canister lighting. Everything historic that had once been part of this abode was now destroyed and transformed into a heartless modernism. No thanks.
Two of the other houses were just as stark as the first, but without the false advertising of a façade from another era. The final home was a modern interpretation of a Newport-style shingle home that I liked, but Lizzie said it was located too far from her studio.
Bart drove us to Lizzie’s warehouse studio and home and dropped us off. We waved goodbye to him and walked up the shared stairway to the third floor where Lizzie’s studio was located on the northern side of the 1912 brick warehouse. Inside, large sets of floor-to-ceiling windows welcomed in the northern light. Exposed redwood beams and posts held up the roof of the building. The planks of the oak floors had plenty of nicks as did the redwood posts and beams. Other than her bedroom and bathroom, the place consisted of one large room with a kitchen and potter’s wheel and a sitting area with a weathered gray couch all open to one another. It was comfy and had character, but it certainly wasn’t a palace.
We sat down at Lizzie’s maple dining room table as Kafka ambled over from his pet bed near the couch to greet us. His claws clicked on the hardwood floors until he reached Lizzie’s chair, and then he plopped down beside her feet. Lizzie poured us each a glass of Cabernet.
She took a sip of her wine. “What do you think a palace is, Fred?”
“It’s a grand residence.” I drank a bit of wine. “It’s a home that embodies taste and style, and announces to the world that the people living there are members of the elite.”
“My home, right here, embodies taste and style. And I don’t particularly care what my home proclaims to others. I certainly don’t care one whit about being a member of the elite. Why do you care about being considered part of the upper crust?”
I sat in silence for a minute and considered her question. “I grew up in the faceless sameness of suburbia. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother until I left home. I visited the homes of my high school friends. Their fathers were doctors or lawyers and their homes seemed grand and beautiful to me at the time. I’ve always wanted something similar, or even grander, for myself and my family.”
“You’ve long since left suburbia behind, and I’m sure whatever home we end up buying will be far more interesting than some suburban schlock. I’m an artist and I certainly appreciate beauty in my everyday surroundings. But I’m not looking for grandeur. I’m looking for a sense of ease, a sense of comfort, an embodiment of love.”
I drank the rest of my wine. “I know you’re right, Lizzie. You’re right about everything you said. But I still have this image of me and you living in a palace. That’s probably more than a bit naïve. Maybe we can find that cosy palace that Bart spoke of. And, if not, whatever house we end up buying and sharing, we’ll transform it into a cosy palace.”
Lizzie finished her glass of Cabernet and poured more wine into each of our glasses. She lifted her glass in a toast and smiled at me. “Here’s to our cosy palace, wherever it may be.”
I lifted my glass and clinked it against hers. “To our cosy palace.”
Kafka lifted his head and looked up at me with his dolorous eyes. He stood up, walked over to me and rested his head on my shoes. This was all getting rather cosy and I was realizing that I rather liked it.
About the author:
Mitchell Near, after youthful sojourns in several west coast cities, now lives in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Idle Ink, Bewildering Stories, Fiction on the Web and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Along with his interests in writing and literature, he is a student of art, architecture, music and the psychology of dreams. He loves walking the paths of the great cities and gardens of the world. You can visit his website at mitchellnear.com.
Feature image by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash