Sailing into my lustrous years, and looking back at the receding shoreline of my home town in Southern California I’m struck by the images of my youth.
Foremost among these area a series of homes and other structures built using material that was at hand on parcels, or in the nearby vacant fields of an ancient watercourse scoured by the San Gabriel River in Azusa, California.
My mother came to Azusa in 1918. All my life, I’ve been fortunate to see the growth of my home town through her eyes. Azusa wasn’t really laid out until about 1899 and aside from the occasional live oak that used gnarly roots to sustain itself in the mostly sandy alluvial soil, the only abundant local building material was river stone, smoothed round by countless eons of tumbling in the San Gabriel Riverbed.
Watching me dig a garden and build a mound of stones to use as a garden edging in the mid 1950’s, my grandfather quipped “Nice crop of Azusa potatoes, boy.”
It was a very nice three by four foot mound too.
I have never forgotten how many stones I pulled out of the ground for that first garden but it took me about five years—after I had newspaper delivery route, ton pay close attention to the eight or nine stone houses in Azusa, I pedaled past on my three mile wide daily herald Examiner paper route .
Back then, the homes seemed distinctive and ageless. Many of the stone homes I admired as a kid, are still standing and have passed through several generations of Azusa families.
I’ve always been curious about those homes—all but one of which are north of highway 66, and many others near the first site of Azusa’s Saint Francis catholic church.
Curiosity is a good trait in a reporter and I started chipping into the stories of those stone homes while writing for daily newspaper in West Covina, CA. I didn’t take me long to discover that the homes were built by immigrant Italian stone workers working on several dams on the San Gabriel river in Azusa Canyon. Azusa has a temperate climate, although it’s subject to blast furnace heat waves in the early fall. In addition to being free and commonly available, river stone homes are cool when outside temps skyrocket into triple digits, and can be easily heated with a simple fireplace in the winter.
There are two great example of stone construction homes in and near Azusa. The first is a home in the 500 block of West Third Street, just west of the southbound Vernon Avenue on the 210 Freeway—which is conveniently near the home my father built for his family.
The prettiest example; however is an Old Catholic church in Irwindale, which was built by its parishioners using river stone. See the below.
I suppose Azusa’s stone homes would be classified as bungalows—most are less than 1,000 SF. But, because of the effort and individualistic spirit that went into their construction, I think of them as vanguards of the build your home for your family craftsman movement that swept Los Angeles Country prior to World War II.
Many of Azusa’s stone built houses today are surrounded by chain link fencing with sugary fragment honey suckle twining through the fence. Not surprisingly, many of the homes are protected by Chihuahuas who rest on front porches, keeping an unblinking eye on the coming and goings nearby.
Currently there is a preservation movement sweeping Southern California. I sincerely hope that my home town’s stone homes would be included if the movement ever swept east of the San Gabriel River.
I’ve always been proud to be an Azusa boy descended from two families that settled there within 25 years of the town’s founding. And in my mind’s eye, I can picture myself sitting on the front porch of a stone house somewhere east of highway 39 and north of the tracks--Chihuahua by my side. Jim Forbes on January 24, 2016.