Auburn’s Vintage Neighborhoods: Time Portals into the Past

What is it about older neighborhoods that captivates people? Auburn is famous throughout the West for its Gold Rush history. Folks gravitate here to enjoy the hot spots and entertainment venues illustrated in tourism brochures. But, behind all the colorful shops and restaurants, the backstreets are truly beckon us to explore.

The hillsides in town are a maze of winding streets. Perched along these streets are iron works, old firehouses, a train depot, old water canals, and vintage homes standing like friends, inviting one to look closer.

These older, hand-crafted homes are time portals to the past, each with fascinating stories to share.

When we searched for a house our realtor drove us up and down hillsides, meandering all over the place. “Where on earth are you taking us?” we asked. We were young and it was 1980.

“The original streets are laid out on deer trails”, he replied. “They don’t make much sense. I’m just driving you past a few places for sale. See that one? It’s not too bad. It needs a foundation, a new roof, some electrical work, siding, wiring, windows, a kitchen and a furnace.  The lot belongs to the railroad, but you kids could get the place for a song and fix it up. Of course, the railroad may decide they need the land later and tear your house down, but there’s only a small chance of that”, he muttered. “It could be a good deal for you, you know?”

Good grief, I thought.  Fixing up a place like this could take the rest of our natural lives.  I wanted a sweet little cottage-style house, something with character.  I was not prepared to inherit The Monster.

“I want to see that Victorian house in East Auburn, the one near the canyon”, my husband announced.

“Are you kids sure about that?” the realtor asked. “That place needs a ton of work. Come to think of it, that whole neighborhood needs lots of work. There’s crime there, too, with several busted-up rentals on that street. How about I show you a newer home over on the south side of town?”

“No”, my husband insisted. “We want to see that house.”

“Babe; I’m afraid that place will be a lot of work and cost us a ton of money”, I cautioned. But my husband wasn’t listening. He specifically wanted that house. We had both grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in tract homes. We had been raised in soulless and boring houses built in the mid-20th century. Row upon row: every house looked the same and they were all built out of lightweight construction materials never intended to last long-term. We were trying to escape that kind of monotony and find something unique. Auburn’s older neighborhoods offered an unusual collection of houses unlike anywhere else. This place might be falling down, but it had character, charisma, and a unique run-down allure to it.

So, like the suckers we were, we bought this 1898 Victorian house burgeoning with restoration challenges. If we’d truly known back then what we were getting into, we would have run away screaming. But we were young and stupid, with stars in our eyes. The house was bigger than anything we had hoped for: a two-story Carpenter Gothic Victorian on a corner lot. It loomed at us as we walked up to the front door.  We walked around inside, wondering what needed to be done and how we could manage to do it.

The house needed EVERYTHING fixed. But the owner knew how to mask flaws with pretty quilts on the walls, and curtains all around.  We fell in love with The Monster before we knew what we were up against. Even in its current state, we had to leverage enough funds to buy it.  We were poor and had very little money. We cobbled together funds, bought the house, and moved in on December 20th, 1980.

“Look at that roof!  a friend said when he came to visit. “I’ll bet it hasn’t been shingled in 50 years”. He was right … except that it had been 55 years.  We knew because when we tore off the old roof we found a magazine and newspapers dating back to 1925.

The house only had two electrical circuits.  These were made of ancient, with original knob and tube wiring dating back to the early days of electricity. The former owner had extension cords running all over the house. You couldn’t run the toaster and a hand dryer without blowing a breaker. Fans of the movie “The Money Pit” will understand many of the things we went through. Every time I sat in the claw foot bathtub I was afraid it would crash through the floor and drop me into the cellar.

The plumbing was old and evil-looking.  Black-colored water groaned and quaked through the rattling pipes like some ferocious beast.

“Hey: did you notice that the whole back end of your house is sitting on one support pier?” our neighbor pointed out.  “And that support pier is perched on a steeply tilted rock. Look: you can see it right here.” I looked on in growing horror. How was this place still standing, I wondered? How had it existed for over 82 years?

The house paint was peeling. There was no foundation. We needed to re-plumb, re-wire, re-roof, re-everything.  And this was just the beginning.

“Kids, I worked my whole life so you wouldn’t have to live in a place like this”, my father-in-law said morosely when he saw the place.

My own father was more encouraging, and said something along the lines of “Are you two out of your freaking minds?”

Our neighbors across the street had just moved into their 1930s Craftsman home two months before us. They were busy rewiring, re-roofing, re-plumbing, painting, and so on. They had made the fatal mistake of falling in love with their house, too.

 “We’re just getting started. We looked at your house first, but that one scared us even more than ours. Welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Wow, that was encouraging”, we said to each other. What next?

The young couple looked nice enough. I wondered if they were movie stars because they looked amazing: matching jackets, attractive faces, lots of youthful zeal and excitement.  Their place had formerly been rented by a motorcycle gang who had thrashed the place and spray painted gang graffiti all over the walls.

We soon met the other neighbors as they strolled down the street in little groups to visit. They were in a similar fix: how to restore falling-down houses on a low budget? Up the street, around the corner, everywhere were old homes needing rescue. They were all falling apart. Many of these houses had been rentals for decades and had suffered terrible abuse. Our house had even been a duplex at one point; there were two front doors, two porches, two walkways, and two entry gates through the picket fence. The dividing wall between the two units had been removed some years before but the stairs took a strange turn when they had once gone straight down.

“Hello, I’m Tom. That’s my junk heap over there” (pointing to a cottage style Victorian diagonally across the street from us). I’m trying to get my girlfriend to move in with me. She likes the house, but is concerned about the repair costs. So am I.”

Later, I met ‘the girlfriend’ and she was very friendly, telling me how glad she was to see another family in the neighborhood who cared enough to restore a home.  Peeling paint, sagging rooflines, broken windows, battered boards, roofs leaking like sieves. Electrical systems ready to explode into flames. Ancient plumbing dating back to the 1890s. We all had this in common.  We felt like old house restoration warriors.

“Do you know where I can get some original looking siding?” I asked her.

“No, but we have a carpenter friend and I’ll ask him for you.  Come on over for a cup of coffee and we can trade ideas.”

Another neighbor approached us: “Hey guys: is this your place now? Good luck! Mine is the two story Victorian up the street there. We just replaced the foundation, because the house was listing at a 15 degree angle. We rebuilt the pull-chain toilet in the upstairs bathroom, put on a new roof and painted the outside. Going to have to tear out the kitchen and rebuild it, and then the windows, siding, doors …”

This was too much to hear. We excused ourselves from the conversation and walked quickly away. What had we gotten into? Were all these people delusional? Were we? Most likely.

At this point our knees were beginning to tremble. But we kept our thoughts to ourselves as we heard story after story of old house restoration blues. We were young and had no clue what we were doing. We watched countless episodes of “This Old House” and other home restoration shows the rabid way cooks devour episodes on the Food Channel. We gathered up ideas and mail order catalogues for old house restoration items.

“We should be able to get this house restored in 5 years or so”, my husband confidently predicted.

Well, we’ve been at it for over 42 years and counting. At this point even the restored parts need restoring. It’s a never-ending story. We just finished paint job number five, re-roof job number four, bathroom remodel number three, and we are looking at kitchen remodel number two. “Run away!” I think, imagining that a wildfire or earthquake might be easier to survive than an old house constantly needing work.

Last night our daughter was telling us about how we are seen as a corps of legionnaires who have held our guard, our home restoration swords held aloft for decades.

“You guys are the Original Gangsters in the neighborhood.  Every newcomer looks up to you now! When they come here and buy an older home they all want to meet you to get ideas about how to fix up their places.”

“What? Wow, really?” we replied in wonder. If they only knew what we had been through.  Like the time my husband decided to take on a job that was too big for him:

“I’m going to replace some siding on the back of the house”, he announced one day.

“Don’t you think we should wait for someone to help with that?” I asked naively.

“I’ll be fine”, he boomed confidently. Whereupon he clambered up a steep ladder and began to forcefully pry boards loose. This was followed by a great crashing, rending sound of the ladder scraping against the back fence and tumbling to the ground, carrying him along with it.

“Kaboom! The ladder crashed and thundered. “Arrrggghh!” my husband hollered.

The neighbors heard the noise and came running over to find Vern pinned inside a 12” wide space between the back wall of the house and the fence. They ran back and got a power saw to cut down the fence and extract my husband.  We called 911 and had them transport him to the Emergency Room for broken ribs.

Later, there were falls off the porch roof, fingers stapled to shingles, scraped and bleeding forearms, nails driven through hands and feet requiring tetanus shots, and countless other colorful injuries. Oaths and curses rang through the air over the years as, gradually, the neighborhood began to take shape.

The Original Gangsters stood shoulder to shoulder, encouraging and supporting each other through years, as they proudly restored the old neighborhood to its late 19th and early 20th Century beauty.

Many people from all over Auburn, the greater Placer County area, and from all over the state come to these older neighborhoods to walk, participate in neighborhood events, and gain a sense of community. People going through always stop and ask about the neighborhood history. Some of them lived in these houses many years ago,  they’ve told stories of early Auburn, and what it was like.

One former resident of our home was the daughter of the Idaho Maryland Mine manager in Grass Valley. She told intriguing stories about the house and the neighborhood, including a story about a ‘Doc Snypp’ who lived right down the street.  Late one night her very pregnant mother screamed out that the baby was coming, and sent her father running down the street to get the doctor.  Doc Snypp ran up the street, pulling up his trousers as he went, racing over to the house in the middle of the night to deliver her baby brother. I couldn’t believe a doctor would have such a name, so I looked him up. Doctor Snypp is on record in early 20th Century Auburn.

Ours is one of many old neighborhoods in Auburn.  The mid-town area around Placer High is very picturesque with old Victorians, Craftsman, and other vintage architectural styles.  The brick red Episcopalian Church on the corner of ___ and ___ dates back to ____ and is one of the oldest structures in town, and the original Auburn Iron Works on the corner of Lincoln Way and Elm has been around since ____.  The Gold Rush Mining Museum is the home of the former Auburn Train Depot, built in 185_? Old Town Auburn is filled with early Gold Rush structures winding up the canyon sides, with the original Hook and Ladder Company at the center.

Over the past 50 years, different communities of Auburn residents developed close bonds by preserving town history. Today’s neighborhoods are filled with renovated houses from the past. Each neighborhood has so many stories to tell.

From peeling paint to shining pickets, the old neighborhood stand as testaments to the fortitude of the Original Gangster groups. Life is different here.  The old neighborhoods have a special charm that bring people from all over the region to gain a sense of community here in Auburn.

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