On a fall afternoon in 1971, Gail Hartwig and her husband, Don, drove out of their farm, northwest of Edmonton, Canada, to run an errand. As they rode along, a goat in the back of the family pickup truck peered over the tailgate, craning its neck to get a better view of the passing scenery. The goat, a recent prizewinner at the local fair, was being delivered to Gail’s friend Carol Turner. “Such is the life of country people,” Gail says today with a laugh. They had agreed to meet in Mill Woods, about 40 miles south of the Hartwigs’ home, at an old house that Carol’s father, Ernie, was tearing down for scrap.
Pulling into the driveway, Gail saw little reason to mourn its impending demise. Painted a sickly yellow brown with fire engine red trim, the house had been derelict for years and looked it. Vandals had shot out many of the windows, and Ernie had already dismantled the rear portion, leaving only three rooms intact. As Gail went inside, her pupils needed a moment to adjust to the darkness. Then everything came into focus. There, illuminated by shafts of light streaming through broken windowpanes, was a room Gail could only describe as “awesome.” The space seemed enormous, an effect heightened by a magnificent vaulted ceiling clad in Oregon pine. The walls below were similarly paneled and, despite their grime, gave off a warm glow. On her left was a handsome stone fireplace, and at the far end of the room, presiding over an inglenook, was an imposing trestle beam.
She found the same kind of extraordinary craftsmanship in each of the rooms, all of them richly paneled and with beautiful handmade doors inlaid with strips of opalescent glass. She was transfixed. “It was just so unique,” Gail says. “There was nothing like it. There was no way I was going to let all this wind up on a scrap heap,” she says. “Certainly not without a fight.”
Emerging from her tour of the home, she looked at Ernie and asked, “How much for the lot of it?” Both he and Don were taken aback. “Sorry, Gail,” Ernie countered. “It’s all spoken for.” Gail was not so easily dissuaded. A spirited haggling session commenced. “It was irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object,” she says. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Gail had talked Ernie into letting her have at least one of the rooms—not the living room as she’d hoped but the original master bedroom, a beautiful space on its own, fully paneled and with a large bay window. She also acquired five of the art-glass doors as well as other architectural elements.
Gail’s idea was to use the historic room as the centerpiece of a new house. She and Don had long ago outgrown their current home on what they called Centana Farm, and during the return drive they were already laying the groundwork for the project.
Although they had no way of knowing it, the Hartwigs had bought a remnant of the Cora C. Hollister House, a Craftsman-style bungalow built in 1904 by Charles and Henry Greene, two of Southern California’s most admired and transformational residential architects. “In their 20 years of practice,” wrote the late Greene & Greene historian Randell L. Makinson, “they established an American architecture so fresh that it spread from Pasadena to all of Southern California and then over the entire country as the ‘California Bungalow’ style.” Artists in the truest sense of the word, the brothers created whole environments—livable spaces that harmonized with their surroundings. In the early 20th century, Greene & Greene had a thriving practice in Southern California, designing landmark Arts & Crafts residences like the Gamble and Blacker houses in Pasadena, the town in which their firm was based.
Had she been aware that the gorgeous details of the home she was in were the work of such important architects, Gail wouldn’t have been surprised. The real revelation would come years later, when her family veterinarian, Roy Saito, walked through the door of the home she would build around it. “Oh, this is the Storers’ place,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was in this house years ago.” The words caught Gail so off-guard, she was momentarily speechless. From the day she first encountered the old house, Gail had sought any bit of information she could uncover about its past. “I absolutely hated history as a child,” she says, “but I just couldn’t let this go. I had to know.” Yet the trail had stayed maddeningly cold. Now Gail thought she might have finally gotten a break.
“What do you mean, ‘the Storers’ place?’ ” she asked Saito. “Well, this house used to be down in Millet,” he responded. “You mean Mill Woods,” Gail corrected. “No, Millet,” he said, his eyes never leaving the paneled walls. “Millet,” Gail marveled. “Why, that’s more than 60 miles from here. This house sure has traveled far.”
“Oh, it came from a lot farther away than that,” Saito told her. “This house was originally brought up from Hollywood, California.”
“Holly—,” Gail couldn’t even finish the thought. How—and more to the point why—would someone have done such a thing? It must have been an incredible undertaking. “Well,” said Saito, “the Storers were a rather incredible family.”
They were a family of adventurers. “And we went venturing…,” said the voice on the recording. It was faint but bore a distinct firmness, evident even through the distortions of the old audiotape. The voice belonged to Winona Denton de Storer, and Gail Hartwig had waited a long time to hear what she had to say.
The cassette, labeled “Storer Family Oral History,” had been unearthed from deep within the stacks of the Provincial Archives of Alberta after Gail had gone there to inquire whether it had information on the family. She hardly expected anything at all, let alone an audiotape. On November 10, 1966, Winona and two of her siblings, Christine and Victor, had gathered around a microphone placed on their dining room table to share the family’s remarkable story. It was these three, along with their parents, Juan and Maria Denton de Storer, who had moved the house from Hollywood half a century before. Wasting no time in obtaining a copy of the tape, Gail raced home, brewed a fresh pot of tea, and sat down in what remained of the Storers’ former residence to listen to their tale unfold.
“And father was not strong from the very beginning…. And then father became more and more of an invalid and the doctors thought the climate of California would suit him…
Southern California held out possibly the last hope for Juan Enrique Storer. When the family came to Hollywood in the summer of 1911, he was only 56 but—gaunt and wan—appeared to be much older. A serious accident a few years before had left his health shattered. In contrast to her husband, Maria Andrea Denton radiated vigor, her cherubic face framed by thick spectacles. Their children sported similar specs, giving them the collective appearance of a family of owls.
California was yet another chapter for the peripatetic Storers, who for at least the last decade seemed always on the move, traversing the globe between stops at their home in England and their sugar plantations in Puerto Rico. The dwelling they chose was the Cora C. Hollister House, built seven years before and named after the wife of a major developer of the Santa Monica neighborhood of Ocean Park. Located on Cahuenga near Hollywood Boulevard, a few doors from the turreted mission-style estate of famed floral painter Paul deLongpre and two blocks to the east of Ozcot, the late-Victorian residence of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, it was to be Greene & Greene’s only Hollywood commission.
Sleek, simple, and stripped of all unnecessary adornment, the Hollister house looked almost radically modern, especially when juxtaposed with the heavy ornamentation of its neighbors. In spirit it was evocative of the romantic low-slung haciendas of California’s Spanish pioneers, but its origins lay as much in Japanese as they did in early California architecture. Wood, rather than adobe, was used, with split redwood shakes sheathing the exterior and Oregon pine throughout the interior. Art glass, created for the Greenes by artisans formerly of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios in New York, was used in doors, windows, and light fixtures.
Stylistically the house was a more refined adaptation of the U-shaped courtyard first employed by the brothers in their groundbreaking design for the Pasadena home of Arturo Bandini in 1903. For the Hollister commission, they flipped the orientation so that the base of the “U” was at the front of the property. In effect, the house had its back turned to the outside world, which perfectly suited the Storers’ intensely private natures. “We don’t like publicity” was how Winona put it.
The family’s arrival had coincided with Hollywood’s transformation from sleepy village into film capital of the world. “They often came and asked if they could take a picture on our front lawn,” Winona recalled. With the rabble of “the movies” howling at their doorstep, the Storers entertained themselves on their twin grand pianos and by reading, gardening, and caring for their extensive menagerie—a collection that included llamas, lemurs, marmosets, monkeys, parrots, a cow, four goats, chickens, two dogs, and a bowl of goldfish.
For six years the family lived a quiet life in their house before suddenly uprooting themselves for the ranchlands of western Canada. “So eventually…we decided to come up here” was Winona’s only reason for going north.
Gail paused the tape. “That’s it?” She caught herself saying out loud. “That’s the whole explanation for why they decided to give up Hollywood and relocate to some remote spot in Alberta?” None of it made sense. From what Gail could tell, Juan’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he needed to be carried everywhere, yet the family planned to move miles from the nearest town, which meant no electricity, in an area no doctor would recommend for its weather. Most perplexing of all, though, was the Storers’ decision to take their house with them.
“Do you think you children could do it?” Maria asked her brood. “And we said, ‘Oh yes!’ ” Winona recalled. Only Guillermo, the eldest son, was opposed—a significant dissension considering he was a trained engineer. Rushing back to England to join the British army to fight in World War I, Guillermo thought his departure would put an end to the silliness. He was wrong. No sooner had he left than the dismantling began.