I Live in a Palace, Part 5

By Sister Barbara Engs, 1891-1979
Written in 1963.


Editor’s Note: The major renovations were handled by competent contractors. Sr. Anthony wrote, “In October [1923], although we began classes on September 17, we entered the house with every species of workman in operation. Carpenters were hammering and sawing, plumbers were thumping and pounding, electricians had us in partial darkness while wiring the beautiful chandeliers, painters had their danger signals everywhere.”


THE DO-IT-YOURSELF TECHNIQUE

In these days of self-expression when the individual without a car is urged to hire one at the “Drive-It-Yourself” and the non-carpenter is told how to build an extra room or two in his bursting-at-the-seams bungalow, it is only fair to state that the best and shortest means to attain independent existence is to buy an old mansion and then — live in it!

Mr. Ralston intended Belmont to be a self-supporting unit. Not only did he have his own telegraph line to his home in the city, and his own gas works on the estate, but he also had innumerable tanks and cisterns for the storage of water and oil to be used in cases of emergency. So well had he built, that most of the original fittings, silver-plated at that, are still functioning in the house and barn.

As a further incentive to self-expression, we might modestly say that the peculiar circumstances surrounding our institution’s founding are particularly suited to pioneering. Established at the time of the French Revolution, we were the first congregation in which all members were of equal rank, a true product of the upheaval of the time. In other words, we all share equally the domestic as well as the spiritual and intellectual life of the community. And let us say right here that work and intellect go hand-in-hand under most circumstances.

Knowing the innate skill with which woman (and we refer here to woman in general) is able to speed up normal housework, it is also true that in the repairing of most gadgets of the home she can accomplish wonders with a pair of scissors, a knitting needle and a piece of string. Add to the ordinary home a wilderness of garden, playground, outbuildings and our extra rooms and you can easily perceive the possibilities for the amateur in a variety of fields.

When we moved in, the greater number of hinges, locks, and doorknobs were the original silver plated productions of the Bonanza era.  Most of them like the double hinges on the parlor doors were stamped 1867, 1875, or some slightly later date.  It was like trying to buy spare parts for a 1910 Oldsmobile or to match a taffeta cover with rayon drapes, to repair anything that showed signs of going to ruin. But, oh, what scope it gave the “do-it-yourselfers.”

Apart from its laundry, which offers specialized opportunities for anyone with little (and we qualify, very little) knowledge of heat, light, or water power, there were the solid, heavy locks and bolts on every door and window in the place — four stories of them. Keys over five inches long in old-fashioned locks had a way of getting jammed and we might say that we ourselves are no mean lock-pickers after a careful study of these ponderous pieces of mechanism and can — theoretically — give points to a second-story man when it comes to getting into an apparently locked apartment.

Amateur carpenters were born of necessity.  Repair work began to show progress all over the place.  And then, of course, there is always paint. To be sure, the name “White House of the West” lost its significance when we moved in.  The huge, sprawling bulk of the four-story mansion, its ells and wings built up against the three terraces, needed several coats of paint. The house had been white, obviously, but the natural question was, “Where could one get enough paint to restore it to its immaculate and pristine spotlessness?  Finally we had to succumb to a warm cream.

Against this background the garden furniture has been painted green, scraped, painted white, and scraped again in an interesting succession of layers that indicate a pleasing indulgence for its foibles of successive artists. As nothing is permanent in this life anyway, the periodic change lends a piquancy to the estate that does away with any dullness in one’s surroundings.

Then, there was the elevator.  Although there is a campus group clamoring for a ski-lift from Ralston Hall to the residence halls, there are still some who query, “Why didn’t Mr. Ralston put in an elevator?”  He did — an hydraulic affair at the end of the corridor separating the kitchen form the dining hall and butler’s pantry.  It operated in a tower that tops the roof and stopped at each floor in turn.  It must have been used for luggage, we assume, and had been dismantled at the time of our occupancy. We, in turn, installed a manually operated dumb waiter. This helpful appliance was eventually moved to the outside porch when all open elevator shafts were closed by law. And now, one of the great innovations of early days is a humble broom closet on each floor of the mansion.


Postscript: This is the end of Sr. Barbara’s story, but it is worth noting that Ralston Hall Mansion continues to be an integral part of the Notre Dame de Namur University campus. While the building no longer houses Sisters or students, the upper floors are home to university offices and the ground floor (which includes the ballroom) earns its keep as a beautiful venue for weddings and parties.

However, the mansion was emptied in spring 2012 for a complete engineering assessment and retrofitting. It is anticipated that the work will take several years.

This California Historical Landmark is rumored to have a ghost or two.