Of the 32 homes on our block in Bungalow Heaven, only one reeked of mystery. 914 Chestnut. I swear my 10-month old son, Jack, sensed something odd about the place, too, whenever we’d trot past in the jogger stroller. “Dat!” he shouted on cue when I’d slow down to stare at it. Everything appeared relatively normal. The dark brown single story structure with forest green trim was in need of a new paint job and the faded lawn could use a gardener. But the shades were always drawn and I never saw a soul go in or out.
Then, one muggy August morning, after driving home from a trip to Crown City Hardware with Jack, I saw a Pasadena police car in front of 914 and a half dozen neighbors milling about, gossiping. I had to pull over.
Jack squirmed excitedly in my arms as we walked up to our nosey neighbors.
“I heard some bums were living inside and somebody tipped the police,” Beth Spritzer said.
“I bet someone’s dead in there,” Hank Buford said dryly.
“Know what happened?” I asked.” They all shook their heads ‘no’.
“They letting anyone inside?” I asked. Another ‘no’ consensus.
“Dat!” Jack blurted out, spying a cop jotting down notes.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Policeman,” I acknowledged, moving towards him. “Let’s say ‘hi’.”
“Excuse me,” I asked gingerly, “may I ask what’s going on?”
“Private matter,” the cop said, without looking up from his clipboard.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just that, as head of our street’s Neighborhood Watch committee, I was concerned.”
“Vandals broke a window,” he said matter-of-factly, then looked up at me.
“Probably a kid, hey—do I know you?” His gruff exterior seemed familiar. I stared at his badge. Officer Roger Clark.
“Sure do,” I said. “You came to my house to speak about crime prevention.”
“That’s it, you’re the writer,” Clark said, his mood mellowing.
“Right,” I said. “I interviewed you that night for a piece in the Pasadena Weekly. Got great feedback thanks to you.”
“Oh, well, good,” Clark said.
“You certainly make us feel safe around here,” I said. “Isn’t that right, Jack?”
“Dat!” Jack spat out emphatically.
“Well, needn’t worry about this place,” Clark said. “Except…” He trailed off staring back at the house, than back at me and back to the house again. I caught a glimpse of a shadow moving behind the shades.
“Is that the owner?” I asked, pointing to the window.
The cop hesitated before answering. “Look,” he said, “I’m not supposed to do this, but—” He stopped, then smiled at me. “What the heck. You wouldn’t believe it even if I told you.” Clark motioned me to come with him into the house.
“Believe what?” I asked. Walking in the front door, the first thing to hit me was the dust. Must have been an inch-thick. I fought back a sneeze, staring through a thick haze at the living room and dining area.
“The original owners lived here until 1941,” Clark said. I noticed Mission-style furniture, built-in cabinets, lamps and pottery with floral designs. The shadow figure I’d seen through the window—a tall, pale, balding guy in his 50’s—was inspecting a Batchelder fireplace.
“He’ll fill you in,” Clark said. “Just don’t touch anything.”
“Dat!” Jack shouted, and the man turned, startled.
“Uh, hi, I’m Scott and this is Jack,” I said holding my hand out. The man shook it, warily.
“Ben Whitman,” he said.
“He’s okay,” Clark said. “Just curious about the house.”
“Looks like time stopped still around here,” I said with a slight chuckle.
“Well, that ain’t far from the truth,” Ben said. “The original owners, Rose and Rachel Blake, came here in 1912. Then in 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, they panicked. In fact, a lot of people in the area panicked. Thought that the Japanese would attack the mainland.”
I never knew that.
“So the Blakes packed in a hurry and left,” Ben continued. “Never came back.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“Nope,” Ben said. “Gone. Poof. Been this way ever since.”It took a moment for this to sink in. An odd feeling gnawing at my gut. Like I’d stepped through a time portal.
“You’re telling me no one’s lived here since 1941?” I asked. “No one’s been in this house at all? What about family?”
“All their kin lived in Nova Scotia and didn’t want to come out,” Ben explained. “The place was paid for, too, so no bills, mail, no upkeep. Only instructions Rose left were to tend the outside, so arrangements were made. Things got lost in the shuffle, I suppose.”
I walked through this bizarre museum piece awe-struck. Everything exactly as it was for more than fifty years: a chestnut vanity dresser with half-filled perfume bottles, the faded white crochet-patterned bedspreads, an Arts and Crafts vase of dead flowers with a small hand-written note next to it: “Please change water.” I realized there more notes scattered around the house (to whom?), but the writing was illegible. A few simple print dresses hung in the closet. A medicine cabinet contained a few antique dark blue pill bottles, like you’d find at swap meets.
Jack was getting fidgety, so we decided to end our tour.
“Where do you fit in?” I asked Ben.
“My grandfather was the original caretaker,” he said. “I tend to it now.”
“And no one’s ever wanted to sell it after all these years?” I said.
“Don’t know, “ Ben said. “All I get is a small check in the mail once a month from the Blake estate in Canada. Kind of on auto pilot.”
I took in one more view around this perfectly preserved artifact. My life experience made it difficult to understand the emotions the Blakes must have felt in ’41 when they rushed out, leaving everything behind. Never coming back.
“Dat!” Jack said.
“That’s right, Jack,” I acknowledged. “I want to know more, too.”
© Copyright 2009 Stephen R. Wolcott. All rights reserved.
Stephen R. Wolcott is a writer/producer specializing in behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries on the film industry (view samples of his work on his website). His passion for interviewing and love of movies extends to a blog, The Interview Maestro. He also writes magazine articles, and can occasionally be found reading original stories at spoken words events. The story above was inspired by an actual incident Steve encountered working next to an abandoned Craftsman house. And yes, people in L.A. panicked. (See related story.)