‘I see any dinosaur, I buy it’: at home with the embattled owner of the Flintstone house

Florence Fangs colorful home is a landmark for many in Californias Bay Area. But the town of Hillsborough is suing her, declaring the property a public nuisance

When Florence Fang purchased a new house in Hillsborough, California, in 2017, her first thought was to landscape the property with cherry trees. But cherry trees did not fit with the look of the house, so she kept thinking. Her next idea, not uncommon among wealthy Californians, was to plant a vineyard and make her own wine. A friend warned her off, however, advising that grape vines would attract animals.

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    Then, inspiration struck.

    I was watching the Flintstones, and the first episode is Fred with Dino, Mrs Fang recalled during a recent visit to her house. And I said, Dino should be here! Fred should be here!

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    • Details around the yard of the Flintstone house property in Hillsborough. Photographs by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    Fred and Dino are indeed here now, as are Wilma, Barney and Betty Rubble, giant letters reading Yabba dabba do, a backyard posse of 15-ft tall metal dinosaurs, and a second, larger Fred. Theres also an astronaut, a moon rover, a spaceship and the Great Gazoo (thats the name of the alien who crashed to earth during the final season of the classic 1960s cartoon).

    I wanted to decorate with the past and the future combined together in harmony, Mrs Fang explains. I call that over the rainbow, and thats why I put the rainbow there.

    Oh yes, theres a rainbow, too. Theres also a giraffe, a woolly mammoth, Bigfoot, several dozen concrete mushrooms, a handful of ornamental pigs, and a pair of expectant pterodactyls keeping watch over some dinosaur eggs nesting in a juniper bush.

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    • Mrs Fang poses in the backyard of her home in Hillsborough. Photographs by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    This is Mrs Fangs happy place. The retired San Francisco media magnate, in her mid-80s, has indulged every flight of fancy in landscaping and decorating a property that, thanks to its uniquely bulbous architecture, was already known locally as the Flintstone house.

    And yet, somehow, not everyone is laughing. In March, the town of Hillsborough filed a lawsuit against Mrs Fang, alleging that she failed to obtain the proper permits for her landscaping work, declaring her home a public nuisance, and seeking a court order to remove the various improvements that have turned the home into what the towns lawyer describes as a highly visible eye sore that is not in keeping with community standards.

    The dispute has casted a pall over Mrs Fangs enjoyment of the property, though I can attest that it is physically impossible not to smile while there. There are simply too many delightful surprises, from the lifesize Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys in the guest bedroom to the glass octopus on the wall in the foyer (An octopus is always good company, Mrs Fang points out). Within moments of welcoming me into her conversation room, she demonstrates the workings of a toy chicken that dances, shakes its rear end and then lays three (plastic) eggs.

    Look at it! Look at it! Isnt that cute? she laughs. This is a happy place.

    Florence

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    • Top Left: The entry of Florence Fangs home. Top Right: Florence Fang standing in the hallway of her home. Bottom: The property in Hillsborough. Photographs by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    Mrs Fang is not taking the towns strictures lying down. She has hired a prominent local attorney who promptly threw a press conference, accused the town of racial discrimination and harassment and promised to file a very ferocious counter-claim. The very public legal battle is now pitting a wealthy and elderly Chinese immigrant who is bound and determined to laugh out her days against a wealthy and exclusive town where having a sense of humor may as well be a zoning violation.


     

    Im just a tired old lady, says Mrs Fang. I just wanted my peaceful life. Im a very, very regular, retired old lady. Then she smiles. But of course, a little different, she concedes. I have all kinds of dreams.

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    • A general view of Fangs Flintstones home in Hillsborough. Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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    The town of Hillsborough has always been at war with the Flintstone house.


     

    An exclusive community of about 11,000 residents that sits about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, Hillsborough ranked fifth in Bloombergs 2019 ranking of Americas richest places, with an average household income of more than $370,000 and a median home value of more than $4.3m.

    The enclave is known for its architecture, including a 98-room Beaux-Arts chateau called Carolands, which was built for the heiress of the Pullman railway car fortune; the Western White House designed by Julia Morgan for the eldest son of William Randolph Hearst; and a Frank Lloyd Wright building that helped popularize the mid-century modern style in California.

    But the tastemakers of Hillsborough have not extended their favor to the experimental stylings of William Nicholson, the architect who came up with the idea of creating a house by spraying gunite (dry concrete) over a structure molded from giant aeronautical balloons, wire mesh and rebar. It was in response to the Nicholsons construction of the Flintstone house in 1976 that the town first established its Architecture and Design Review Board (ADRB), according to former resident Tom Petika, who told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997 that the ADRB was established so there would never be another home like that built in Hillsborough.

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    • Details inside the Flintstone house kitchen in Hillsborough, California. Photographs by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    The ADRB now enforces the towns 78-page residential design guidelines, which demand total commitment to a chosen architectural style. They read a bit like an extended critique of the Flintstone house.

    Many kinds of homes have fallen under the architectural genus Modernism and some of these are in Hillsborough, reads the chapter on style. However, when this style is designed badly or executed poorly, the results can be dramatic and create impacts that ripple into the neighborhoods in which those buildings are placed. The problems presented by poor modernist design are particularly acute in a town such as Hillsborough, where Modernism is not the predominant style.

    But the Flintstone house has long been a favorite among regular travelers along the highway connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley. As one of the few landmarks along the way, it has captured the imagination of generations of travellers and commuters.

    Before, driving by, I always wondered who lived here, says Mrs Fang, echoing my own experience, and that of thousands of others.

    Mrs

    • Mrs Fang poses next to a window at her home in Hillsborough. Photograph by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    Mrs Fangs own journey to Hillsborough started in China, where she lived until her marriage and immigration to San Francisco in 1960. Her husband, John Fang, was a Shanghai-born, UC Berkeley-trained newspaper man, and the pair settled in San Franciscos Chinatown and set about building a media empire, first in the Chinese-language press, and later with the English-language publications Asian Week and the Independent. It wasnt until after John Fangs death that Mrs Fang achieved her husbands dream, taking ownership of the San Francisco Examiner to become the first Asian American owner of a major American daily newspaper.

    The San Francisco Chronicle described the familys success story, and growing political influence, as one of the most visible manifestations of Chinese Americans rise to power in San Francisco.

    Mrs Fang moved to a large house in Hillsborough after her husbands death, but a few years ago, with her children grown, she told her realtor that she wanted to move somewhere cozy with a good view.

    When the realtor brought her to the Flintstone house, she says, it was love at first sight. The house had languished on the market for years; Mrs Fang does not live in it full time but says she visits as much as possible.

    Im always thinking, why do we have to live in a square house? she says. The square, to me, is limitation. You limit yourself in the square, in a box Round is different. Round is inclusive and accepting all ideas. I look at this and think, why are we taught to live in squares?

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    • The dinosaurs at the Flintstone house. Mrs Fang is vague about the origin of the giant metal dinosaurs in the backyard, saying only that the come from Sonoma Photograph by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    Once she decided to allow her imagination to guide her decorating choices, Mrs Fang let loose. I see any dinosaur, I buy it, she says, though shes vague about the origin of the giant metal dinosaurs in the backyard, saying only that they come from Sonoma. The multi-colored concrete mushrooms that dot the front and back yards are the result of Mrs Fangs affinity for fungus: So simple, but colorful, and rich inside. Thats why I like mushrooms.

    Mrs Fang claims that she attempted to work with town of Hillsborough to obtain the proper permits for her landscaping work, which included adding a retaining wall and other structural work in addition to the decorations. She says she feels like the town is playing with her like a cat with a mouse play, play, play, bite, until I die and claims she has interacted with the town 44 times while attempting to comply. At one point, the town lawyer pressured her to paint all the mushrooms a single color, she says. Every time I complied with their request, they moved the goalpost, she says.

    Neither the mayor nor any elected city council members responded to requests for comment. The assistant city attorney Mark Hudak declined an interview request but provided a statement summarizing the towns position. The statement notes that emotional reactions often miss the core problem the property owner has constructed a large project without design review or first applying for required building permits. The town categorically denies the allegations of discrimination.

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    • Giant letters reading Yabba Dabba Do in Mrs Fangs backyard. Photograph by Cayce Clifford, The Guardian

    The property owner should not be given an advantage because they acted first and asked permission afterwards, the city manager Ann Ritzma said in the statement. If the town does not enforce the municipal code for design and permitting requirements, it will be difficult to hold others accountable to the requirements in the future.

    Its clear that the dispute is deeply upsetting to Mrs Fang. When I ask whether she agrees with her lawyers allegation that the town is going out of its way to harass her, she grows quiet and her eyes fill with tears.

    How can you stop me thinking that way? she asks. I dont want to feel that way, but I cannot help but think that way.

    Still, it takes just a few moments for her to return her attention to the imaginative delights surrounding her. As I walk out the front door at the end of the visit, I pass a miniature tableau that Mrs Fang put together from mismatched lawn ornaments, some modeling clay, and a touch of paint: a concrete frog with a handmade crown perched above a sleeping mermaid, with a hand-lettered sign reading, Someday my prince will come.

    I put the little frog in the crown, she explains. I put sleeping beauty the mermaid there. And I put Someday my prince will come.

    For this house, Im the prince, she says. I came to care for it.

    Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways

     

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