Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reviving history: One of Davis’ original homes is restored with loving care

Rhonda Reed and Ken Gebhart sit on the steps of the historic home they've owned and have been remodeling since 1980. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

Rhonda Reed and Ken Gebhart sit on the steps of the historic home they've owned and have been remodeling since 1980. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

March 4, 2011 | Leave Comment

It’s been three decades since Rhonda Reed and her husband Ken Gebhart purchased the almost century-old Williams-Drummond-Rorvick house on I Street in downtown Davis. When they bought it, they dreamed of restoring the Davis historic landmark to its former glory.

Today, their dream is well on the way to completion. Reed and Gebhart are carrying out an extensive restoration of the house, fixing weak spots and replacing earlier mid-century renovations with features truer to the original architecture.

A historic landmark

The Williams-Drummond-Rorvick house is “a pretty simple Italianate style,” Reed said. The original house was T-shaped, constructed of rough-cut, full-measure lumber. The house was built with no electricity, no gas and minimal plumbing. There was no garage, but there was a space for carriages in the back of the house.

The few closet spaces that populated the rooms were minuscule, barely large enough to hold what constituted a full wardrobe at the turn of the century — a weekday outfit and their Sunday best.

“There’s not a lot of high style ornamentation,” Reed said. She attributed the simpler style to Davis’ more rural location. “If you go to Woodland, you see fancier houses. Woodland was an affluent community, with its Opera House. Davisville was its less sophisticated cousin.”

The house was built in the 1870s by W.S. Williams and financed by John Drummond. It is one of the oldest structures on its original site in Davis (then called Davisville), according to a 1961 report of the property. After Williams went bankrupt, Drummond took over the property in 1880 so his four daughters could attend school in town.

“I’m sure those farmers thought it was really tiny,” Reed said, laughing.

The house was passed down to the three remaining daughters after the death of their mother, Sarah Drummond, in 1917. Lillian Hafner, one of the daughters, purchased it from her sisters in 1918. Though Hafner lived in Oakland, she came by the house every summer to can fruit from the trees in the yard.

Hafner was an “eccentric woman,” according to the 1961 report.

“There were rumors in the neighborhood that she was a witch,” Reed said.

After Hafner’s death, children vandalized the house, breaking every window except for one, which Reed and Gebhart are preserving.

Because Hafner left no will, the house was auctioned off after she died. It then cycled through various owners throughout the 20th century, including Marcia and Kurt Kreith, who still live in Davis today and served as a source of information for the project.

As the owners changed, the house collected alterations made to the structure.

In the 1920s, a toilet and sink were added within a room built onto the back of the house, Reed said. Later, a bathroom with a toilet, sink and tub was installed upstairs. Three chimneys serviced five stoves for heating, as well as a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. One chimney was removed in an early remodel, and the others were removed in 2003 due to instability.

With the installation of a forced-gas furnace in the 1950s, the kitchen ceiling was lowered and several downstairs walls removed to create two rooms. A large kitchen and dining area and a living room were created from four smaller rooms.

The ’50s also saw the addition of asbestos shingles, a large carport on the north side and plumbing for an interior downstairs toilet and sink. In addition, “several windows were removed due to dry rot,” Reed said.

The original single-pane  windows were replaced by plate glass. “It was very modern in the ’50s, but not true to the character of the house,” Reed said.

Other original exterior features were removed in the earlier remodels.  A bay window on the south wall was removed because of dry rot and was replaced by a rectangular picture window. A downstairs window and transom over the front door also were removed and boarded over.

Many of the porch boards and the lower pillars were damaged by dry rot by the time Kurt and Marcia Kreith acquired the house in the 1960s. They rebuilt a smaller front porch, put in patios and walks and salvaged what they could of the rotted original pillars, moving them to the back yard to create a grape arbor.

The asbestos tiles were removed from the house prior to the Reed-Gebhart purchase.

The house was granted historical landmark status by the city of Davis based on its age, architecture and ownership by the Drummond family.

That house — a mixture of faltering old structure and several rounds of renovations and modernizations — was what caught Reed’s eye as a student in the 1980s.

The beginning

The Reed-Gebharts bought the house in 1980 when Rhonda was in graduate school at UC Davis and Gebhart was working in Sacramento.

“We were watching housing prices go wild on the coast, and wanted to get in on the housing market,” Reed said. “We saw this house, and said, ‘What a neat old house,’ and decided that we’d fix it up.”

The house attracted them because of its uniqueness.

“It had a lot more character than a lot of the tract homes back in the ’80s,” Reed said. “It was a little out of our price range, but we got help from family, and it was definitely worth it.”

“It’s not your standard cookie-cutter home,” Reed said.

“We had more ideas and time than money back then,” she added. Still, during those first years, when their first child was born, they managed to stabilize the foundation, re-attach a badly sagging front porch and replace absent exterior siding. They also patched and repainted the plaster walls, which were weakening and bending as the horsehair reinforcements used in the original plaster decomposed.

However, when a rare job offer came from Southern California, the family packed up with their baby and relocated. They rented out the house with the intention of returning to Davis in a couple of years to continue the project.

However, “we ended up being landlords for 22 years,” Reed said.

In the interim, Gebhart became a licensed structural engineer and the couple gained experience with a major remodel on a home in the San Joaquin Valley.


The Reed-Gebharts moved back in 2002, and restarted the renovation process in 2005 by replacing the foundation. Then they embarked on a planning effort to map out the changes they’d make.

“We’re putting back a lot of those features that were part of the original architecture,” Reed said. They also wanted to update the home to be a comfortable residence for a modern family.

The restorations include strengthening walls, installing a zonal ventilation system, updating bathrooms and adding back original window frames and single-pane windows.

They also will restore the bay window, the front window and transom over the front door, rebuild the front porch and replicate the original pillars. Any rotting trim or siding will be replaced with replicated material.

Linoleum flooring, which covered the parlor and kitchen, was pulled up and thrown out to reveal the original wood floor. Though the parlor floor was intact, the kitchen floor showed lots of wear, Reed said.

“It’s interesting to try and match old wood,” Reed said, of finding wood to repair the kitchen floor.

They also will preserve one of the principal features of the house, a self-supporting curved interior walnut staircase. Originally, all rooms, upstairs and down, opened into an entry room with this stairway.

In order to preserve its landmark status, the house must retain its exterior, Reed said. In the front yard, the original orange trees still remain, as does a lone palm tree whose partner was killed in the 1990s by a lightning strike.

“They’re vintage oranges, so they’re not as sweet as today’s modern supermarket oranges, but they’re great for juicing,” Reed said. Each orange tree bears a different variety of fruit.

The Reed-Gebharts have a little more flexibility with renovating the back yard.

“The yard is going to be quite a lot of work,” Reed said. She plans to maintain the shade trees already in place, and install vegetable and rose gardens. She also wants to create a rock garden below a back window.

The original house featured a plain, flat back, but today, additions from over the years jut out from the back.

For the overall plans, they received help from Chris Campbell of Red House Architecture in Woodland, who has had many opportunities to work on vintage structures. Elma Gardner, of By Design in Davis, advises on period details, especially in the kitchen and baths, and John Hill of Roseville was selected as the general contractor.

Nearing completion

The current phase of construction has been going on for two years. Though the construction is a little behind schedule, Reed and Gebhart, who currently live in a home across the street, plan to move back in soon.

The history of the house is fairly well-documented. In 1961, a UCD student, Marilyn McShane, researched the history of the house for a class project.  Her report included photographs of the original bay window and the detail of the original porch pillars, as well as accounts from local people who were alive near the time that the house was built, an invaluable resource.

This report, and others relating to early Davisville structures, is archived at the Madden Library in Berkeley under the collections of Dr. Baird.

The Reed-Gebharts plan to carry on the tradition.

The keys to a successful restoration and respectful renovation are documentation and photographs, according to Reed.

The current changes to the house are being photo-documented and they intend to seal a time capsule showing the changes in the house for future stewards, Reed said.

Though the renovations will beautify and restore original architecture, Reed hopes they will serve a bigger purpose for the future.

“The restorations will hopefully keep the house in good condition for the long run,” she said.

— Reach Chloe Kim at Comment on this story at


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