Sunday, March 1, 2015

History Hunt: Olcese House Shows Bakersfield's Character


Jack Hendrix jokes that he needs a 12-step recovery program. He’s a compulsive collector.

He collects furniture, statues and pottery. He even collects old family photos of people he doesn’t know. He finds them in second-hand stores and hangs them on the walls of the old houses he collects in east Bakersfield.

On a recent warm spring morning, I sat on the porch of the “Olcese house,” one of Hendrix’s most interesting and historic East Bakersfield homes, and discussed his compulsive collecting.

Hendrix, 69, is a retired educator, who spent most of his career as a teacher and counselor at East Bakersfield High School. An Oklahoma native, who moved to Bakersfield to live with relatives in the 1950s, Hendrix remembers watching his father work with tools as he built cabinets. That inspired Hendrix to begin collecting tools and fix-it books.

To supplement his teaching salary, Hendrix started collecting fixer-upper Bakersfield homes and turning them into rentals.

“I like to work with my hands and it was a good diversion from teaching,” he explained. “In the summers, I would work in construction, doing repairs for other people. I thought, ‘Why not acquire my own property. I love old houses.’”

His interest in buying houses shifted from those built in the 1930s and 1940s to some of the city’s oldest houses -- those built at the turn of the century in east Bakersfield.

He said he spent hours talking to the late Judge Frank Noriega in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the family’s vintage home on Baker Street, which has been renovated and turned into a reception hall.

It was during those long chats that Hendrix learned about the histories and myths of the neighborhood’s other landmark buildings, and Hendrix set his sights on the Olcese house at 528 Monterey St.

Weather-beaten and in need of repair, the house was built by Louis V. Olcese for his bride in the late 1800s. The city’s register of historic buildings did not pinpoint the construction date. During the century that followed, colorful and sometimes tragic stories unfolded within it walls.

Before telling some of those early stories, I’ll skip ahead to the present. Hendrix bought the house in 1983, after it fell briefly into the hands of a real estate speculator. The speculator had given it a quick lick of paint, leased it to a preschool and then placed it up for sale again. While he worked on its restoration, Hendrix moved into the house. He lived in there for the next 18 years, before buying another fixer upper at Flower and Baker streets, where he lives today.

The Olcese house now is called Griffins Gate, a 26-bed home for men dually diagnosed as mentally ill and substance abusers, operated by Hendrix’s non-profit organization Casa de Amigos. The stately rooms have been converted to dormitories, offices and dining halls. But the exterior is restored to a condition that would surely please its original owner.

Hendrix has pieced together most of the home’s history from the stories told by Judge Noriega and neighbors. And occasionally people will walk by to take a look and share their memories.

Olcese, the son of Italian immigrants, moved to Bakersfield as a young man from Northern California. The railroad line had reached East Bakersfield. Basque shepherds were settling in the area. Fortunes were being made lending money and outfitting settlers in this emerging commercial hub.

Olcese went into the mercantile business with Beneditto Ardizzi. Hendrix was told Olcese lived in a lavish apartment above his store until he decided to marry a young opera singer. He built the house on Monterey Street as a wedding present for his bride.

In the city’s historic resources inventory, consultant Christopher Brewer describes the Olcese house as “an excellent example of vernacular architecture.” With Hendrix’s subsequent restoration, Brewer concluded it would be eligible for inclusion in a historic register or district.

Hendrix acknowledges that Olcese spared few expenses as he combined several architectural styles. The home has a vented gablet, a turret, an oval window overlooking a covered porch that is supported by round columns, boxed eaves and gables, and double-hung windows.

Shortly after Olcese’s marriage, his bride left for a European singing tour. By all accounts that Hendrix has been given, in her absence, Olcese found a young live-in maid irresistible and a baby boy was born. Olcese and his bride divorced when she returned from her tour. He sold the Monterey Street house.

Olcese’s wealth grew. He bought acres of land that he ranched. He form a bank. But in 1929, at a relatively young age, he dropped dead in San Francisco en route to visit his sister, who lived in Piedmont. An obituary published in The Modesto Bee described him as “one of the wealthiest men in Kern County.”

Two years later, a story in The Bakersfield Californian reported Olcese Kramer, a naval officer who claimed to be Olcese’s “natural son,” reached a court settlement with Olcese’s sisters and brothers to share the estate. Although settlement details were not revealed in the news story, an attorney said “the ramifications are so great” that it would take “some time until the whole affair is settled.”

Hendrix said the Olcese house passed first into the hands of a wealthy couple. The husband was a county official and the wife a physician. He said neighbors and Noriega told him about patients walking up its stairs to be seen by the doctor.

Preoccupied by both their daughter and by “appearances,” the couple borrowed against the home to pay for a lavish wedding and to buy furniture. When they could not pay their bills, Hendrix said they lost the home to foreclosure.

An investor bought it reportedly for $1,700 and gave it to his newlywed daughter and son-in-law. Over the next several decades, the childless couple lived in the home their entire marriage.

Eventually a gas lighting system was replaced by electricity. But neither air conditioning, nor heating systems were installed until the then widowed owner sold it in the late 1970s to the real estate speculator who resold it to Hendrix.

“The neighbors were shocked,” Hendrix said, explaining that they thought the woman was wealthy. They chalked up the home’s lack of maintenance, the owner’s unwillingness to install air conditioning and her habit of wearing layers of clothing during frigid winter months to her being eccentric.

In fact, the woman was living off the property she inherited from her investor-father. As she needed money, she would sell off a house or commercial building. Reportedly she was running out of money when she sold the Olcese house for just $16,000. Hendrix paid $90,000 for it when it was resold a short time later.

Hendrix credits the woman’s poverty for the home’s historic integrity. She simply did not have the money to “modernize” the structure.

“The thing I love about old houses it that everything has a story,” Hendrix said, admitting that restoring them is costly, time-consuming and just plain hard work.

His advice to others who might be tempted to buy and restore a turn-of-the-century home: “Do it only if you can do most of the work yourself. And do it for love, not to make money.”

This article by John Hardisty (Jack) appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on May 23, 2010.

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