A 108-year-old house that has seen its share of ownership conflicts, city interventions and– more recently– a complete renovation was the topic of conversation during a presentation the Signal Hill Historical Society conducted Oct. 8.
The event, which focused on the “Signal Hill Tower House” located at 2477 Gaviota Ave. in the Crescent Heights Historic District, featured Marlene Bollinger, who grew up in the home, and Rama Singhal, who purchased it two years ago and then restored it. Bollinger, who now lives in Salt Lake City, shared her memories of the house, her family and Signal Hill, and, as she recounted stories related to different rooms of the 1,252-square-foot home, Singhal discussed the renovations in those areas and the unique features he discovered during the process.
One of those items was the triangular window that had been in Bollinger’s bedroom. Larry Blunden, who is president of the historical society, presented it to her as a thank-you gift for traveling to Signal Hill from Utah for the event.
For the presentation, which took place at Delius restaurant, Bollinger’s grandson Parker– who is one of her 32 grandchildren– assisted her by facilitating a slideshow of vintage photos Bollinger provided.
She began her talk by reading a letter her great-great-grandfather had written in 1848 to a girl he had met at an academy: “Miss Vutton, would an epistolary correspondence carried on between you and myself after leaving this place be agreeable on your part? If it would not, please frankly to thus express yourself and be assured, that…by so doing, you will not incur my disrespect or displeasure. But, on the contrary, if such a plan shall meet your approbation, which I hardly dare even hope, to me it would be the source of greatest pleasure. Very respectfully, John Barrett Ayer. P.S. I trust that you will excuse me for unceremoniously sending you this note, for I can think of no better way to communicate the contents.”
Bollinger used the letter to exemplify the “rather rigid, English family in Vermont” in which her Aunt Fy had been raised. Fy had shared stories with Bollinger, particularly of the family’s patriarch.
“He was a rather severe, harsh man,” Bollinger said. “Do you know that, when you open a newspaper, some of the pages fall out? They didn’t in his house– because he made his wife stitch it on her sewing machine so the pages wouldn’t fall out.”
Bollinger explained that Fy had ventured out to California from Vermont at a rather young age.
“She decided that she didn’t like the farm life, that she was going to go out and see the world,” Bollinger said. “In her days, that wasn’t what a young lady would do. But she did, and she loved nature… She was a very creative lady, and she’s the one who designed the house.”
Bollinger said that many people had asked why Fy built the tower on the house.
“She had a real deep love for nature. She would camp out in a tent on the beach,” she said. “She went to Switzerland and camped out. She went any place where she could be with nature. So, when she built the house, she wanted to be able to see the ocean. So, she could go up in the tower, and she could actually see across to Catalina.”
When Fy died in 1948, Bollinger’s family inherited the home.
“I was 11 years old. I lived in Massachusetts with my brothers and sisters and mom and dad– in Whitinsville, Massachusetts– near Worcester,” she said. “We were small-town people. She leaves us this house. And so, my father decides this is the time for him to break away from there and head to California… We got an Airstream, and we came all the way across from Massachussets to California.”
However, the adventure and major life change for the family would culminate in a rather anti-climactic ending.
“Now, you know, being girls, we could imagine this castle– because, in California, you have all these gorgeous homes,” Bollinger said. “And so, we came across the country… [but the home] had some of the awfulest wallpaper, and everything in the house was painted brown.”
When Bollinger spoke to the Signal Tribune a year ago, she said, “We pictured going to California into this fantastic home– and it took a lot, a lot of work to get it where we were comfortable with it.”
One of the changes was the rebuilding of the porch.
“My dad built that sun porch, you know, as you’re coming in, at the front,” Bollinger said. “There was one on there, and I believe he tore that down and built another, or he may have just rebuilt that. But, other than that, he really didn’t make any structural changes.”
She said one of the oddities of the home was the outside bathroom.
“On the side of the house was a wooden stairway that went up to a bathroom, and we often wondered why there was a stairway that opened into a bathroom,” she said. “But maybe that’s because they built the bathroom out there while they were building the house and that was the only bathroom they had at that time.”
She added that her brothers loved spending time in the basement and used it as an area to build some interesting items, including an electric chair.
She later met her future husband, Cliff Bollinger, who was in the Navy at the time, at her sister’s wedding, which took place in the house in 1955. It was later that year that she and Cliff married at First Congregational Church in Long Beach. The couple moved to Washington State, then to Illinois, where his family lived.
During the presentation last Saturday, Bollinger mentioned a crawl space on the upper level. Singhal said, during the renovation, air-conditioning vents were put into that space.
Bollinger also reminisced about how the windows slid into the walls. Singhal echoed that fact, adding that the entire windows would indeed disappear into the walls, including in the tower, which also had elaborate pulley systems. However, Bollinger said she and her sisters– unlike her brothers– were never allowed to go to the top of the tower because her father would not allow it.
“My mom would use the tower sometimes, as a retreat, to get away from the kids and go up there and read,” she said. “The boys were allowed to go up to the very top of the tower, but, there again, my father said, ‘Girls don’t do that.’ So, I never got to go up there– never got to go to the top…He was a very stern man, to say the least.”
She added that her father had bought many small eucalyptus trees and planted them all around the property. Singhal said those trees are now huge.
Growing up with a traditional, conservative father, Bollinger was not allowed to go to college, she said. However, after raising her children, she decided to pursue a higher education.
“So, I didn’t get to go to college until I was almost 60,” she said. “I had raised my 12 children, and all I had was a granddaughter that I also raised– because her mother had died– and I said ‘I’m going back to college. So, I went back, and I got my bachelor’s. I took her with me to the library at night, wrapped her in a blanket, put her on the floor next to the computer. So, I got my bachelor’s, then I got my master’s, then I got a certification in Montessori education, and I was a Montessori teacher for 26 years.”
At 70, she decided to retire.
“So, I moved out from Illinois to Utah,” she said. “And I thought, to keep me off the streets and keep me behaving myself, I ought to have a little pre-school– I’ll have five or six children. Well, for the last eight years, I’ve had 40 children a week in my pre-school.”
Last May, at 78, she decided to retire again.
“But then I didn’t have anything to do,” she said. “So, I decided that I could serve the Lord, and I could help [people] get their genealogy done so that we could tie families together. So, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m in Salt Lake City. I’ve been there two months, and I’ll be there for another 16 months, and I’m enjoying every bit of it.”
During this most recent work, Bollinger had an epiphany of sorts.
“I thought, as I was doing this, ‘Maybe my Aunt Fy and I are kind of alike,’” she said. “We both went out and did our own thing.”