Revisiting a childhood home and thinking about Joseph McCarthy

2051 Ralston-

About a year ago, I made a short post about having garbage dumped on our front lawn because we were Jewish and moving to a new house in another town where – some people, at least – did not want us. The picture above is that house, and Michele and I visited it a couple of weeks ago and met its charming owners. While much of the move was not a happy experience for me, that is not what I want to talk about now. What I want to talk about is the house we moved to and I want to speculate a little about my parents.

We moved in about January 1952 to a conservative area of conservative Hillsborough (we had bought the old front lawn of a larger property from the strapped descendant of somebody vital enough to afford the original property). The house took way longer to build than anybody had scheduled and went over budget, so I am guessing that my parents started planning the family’s new home sometime in 1950. It was a different world in 1950.

The United Sates had won The War – almost single-handedly in our mythology of the day – and we were the only major industrial country that hadn’t been trashed which resulted in our becoming a bigger economic power than the rest of the world put together. It was a time of enormous national optimism, in ten years we would even be talking about going to the moon. But it was also a very scary time, The Reds had The Bomb and, as kids in school, we practiced hiding under our desks when the air-raid sirens went off. Joseph McCarthy through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, was starting to track down Red spies in our government and an inordinate amount of those questioned were Jewish (according to a study by Aviva Weingarten, in 2008, of 124 people questioned by McCarthy’s Committee  in 1952, 79 were Jewish).

As an aside,  today, about 2.2% of the American population is Jewish, the same as in the 1950’s, but the Jewish population was more separate in the 1950’s. Then, only about 17% of Jewish people married outside of the faith, according to a Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project in 2013 (that figure is now 71% for non-Orthodox Jews).

Tony Judt, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, talks about the draw of transnational Communism for people, like Jews, who felt unprotected at the national level. During the rise of Fascism, with its anti-Jewish legislation during the 1920’s and 30’s, the Communists were the only major anti-fascist group (until the war started). The Communist movement championed ideals dear to many Jewish people, like equality and integration, so when McCarthy started to root-out Communists, he did find alot Jews. Of course, doing any sort of progressive activity such as trying to desegregate a public swimming pool in Pasadena, like the Oppenheimer brothers did in 1937, was enough to be labeled a Fellow Traveler which was as bad as being a full blooded Communist. End aside.

As another aside, the spectra of Communism was far from theoretical in our family. In the 1950’s. the House Un-American Activities Committee – HUAC – was traveling around the country, holding hearings, to eradicate Communists and Fellow Travelers, most of them imaginary. Today, having been investigated by HUAC in the 50’s, is something of a honor, but in the actual 1950’s it was something to be feared. We had several members of our family who we were worried about, not only for them, but how their being investigated would reflect on us (in the end, only one person we knew closely was called up and our family name remained unsullied). End aside.

It was far from the worst time to be Jewish, but it wasn’t the best either, and Hillsborough was a place where some, maybe most, of the people did not want us moving in. Why my parents wanted to move to Hillsborough in the first place, I don’t know, but I suspect it was primarily pushed by my mother. What ever the reason, we could have snuck in, could have bought a nice, traditional house, moved in, kept our heads down, and stayed quiet. Instead, my parents decided to make a statement.

They hired a young architect, Ward Thomas, who was not a well known name – and who never became famous, much to my parents disappointment; he was hard to work with I remember being told – and I love that they had enough confidence in their own tastes, their own style,  to hire him.  The house was going to be what is now known as Mid-Century Architecture but, then, it was a statement. Wandering through it a couple of weeks ago, it still is.

The house looks simple and like alot of things that look simple, it is much more complicated. In front, the walls don’t line up vertically, making it much harder to engineer and frame. The master bedroom wing floats effortlessly over the carport with all the actual heavy lifting being hidden from view. The roof drains into a pipe complex which takes the water from over the windows to the far edge of the building, the walls in back are floor to ceiling glass with no shear bracing, the fireplace hearth cantilevers through a large window to become a shelf outside, and on and on. No wonder the construction took longer and cost more than originally expected, almost none of it was routine.

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Ralston House-3251

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When I was a child, I remember thinking that the house was huge and ostentatious, and I was embarrassed. It pointed out how we were different at a time when I just wanted to blend into The Great Melting Pot. Now, walking around the house for the first time since – probably – 1957, it seems small, and tasteful in the extreme, and I am proud that my parents had the chutzpah to build it. The new owners have updated much of the house, like putting in double glazed windows, but I am delighted that they have honored the spirit of the original house. When it comes to Mid-Century architecture, it is obvious that they are Fellow Travelers.

As a final aside, when we lived here, when it was our home, we had a Standard Poodle named after Émile Zola, who in our home – at least – was famous for defending Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French artillery officer scapegoated after France’s loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1894. The new owners have a dog named Atticus. I like the symmetry of that almost as much as the fact that this very special house has been so sensitively preserved. End aside.Ralston-3247

5 thoughts on “Revisiting a childhood home and thinking about Joseph McCarthy

  1. What a cool house! I can totally imagine your feelings of wanting to blend in and your parents defiant decisions that you had to live with. How was it for you in school? Love the dog names — Zola and Atticus, two of my heroes too.

    1. It was (is) a cool house, Linda. School was fine, I only remember one problem that wasn’t self caused. I liked a girl whose family didn’t want her going out with a Jew – her father beat her up over it, I never did get the details but a friend told me about it – but, otherwise, it was a complete non-issue.

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