Hushed House

— I have always wanted to turn the eyes of local theater artists outward: have them look at examples of their craft in San Diego at large. Eric Lotze, the award-winning lighting designer for Cygnet, Moxie, and New Village Arts, among others, agreed to join me at the Whaley House in Old Town and talk about 19th-century lighting.

Thomas Whaley built the two-story brick structure in 1857, its Greek Revival style a far cry from the tile-roofed, low adobe buildings 500 yards to the north. Whaley bought the lot at a city sale for $1.50 and paid an estimated $17,000 for construction. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) has furnished the interior with "period correct" chairs, beds, draperies, carpets, and lighting fixtures from 1868-1871.

Lotze and I accepted the furnishings as a given (most aren't original to the house) and concentrated on the theatricality of effects: subjective moods and psychological rinses the lighting would inspire, along with the differences between then and now.

The Big Room/Courtroom The Whaley House is almost a small city. At various times it had a granary (holding up to 400,000 pounds), a store, Sunday school, theater, courtroom (between 1868 and 1871), jail, and morgue. It was the San Diego County seat until the evening of March 31, 1871, when four armed men took -- family members say stole -- the county records to New Town.

Even with late afternoon sunlight streaking though the windows, the courtroom feels somber. A brass chandelier hovers over a wooden railing between the mahogany dais and three rows of seats. Oil lamps flank the judge.

"Were Hollywood to film a scene here," says Lotze, "they'd light it bright, open it up for pounding gavels and hot emotions. But period lighting'd be much darker, especially the corners. Focus is on the judge and plaintiff; the jury" -- two rows of six chairs to the judge's left -- "would be only three-fourths lit. When court was in session, they probably left windows and doors open, even in winter, for light and air.

"There's very little mystery in rooms today. They're fully illuminated, wall-to-wall. For us the courtroom feels dark, a close atmosphere, like a cloak.

"But for them it's their normal state. They had more shadows and darkness than light. At night they went from room to room holding a candle to guide their way."

For modern eyes the Whaley House feels hushed, almost secret. Where nowadays everything's lit, and everyone's encouraged to be open and confessional, the darkness creates a sense of privacy, a place for journals and diaries, not blaring TVs. And yet there's almost a safety in the gloom. A light would reveal where you are.

Before and after it was a court, the big room hosted balls attended by all of Old Town. "Imagine party time," says Lotze, "chandelier blazing, probably rows of candles and oil lamps." A bright, above-board moral atmosphere, laced by mild cordials and sterner stuff.

"A lighting designer'd want to arrange the candles and lamps into well-chosen groups and shapes, on steep diagonals, say, angling up a wall. That'd make a pretty picture but probably isn't how they did it. They lit for utility, not effect."

He notices the overhead smoke detector blinking red. "...And safety: keep open flames away from the dancers and drunks. They had an ongoing fire hazard here."

The Store Between 1857-58 the big room was a store, but Whaley got too few customers and moved it to the plaza. The Office/Store next to the courtroom replicates the kinds of goods Whaley sold. Along with soap and bolts of cloth, rows of oil lamps and glass chimneys line the shelves. The Whaleys probably used kerosene oil (which became popular around 1859) for their lamps but may have also relied on whale oil for lamps and spermaceti candles, which emitted more smoke and a distinctly odiferous stench.

Years ago, for Halloween, writes Bonnie Vent, "the house was lit using the original lighting...kerosene lanterns in each room and sconces with lit candles on the walls...I must say the smell of kerosene was quite overwhelming. And pictures were hard to take since the setting was so dark."

The Hallway Faux white marble suggests something ancient, aristocratic. "But look," says Lotze, "the glossy finish on the doors and molding isn't just ornament. It helps reflect light. The shining surfaces make the entrance more agreeable. They kind of dance.

"Also, the courtroom and store have no wallpaper. Very businesslike. But the hall and other rooms have rich patterns on the walls. In this lighting they almost become dimensional."

The Family Parlor Tourists see the antiques: the Brussels carpet (with an 1854 pattern), lace drapes (from 19th-century looms), a stereoscope, pump organ, mahogany and rosewood furniture. Lotze sees the fireplace, source of warmth and light; stately, west-facing windows to catch the afternoon sun; a high ceiling, lighter than the walls, to help reflect sunlight; and a showcase chandelier, with cut crystal drops that resemble wind chimes.

"Such a lively room, obviously where the family entertained. Those crystals must have shimmered.

"Candles actually throw off quite a bit of light when you're used to them. But they're also irregular, burn down at varying speeds. People were always making adjustments: lighting candles, fixing wicks, snuffing out used ones -- you never blew a candle out; too much smoke, real bad for the lungs. A room never looked the same for long. And movement through it, even the slightest breath of air, could really stir up the flames."

Lotze -- pronounced LOT-zee -- had no dazzling fiat lux moment that made him a designer. While a student in junior theater, he worked as an electrician's sidekick. "Light appeared as an opportunity. I just walked into it and turned out not to be tragically bad. It found me."

He believes theater lighting should be more felt than seen and never stand in front of the story. Content to be "just one of the shoulders that pushes a production," he admires designers who never shout "Look at me."

One of his favorites, Luc Lafortune, works for Cirque du Soleil. "He has an infinite palate, thousands of lights, but it never feels like that. He uses only the ones he needs, never the full system unless called for. He makes gorgeous pictures and never calls attention to himself."

The parlor's the one room so far, Lotze says, where a designer could go overboard. "The Whaleys probably didn't, but you could light 10 or 12 candles, the lamps and chandelier, the fireplace -- and do an extravaganza to accompany the organ music, singing, laughter. Of course, the heat'd make everyone grab for a fan."

The adjacent study, an alcove between the parlor and a rear bedroom framed by an arch, feels like a shroud. Even love letters from Whaley to his wife on the writing desk can't perk up a solemn, hulking enclosure where Poe could have penned his tales of the macabre.

The desk has only one lamp. Ridges on the hand-blown bookcase glass cast dappled reflections. Late-afternoon sunlight beyond a solitary window doesn't illumine much beyond lace curtains. Everything looks vitamin D deficient.

Lotze: "That room make you feel like writing?"

Just my last will and testament.

"You can tell why stories get fixed to a place. They say the Whaley House is haunted. I don't know if it is or not. But shadows, in this room especially, contribute to the mystery. Creepy. Let's move on."

The Dining Room We enter the dining room at sundown: walnut chairs and mirrored sideboard, a coal-black, cast-iron stove. "Look at the glass panels on the stove," says Lotze. "They'd throw a low orange or tallow-colored light across the floor -- like visible warmth.

"Imagine a dinner here: brass chandelier, oil lamps, candles, the stove and stovepipe, steaming food, silver plates and glass serving pieces -- everything would reflect light. Plus, look at the wallpaper!"

A metallic gold fleur-de-lys pattern, maybe 100 per wall. "If it was original, during dinner the flickering candles and steadier flow of lamplight would pick up the gold on the walls and you'd have floating crosses beaming off and on around the room. Suddenly you've got hundreds of candles instead of just a few and some lamps. Like fireflies. The whole room would come alive. A lighting designer would do back flips to get that effect!"

Next time: we go upstairs. We don't see any ghosts or have any ectoplasmic epiphanies, but we do find a treasure.

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