The Bockius-Orr House of Yesterday
Godfrey M. Bockius (1818-1906), a merchant from Pennsylvania, settled in the Pajaro Valley in 1852 and purchased a 70 acre plot of land bounded by Third (now East Beach), Marchant, and Blackburn Streets, and extended southward to the Pajaro River. He soon played an active role in organizing the town of Watsonville, and was later elected a county judge and served one term as a state assemblyman.
In 1870, he commissioned Alex Chalmers to design a Victorian-style addition to an existing one-story house on the parcel for himself and his wife, their four children, and his mother.
The two-story addition was constructed on concrete posts with heavy timber of virgin redwood supporting the frame and sub-flooring. This allowed water to flow freely beneath the house, protecting it from periodic flooding of the Pajaro River. There were four bedrooms and no indoor plumbing, but running water and a downstairs bathroom were added later. The rooms on the ground floor have 12-foot ceilings, while those upstairs have 11-foot ceilings. A carriage house and (water) tank house were built adjacent to the house, and barns beyond the backyard and gardens housed the farm animals. After Bockius’s death, various relatives and descendants occupied the house.
Frank Fletcher Orr, a great-grandson of Godfrey Bockius, purchased the old homestead from an aunt in 1948. Soon after acquiring the Bockius House, he and his wife, Zoe Ann, initiated a major remodeling project. Downstairs, the renovation crew modernized the kitchen and combined the existing sitting room, small dining room, and one of the three exterior porches into the present 20-by-30-foot living and dining room. Workers installed a large picture window to provide a generous view of the 200-foot deep front yard with its long walkway, majestic century-old oaks, crepe myrtle, and boxwood hedges. Upstairs, three bedrooms were modified; one room was converted into a bathroom, another for a library, and the third eventually became a wardrobe. A fourth room remained as a bedroom.
The Bockius-Orr House of Today
Fortunately, the damage sustained by the homestead buildings in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake did not permanently mar their character. The house, which Zoe Ann Orr-Marcus donated to the Pajaro Valley Historical Association in 1993, has retained the features and some of the furnishings that she and Frank Orr, and other former residents, cherished.
The main floor of the house is open to visitors and consists of a living room, front and rear parlors, a bedroom (used for rotating exhibits from the extensive costume collection—one of the largest in the Central Coast area), and a 1950s-style kitchen. The second floor is closed to the public and used for storage and work areas.
The large living room is graced with original pieces of furniture as well as antiques acquired by subsequent Bockius generations. The rare square grand piano, with mother-of-pearl keys and inlays, by Godfrey Bockius and shipped from the East Coast before the Panama Canal was built, still graces is a major attraction.
The front parlor is currently the office for the PVHA. The parlor contains part of the library of Frank Fletcher Orr, the fourth and last generation of the Bockius family to live in the house and editor of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian newspaper for 30 years. In 1953 under Orr’s leadership, the newspaper received the Pulitzer Prize for Community Service in recognition of the paper’s exposé of corruption and bribery on the part of the county district attorney.
The rear parlor, dubbed the “Brides Room,” serves the happy function of accommodating bridal parties for weddings that take place in the garden setting behind the house. This room is also the major display room for rotating exhibitions.
The Bockius-Orr house was added in 1989 to the National Register of Historic Places (#89000937).
Take a Stroll through the Gardens
The Bockius-Orr house is sheltered by magnificent, coastal live oak trees that are estimated to be 125 years old. Walk to the right side of the house and you’ll find a redwood gazebo surrounded by stepping stones arranged by an artist specializing in Asian landscape design. Follow a dry creek through the garden and you’ll see a bell rescued from the Chinatown joss house following a fire in the 1930s that destroyed the local Chinese community, at one time the largest Chinatown outside of San Francisco. Continue on your way to the back of the house and you will pass a lath house and potting shed supporting a 60-year old wisteria. The back garden will delight you with a rose garden, flowerbeds, a spreading English walnut tree, and flowering shrubs that encircle the lawn.