Everything Old is New Again for Mokelumne Hill Archaeologist
By Antoinette May
When escrow closed, Julia Costello turned to her realtor and sighed: “I’m so lucky to have this house.” To which the realtor replied: “The house is so lucky to have you.”
One year later it appears that both were right.
Most people who peeked into the tumbled down cottage on Stevenson Street—one of Mokelumne Hill’s meandering alleyways, thought Costello was crazy. The rooms were tiny, the windows small, the ceilings low. The sum total: dark and gloomy.
Perhaps only an archaeologist could have recognized the good bones; but, fortunately, Costello is an archaeologist. “I see lots of old places,” she says. “This one had wonderful potential that cried out for a rescue job.”
Costello began by peeling off the add-ons that were smothering the 150-year-old miner’s cabin. As the archaeologist applied the tools of her trade to the house, she discovered that the doors and windows had been changed over the years, rooms were altered, ceilings lowered. She found a maze of jerry-rigged studs and modifications that jeopardized the integrity of the walls.
Her solution was to pull down some walls, reinforce others. Ceilings were raised in the process. Friends saw what she was doing and said, “Why not just tear the whole house down?” Obviously, they didn’t share Costello’s love of “old, uneven things.” Even Jan Schmidiger, the contractor, who masterminded the restoration, had to learn to live with imperfection.
Working on her own, Costello peeled through three layers of wallpaper—saving and labeling the fragments as on any archaeological dig. Then she tore out the wall-to-wall carpeting popular in the 1970s. Beneath it lay the trendy linoleum of the 20s. More tugging and scraping revealed the original l855 wood floors—but crusted with decades of tacks.
“I don’t know how many nights I spent listening to the radio while prying and pulling at those tacks before the floor was finally ready to be sanded and shellacked—three coats of shellac.
As the house neared readiness, Costello began to cull treasures from other “archeological digs.” None of the present doors in the house are original. The colorful assortment features rejects from friends’ backyards and barns. Once the doors were acquired, Jan Schmidiger instructed her crew to construct frames for them. Likewise, the doorknobs and their plates rarely began life together, yet each is a vintage gem in its own right.
Costello conducts visitors through her home much as she would an archaeological site. “This is the original Gold Rush living room,” she’ll point out, and then, moving to the back of the house, “this is the new edition—the 1923 kitchen.”
Contrasting with the roughhewn floors and walls are pillows, rugs and hangings brought from Lebanon where Costello excavated Roman ruins until the Syrian incursion in 1976.
“I came to California to visit a friend, thinking that it would only be for a couple of months,” she recalls. “Very soon I realized that I would not be going back and needed to develop a new specialty. Mission architecture has Roman roots—a natural for me. The next step in California history was the Gold Rush. Who wouldn’t find that interesting?”
Costello’s work eventually lead to the directorship of the archaeological study of Melones, a gold rush town site now lying beneath the New Melones Reservoir. Because the government planned to drown the historic site, it attempted to mitigate the loss by studying the area. It was an intensive three year period when more than 100 scientists came together in a kind of triage to map, photograph, research and excavate some 22 miles of river canyon.
In the course of her work, Costello fell in love with the foothills and has never left. The company she subsequently formed, Foothill Resources, enables her to excavate a wide
variety historic sites—many of them pioneer homes. Her clients, most of them developers, are required by federal and state laws to obtain impact reports that include a thorough archeological study.
She says hail and farewell to many relics of colorful bygone eras. “Many people really don’t care,” Costello says. “They say, ‘Oh, this is old, I don’t like it.’ Laws require that historic sites be minutely studied and catalogued but often that’s the beginning of the end. The ruins are ultimately paved over.”
A recent project centered about the privy of Stockton judge, Charles Creaner Yesterday’s trash became today’s treasure as an intriguing assortment of belongings were unearthed from this unique but not uncommon dumping ground. “Broken toys, dishes, tools—even false teeth—told us a poignant story of how one family lived in the 1880s,” she explains.
It was a revealing renaissance, but only temporary. The last vestiges of the Creaner house—considered a showplace in its day—will be covered over by the Waterfront Event Center. “So often this is the case,” Costello says. “An archaeological reports is the last chance some spot on earth has to tell its story before the bulldozers close in.”
Perhaps the transitory nature of her work led the archaeologist to her own personal rescue job. “The Mok Hill house just cried out, ‘Save me!’ The ultimate fate of my work projects is out of my hands. I can only record the passing; but, here at last, was an opportunity to salvage a tiny slice of California history.”
The restoration of Costello’s
house took one year, some money,
lots of personal effort and a
contractor who said “yes” when
others said “impossible.” A tear
down would have been easier and
cheaper, but the result would have
been just another house.