In the past few decades, most people who passed by the dilapidated structure at 104 First St. had no idea that it was a historic home designed by the same architect who created Hearst Castle.
But the handful who knew it was a Julia Morgan house crossed their fingers -- and hoped that someone, somewhere, would discover this neglected treasure.
And then, amazingly enough, it happened.
The result of 18 months of meticulous restoration was unveiled last month as part of Pacific Grove's 35th annual Historic Home Tour. Owner Polly Moore, architect Gretchen Flesher and contractor Mark Travaille shared the saga in a special slide lecture and panel discussion.
The brown-shingled structure, known officially as the Lena Dinsmore House, was designed by Morgan in 1914, and construction completed in 1916.
What makes it remarkable, besides its transformation from downtrodden to delightful, is that it's the only home in Pacific Grove designed by Morgan, who took on the job while working on nearby Asilomar Conference Grounds.
So determined was owner Moore that she tracked down the original blueprints of the house at Bancroft Library, which has a collection of Morgan's papers. It was with blueprints in hand that Moore approached Flesher.
"People in town have really embraced her because of her careful approach and her willingness to invest," said Flesher. "They appreciate her being the steward for this project."
Moore didn't go out looking for a Julia Morgan house, she said.
She and her husband, Stuart Builder, had simply wanted a little vacation home on the coast.
"It was pure serendipity," said Moore, retired from the biotech industry and now in the process of being ordained as a minister.
The Belmont, Calif., couple discovered the house while scouting for real estate, and when the name "Julia Morgan" was mentioned, Moore took notice.
"I've always been a fan of hers," she said. "I've always been intrigued by women who were out front in a man's world."
Morgan most assuredly was a woman ahead of her time. After graduating in civil engineering from University of California at Berkeley in 1894, at a time when most women didn't go to college, let alone major in such a male-dominated field, she applied and was rejected by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which didn't take female students. She persisted, and finally was accepted, and in 1902 became the first woman to earn its prestigious certificate.
Morgan, who was born in 1872 and died in 1957, went on to become one of the United States' first female architects, known most famously for Hearst Castle, but also for more than 700 designs of homes, churches, educational facilities and many other buildings, particularly in the Bay Area.
Asilomar Conference Grounds, where she designed and built 16 structures between 1913 and 1928, is the largest collection of Julia Morgan buildings in one location.
It was while Morgan was working on Asilomar that the Dinsmores contacted her regarding building a home on a triangular lot near the ocean. Because the spot afforded sweeping bay views, Morgan specified picture windows along the north elevation, some of the first of their kind.
Although the Dinsmore house is much smaller and less imposing than Asilomar, the two show Morgan's distinctive take on the Arts & Crafts style popular at that time. Exposed support beams, shingles and the use of readily available materials are some of the hallmarks of the style.
The Dinsmore house is made out of redwood, the most available wood of that time, and the stacked rock walls are another Craftsman signature.
When Moore and Builder bought the house, it was in a sorry state. The poorly remodeled kitchen was wallpapered in black. The shingles, if they were still holding on, were paper-thin.
The good news, however, was that nothing in the house had changed much, for better or for worse.
Most of the original wood, for instance, had not been painted.
Sanding and oiling the wood interiors was all that was necessary to recapture their native sheen.
The Morgan blueprints gave few clues to the inside appearance of the house, Flesher said. But she did find some details in them that could be applied to the restoration.
Flesher, Moore and Travaille decided to walk a fine line in the renovation -- keeping the historic character of the house, but changing it enough so that it could contain some modern-day conveniences.
"I think we found a happy medium," Flesher said.
Moore and Flesher wanted to retain the handmade, funky feeling of the structure, in keeping with the Arts & Crafts tradition.
The foundation had to be carefully rebuilt. The shingles -- all 7,000 of them -- were replaced. The new ones were handmade by a company in Oregon of red cedar, since the cost of redwood would have been prohibitive.
A small deck was added on the ocean side of the house to take advantage of the view, one of the few modern deviations.
But, as Flesher points out, "This is not a house museum. This is a house that someone will live in. . . . There had to be enough modernization to make it livable."
And as times have changed, so have living arrangements. For instance, the kitchen originally contained a butler's pantry and a maid's room, to accommodate the home's servants. A wall was knocked out to open up the space. But the look of an old-time kitchen is retained through the choice of a vintage-look sink and stove; more modern items, such as the refrigerator and the microwave, are hidden.
Throughout the house, there are period echoes in the wallpaper, tile and other details. Moore scouted out all kinds of Craftsman-friendly designs, some original pieces and others reproductions. There is Stickley furniture in the living room, for instance. Tiles above sinks and in the bathrooms are embossed with Morgan's own designs.
Some of the light fixtures in the house date from its beginnings. Others are reproductions that match the style of the times.
One of Moore's great finds was a church pew, designed by Morgan. It now rests against the window of the house's dining room. The pew comes from First Baptist Church of Oakland, which was renovated by Morgan after the great quake of 1906. Moore found it at a salvage yard in Oakland, "and of course I had to have it," she said.
An adjacent guest cottage was built on the pad of a former garage, near the house but not connected to it. Although it is all new construction, it was built and furnished to match the house. "It was an interesting process," said Flesher. "We were always asking ourselves, 'What would Julia have done?' "