COVER STORY —Preserving History while Building a Future
If old houses could talk, they might tell of family dinners, lonely spells, or maybe the pleasures of a fresh coat of paint. Inanimate, yet imbued with the spirit of those who have lived in them, these grande dames grace local neighborhoods with their rich histories and vintage architecture.
Founded in the late 19th century, Los Olivos boasts its share of venerable homes, among them a two-story farmhouse that stands at the end of a sleepy cul-de-sac just south of town. Built around 1890, this modest dwelling has seen good times and bad, yet remains a precious reminder of early life in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Since its purchase by Michelle Bone and her husband, Richard Smalldon, in 2007, the house has enjoyed a renaissance of form and function. Rescued from decay and resurrected as a spacious family home, it testifies to both the vision of its builders and the determination of its current caretakers.
“We wanted to promote the legacy of the house,” Michelle says of the structural makeover the couple completed in 2009. “We wanted to fix the layout, but keep the same footprint; make it functional and cozy, but keep the original style.
“As we approached the project,” she continues, her auburn hair framing her face, “we saw ourselves as stewards. We wanted to do the right thing with this property in the time that we’re lucky enough to be here.”
Often referred to as the Ethel and Robert Stevens home or simply “the ranch,” the house reportedly was built to serve as overflow quarters for lodgers booked at Felix Mattei’s Central Hotel. As evidence, Richard and Michelle cite the odd configuration of ghostly walls they discovered while remodeling the house.
“It was originally one-story, with five tiny bedrooms,” says Richard, whose father sold antiques and passed along to his son a reverence for history. “On the flooring we could see the marks of the walls. When we broke into the ceilings, there was wallpaper that extended up another three feet, so it had eleven-foot ceilings, which we kept.
“We’re preserving the history,” he adds. “I love antiques and I think our connection with the past is important.”
While the location’s early history remains vague, it is known that Ethel and Robert Stevens, along with their two daughters, Patricia and Barbara, occupied the house from 1945 to 1967. In 2007, Michelle and Richard sat down with Patricia and Ethel, then 90, to learn all they could about the property.
“Ethel was so excited that someone cared,” Michelle says, her cornflower blue eyes alight with enthusiasm. “She remembered that they planted locust trees along the driveway, and across the street was a barn for shelling walnuts from their orchard.
“Patricia said none of the trees were large, so there wasn’t a ton of shade,” she continues. “There were no lawns, either, so it was terribly hot and dusty.”
As teenagers in the 1950s, Patricia and her sister would watch their classmates walk by on the path from what was then Valley Farm School (now Dunn School) to Montanaro’s Los Olivos Market, still standing in a field to the west. The path crossed their property and served as a social hub for the girls, who would sit on their fence and flirt with the boys.
Shortly after moving in, the family planted 28 acres of English walnut trees grafted onto black walnut rootstock, creating an orchard that stretched from Santa Ynez Street north to Los Olivos. The orchard thrived until tree trimmers brought in equipment tainted with a blight that destroyed productivity and forced the family’s ouster from the local walnut co-op.
The Stevens sold the property to a man named Hanley, who sold it to George Burtness, who then subdivided the spread into three-acre parcels, before selling the house to a horsewoman named Bobbi Hawkins.
“Over time those lots were cut down into smaller sizes,” Michelle says, “and Los Olivos became neighborhoods. And that happened because the walnuts were no longer viable for market.
“The walnut orchard holds historic importance for Los Olivos,” she continues. “When English walnuts die, often the roots grow into the huge black walnut trees that you see around the neighborhood. As the housing developments happened, people pulled some trees out, but most of the orchard still exists.”
With a row of walnut trees shading its northern face, the couple’s house features the wraparound porch, wood siding, and generous windows of the California cottage style typical of many older homes. Bordered by a white picket fence, the yard comprises two acres bristling with mature pepper, walnut, and olive trees, some 100 years old.
An iconic hay barn, built in 1997 from salvaged wood, stands just west of the house and vegetable garden, while a towering windmill near the small fruit orchard confirms the rural pedigree of the property. Coyotes can be heard yodeling at night, deer often nibble the roses, and a pair of barn owls have made a permanent home in an ancient oak tree, all a convenient four blocks from town.
Richard, maintenance manager at Santa Barbara’s Ty Warner Sea Center, and Michelle, a busy school librarian with a penchant for community service, bought the house as a distressed property, a stalled remodel that had sat with the roof open to the weather for four years. Michelle had lived across the street for more than a decade and watched with dismay as the house and grounds deteriorated into a neighborhood eyesore.
“It was a disaster when we got it, totally hodgepodge,” Michelle admits. “The original part was built on the dirt, the new part had a slab foundation, and although the wood was nailed together, the foundation was not held together in any way.”
To remedy the unstable condition wrought by various add-ons—so many that the property never qualified for landmark status—Richard and Michelle were obliged to take the house down to its foundations.
“We could have started from scratch,” Michelle says, “but there was enough character in the way the house fit into the neighborhood, that we wanted to keep it.
“We dropped a wall at a time,” she explains, “until only one original beam frame was left. Then we took out the floor joists, poured the foundation, and raised the walls again.”
During deconstructing, the couple realized the house needed everything: new wiring, plumbing, the works, and they were amazed by the single-wall construction that distinguished the original portion.
“The walls were one-inch thick redwood planks,” Richard remembers. “No two-by-four framing, just slab planks. Over the years, people had added thin insulation, but it was a real discovery to learn that’s how they did it then.”
With architect Alex Pujo drawing up plans based on historic photos and Richard acting as operations manager, Michelle gathered interior design suggestions from her father, William Bone, a successful real estate developer. Among his career accomplishments, William built the exquisite house at Sycamore Valley Ranch, where Michelle grew up during the decades before it became known as Neverland Ranch.
“Rather than doing more hodgepodge, he was able to take it up a notch and help us build a house to last for another hundred years,” Richard smiles.
“And give it the professional custom home touch,” Michelle interjects. “As a family, we redesigned the floor plan two or three times, until everything was where we wanted it to be.”
Before finalizing the design, the couple consulted with Ethel Stevens about how the property functioned, asking where the family had parked, which path they took to the garden, and the route for carrying in groceries.
“That helped us understand how people have used this property for a hundred years,” Michelle says. “We want people to come in the same front door, have the same views, and see the same trees.
“We didn’t want to bulldoze anything,” she adds, “because the mature landscaping is part of what the property offers to the neighborhood.”
The low-slung porches mirror the original ones and the magnificent front door was crafted from the old Douglas fir floor joists. The interior flooring of black walnut pays tribute to the Stevens’ orchard, while the stairs, complete with a series of landings, offer perfect observation points for the couple’s sons, Jonathan, 14, and Beckett, 3.
In the kitchen, an island stove and period-appropriate soapstone counters complement custom cabinetry by neighbor and professional woodworker Matt Leonard. Windows abound, and everywhere filtered sunlight carries the watery green of fluttering leaves.
A finger painting station stands in one corner of the living room, leaving plenty of room for sofa, chairs, and seasonal train sets. On one wall hangs a painting of Michelle, along with her brother and sister, posing with their late mother.
“It was under my mother’s bed for twenty years,” Michelle said wistfully, “and to hang it was a really special moment. I felt like it carried my family history forward, and this house was ready to receive it.”
Upstairs are two bedrooms and Michelle’s office, which doubles as a television room and craft area for the boys. Downstairs, opposite the kitchen and dining area, Richard’s office opens onto the entry hall, and down the hall, Beckett’s room occupies the original corner of the residence.
“That room has one of the warmest, happiest feelings in the house,” Michelle beams. “You can just feel it. And the swing in the tree outside? You get that timeless feeling that kids are doing the same thing they’ve been doing forever.
“Sometimes when we’re drinking iced tea or sitting down to dinner,” she says, “I just feel that this is right. This is the way it’s always been and this is the best of life. I feel like, whether it’s the spirits or energy of this property, they’re really happy with what we’ve done.”