By John Earl
SUSAN WORTHY and her husband, Guy Guzardo, had been trying for decades to save and restore their small two-story, eastern-style, cottage and its accompanying large commercial building, both located at the corner of 6th and Walnut streets in downtown Huntington Beach. After years of fighting redevelopment politics and searching for funding, they began a full restoration of the two buildings about a year ago.
H.B. residents might appreciate their perseverance because the structures are extraordinary and vital to understanding the city’s history. The 1200 square foot house and the 5,000 square foot commercial building date prior to 1904, the year that electricity first came to the city and it officially took the name Huntington Beach.
Both buildings are in the National Register of Historical Places because they retain their original materials and structure (the Newland home is the city’s only other un-remodeled historical structure) and due to their direct connection to two of the city’s founding settlers-Matthew and Mollie Helme, Susan’s great grandparents.
“There’s nothing that looks like it in all of southern California,” Worthy says. Although small, the home started out with four bedrooms and an outside bathroom. In 1907 walls were knocked down to create two bedrooms. Today, one of those rooms is the bathroom, leaving only one bedroom.
The home was built by developer Charles Leatherman in Santa Ana on the corner of 6th and Verano Street (then Euclid). Leatherman brought the home to Huntington Beach about 1901, Worthy estimates, and later sold it to L.C. Haulman, Helme’s business partner.
Judging from the similar architecture, the commercial building probably was also built by Leatherman, Worthy believes. It has a rare Western False Front and started out in 1904 as the Haulman and Helme House Furnishing Co. Two years later Helme took over the business and renamed it the M.E. Helme House Furnishing Co. He also bought the house from Haulman.
“It was kind of like how IKEA is today,” Worthy notes, comparing it with the huge one stop home-shopping center. “You could buy used furniture. You could buy new furniture. You could buy things for the garden. You could buy sheets, utensils and paint. You could buy lots of stuff.”
Helme’s older son, Barney, used to deliver those products on a small horse-drawn wagon (see advertisement photo on page 4).
Helme was one of the city’s founding fathers and played an important role in its incorporation in 1909 (with 4.5 square miles and a population of 915) and its subsequent development. He served for nine years on the first H.B. city council and was elected as the city’s fourth mayor in 1916. And he was well respected, as noted in the Huntington Beach News in May, 1917: “To know Mr. Helme is to admire and respect him for his sterling integrity and kind and pleasant disposition.”
His descendants also played important roles in the city’s growth. His son Paul was a member of the city’s volunteer fire department in 1913 and was its first professional lifeguard in 1917. Helme’s daughter Amy married Lawrence “Boots” Worthy in 1916 and started another family lineage that included Norman Worthy, who started the city’s first recreation department and its first of many professional surfing competitions that would make the city internationally famous. Susan Worthy is the daughter of Norman and Shirley Worthy.
Placement on the National Register of Historical Places does not come easy. Strict standards must be met regarding location, “design, setting, materials and workmanship,” according to the official web site. It also must have “distinctive characteristics” be associated with key historical events or figures. The Worthy buildings fit that criteria and could be thought of as Surf City’s own Monticello.
But past city councils were loath to appreciate much less save the city’s historical and cultural wonders from destruction.
The property escaped the redevelopment blitzkrieg of 1988, when city officials depicted the downtown as a haven for Satan worshipers and called the owners of the well preserved Clark Hotel, which was a bordello during the oil boom of the 20s and 30s, and other downtown building owners slum lords in a ploy to justify eminent domain. The Clark hotel was demolished, as was one of the nation’s premier show palaces, the Golden Bear.
Despite their historical and architectural significance, the exteriors of the two Helme buildings were turned into an eyesore by time and weather. But funding for the expensive restoration project had been too hard to find, Worthy explained. “We have worked with the city on several different potential programs and they just fell through. So we’re just privately doing it with out own money. There isn’t any other kid of funding source.”
City Councilmember Cathy Green added insult to injury last September during a city council discussion about raising fee assessments and remapping for the downtown Business Improvement District (BID).
Worthy had been paying fees to the BID but received little if any benefit during several years of construction for the nearby Strand, a mixed-use mall with hotel that kept customers away from her antique shop.
BID president Steve Daniels even suggested that the BID give a refund to Worthy for fees paid during that period (a decision that the BID directors have to make).
But Green was long-winded and smirky in her disapproval, apparently unaware that the restoration had been going on in plain sight for almost a year. “You would think that in exchange for going with Map B they would clean up that house and paint it and make it look half-way decent,” she ranted. Rather than give a refund, “maybe you could take the money and clean up the place. Or help paint it, anyhow. Do something. Rather than just leave it,” suggested.
But a federally recognized project must respect the historical value of its target and follow strict guidelines to remain in the Registry. That is a painstaking process that requires more patience than impulse. Every item of the Worthy home and commercial building will be restored faithfully to its original condition, down to the last nail.
In fact, according to Guzardo, who is doing some of the work himself along with hired contractors, the original nails 100 years ago were a higher quality than nails bought from the local hardware store today. He had to order stainless steel nails from a special store in Maryland and other needed construction materials must be shipped from various stores around the country. A wood mill in northern California, for example, supplies the exact kind of redwood needed for replacement of some of the home’s wood siding.
The old enamel paint on the original wood siding had to be carefully scraped off, first with a heat plate, then with a putty knife and finally with a paint stripper, Worthy says. “You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy a bunch of paint and slap it on there. I want it to look good for the rest of my life and enjoy it. And this is the process that you have to go through.”
Worthy won’t reveal the cost of the restoration, nor can she say when it will be entirely complete. “I think around spring the house will be good, but that’s all I’m going to commit to. You just do one wall at a time,” she said.