1. The house that saved us
If you had told us 10 years ago that we would be living in a historic home in Valley Center, we wouldn’t have believed you. When we started dating in 2008, we had a plan to work hard, play harder, and with whatever resources we had left, try to bless people through our love for hospitality.
That vow came while sitting on the patio at our Carlsbad house, a place that Benjamin remodeled and landed in several leading design blogs. At the time, he was working as a designer for an ad agency in the Carlsbad Village and habitually spent his lunch hour strolling local antique shops.
Our Carlsbad home was beachy fresh with up-cycled pieces that Benjamin often created late at night. Occasionally he would return from work with an antique he purchased from a local vendor. I had yet to meet her, but he told me of her sweet spirit, artistic talents, and passion for things of the past. We were both drawn to her rusty, chipped, weathered, farmy treasures that were imperfectly perfect.
Between a small splurge here and there, and endless hours of craigslist hunting, we built our collection of talk pieces — not those you find in a catalogue, but rather those that find you. They tell a story, hold a history, and make you feel like you’ve found something that was simply meant to be.
Our first major antique purchase came just before we were married. Benjamin had found an old bank safe dating back to the early 1800’s. It had massive casters and literally weighed a ton. After pre-wedding debates of “do we really need this right now?” Benjamin made the valid point that it would be his last personal purchase before we were financially linked. And so, he paid $400 for the historic safe, only to discover that the only way to move it was by hiring a flat-bed truck that transported vehicles. Another painful $200 later, the bank safe arrived to our Carlsbad home.
I watched as my soon-to-be-husband transformed that old rusty safe into the coolest wet bar in North County. His buddies oohed and aahed at the beauty of this Jack Daniels vault, unveiling whisky varieties at the turn of a dial and the crank of a handle.
It was then that I knew he had a deep love for bringing new life to the forgotten — treating each antique like an abandoned soul that had so much to give but no one noticed because they were too busy assembling their latest Ikea purchase.
In the process, my vision changed for what a home should be. It was no longer a place to rest your head, but rather a place to rest your mind; a place where you could exhale at the end of a long day, and smile at what you had built with the person that inspires you to break the mold and do everything with purpose, intention, and thoughtfulness.
And so, six months after we were married in 2011, we did it again. This time we adopted a 1950’s farmhouse in Vista and promised to make her shine. As the story goes, the house was previously located in an area of San Diego slated for track housing. When the foreman spotted that sweet charmer, he halted the bulldozer and ordered the house to be moved to Vista. It was plopped on half an acre, backed by wetlands and dotted with orange, pepper, and loquat trees.
She had her 1950’s funkiness that we absolutely adored: The wall mounted ironing board, the pocket doors, the patio screens that slammed behind you, and above all, the massive windows that flooded the house with light.
From the day we got the key, we pushed hard, starting with a massive landscaping project that Benjamin and my father tackled together. Over 3,500 bricks later, they created a front yard nirvana that triggered hours of rocking-chair porch conversations with friends and family. Next came painting every wall and ceiling in the house a color called “Cotton Fluff,” a soft muted white that would define that home.
Next was the exterior, going from yellow to white, followed by the kitchen remodel where we spent most of our quality time. Between Benjamin’s custom counters, vintage appliances, and the black and white tile floor, the only thing missing was Betty Crocker. I fashioned curtains from coffee bags and we both put our personal touches on the design. Then came the office with Benjamin’s apple-crate wall, and then the greenhouse that he built out of recycled materials. And finally, the brick pizza oven and outdoor kitchen.
Just when I thought we were done, Benjamin surprised me by remodeling our guest room while I was on a girls’ snowboarding trip. I came home to find out he had a new vision to beam all the ceilings and paint our hardwood floors white. That little Vista farmhouse was beyond a labor of love. It was our happy project, and the “thing” that we did for no one else but us.
As a once restless traveler afraid to settle down,now the only place I wanted to be was home. We gardened and grew vegetables. Benjamin learned bee keeping and we harvested our own honey. We composted, captured rainwater, line-dried our clothes, and fertilized with worm tea. I made marmalades, loquat pies, and homemade ice creams from orange, rosemary, and honey. We fell asleep to the sound of bullfrogs and crickets and awoke to the sound of birds outside our window.
Every inch of that house sparkled, and hardly was there a day you wouldn’t find a baked good on the counter and flowers on the table, all of which were harvested from the grounds. In those seven years, we gave her our best, pouring our creativity and hearts into a place once destined for destruction.
As much as I want to say we saved that house, the truth is, she saved us. She comforted us during the most traumatic loss of our lives. She nursed us back to health on multiple occasions. And she gave us joy in the promise of today and the hope of tomorrow.
In the midst of the farmhouse transformation, we reconnected with our friend from Carlsbad. By then she was a vendor at a property in Valley Center called Matilda’s Mouse. She told us of the monthly antique shows that took place at an old dairy farm. And so, each month we marked our calendars and drove out to Valley Center to see what pieces would find us. Many made their way back to our Vista farmhouse. Other times we would simply window shop, marvel at the magnificent barn, and chat with our friend about our latest project.
Each visit habitually ended with a stroll under a peppertree to gaze from the mighty boulders and dream of what life could be.As a graphic designer, musician, and artist, Benjamin has no shortage of visions, many of which turn into a collision of his hands, heart, and mind to build something divinely beautiful.
I on the other hand am an idea person who thrives on order, planning, and logistics on ways to fade the line between business and pleasure. Between authoring Fodor’s travel books and writing destination features for The San Diego Union Tribune, I’ll usually clock another 30-40 hours a week as a copywriter for Saddleback Church. Needless to say, we maintain a busy schedule (by choice), and were deep in a season of exploration and travel when our lives pivoted for the best.
As our friend put it, it was a “serendipitous moment” when everything came together. We were not looking for a home, nor were we in any financial position to buy property, but for some reason, it was meant to be. She suggested we introduce ourselves to the property owners. We did just that, first by email and then by phone, telling them of our love and commitment to the place that had helped us build our own.
That following week, Benjamin and I were invited for a tour of the Valley Center property, once belonging to baking legend Betty Crocker. Even before entering the house, we agreed that a tap on the back meant we didn’t like the home, and squeeze on the other person’s shoulder meant we liked it. The door opened and we both pinched the hell out of one other, without trying to let on that we were communicating in code.
The house was 140 years old and was showing its age, but we never shied away from hard work. Our wheels starting spinning out of control, and as much as we’re both talkers, we were relatively quiet on the drive home; more in shock with the possibility of “what if this happens?”
Within 24 hours, we were preapproved for the loan, jumping headfirst into escrow and a whirlwind journey no one could have predicted.
Two weeks before our move, Better Homes & Gardens sent a scout to our Vista property and asked if they could do a photo shoot for their “best of” 2019 edition. It was an honor to say the least. The photo shoot however, was scheduled for the week of our move, which meant we couldn’t pack our home.
That same week, Benjamin was in a motorcycle accident on his way home from work, totaling his bike and ending up with three broken ribs, a fractured elbow, and torn ligaments in his shoulder. This meant he couldn’t pack, lift, (or laugh), and that we were down to one car between us.
To add a little more excitement to the mix, we arranged with the sellers that all parties could save on closing costs if we only used a realtor to review the final contract. This meant that I ended up working as the liaison and the “agent” for all parties involved. All the while, Benjamin and I both maintained our full time jobs, and of course didn’t hire movers because, well, we are a DIY couple.
So, the schedule went as follows: Tuesday and Wednesday, Better Homes & Gardens photo shoot. Thursday pack the entire house. Friday move to Valley Center. Saturday clean the Vista house and hand over the keys to our renters.
After conquering that week from hell, you’d think life would get easier. But then, we turned the key . . .
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.