March 4, 2013

California's "Russian Village": Bringing a National Register Listing to Life

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom
Building wall of broken concrete road paving, August 1938. Photo courtesy Blanchard Family.
Building a wall of broken concrete road paving, August 1938.

Buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places are often relics of a vastly different time, cloaked in community legend and dusty ancestral history. For Jerry Blanchard, however, the story behind the National Register-listed cluster of houses that makes up Claremont, California’s “Russian Village” isn’t even a generation removed -- he spent his earliest years there.

So when Blanchard casually mentioned that his father had built a house on the National Register to family friend and California state historian Amy Crain a few months back, the two embarked on a journey to find out more.

Situated on the corner of Mills Avenue and Moreno Street, the house at 370 South Mills was a labor of love for Blanchard’s parents, Thelma and Burton. It was the Great Depression, and the newlyweds, like a handful of other families, followed Polish immigrant Konstany Stys’ cooperative lead, building their first home in 1938 with discarded concrete slab obtained from highway construction projects, leftover sand, and whatever other salvaged building materials they could find. Stys offered the Blanchards a lot on his property even though the young couple didn’t have the money to pay for it at the time.

“If [Stys] had something useful, he’d share it. If he thought that someone else had something useful, he’d figure out a way to get it,” Amy Crain says. “Business was done on a handshake.”

1920s Model T Ford truck, August 1938. Cocker spaniel May Day in “sidecar.” Photo courtesy Blanchard Family.
1920s Model T Ford truck, August 1938. Cocker spaniel May Day is in the “sidecar.”

Locals who mistook Stys for a Russian immigrant dubbed the development “Russian Village,” an “informal communal enterprise of self-taught artisans and trades-men who built their own and their neighbors’ homes from whatever materials they could utilize,” according to the 1978 National Register listing.

“Although none had formal architectural training and few had any experience in construction work,” the listing continues, “the homes are locally recognized as excellent and attractive examples of rock architecture.” The Blanchards’ house, though sold to different owners decades ago, is one of 15 still standing today that make up the historic district.

After Crain learned of Jerry Blanchard’s family ties to a listing in her jurisdiction, she conducted follow-up research and consulted with Blanchard on additional materials he had from his parents, who died about 20 years ago. A detailed memoir entitled “Thelma and Burton’s Story” Thelma Blanchard had written in 1979 was crucial in completing the historic picture:

When Mr. Stys learned Burton was married he asked him if he would like to build a home for himself and his bride on the last lot he had available which was on the corner of Mills and Moreno. Burton said he sure would but he didn’t have the $400 to pay for the lot. Mr. Stys said to just start building and when he had some money, he could pay him. That is the way our first home began -- with a handshake and a promise ... Right away Burton drove to Los Angeles to get a Uniform Building Code book and an outdated set of Audel’s Building Guides with which to plan our house. This took a bit of courage for a young man of 19 who had lost his father when he was 11 and certainly hadn’t any building experience ... We took some string and layed [sic] out the floor plan on the sight [sic] the way we thought it should be, then drew up the plan on paper. Our intention was to build a few rooms we could move into then build the rest later. Burton started digging for the foundation in June 1938 ... On the way to work one morning Burton noticed that a road crew was tearing up Holt Avenue in Pomona. He stopped to ask the foreman if he would haul the broken concrete paving up to our lot on So. Mills Ave. He made a deal for 35 loads at $1.00 a load -- 210 tons -- to be dumped on the front corner of our lot. The big slabs of concrete were from eight to twelve inches thick and very hard concrete. Burton bought a sledge hammer and learned to break up the slabs into building blocks for the house. We bought some oiled flooring from a neighbor which we stood on end to use for form lumber and the house began to take shape.

Jerry Blanchard at 370 South Mills Avenue circa 1940. Jerry Blanchard today. Photos courtesy Blanchard family.
(l.) Jerry Blanchard at 370 South Mills Avenue circa 1940. (r.) Jerry Blanchard today.

This and other excerpts painted such a vivid picture of the Russian Village experience, Crain was able to update the official National Register listing to include them, along with historic Blanchard family photos, in late 2012. Such additions are rare, as are such close living ties with listed properties, Crain says, and she even included the story in the California State Parks Preservation Matters Winter 2013 newsletter. Blanchard was thrilled.

“I knew how my parents lived having grown up with them,” Blanchard says. “If people were in trouble, you helped them ... Your neighbor needs some help building his house? Let’s go help him build his house. But to see it put down in such a lovely way in print? It put the story on paper of how they really continued to live their lives.”

Burton Blanchard, who had no previous building experience before he and his wife constructed their Russian Village home, went on to become a contractor and inventor. Jerry Blanchard too made a career working with his hands as an industrial education teacher and, Crain says, one of the best hand engravers in the country -- skills and passion, Blanchard says, passed down from his father.

“He always believed that if you wanted to do something, you went and found the books, you got educated ... and you went ahead and did it,” Blanchard says. “That’s the way he lived his life.”

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