Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

Senior at Pitzer College Is Perfect Caretaker for 1902 Home


By Lawrence Biemiller

Claremont, Calif. -- "If I have time," Travis Wheeler is saying, "I want to get out here with a camera and black-and-white film and document this. I love the stonework on these buildings." He springs his 6-foot-4 frame easily over a low stone wall. Before him are a small, boarded-up house and several scarred outbuildings, all faced in stones rounded during long trips down the mountains that loom on the left. Surrounded now by indifferent scrub, the buildings were once the heart of a citrus grove, one of many in a string of towns here that used to be known as the Citrus Belt. Mr. Wheeler, a Pitzer College senior who has become a voracious collector of historical detail, volunteers that the grove "was probably part of the Claremont Heights Association of Orange Growers."

"I like to imagine what it was like coming here from the East 80 years ago, to springtimes sweet with the scent of orange blossoms," he says. This takes some imagining, since none of the trees survive. But it's easy enough to imagine the property's fate: Interstate 210 is headed right this way. Mr. Wheeler looks at the cars passing on Baseline Road, which runs along one side of the site. "What frustrates me is how many people just speed by, and if this was torn down tomorrow would never notice." He spots something in the gravel at his feet and picks it up -- part of the bottom of an old, brown-glazed bowl, marked with BAU and part of an E. "Bauer," he says happily, bending to look for more shards. "It's similar to Fiestaware."

Whether Mr. Wheeler will get a chance to come back here with a camera and film is anybody's guess, because he's elbow-deep in other projects, foremost among them Grove House, a 1902 bungalow on Pitzer's campus that he looks after as if it were his own. The 10-room house, built in the arts-and-crafts style, serves Pitzer as cafe, music venue, meeting space, and bed-and-breakfast. Mr. Wheeler makes up the guest room between visitors, keeps track of which group plans to meet in which room, runs the Grove House committee and keeps its accounts, and locks up the place every night. In return, he gets a small bedroom on the second floor, currently furnished with a Limbert Arts and Crafts desk, an L.&J.G. Stickley rocker, and a Trek mountain bike. He also gets lunches from the cafe kitchen that Rachel Vandervorst runs downstairs -- lasagna, paella, you name it -- and a steady supply of raw cookie dough, which he eats by the tablespoonful.

Having rebuilt several of the house's light fixtures in earlier years, Mr. Wheeler is now learning how to repair its unusual collection of Mission-style furniture, much of which is original and all of which he has carefully catalogued. This semester, as one of his three independent-study projects, he's planning to refinish several pieces under the guidance of Barry Sanders, a professor of English and of the history of ideas who has collected and written about Mission furniture since the days when it was cheap. For another independent study, Mr. Wheeler is writing a paper about the garden-city movement and its emphasis on outdoor living -- a perfect paper to write at Grove House, where a wisteria-laden pergola extends a comfortable, well-protected porch. For the third, he's designing new signs and a brochure for Pitzer's arboretum, which surrounds the house.

As if all that weren't enough, Mr. Wheeler works one day a week in the arboretum. He has a thesis to complete for his major, which is biology -- he's examining the habitat preferences of cactus wrens, which make their nests within clumps of prickly-pear cactus. (The thesis, he says, involves field research, analysis, "then giving the actual results in a very dry manner, sounding very confident without making an actual commitment to anything.") He's also trying to stay in shape for his summer job as a National Park Service firefighter. And he's in demand for weekend hiking and rock-climbing excursions, not to mention parties. Commencement is May 18.

"This year, Grove House has literally become my life," Mr. Wheeler says, without a hint of regret. If he could get out of writing his thesis and instead spend the time scraping old varnish off chairs, he certainly would. One might conclude that Mr. Wheeler and the Grove House caretaker's job are perfectly suited to one another, but his modesty is such that he would object reflexively to such an assertion. "I'm a pessimist, a perfectionist, a complainer, and a worrywart," he complains. "If that's not a bad combination, I don't know what is." If you protest that he's being too hard on himself, he's right there with a comeback -- "That's another one of my problems." Then he grins.

From the outside, Grove House seems to be mostly roof. Gentle planes of wooden shakes rise above porch and pergola, breaking here and there for deep-set windows and then coming together in a shape much like that of one of the mountains behind it. The porch is surrounded by low stone walls, and stone columns support the overhanging eaves. Mr. Wheeler points out a Japanese-inspired "cloud lift" pattern in the wooden cantilevers, which stretch out from the tops of the columns before curving slightly to support the eaves. The architect's name is unknown.

Inside, he shows off shoulder-high wainscoting, diamond-paned windows, the pup-tent-shaped ceiling of the little library, the built-in bench beside the stairs. He remembers where to find the manufacturer's shop mark on every settle, Morris chair, lady's sewing rocker, and library table. In the living room, he kneels beside an odd piece of furniture that is sometimes used as a podium. He happened to spot the piece in an old Gustav Stickley catalogue, where it was identified as a liquor cabinet. "The hardware's missing, the lazy Susan's missing," he says. But at least now he knows what it is and who made it.

Such sleuthing seems to be a regular feature of Mr. Wheeler's life. It's easy to see where the house was cut into three pieces so it could be brought to the campus in the early 1970s -- Mr. Sanders arranged the move, saving the house from demolition -- but the original arrangement of rooms on the second floor is a mystery that nags at Mr. Wheeler. The clues are vexing: mismatched doorways, ambiguities in the roofline, unexplained marks on the hall floor, a storage closet tiled in light blue.

Nor does his sleuthing stop at the front door. At flea markets he hunts down old citrus-crate labels and postcards showing the Yosemite Valley Railroad, a 77-mile line that is another of his passions, in spite of its having operated its last train in 1945. When he is asked about the Pacific Electric's famous "Red Cars," which ran to suburbs all around Los Angeles, his eyes light up: "You want to see where the Pacific Electric came through? There's an old bridge."

What will he do with all this enthusiasm after he graduates? This summer he'll fight forest fires again -- on one of the elite "hot shot" crews, he hopes. "You see 200-foot-tall pine trees go up in a flash, with a rumble like a freight train. You see smoke columns that rise twice as high as an airplane flies and have their own thunder." He claims that the job is "relatively safe." He's not sure what he'll do after that. He's looking for a job in historic preservation or with a woodworker, metalsmith, or stonemason -- "something that requires a lot of patience, which I have for handwork."

What he doesn't have patience for is carelessness or thoughtlessness that results in damage to Grove House or its furnishings. Passing through the dining room in the afternoon, he'll wipe crumbs off the sideboard and pick up used napkins from the floor. "I pretty much don't let wild parties happen here anymore," he says. When he locks up each night, he finds time -- no matter how busy the day has been -- to put all the furniture back where it belongs. As he does, he takes a mental inventory of his Morris chairs and settles and library tables, making sure none have been damaged. Only then does he head off to bed himself. No house, no splendid collection of roof planes in the shape of a mountain, could ask for tenderer care.

Copyright © 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 21, 1997.