Our California DIY Rush To Glory

Did remnants of Victorian wallpaper and a beadboard ceiling hint that the cabin dated to gold-rush days?

The quaint porch overlooks the town of Sonora, Cal. Double-glazed fir windows replaced aluminum versions from a previous remodeling. This owner’s only addition has been a small, screened sleeping porch, accessible through French doors from the two bedrooms.

Rooms inside were dismal, but the little cabin perched above the gold-mining town of Sonora, just an hour from Yosemite, had potential. We were won over by the asking price—and a suspicion that the cabin was actually historic. Our first years here had us removing 1950s accretions while we did research. We found a 1954 newspaper in a wall, marking the date of modernization, when studs were added to plank walls to conceal pipes and wires.

Gone is the dark 1950s paneling; insulated walls now are mostly clad in beadboard. Hollow-core doors were replaced with fir five-panel doors with period rimlocks and porcelain knobs.

Plywood paneling, dark and flimsy, was added, and acoustical tiles dropped the ceilings 18″. We removed all that, along with sheet flooring and Masonite, to reveal aspects of the original cabin: fir plank floors and painted beadboard ceilings. Once restoration began in earnest, it took three years. New systems were added, walls insulated. We decided on beadboard for most wall surfaces, echoing the old ceilings; today’s material is the same as it was 160 years ago. Here and there, we framed remnants of old wallpaper, left on walls to preserve the historical record.

We added a central heat pump and ductwork below the floor. This new system provides each room with heating or air conditioning through vintage, round, cast-iron floor registers. A programmable thermostat was recessed in the wall, concealed behind a framed period photograph. Vintage light fixtures were rewired and push-button wall switches installed. We are the 14th owners of this property, and we won’t be the last.

Uncovering History

  • Listed with a build date of 1949, the cabin revealed a much earlier history.
  • Property and tax records at the historic courthouse revealed that an original, gold-rush era cabin was destroyed by a fire in 1861, along with half the town.
  • The first recorded property owner, one Joseph McCullough, built a two-room cabin on the site
  • around 1866.
  • A subsequent owner tripled its size in the early 1870s.
  • A prominent local family purchased the cabin in 1887—and rented it out until 1952.
  • A 1954 newspaper found in the wall marks the time when new owners modernized the house.

Andy Carpentier is a senior architect with YHLA Architects in California.

Tags: cabin California OHJ December 2015 renovation restoration

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