Roger Lathe and Dr. Louise Mehler wouldn’t let this old house die.
Ravaged by several fires, the Queen Anne cottage looked liked a charred skeleton when the couple first found it. Set by transients, fires burned through the oak floorboards to the basement. Other fires destroyed large sections of the roof and some interior walls.
Purchased “as is” in 1978, the house was a challenge they couldn’t resist.
“We got it for the price of the property, $23,500, as I recall,” Mehler said. “We got a discount to pay for demolition and clearing the site. That’s what they assumed we would have to do.”
Instead, the couple restored the 1893 Victorian back to its original grandeur — and then some. For the next three decades, they poured their souls (and considerable money) into breathing life back into the blackened and abandoned structure.
“The idea was to show what could be done,” Mehler said.
Now, the couple’s house is a noble symbol of what careful restoration and love can accomplish. Sunday, it will be open to the public for the first time as part of the Sacramento Old City Association’s 38th annual tour.
Lathe, who died of respiratory failure in 2009, would have been proud.
“We always intended to have a big party to celebrate the completion of the house,” Mehler said. “This will be the party we never had.”
Sunday’s five-home tour focuses on the Mansion Flats neighborhood anchored by the opulent Governor’s Mansion, the official residence of 13 California governors and first families including Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown. On the tour, patrons will get a peek at restoration of the mansion’s third floor.
Also on the tour is the notorious former boardinghouse of serial killer Dorothea Puente, who drugged and murdered tenants in the 1980s. (Seven victims were found buried in the backyard.) Purchased and restored by Barbara Holmes and Tom Williams, the two-story Victorian is now a peaceful family home.
But the Lathe-Mehler house has the sort of personal cachet that really attracts public interest. Part of that draw is Lathe, who left a legacy of friends as well as expert knowledge.
Philadelphia transplants, Lathe and Mehler arrived in Sacramento in 1976 because Mehler, an epidemiologist, had an internship here. They immediately embraced Sacramento’s old neighborhoods. A contractor and architectural historian, Lathe became their champion.
“Roger definitely was one of the early preservationists — and so enthused,” said the Old City Association’s Christine Weinstein, who sought his advice for her own home. “He tackled all the neighborhoods in the central city. He used his own home as a great opportunity to show what’s possible.
“His enthusiasm was contagious,” Weinstein added. “He’d walk into a house and say, ‘Wow! Look at this fireplace!’ or ‘Don’t throw away that door!’ He got you excited.”
Said Mehler, “Roger brought that same enthusiasm to his research. We had whole walls covered with books.”
That collection is now available at the McClatchy Library.
Lathe also wrote extensively about Sacramento’s architectural treasures. His column appeared in The Bee’s Neighborhood and California Life sections for many years. He also wrote for SOCA’s Old City Guardian publication.
Often, he found his topics close to home. His F Street neighborhood grew around Judge Henry Hare Hartley’s 1865 mansion (now the oldest standing house on its block). Originally part of the Hartley house property, the parcel where the Lathe-Mehler home stands was purchased from Hartley’s widow in 1892 by William Cronemiller, whose company made boxes for shipping produce. He lived in his new house for only a short while before relocating to Los Angeles and becoming “the Produce King of Southern California.”
After Cronemiller’s move south, the modest cottage became a rental property, with nearly eight decades of tenants. By the time Lathe and Mehler discovered the house, it had been purchased by an investment company speculating on downtown property.
Located on the edge of the Alkali Flat neighborhood, the dilapidated Victorian proved to be quite an undertaking.
“The first two years, all we did was shovel burnt shingles,” Mehler recalled. “It was unsafe to walk inside. There was a gigantic hole just inside the front door.”
Four years after buying the house, the couple finally got a partial-occupancy permit.
“We lived in a construction zone for many, many years,” Mehler said.
Slowly, carefully, they pieced the house back together, using what clues had survived. They hand-cut thousands of wooden shingles to decorate the gables.
“That was a big pain,” Mehler recalled. “We tried automating the process as much as possible, but it still took forever. On the back of the house, we switched to a pattern that was easier to cut.”
They commissioned woodworkers to replicate lost doors and gingerbread fretwork. They scoured thrift stores, flea markets and vendor fairs to find matches for hinges and hardware.
“Everybody’s assumption was that the house would be torn down,” Mehler said. “So most of the doors and hardware were taken from the house before we bought it. The only things they didn’t take were too hard to get loose.”
The few original bits that remained — such as massive pocket doors and ornate molding — became the patterns for the replacements. Scorch marks can still be seen on some doorjambs.
They not only restored the house to its original beauty, they made it better. They added vintage-looking but modern bathrooms (the original house used outdoor facilities). They created a comfortable country kitchen. They finished the basement into an apartment and added a master suite to the attic. Forever budget-minded, they did as much of the work as they could themselves. Still, they spent tens of thousands.
“We made the house much more amenable to modern living,” Mehler said.
Now, the house feels like it’s always been this way — a gentile Sacramento beauty. A morning glory-style Edison phonograph, an heirloom passed down through Lathe’s family, greets visitors to the parlor along with several vintage photos of the couple’s two families. Gorgeous wallpapers — reproductions of Victorian originals — decorate the walls.
In a corner stands an ornately carved fireplace mantel, one of the few original features rescued from the old home. It didn’t burn because it had been taken by a disgruntled former tenant who later sold it to Lathe.
“We paid the ransom to get it back,” Mehler said.
Now retired, Mehler feels bittersweet about the home’s coming-out party. The joy was in the process, working alongside her husband. Without him, the house isn’t quite the same.
“I’m trying to work myself up to letting go of it,” Mehler said of the house. “The tour pushed me to get things cleaned up. It’s the grand party we never had, that ‘See what we did!’ moment.”
Lathe would have approved.