Rock Walls and Stone Sunbursts: The Quarry-Faced Homes of Southern California's Past

A rock house in Redlands, CA. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Someone had to pick up each stone, carry it to the horse-drawn wagon or the truckbed, and then repeat that process hundreds of times to collect all the rocks for the foundations, walls, porches, and even the decorative trim of the lovely, sturdy and unique houses of inland Southern California's past. Pasadena and Altadena, Claremont and Ontario, Rialto and Redlands and Riverside, and the classic homes of Mentone. Every stone-pillared porch, every garden outlined with rounded boulders and rocks carried first by floodwaters and then by human hands to a yard or a building site, reminds us of how for years, all we needed was around us.

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Think locavore -- eating food produce within a few miles of where you live. Now think locabuild -- it worked for decades. I wish we still did it now. One of my dreams, the one my daughters laugh about when it comes right after the dream of owning a Chevy Apache truck, is to build a stone house. Just four rooms. With sunbursts of narrow white rocks around the porch.

The dream began when my brothers played Little League baseball at Patterson Park in Riverside, and down the street, on Seventh and Kansas, were two stone houses. They were like a fairy-tale -- red tile roofs over artfully inset pebbles and stones of every color, and white and gray rocks that made the walls. I realized that my mother, born in Switzerland, had taken us to the river washes so we could collect stones to outline her garden. In high school, when my future husband and I drove up to Forest Falls, above Mentone, we fell in love with the stone houses all along Lugonia and in North Redlands.

Last week, Michele Nielsen, Curator of History and Archives at the San Bernardino County Museum, took Doug and me on a tour of some North Redlands houses. Redlands was a favorite location for Easterners suffering from tuberculosis -- in fact, from 1890-1910, some people lived in tent houses on wooden platforms that later became permanent homes.

Looking East up Mill Creek toward Galena Peak. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The quarry-faced homes -- which means the stones haven't been chipped, cut, or worked before they're used in building -- are a perfect example of builders working with the materials they had. "The stone-faced homes were mainly built from 1910 to the 1930s," Nielsen said, as we stood in front of three houses on Lugonia and Sixth streets. "The timber was cut in our local mountains, from Running Springs to Fredalba. They hauled it from the forest with big wagons and horses as board feet of lumber, and took it to the planing mills in downtown Redlands to be finished. When they built the structure of a house, then they hauled the rock from anywhere along the Santa Ana Wash. But all over southern California, people got stones from waterways like Mill Creek, Lytle Creek, and even San Antonio Heights."

(Note: Michele Nielsen gives architectural and historical tours of North Redlands -- contact her at the San Bernardino County Museum for details.)

Think of how many cities have remnants of rock curbs, or rock-faced city signs, or pillars around restaurants, and porches, and planters. Even the simplest addition of stone made everything look more natural, elegant, and unique. Here in the washes, looking out over millions of rounded boulders and pebbles like multi-sized pearls in the distance, the endless supply of building material which will never disintegrate is astounding.

A rock house in Mentone, CA | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Standing close to the homes in Redlands, and later standing in front of my dream house further north on Lugonia, in Mentone, just before you get to the narrow roads that lead into Forest Falls, it's easy to see how each builder left his signature. He touched every stone, placed every large rock next to another and used narrower darker stones as filler. He chose tiny pebbles as trim, and topped walls with flat rocks where children and cats and flowerpots rested.

One of the 'fairy-tale' rock houses in Riverside, CA at Seventh and Kansas. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Randy and Susan Owens live on Sixth, in a stone house with a distinctive chimney built in 1937. They bought the house in 1966, and when we asked about earthquakes -- something people often mention when being nervous about stone homes -- they laugh. "This place holds up pretty well during an earthquake," Susan told me. "We've felt plenty of them. I don't worry." She loves the wood paneling inside, the way her house looks like no other.

Photo: Courtesy San Bernardino County Museum

Photo: Courtesy San Bernardino County Museum

Horse tow in Mill Creek | Photo: Courtesy San Bernardino County Museum

Many historic stone structures in Southern California have been destroyed for newer, duller buildings. Along Indiana Avenue in Riverside, only two forlorn rock houses are left -- for sale, probably for demolition -- and I visit them, wishing they could be saved. All the others are gone for mirror-windowed commercial buildings. On Seventh and Kansas, one home was razed -- a vacant lot now -- and the other house remains as elegant as ever.

Detail of a rock house in Mentone, CA. | Photo: Douglas McCullohSince that first fascination with stone construction, I've seen it all over the world. In Switzerland, The Ballenberg Museum showed my daughters and me every kind of architecture and building material from that country. There were foundations built to repel rats by using huge flat stones like mushroom tops for Alpen homes and granaries; white limestone homes near Italy where silkworms were raised. In Bath, England, we checked out the famous golden limestone facades of Jane Austen's time, and the quarries. We brought home stones from there, and flat green, red, and purple slate from upstate New York. This week, from Austin, Texas, I carry white limestone from the walls surrounding my daughter's new neighborhood. So different from California -- the white stones like sandwich bread stacked up high and now crumbling.

All of these rocks sit on the mantel of our fireplace, in our 1910 house. When we bought it, in 1988, that fireplace was covered with green 1950s plaster, a dripping effect, and when I chipped that away, the bricks underneath were cracking. But we found an ad in the newspaper -- stonemason. A 65-year-old man came over. He'd built a stone home and fireplace for Charlie Chaplin, he said, and he studied our fireplace. He came back with a truckload of rocks from Lytle Creek, and when he built the fireplace, I couldn't believe how he fit the largest white stone into the arched design over the mantel. It was his last fireplace. He retired to Frazier Park the following month.

Detail of a rock house in Mentone, CA. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

And when our daughters were born, we took them to Mill Creek, above Mentone, to the wash where each girl picked up small stones and put them in their father's truckbed, and I picked up the medium rocks, and like some bear fairytale their father picked up huge stones. We rode down the hill to Riverside and lined the garden beds with rocks, each girl fitting her stones into the design. Twenty years later, the stones have not diminished, or even moved. Southern California river rock never crumbles.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published in September. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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