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The life of a house
July 26, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sally Schilling Daily Journal correspondent

Sally Schilling/Daily Journal The Johnston House as it sat in disrepair, top, and how it looks today. The Half Moon Bay landmark is open for free tours the third Saturday of each month from 11 a.m to 3 p.m.

Residents of Half Moon Bay all know "that white house on the hill.” People cruising south of downtown on Highway 1 can spot the Johnston House nestled in the rolling hills to the east.

Many people venture to these hills for a peaceful walk or bike ride. But they are often unaware of the mystery, romance and long history of the White House of Half Moon Bay.

Built around 1855, the Johnston House was the first wood house on the coast south of San Francisco.

The house was originally the romantic gesture of a wealthy American man, James Johnston, to his Californiano wife Petra de Jara. After its short heyday — from 1855 to 1861 — the Johnston home turned into a symbol of despair. The house was abandoned some time after World War II and over time it became the mysterious "haunted house” to passers-by.

A pair of Smithsonian historians stumbled upon the house and vowed to resurrect the glory and history of the place. Today the house is a sense of communal pride for many dedicated volunteers.

A new haunt

John Ryan remembers seeing the Johnston House when he was driving out from Redwood City to Half Moon Bay as a kid.

"Back then, it was the haunted house,” he said.

When Ryan later moved to Half Moon Bay as an adult he remembers looking up at the renovated house.

"I couldn’t believe it,” said Ryan, who is now president of the Johnston House board. "I was shocked at what they had done.”

Since Smithsonian historians Malcolm and Joan Watkins stumbled upon the "architectural diamond in the rough,” almost all renovating has been done by volunteers, said Ryan.

"It’s been a labor of love for a lot of people,” said Ryan, who frequently comes up to the house from his office down the road to work on the house and enjoy the calm.

Johnston’s love and loss

The New England saltbox-style home brings Barbara VonGlahn’s local history books to life. The house was built before Half Moon Bay became a city, she said.

"Johnston was trying to make a statement with the house,” said Barbara VonGlahn, a Johnston House docent. "And he still is today.”

Walking through the house, VonGlahn constantly lights up with stories to tell. Johnston built a chapel room in the house for his Catholic mother-in-law Molita, she said.

VonGlahn suspects that the Johnstons were great hosts to more than just family members. They fostered a community of many races. In fact, their Chinese servant Sam ended up marrying a Mexican woman, said VonGlahn. And Molita then baptized Sam to be Catholic.

"It’s important to know about our ancestors,” said Carolyn Waring, who runs the Johnston House holiday boutique. There are not many buildings in California that are this old, she said.

The inside of the house has been furnished with pieces from the era when it was built, with a few of the original pieces. Much of the remaking of the interior and south garden are based on written accounts of a 14-year-old girl who visited the Johnstons.

Waring, who moved to Half Moon Bay a year ago, is captivated by the romance and tragedy of the house.

Before starting to build the house, Johnston asked two of his brothers to bring 800 dairy cattle to California from Ohio. The animals that survived the grizzly bears became the first dairy cattle on the West Coast. Johnston also owned a popular saloon in San Francisco.

While the vision of a grand family home came to life for James Johnston, the dream realized was short-lived, said Waring. Petra died after childbirth complications in having their fourth child.

Unable to cope, Johnston left his mother-in-law and four children and moved to San Francisco where he later died alone in a hotel room.

Waring and VonGlahn suspect that Johnston lost his money in an 1873 economic bust, which they explained was similar to today’s economic downturn.

Mysterious construction

The volunteers agreed that the house’s original construction is one of its many marvels.

"The mystery is who could construct something like this,” said VonGlahn, adding that the surrounding habitants in the 1850s were in mere adobe huts.

It was a momentous challenge to get the timber transported to the site, said Ryan. Logs from the Santa Cruz mountains were loaded onto a ship and then thrown overboard in the Bay.

The house has its original redwood frame construction, said Ryan. The frame is not nailed together, but made by mortice-and-tenon construction — fastening of beams using holes and dowels.

Box info

The house is open for free tours the third Saturday of the month 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Private tours also available.

The Johnston House holiday boutique is on the first two weekends in November.

For more information visit

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