Do: House History Research
I find myself wanting to call my house The Old Lady. It makes sense to personify her: she’s 80 years old, we’re the third owners, the third family to live under her roof and within her walls, and for this we owe her respect. But who are the people that came before?
We know a lot about the second owners, the Brashears, because we bought the house from them and many of them live close by, but all we knew about the original owner was a name, scrawled under the basement stair: John Filice.
It’s written large and in a thick green pencil—the same green used to write construction measurements on the outside of some of the drawers in the house; it must have been a common carpenter writing utensil of the era. Who was this John Filice? Did he have a wife? Did he have children? Are any of them living? Is there someone I can talk to, who can give me the story?
That handwritten name was the one clue that unlocked the history of this house.
I took to Google. It didn’t come right away, took a few tries. The winning search was when I entered John Filice, our street name, and San Jose. That simple combination brought me to his wife’s obituary from 2008, and the rest was, well, history.
His wife’s name was Anita. They married in 1937. They built this house in 1939. They had two children, Joanne and John. BINGO! Oh boy, I sure hoped they were alive. When I Googled the daughter’s name, I found an online directory that included her maiden name and a home phone number. I called and left a message, hopeful but unsure it was the right person.
“Hello Joanne, my name is Taylor. I recently bought a house in San Jose and I believe your parents were the first owners. I’m doing some research on the house and would really appreciate talking with you.”
She called me back soon after, and it was her, it was John Filice’s daughter. I could hardly believe it; I’d found her on the first try. She is 79 years old, her brother is 77. Her parents brought her home from the hospital to this very house, and they moved out when she was 22. This was her childhood home, she still lived in the Bay Area, and she had never been back to visit the house. What a priceless opportunity!
Earlier this month, Joanne and her husband came over and visited with us. We slowly walked through the house, room by room. They were overjoyed, full of laughter, and she shared stories as they came to her:
She said she always dreamed of getting married in this house and envisioned herself walking down the staircase in her wedding gown.
When she saw the laundry chute, she remembered how she’d traveled down it as a little girl and gotten stuck.
She walked into the pink bathroom and reminisced, “My mother always loved pink.”
She told us how much her mother enjoyed decorating the fireplace mantle for Christmas, and that one Christmas she got an extravagant pink tree. The next year, her frugal father got two small runt trees to make his point.
Her parents had twin beds in the master bedroom.
They were the first family on the block to get a TV.
Her parents took shelter in the basement with baby Joanne during WWII air raids.
It was a profound experience to walk through the home with Joanne. I felt honored to be part of this house’s history. The most important moment for me was when I took a risk and asked about her parents’ marriage:
-“Did they have a good marriage?”
-“Oh yes, they had a good marriage. They were close friends, they had fun together.”
I’m so thankful Mr. Filice wrote his name under the basement stair; without this clue, I’m not sure I would have found Joanne. We now know Mr. Filice was a creative who designed the home himself. I imagine he wrote his name in 1939 once the house was completed, to celebrate the achievement. He finished the house just before his first child, Joanne, was born in July 1940.
This brick and stucco abode has presided over a lot of life: she nurtured and launched the two Filice children, then the five Brashear children, and now the three Buzzard children are under her watchful eye. With all this rich history, The Old Lady might not be the best nickname after all. She’s deserving of something more dignified. Perhaps La Grande Dame better suits her. The definition:
“A French term meaning great lady, used to describe a woman who is highly respected in her field.”
This is only the beginning of my findings, there is so much more that I’ll write up another time. (Teaser: John was born into a wine-making family in Calabria, Italy; his given name was Giovanni.) It’s been exhilarating to put together the puzzle pieces and learn about the people who inhabited this house long before I was born.
I encourage you to pick up a shovel and dig into the history of your house, you’ll likely find some buried treasure. Or perhaps it would be good for you to return to your childhood home and experience the flood of memories, painful and beautiful alike.
Joanne’s smile in the photo below says it all. I’m so happy I found her!
ADDENDUM: My stepdad just asked me to tell everyone: “Go and write your name in a good place now, for the long-term future.” Yes, indeed! Do what John Filice did. YOU are the future history of your house.