The lights on the house that started Fresno’s Christmas Tree Lane will soon turn on again to give what its new owners hope is joy to the thousands of people who attend the famed holiday display event every year.
Dana (Caglia) and Greg Pratt bought the dreary house at 3938 N. Van Ness Blvd. earlier this month for $450,000 and plan to restore it to the grand estate it once was when the Winning family first started living there nearly a century ago. Had the couple closed on the property earlier, they would have dressed it up for the holidays, Dana Pratt said.
But this year, the wreaths on the front pillars, the cutouts of children ice skating and the sign marking the “First Tree” will do while the Pratts wrap their heads around their plans to transform the house that has a sad, but magical, history.
“I’m bringing life back to this place as much as I can, historically, while making it livable at today’s standards,” Greg Pratt said.
The four-bedroom,1 1/2 -bathroom American Foursquare-style house was built between 1914 and 1918. It had a concrete fish pond, fruit trees, a garden of flowers and an expansive front porch during its heyday. The original owners were dentist William Winning, whose office was in the home, and his wife, Mae.
But the house is known for the single deodar cedar tree that the Winnings lit in 1920 at Christmastime in memory of their only child, who died in an accident the year before. Their son, William “Billy” Hobart Winning, was 14 when he died after falling into machinery operating in a pump house, now the shed, behind the house.
Other residents joined the Winnings’ annual tradition in the years that followed. By 1931 the spectacle became known as Christmas Tree Lane – now a 2-mile stretch of holiday displays on Van Ness Boulevard between Shields and Shaw avenues that attracts more than 100,000 people every year.
I’m bringing life back to this place as much as I can, historically, while making it livable at today’s standards.
Greg Pratt, homeowner
The house has deteriorated over the years and the yard is largely unkempt. Visitors often get the creeps more than seasonal cheers when walking by.
“That house is where the first tree got decorated. It’s the focal point of the lane,” said Dean Alexander, chairman of Christmas Tree Lane. “It’s a beautiful house. It would be nice to get it back to the way it was.”
The property was listed for sale in 2013 and sold a year later to a Fresno investment company that cleared out the home and started drawing up renovation designs.
The company ultimately decided to sell the house, said Dana Pratt, who grew up in Fresno and works for Andy Caglia Realty. Her brother is Shawn Caglia, the plumbing and electrical contractor who has been decorating Van Ness with holiday lights for more than two decades.
Dana Pratt considered buying the house a couple years ago, but the price was too high. When she heard it was up for sale again, she brought her husband along to check it out and he fell in love with it immediately, to her surprise.
“My mind went to restoration and creating as soon as I saw it,” said Greg Pratt who retired in 2003 from ARB Inc., a subsidiary of Primoris Services Corp., a specialty contractor that got its start in pipeline construction.
It’s a beautiful house. It would be nice to get it back to the way it was.
Dean Alexander, chairman, Christmas Tree Lane
The couple make their home in Pismo Beach, but nearly five years ago started buying and restoring cabins and homes in the Shaver Lake area where Greg Pratt spends much of his time these days. The Van Ness house is the couple’s first project in Fresno.
They plan to start fixing the roof, then work to beautify the exterior of the house and landscaping. The house will remain white, but the trim may change, Greg Pratt said. The fence will be reinforced or replaced. Dead trees will be cleared and mature trees will be planted.
“The neighborhood is tired of looking at it as it is,” he said.
The inside of the house will come next. The doors and large windows that work on a pulley system will remain. The hardwood floors throughout the house will be redone. The built-in dark wood china cabinet and buffet will stay, but be moved from one side of the dining room to the other. The kitchen will be torn out and built new.
The Pratts plan to build an atrium or enclose the patio on the south end of the home next to the parlor that once served as Winning’s dental office. The basement would turn into a wine cellar. The Prohibition cabinet under the main stairway will stay, but may be disguised or hidden, Dana Pratt said.
The neighborhood is tired of looking at it as it is.
Upstairs, the bathroom will be redone and the bedrooms updated. A servant stairway in the rear of the home will come out and be replaced with a lift or elevator and powder room.
Greg Pratt plans to build a garage behind the house with an upstairs apartment. He wants to salvage as much as he can of the existing pump house where Billy died and turn it into a tool shed and potting area. “Most people would have torn it down,” he said, but it has meaning. He plans to add a glass greenhouse later.
The couple have not decided whether they will live in the house or if they will sell it once the renovation is completed. They’re concentrating on getting the work started as soon as possible, Greg Pratt said.
“I hope this town is pleased with the project when it’s done.”
Christmas Tree Lane
Open 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Ends Christmas night.
Drivers access Christmas Tree Lane, on Van Ness Boulevard, from Shields Avenue and drive north to Shaw Avenue. Traffic on Van Ness is northbound only during these hours.