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A cozy piece of local history: Craftsman home built in 1908 exudes warmth and simplicity


The Johnsons' Craftsman home features a charming inglenook, a small room by the "ingle" or fire, with built-in benches and bookcases. The living room is paneled in old-growth, clear-heart redwood.

How could such a good idea have disappeared? What homeowner would not want a cozy nook by the fire, with a window seat, built-in padded bench and built-in bookshelves?

The Craftsman-style house owned by Los Altans Annie Lin-Johnson and Jim Johnson on Maynard Court boasts such a room. Called an "inglenook" or "chimney corner," the area has an open fireplace flanked by comfortable benches snuggled against the walls and windows. The room contains only the fireplace, the two benches and two bookcases with glass-door fronts (to keep the soot off the books).

"It's too small to accommodate a lot of people," Jim said, "but it's a very cozy place to read by the fire."

The fireplace was built with clinker ("exploded") bricks gathered from the rubble of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Such bricks were discarded for being uneven in color and texture until Craftsman artisans began using them. The name is said to come from the sound made when two of the bricks - heavier than regular bricks - were banged together.

The whole house is cozy. All the materials exude warmth and sensuality - you want to touch the walls. All the lines are clean, simple, uncluttered and substantial. No wonder the house has survived nearly 100 years.

The two-story shingled Craftsman bungalow was built in 1908 by J. Gilbert Smith, who also built, and lived in, what is today the Los Altos History House Museum. Like the History House, the Johnson residence was once a farmhouse surrounded by apricot orchards. Some of the original apricot trees, now old and gnarled, are still producing. The original driveway on what was then a four-acre parcel extended to San Antonio Road. Now newer houses surround the historic structure.

The original property included a water tower that supplied irrigation to the surrounding farms.

The Johnsons are the fourth owners of the home. Smith sold it to the Kilpatrick family and, in 1924, sea captain J.J. Manning bought it because it reminded him of the interior of a ship. His daughter Arah Manning Love grew up there, moved away, got married and came back. She taught at the Little Brown Shoe preschool in an adjacent building. She sold the house to the Johnsons in 1994.

Like many other Craftsman bungalows, this one consists of large rooms built around a living room in the center front of the house. This type of house was usually of moderate size, but each room was large. The Craftsman style was so popular that plans were sold by Sears and Roebuck.

The gambrel-roofed Johnson residence boasts a superb Craftsman interior, beautifully restored and gleaming from decades of devoted care. The ceiling beams and wall panels are made from huge planks of clear-heart redwood harvested from virgin growth in Big Basin, Santa Cruz County.

"We are sometimes tempted to paint the walls a brighter color, because it tends to be dark in here," Annie said. "We did let in more light by trimming back a wisteria that hung over the windows."

The 70-year-old wisteria now grows on a trellis removed from the house.

The original light fixtures are still working, after being restored and rewired for safety. Original knobs and pulls adorn the built-in breakfront china cabinet in the dining room. Beautiful original hardware accents the 4-1/2-foot-wide wooden door, which is similar to the doors used on Craftsman bungalows in Berkeley by architects Greene and Greene.

There are still a few faint stains on the dining room wall and a patched hole in the ceiling from one of the pot-bellied stoves once used to heat the house.

The original house was a small farmhouse. Over time, owners added rooms.

"We took off a bad addition," said Annie. "One of the previous owners added on some rooms in the Eichler style; it didn't go with the original house at all. We tore out those rooms and built Craftsman-style rooms."

The new rooms include an open, large kitchen, an airy, light family room, and upstairs bedrooms and bath. The master bedroom has a coved ceiling. The new rooms blend seamlessly with the old.

Upstairs, a former sleeping porch has been converted to an indoor office. Describing the original open porch, Jim said, "The idea was you sleep outside because the air was considered healthy, good for curing respiratory diseases. The air here is dryer than in many places."

The well-landscaped yard includes a pool. The Johnsons do all their own gardening because "it's fun and relaxing," said Annie.

A vast, first-floor covered porch, at the entrance, glassed in on one side and overlooking the garden on the other, provided a sheltered area for the children to play on rainy days when they were small.

Now, son Keane, 14, attends Los Altos High School, and Audun, 11, attends Santa Rita Elementary School.

The old house likes to tell its own story at times. "Whenever the temperature changes, the house creaks and pops and bangs," said Annie. "When we were remodeling, the workers asked us if the house was haunted."

"It's a lot of noise," said Jim, "but you get used to it. We were warned."

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