Retired electrician turns ordinary mailboxes into whimsical works of art
Leah Bartos - Sentinel Correspondent
Article Launched: 09/29/2007 4:00:00 AM MDT
Villa Santa Cruz retirement park just may be home to the world's largest collection of programmatic mailboxes -- at least according to Jim Healy.
The Aptos resident is an enthusiast of programmatic architecture -- structures resembling objects like food items, animals, or characters like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
"I've been all over the country," Healey said, "and that little place, the Villa Santa Cruz, is loaded with programmatic architecture."
Mailboxes, to be precise.
Bill Layher, the mailboxes' creator and a five-year resident of Villa Santa Cruz, was never looking for fame, though Healey is not the first to be drawn to unique mailboxes that adorn the park, including an oven, several lighthouses and a handful of birdhouses perched at the house fronts.
Layher says it's no surprise to find strangers at his door inquiring about the mailboxes and some even wondering whether they can put in an order. Though Layher will accept an occasional order from the general population, the bulk of his creations reside in his own community.
"I don't know how they find me," he laughed, adding that he doesn't advertise his services and builds the mailboxes out of the love for woodworking. Just a glance in the backyard reveals Layher's hobby: a full set of handmade patio furniture, a new mailbox with the paint still drying, and the woodshop where Layher has worked on everything from cribs for his grandchildren to toys that he donates as part of his dues as a member of the nonprofit Santa Cruz Toymakers organization.
Though the retired electrician never had any formal training in woodworking, he has become well known at the Villa Santa Cruz for his careful hand and creative eye -- especially when it comes to mailboxes.
Layher began making mailboxes just before his retirement 18 years ago, but the trend at the park didn't begin until a neighbor requested a mailbox in the shape of a black cat. Before he knew it, Layher's neighbors were putting in orders for locomotive trains and pink Cadillacs. "And it just took off from there," he said. "You don't see too many just standard mailboxes here."
About 25 of Layher's custom mailboxes now adorn the fronts of the homes at the Villa Santa Cruz, displaying the diverse interests and backgrounds of the residents. "Most of these mailboxes reflect something about the people that live there," Layher said.
Layher, a lifelong resident of Santa Cruz, has his mailed delivered in a miniature of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse, with each brick carefully painted and the tower perfectly to scale.
"This is my fourth one," he smiled, "because the wife gets tired of them." Previously, the Layhers have sported a log cabin and a church, which now have new homes with their neighbors.
Of the dozens of mailboxes Layher has made over the years, he tries to stay neutral about his opinions of the designs and the designers.
"I can't really say I have a favorite. Might hurt someone's feelings," Layher chuckled.
Though Layher stays vigilant to this notion, as he passes some of his creations, he can't help but slow down and admire the piece, such as a replica of a Delta airplane, just a few doors down from him, where the mother of two airplane pilots lives. Other pieces that stand out are collaborations, such as a piano, which Layher built and the owner painted, paying careful attention to each black and white key.
At present, Layher has a waiting list of four to five neighbors requesting an original mailbox. No doubt that fans of programmatic architecture, such as Jim Healey, will have new creations to look forward to.