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Dr. Howe-Waffle's House

Story by Richard H. Dodd AIA
Photography By Nick Koon

Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Orange County Home Magazine


The Howe-Waffle House, one of Orange County's most historic structures, bears witness to a different time and way of living, and to the courage and determination of a remarkable woman. Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle, Orange County's first female doctor.

The Victorian home was built from 1887 to 1889 at 702 N. Bush in Santa Ana. It was relocated to its present site at 120 W. Civic Center Drive in 1975, and has been restored by the Santa Ana Historical Society. It is used as a museum, open for tours and events.

The home is architecturally significant for several reasons. It was built late in the Victorian period (1837-1901) in the Queen Anne Style. This period was a dynamic time of industrialization in the United States and Orange County. The home was completed in 1889, the year the county split from Los Angeles and also the year when Santa Ana, a mere 20 years old, was chosen as the county seat. At the time, the county had only 13,500 residents, and 3,000 of them lived in Santa Ana.

The country was recovering from the Civil War and economic challenges, and it was a time of innovations such as electric lights, passenger elevators and steel-framed skyscrapers.

During this period, families constantly entertained, and so the homes had lovely din-ing rooms, sitting rooms and rooms for the ladies to meet after dinner, as well as a room for the men to have their after-dinner cigars. This home reflects the social values of the late Victorian era.

Dr. Aivin Howe and his wife, Willella, came to Orange County in 1878. Willella taught school, earning enough to complete medical school in 1886- They started building their 2-1/2 story home in 1887, and it was furnished in 1889 costing a princely sum (at that time) of 53,000. They lived there with their two daughters.

A year after the house was completed, the county's first grand jury indicted Dr. Alvin Howe on charges of performing an abortion. Howe. who was also Santa Ana's second mayor, was acquitted but the scandal led him to leave town for San Francisco. After divorcing Howe in 1897, Willella married Edson Waffle, a prominent livery stable owner, becoming Dr. Howe-Waffle.

This was a time when it was not considered appropriate for a woman to be a doctor. Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle was quoted in the Santa Ana Register as saying, "Some of those who fought me hardest have become my best friends."

She often had to endure hardships and hazards, traveling by horse and buggy to make house calls. "I can recall the days when a doctor, in order to  drive to Los Angeles from Westminster, had to break his own road through the cactus, the willows and the mustard," she told the Santa Ana Register in the 1920s. "Many is the day 1 have driven my horses through mud and water up to their waists, with the flood creeping in at the bottom of the buggy."

In 38 years of practice, she delivered more than 1,000 babies, who became known as "Waffle babies." She frequently treated the poor without pay, and took patients into her home if they had no place to stay. At night she often slept on an upstairs porch, so she could hear the calls of those needing help.

She remained active in her medical practice up until the day she died in 1924, at age 74, at the bedside of a patient.

When touring the home, one can see some of the original furnishings, including those used in the medical practice. Also of interest is a speaker tube going from floor to floor. This was the Victorian intercom.

Guy Ball, a longtime member of the executive committee of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, says: "Unlike on the East Coast where you often see homes built 100 and 200 years ago, it's rare to have a vintage and stylish house so well preserved . . . one we can show our children and their children. We often speak of the lack of history in Southern California. However, restored buildings like the Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle house remind us that there really is a strong history here. It's just not as apparent. So saving these classic buildings becomes even more important and critical."


Victorian Era

Several Victorian architectural styles were influenced by the Gothic Style, which started in France in 1150 and spread throughout Europe. Gothic architecture is sometimes referred to as pointed architecture and is identified by pointed arches over doors and windows (originally used in Mesopotamia), buttresses, steep roofs and interior vaulting. The style varied from area to area depending on available materials (mainly stone), cli-mate, religion and social conditions. It was also influenced by historical events. These factors still influence architectural styles.

In England by 1830 the Industrial Revolution was well under way. Roads had been built and railways were starting to connect all parts of the country.

Mass-produced building products were being manufactured and were easily transported. Dramatic changes were occurring and these were exciting times for the people and the architects.

The earlier architectural styles of the Victorian era were not apparent in Orange County simply because Orange County did not exist. James Irvine and his partners bought the initial portion of the Irvine Ranch in 1864, but it was not until 1889 that Orange County was formed, with a population of 13,589. Various cities had started to form before this, and many homes had been built in the popular style of the period.

America suffered through the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, as well as a severe depression in the 1870s. The people were ready for the later Victorian styles, which were affordable, whimsical and colorful, The architecture of the time reflected the exuberance of the period with its use of ornamentation and experimentation with architectural forms. Standardized building materials were avail-able at modest cost, and homes could now be built by craftsman carpenters.

The Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in Anaheim in 1875, and a short time later the Santa Fe Railroad arrived. The railroads ushered the later architectural styles of the Victorian era into Orange County.

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