Our Town: The Loving Preservation of Matthew Barber’s Home
By Harriett Burt
Cindy and Greg Francisco grew up in the Muir Meadows development off Center Avenue in Martinez. In 1998 when they had been married for five years, they decided it was time to move out of a condo into a home where they could raise a family. While they looked in Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill and particularly Martinez, the housing boom was frustrating them at every turn. Every bid they presented was turned down. People often paid much more than the property was worth which ended for many in the tragedy of the Crash in 2008.
They kept looking. A local realtor friend who is a Barber Lane neighbor told her she should look at the old house just up the street. Cindy resisted but the realtor didn’t give up. “Just look at it”, she said another time. Cindy and her father, Connie Lemos, drove to the Lane one day to look at another house and decided to take a peek at the two-story historic house just to say they had.
It didn’t work out that way, however. One look at the Barber House, and father and daughter fell in madly in love with it immediately. “The Greek Revival building looked like it had come out from the South and just landed here,” she recalls.
They brought Greg and her mother to look. “Oh no!” both exclaimed. Greg says of the first walk-through, “to me, it was the Bates Motel (referring to the Alfred Hitchcock film where Anthony Perkins stabbed Janet Leigh to death in the shower). “Everybody thought we were crazy but now I am so grateful every day that Cindy talked me into it”.
But he wasn’t wrong about the superficial look of the interior. “It was filthy, there was food spattered all around, signs of mice and it smelled of urine. There was cellophane tape around the windows, and dirty carpet on the living room floor,” Cindy says.
Her mother was aghast. But Cindy and her father saw something few others would have seen. Indeed, the house Matthew built as a result of his success as a farmer and the respect he was held in the community he had helped establish, had been well-cared for since it was built in 1881 until just a short time before the Franciscos looked at it.
“The bones were pretty decent” she notes. Indeed the frame is all 2 x12 old growth redwood straight up the two stories. On that day, however, asphalt covered all the ground around the house which couldn't have made a good impression. But some of the trees that Matthew Barber had planted were still there and thriving on the half acre remaining of Barber’s 443 acre vineyard and orchard. And Barber Lane and its offshoot, Barber Court is a pleasant Martinez neighborhood.
Cindy overheard other visitors talking about tearing it down and building a 3000 square foot modern home. So she and Greg sent an eloquent letter to the realtor and the owners of the house expressing their appreciation of the home and their desire to bring it back to the fine and tasteful home Matthew Barber had built. They were chosen because the owners loved their eloquent letter about what the home meant to them even though their $213 thousand offer was somewhat less than what might have been obtained from those who would tear it down and build a McMansion.
It became the Francisco’s in 1999. It took two years to make it livable. But they had a little help from members of the only family who had lived in the house other than the Barbers. When they entered the house the first time, there was a handwritten note attached to a wall.
It was from Peter Wilson, youngest of three sons of the John Wilson family who had bought the house from Matthew Barber’s grandson in 1935. He told them to lift the carpet to see the oak hardwood floor his father had had installed in 1935 for a total cost of $100. Nobody had told them. The carpet had been installed in Mrs. Wilson’s later years when she suffered from the cold. The oak floor is a gleaming focal point of the living room today.
That great surprise was outweighed by a lot of ‘must do’s, some of them surprises also. Always using local companies and craftsmen as much as they can, the Francisco’s hired locally to build the cement foundation the City required which raised the home about four feet requiring steps to be built. Before, it was a typical 19th century ‘foundation’ of piles of unmortared bricks, redwood planks and the bare dirt such as the Community College District replaced in 2015 under the Martinez museum. Even so, the 1906 earthquake which caused quite a bit of damage in the town and in the Valley, didn’t hurt the Barber home a bit.
The entire electrical system was changed and central heating and air were added. A new, modern kitchen was built surrounded by tasteful period décor. They took off the thin interior covering over the outside walls and installed sheetrock. A fireplace insert and a new chimney was added on the north wall of the living room and the old wall heater in the living on the other side of the room that was used to heat the entire house was removed. They added a small bathroom upstairs with a specially ordered shower, the smallest they could find. They also preserved all the original siding on the outside. The windows, made in the 1880s and retaining that wavy appearance old fashioned glass panes have, were kept even though they are a bit drafty. They still exist only because on the night of the Port Chicago explosion it was very hot so Mrs. Wilson opened the casement windows all the way to the top. Consequently, the damaging rush of air resulting from the blast was dissipated. Much of the rest of Martinez was covered in broken glass.
The floors upstairs are the original fir and the stairs and landing is the original 1880 redwood probably from the San Antonio Grove in the Oakland/Moraga hills where Matthew had helped his foster father, Elam Brown, when he arrived in California from Illinois in 1849. It’s nothing like the redwood at Home Depot, she observes. Any wood they remove, they save because it is old growth or otherwise in good condition and usable on another project.
Looking around at the compact but open and welcoming living room, “This is amazing” Cindy muses. “We didn’t know anything” when the project started.
A fan of “This Old House’ on PBS, “If These Walls Could Talk” and Martha Stewart, she is a dedicated researcher. First she obtained all the period information she could, not just on the Barber family but also on 19th century house design and operation. She has a copy of the original deed including the Barber house we know which is actually the second Barber residence on the property. Matthew built a smaller house before he went back to Illinois 1851 to bring his wife Orpha and their children to California. She applies period décor tastefully so that it mixes comfortably with the modern items we want.
Greg, a recognized jazz pianist and composer, contributed his family’s 1880 piano to the living room, or parlor as the Barbers probably called it. He also owns a fitness studio and consulting firm in Lafayette and San Francisco.
The home is smaller than one expects driving up to it. There is a little less than 1500 square feet on the two floors as a building originally attached to the west wall of the kitchen contained only bunk rooms and was in such disrepair when John Wilson bought the property that he removed them.
“I love coziness,” says Cindy. But the lack of storage space is a problem. Until the garage is done, it will be tight. But she has clever ways of handling that. There are four lovely tole painted hutches filling each corner of the living room which one didn’t even notice unless they are pointed out. But their 14-year-old daughter, Sophia, who is also interested in history, still would prefer to have a closet rather than an armoire.
There is a framed saying in the living room that describes the Francisco’s choice:
“Love grows best in little houses with fewer walls to separate,
Where you eat and sleep so close together, you can’t help
but communicate. And if we had more room between us,
think of all we’d miss. Love grows best in a house like this.”
One is sure Matthew and Orpha Barber would be pleased.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160