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BRAINERD JONES’ PAINTING OF COMSTOCK HOUSE

With MUCH gratitude to Harrison Comstock, we can now share Brainerd Jones’ preliminary design for Comstock House, painted in 1904.

This watercolor shows several differences with his pen and ink architectural elevation (also shown below), which accurately represents the final design. Other historical images of the completed home can be found in the Comstock House photo gallery.

Two years before starting this project, Jones had completed the mansion-like Paxton House two doors down from close friends of Mattie and James Wyatt Oates, who now commissioned him to create their own home. As discussed in that article, the two buildings complimented each other. Both were in the cutting-edge Shingle Style with predominant roofs and asymmetric projections popping out everywhere.

One difference was that (the home that would become known as) Comstock House was smaller, with a footprint of roughly 60 x 40 feet. The watercolor shows the house was wider and deeper in Jones’ original design and almost square, adding considerable attic space and room for two more windows on the sides. The additional massing makes it less of a “little sister” to Paxton’s big place, but Jones achieved that by raising the roofline. This extended the upper slope of the gambrel roof much further than common on Dutch Colonial Revivals. making the house look a little squat. Worse, it undermined the genius engineering principles that distribute the gravity load in a traditional gambrel rafter-and-gusset frame – if built as shown, this house probably would not have survived the 1906 earthquake.

Also mirroring the Paxton House is the doorway closing off the south (shown left) side of the porch. The Paxtons had an enclosed porch room on their north side; this was likewise a semi-private space separate from the main porch.

A significant difference is that the street view first floor, the porch columns and chimney are clad in rusticated basalt, same as used with the fence surrounding the house. Stonework like this was a common element in Shingle Style. Also, the watercolor shows the house shingled in Eastern White Cedar, which turns silver-grey as it weathers. That kind of wood was specified in Jones’ notes to the contractor, although the more readily-available Western Brown Cedar was used instead.

There are other differences to spot. The front door is directly in line with the steps and not off-center; there is a window on the north end of the porch and not the traditional Dutch Colonial “coffin door,” which was probably needed to vent the smoke from Wyatt Oates’ cigars. The bank of Tutor-style casement windows seen to the rear left ended up on the other side in front. The carriageway is in front on Mendocino avenue and not on the Benton street side.

Sadly, there’s no floor plan to go along with this original design. But it’s pretty easy to tell that all the bedrooms and living rooms would have been a couple of feet larger on all sides. You can bet, however, the wretched servant would still have the smallest and coldest room in the house, no toilet except for the one off the back porch and a kitchen so miserable it could only have been designed by a man who never had to work in one.

Watercolor on paper, 16″ x 9¼”

 

Drawing published in the Santa Rosa Republican – see photo gallery

 

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THE GRAND MANSION SANTA ROSA THREW AWAY

It was the grandest, most beautiful house ever built in Santa Rosa, and a century ago this was a town with no shortage of grand and beautiful homes. Its design was bold in a controversial new style; there were few buildings anywhere on the West Coast that looked like this.

And the parties! Hundreds attended one swank affair in 1903, with an orchestra on the balcony and San Francisco chefs in the kitchen. Elaborate evening gowns and diamonds glimmering in myriad electric lights, the rooms perfumed from honeysuckle, azaleas, carnations and roses – overall an ostentatious show of wealth by the scion of an old Sonoma County family with enough money to act like aristocrats.

Then years passed and other families moved in. There were no more orchestras at famous parties. The style of the house was no longer so remarkable and the reasons it was once considered so revolutionary were forgotten. Then in 1969, when the building was only three score and seven, it disappeared.

Why it came down will make you want to scream.

Before diving into all things architectural, this is also the second and final part of the story about Blitz Paxton, the man who commissioned this grand home for his family. His past is dredged over at length in part I, “The Wars of the Paxtons,” but in brief: His parents were among the wealthiest in Sonoma County, building a Healdsburg mansion known today as Madrona Manor. Blitz had a brief first marriage that gave birth to two children. After their divorce, Blitz and his ex-wife would battle over alimony and child support, even after the children became adults. All told they were in court for eighteen years – probably the longest running legal fight in county history. It would be easy to damn Blitz for not aiding his kids – especially as he was claiming to be broke even while hosting a party with three hundred guests – but it’s not as simple as that. Read the story.

Six years after that divorce, Blitz hit the reset button and married again in 1900. His bride was the former Jane Marshall, part of a large well-to-do family involved in many kinds of agriculture in western Marin and Sonoma – the little community of Marshall on Tomales Bay is named for them.

Jane had a five year-old boy from her first marriage, aptly named, “Marshall.” It’s unknown whether Blitz formally adopted his stepson, but Marshall’s last name was officially changed to Paxton and he always identified Blitz as his father on legal documents. (As a little Believe-it-or-not! factoid, the Paxton males had the worst luck with their eyes. Blitz had some unspecified but apparently serious “poor eyesight” issue, his son from the first marriage became totally blind in a childhood accident and Marshall was blind in his left eye.)

Son Blitz Jr. was born a year after they married and by all accounts the four of them made a happy family. Junior and Marshall grew up to be seemingly well-adjusted people (Blitz Jr. was a popular Santa Rosa policeman in the 1930s), so apparently Blitz wasn’t fighting child support for his older kids because he was unwilling or incapable of being a parent.

Jane and Blitz seemed to be best friends with Mattie and James Wyatt Oates; rarely was Jane mentioned at a social event without Mattie being named as well, and the party with 300 guests was in honor of the young woman who was something of a godchild to the Oates. Wyatt was Blitz’ attorney throughout the prolonged court fight, and the only time either of the boys can be spotted on a vacation away from their wives was when the pair of them took off on a week-long fishing trip.

Santa Rosa had some gala weddings in the 1890s but never, ever, had the town seen anything like the Paxton house parties before the Great 1906 Earthquake – it was as if we had our very own branch of the Astor family determined to relaunch the Gilded Age. “Elegance Never Surpassed in this City,” gushed the headline in the Santa Rosa Republican after the 1903 housewarming. “One of the most brilliant social functions ever given in the ‘City of Roses’” swooned the Press Democrat.

The papers also praised the “artistic beauty” of the home with its huge reception hall and a balcony on the broad staircase large enough to fit a small orchestra. “The magnificent home is ideal, as the spacious apartments and halls being well adapted for receiving so many guests. Then, again, the handsome and costly furnishings add much to the effect of everything.”

Two words kept popping up whenever either Santa Rosa newspaper mentioned the Paxton’s house: “Elegant” and “costly.” It was never mentioned how much was required to build and outfit the enormous place but it must have been a fortune – and mostly it must have been Jane’s fortune through inheritance.

Through newspaper coverage of the many child support lawsuits we know Blitz owned some stocks of iffy value, and in the 1890s his main source of income was an allowance from his mother. Prior to his 1900 marriage he was named president of the Santa Rosa Bank co-founded by his father (despite having no apparent experience in banking) where his salary was $175/mo – a good executive salary for the day, but hardly enough to underwrite a mansion.

And soon after they were married, Blitz was spending like never before. He purchased four lots on the corner of Carrillo street and Healdsburg avenue (later renamed Mendocino ave.) and bought a sideboard of carved Flemish oak imported from Italy. It cost $750, which was worth nearly two years’ income for the average American household.

Now all he needed was a house for his Italian sideboard and young family. “Plans are being prepared for the residence by a San Francisco architect,” the PD mentioned a few months later, in March 1901. The paper had it half-right; the home was being designed by a former San Francisco architect who had lately returned to his childhood hometown of Petaluma. His name was Brainerd Jones.

“Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity,” 1909

If you were looking for someone to design your showy, damn-the-cost mansion in 1901, Brainerd Jones would probably be your last choice; the 30 year-old architect had a thin résumé and non-existent portfolio.

Jones had no formal training aside from basic drafting classes; his experience consisted of some carpentry work and apprenticeship with the McDougall Brothers firm, which mostly churned out undistinguished designs for banks, municipal buildings and such. At the time Blitz hired him apparently the only work produced out of his Petaluma home-office were blueprints for two cottages and a modest house, none of which were yet completed. But he had one great advantage: He came of age as an architect in San Francisco during the 1890s, which was possibly the most exciting time and place in the history of American architecture.

Up to then West Coast architecture imitated what was popular in the East and Midwest, usually with a lag of several years. We built “Colonial Revival” homes of various kinds although our part of the country had no past as a British colony; we copied the mansard roofs of the “Second Empire” style even though France was nearly on the opposite side of the globe. But mainly in Victorian America, we all shared the notion that fine architecture had to be “picturesque” in some way. That often meant some kinds of ornamentation and led to the great popularity of the “Queen Anne” style, with elaborate finish work, faux details, witch-hat turrets and the like.

A few high-end architects in the Northeast were headed in the opposite direction, however, designing mansion-sized homes in a style devoid of most decoration and meant to look naturalistic. Later dubbed “Shingle Style,” these houses were broader than tall, with strong horizontal lines. There was more window space than ever used before and there were open interiors, which transformed hallways and vestibules from places you pass through into spaces where you live. It was absolutely radical architecture in the 1870s-1880s (and some of it looks pretty modernistic even today) but it quickly faded in the wake of a renewed interest in classicism. It left a mark, however, as elements began to show up in Queen Anne designs, and it led directly to the “Craftsman Style” and “Prairie Style” of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. (For more background, see my history of the East Coast Shingle Style, “Behind the Design” with illustrations and footnotes.)

As the scene was fading on the East Coast, a few mavericks who had worked for the firms most associated with Shingle Style moved to San Francisco (in Richard Longstreth’s excellent “On the Edge of the World” there’s a fun picture of many of them getting drunk together in 1890). They had been thoroughly radicalized by their exposure to those new artistic ideas and were not shy about expressing their opinions on the sorry state of architecture. Classicism was boring and designing something in that style was little more than an exercise in draftsmanship; the ultra-popular Queen Anne houses were “architectural monstrosities.” As San Francisco was then jammed with Queen Annes – each of them competing to be more adorable and whimsical than the Queen Anne next door – these guys were in no danger of being overwhelmed with work from the city’s hoi polloi.

Whenever they had a pliable client they designed buildings based on the principles of the East Coast Shingle Style but took it even further. Because the San Francisco Bay Area weather was so much milder than the Northeast, a house could be more harmonious with its setting by incorporating the outdoors into living areas. Local materials – particularly western cedar shingles and old growth redwood – were abundant and of such quality they didn’t have to be painted or varnished for protection. And they placed high value on craftsmanship, insisting it should be on display and not hidden away – after all, a building should be constructed as carefully as if it were a piece of fine furniture. Much later, their kind of architecture was named the “First Bay Tradition.”

(Begin opinion rant: I hate this term because it’s used to lend credibility to claims a “Second Bay Tradition” grew from it around the 1930s. In my view there’s hardly any connection either architecturally or philosophically; the latter was just early California Modernism and not even that closely linked to the region, except for its continued use of redwood.)

For an apprentice architect like twenty-something Brainerd Jones, 1890s San Francisco was a heady clime. We don’t know if he actually bumped elbows with any of the rebel architects but it really doesn’t matter; their new kind of architecture one of the hottest topics to discuss (read: argue about) in local magazines dedicated to the arts. Jones obviously knew what they were building and liked it, as he used his big commission to make a bold statement in their style.

The Paxton House was a deconstruction of a well-known example of the new West Coast Shingle Style: The Anna Head School for Girls in Berkeley. A few years later, Jones would again fold other elements into the design of Comstock House.

“Anna Head” was a famous day/boarding school for young women and this building was completed in 1892, one of the earliest major projects in the style. It was designed by Soule Edgar Fisher, a local architect who fell in with the East Coast firebrands (he’s in the drinking photo mentioned above). Amazingly, the building still exists – albeit in poor condition; it’s on Channing Way and now part of UC/Berkeley. A modern photo shows it has been altered somewhat and is partially concealed by ivy.

The first thing to notice is they have the same massing – a wider than usual building with a heavy roof. This view of the Paxton House clips off the southern end, but in other images below it can be seen there was a significant gabled extension projecting out from the main building. Although the face of both buildings is anything but flat, they share deep eaves and a second floor slight overhang which creates a shadow to emphasize the horizontal lines. Both used decorative corbels to lend an illusion of support for projecting walls.

Even if all the similarities were coincidental, they shared an unusual design for the entrances, with the front door recessed several feet and steps coming up sideways, from the left. The porch landing is concealed by a parapet, and we know from the family photos the Paxtons used this as part of their main outdoor living area.

Both buildings harkened back more to the original Eastern Shingle Style of the 1880s than the newer, anti-Queen Anne designs. The front face (and possibly the original sides and back) of the school was shingled with white cedar so it would age to gray, just like the mansions in the Northeast. We don’t know if the Paxton House had those shipped in or used the cheap, easily-available brown cedar from the Pacific Northwest, but Jones did specify that Comstock House was to be shingled with the white variety. (It wasn’t originally, but when we reshingled in 2010 we used white cedar for the walls and brown cedar for the roof.) Both also had decorative Queen Anne touches; look closely at the modern photo of Anna Head and note there are diamond-shaped shingle medallions on the walls. Jones reinterpreted the cross gable next to the massive chimney as a Queen Anne turret.

Brainerd Jones’ interpretation added two features that would have been met with high approval by the new wave architects. He extended the landing into a porch room enclosed on three sides, which another family photo shows the Paxtons enjoying. Jones also changed the cross gable to the right of the door into a gable with a massive bank of windows. Presumably this was the reception room that dropped the jaws of visitors.

For Jones his design was an artistic statement but not a manifesto. For the rest of his life he worked within whatever style pleased his client; the same time Paxton House was under construction they were also building his design for the Lumsden House (now the Belvedere) next door, and that is a cookie-cutter Queen Anne.

Two years later Jones revisited his ideas with the contract to design (the home that would become known as) Comstock House. Mattie and Wyatt Oates might even have suggested he mirror the home of their best friends, two doors down; they certainly must have made a striking pair, even with the unremarkable Davis House sandwiched between.

With Comstock House Jones again borrowed from the Anna Head School, this time adapting its gambrel roof and true cross gable. He also copied exactly the Tudor-style row of lead glass casement windows with diamond panes, all under a prominent second floor overhang. He borrowed the use of small dormer windows popping out of the roof and reinterpreted the oriel and bay windows on a larger scale – Comstock House has four bays, each over ten feet wide. What Jones’ design for the Oates did not have was a speck of Queen Anne influence, even lacking the herringbone shingle work used as trim on the school and Paxton House.

So now we come to the painful part of the story: What happened to Brainerd Jones’ masterpiece?

“There used to be a house just like yours on the corner,” a long-time resident of our neighborhood told us shortly after we moved into Comstock House. “Except it was bigger.”

Larger it was. Although the building is gone, its footprint can be seen on the old fire maps. Guesstimating from the irregular shape, Paxton House was between 6,500 and 7,000 square feet – and that’s not even counting whatever was above the second floor.

But what happened to it? Strangely, nobody recalled. There was no memory of it being torn down or catching fire, although many people remembered it well: “I used to bicycle around the U-shaped driveway in the ’60s,” a woman told me. “I walked past it every day when I was going to school,” someone else remembered. “It was such a pretty house.” Some thought it might have been destroyed by the 1969 earthquake(s) and that seemed to be as good an answer as anything else. The mystery deepened after I visited the Building Department and found there was no demolition permit issued for 747 Mendocino avenue; it was as if the place really had been spirited away overnight.

From the newspapers it was known the Paxtons sold the house in 1920 to the Slusser family, who passed it on to their daughter. (Blitz and Jane stayed in the area for about a dozen years before retiring in Los Angeles.) I could have traced ownership beyond that through a title search but there didn’t seem to be any point as long as there was no record of demolition.

The only remaining lead was that the address used to be 739 Mendocino avenue instead of 747. I had asked about this on my visit to the city office, but was told the records should be linked as long as the property was not subdivided since. This time I returned  and asked directly for #739. After a bit the clerk returned with a single sheet of microfiche – and there was the whole sad story. The house was demolished in 1969 alright, but not because of damage from the October 1 quake.

In January, the city building inspector posted a notice of hazardous conditions and ordered PG&E to shut off power, stating “the building was in very poor condition…making it unsafe for occupancy.” Santa Rosa sent the owner a letter declaring the home a public nuisance, listing four reasons:

1. Abandonment and lack of maintenance
2. Obsolescence, dilapidated condition, deterioration, damage and decay
3. Faulty wiring
4. Unsafe venting of gas appliances

The following month it was an item on the City Council agenda and the owner given thirty days for abatement. In June, the city sent a notice that since no abatement work was done, demolition was ordered. The building was torn down on June 30 with the owner billed $1,600.

So the magnificent building was just left to fall to ruin – there was nothing in the records showing the man who owned it corresponded with the city about making efforts at repair or even attended the times it came before the Council. He just walked away from it.

That owner was Ted Snyder. He was among the county’s movers ‘n’ shakers in those days, living near the Santa Rosa Country Club and president in the 1960s of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, the county chambers of commerce association, the Healdsburg Republican Club, head of the Knights of Columbus and probably active in even more clubs and civic groups the newspapers didn’t mention. For awhile in the early part of the decade he was co-owner of an important sawmill near Healdsburg but that was liquidated; later he identified himself as a real estate broker, but it’s not clear he was ever associated with an established realty office or even had a license.

It would be easy to blame Snyder alone for the destruction of this gem because he apparently did nothing at all to save it. But the real burden of shame lies on the city of Santa Rosa, who gave this grand structure no more consideration that it would a dilapidated backyard shack.

The City Council considered no other options. No architect or historian was sought to report upon such a major building’s significance; it was enough that Senior Inspector G. R. Martin deemed it obsolete. From today’s perspective, that might well be deemed irresponsible.

In a better world the Council could have required Snyder to simply provide an abatement plan (“unsafe venting of gas appliances,” really?) or with his continued failure to respond, even used powers of eminent domain for the city to take it over and restore it to code for use as municipal offices or something. Aside from “faulty wiring” it does not appear the building was in irreparable shape – and it’s safe to bet that just meant it still had knob-and-tube wiring, which remains perfectly safe as long as it isn’t tampered with.

But that was the late 1960s – early 1970s, which for historic architecture preservation was the darkest of the Dark Ages. That Snyder did nothing and the city did nothing and the grand house which was laid to waste is merely part of an indictment of that era, which witnessed so much of America’s heritage demolished in the name of redevelopment and urban renewal. It was a modern age and time to clear out the old and make way for the new, which was always better because. In this case, however, it wasn’t just any nondescript house – it was something uniquely historical and still beautiful. It could have long remained our city’s jewel, had anyone in the city cared.

 

All photos from the Paxton family albums, except as noted. Much thanks to David Sox for sharing the images and family stories

 

Detail of front view of Paxton House 1910

 

Rear view of Paxton House, 1910

 

Southern view of Paxton House, 1910

 

Blitz Paxton and Blitz Jr. 1902

 

Jane, Blitz Jr. and Marshall Paxton, 1904

 

Blitz Paxton and two unidentified women, 1910

Blitz W. Paxton has leased the residence of Mr. and Mrs. D. B. Hart on Mendocino street and will soon occupy the same. Mr. and Mrs. Hart expect to travel extensively during the present summer.

– Press Democrat, June 2 1900

 

Quiet Wedding Saturday

A wedding of considerable interest to Santa Rosans and to Sonoma county people occurred on Saturday in San Francisco at the bride’s residence on Washington street. The contracting parties were Mrs. Jennie Bates and Blitz W. Paxton, the well known president of the Santa Rosa Bank. The hour of the ceremony was half past 12 o’clock. Relatives and friends witnessed the ceremony, which was a pretty one. The Rev. William Martin, pastor of the First Presbyterian church of this city, was the officiating clergyman. An elaborate wedding breakfast was served. When Mr. and Mrs. Paxton return to this city they will reside for the present at the Hart residence on Mendocino street which Mr. Paxton has leased. Their wide circle of friends extend congratulations. Mrs. Paxton is a member of a prominent Sonoma county pioneer family and was formerly Miss Jennie Marshall of Petaluma. Mr. Paxton is the son of Mrs. Paxton of Healdsburg and for years has been prominently identified in banking and commercial circles in this state. Their friends here are glad that they have decided to make the City of Roses their future home and will accord them a welcome when they arrive.

– Press Democrat, June  6 1900

Blitz Paxton’s home in Santa Rosa will shortly be adorned with a magnificent
sideboard of carved Flemish oak. The sideboard is one of the handsomest that has ever been seen on this coast, and comes direct from Italy. It cost Paxton $750.

– San Francisco Call, November 5, 1900

 

To Build a Handsome Home

In the near future another handsome residence will adorn the pretty suburbs of Santa Rosa. President Blitz W. Paxton of the Santa Rosa Bank has purchased a large lot adjoining that occupied by the Walter E. Davis residence on Healdsburg avenue, located on the corner of the avenue and Carrillo street. Plans are being prepared for the residence by a San Francisco architect.

– Press Democrat, March 14 1901

W. H. Lumsden has purchased a lot from Frank P. Doyle on the southwest corner of Mendocino and Carrillo streets upon which he will shortly erect a neat residence. The sale was made through the real estate agency of Davis & Crane.

– Press Democrat, March 22 1901

The palatial residences being built on Healdsburg avenue and Carrillo streets by Blitz Paxton and William H. Lumsden are nearing completion. Both houses are fine ornaments to the residence portion of the City of Roses.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1901

The plasterers have very nearly completed their work upon the handsome new residence of W. H. Lumsden on Carrillo street. Bagley & Bagley were the sub-contractors for this part of the work

– Press Democrat, December 13 1901

Blitz W. Paxton has just finished his costly and elegant home on Healdsburg avenue with the help of Contractor Kuykendall. This is an elegant mansion and a big improvement to the city. Just across Carrillo street from the Paxton mansion is the large ten thousand dollar home of W. H. Lumsden. which with the Paxton home are the handsomest dwellings built in Sonoma county this year. Simpson & Roberts has the contract for Mr. Lumsden’s house.

– Press Democrat, February 2 1902

 

A BRILLIANT EVENT MANY GUESTS AT THE MAGNIFICENT PAXTON RESIDENCE WEDNESDAY NIGHT
Reception Held by Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall Waa Amid a Scene of Radiant Beauty

One of the most brilliant social functions ever given in the “City of Roses” was the reception at the Paxton mansion on Healdsburg avenue on Wednesday night for which several hundred invitations were sent out by Mrs. Blitz Wright Paxton and her mother. Mrs. Marshall.

The hours of the reception were from eight to eleven. During the hours there was a constant stream of guests passing through the handsomely decorated hails and reception rooms to greet the hostesses and to mingle socially. From the balcony on the broad staircase the strains of sweet music mingled with the sweetest perfume from the honeysuckle, the carnations and the roses, which burdened the air delightfully.
For the giving of a function like the one that charmed everybody on Wednesday night the magnificent home is ideal, as the spacious apartments and halls being well adapted for receiving so many guests. Then, again, the handsome and costly furnishings add much to the effect of everything.

During the reception the scene was one of much brilliancy. Many elaborate evening gowns were worn by the ladies. The light from a myriad of electric globes through silken shades shone softly on the gay throng. Exquisite taste was displayed in the adornment of the house from top to bottom. Pink and green were predominant colors. The always graceful bamboo radiated from the arches and nooks in halls and reception rooms, while here and there beautiful rose clusters and banks of pink honeysuckle were arranged in perfect keeping with the decoration scheme. The great showy blossoms displayed their magnificence of color to perfection. The festoons were entwined in soft greenery and the decorations were greatly admired.

The entertainment provided by the hostesses could not have been more lavish or more graciously extended. In fact nothing could possibly have added to the pleasure of the evening. In one room, transformed into a radiant bower, delicious punch’ was served by a bevy of charming girls.

Master Marshall Paxton, wearing a neat suit of white, received the cards of the guests on a silver tray. Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall were assisted in receiving by Mrs. James W. Oates, Mrs. Samuel K. Dougherty. Mrs. William Finlaw and Mrs. William Martin. The young ladies who assisted in serving were the Misses Martha Hahman, Bess Riley, Bess Goodwin, Marie Farmer, Jimmie Robertson, Mab McDonald, Jessie Robertson, Edith McDonald, Zana Taylor, Ella Holmes, Bessie Porter and Miss Edith Lewis of Petaluma.

The elaborate supper, in which the art of the competent chefs from the metropolis was exemplified, was served in the dining room. The room was adorned in pink and green. The dellicates were served at daintily arranged tables. Herbert Vanderhoof’s orchestra supplied the music during the reception. The guests were delighted with everything and the event will long remain memorable in Santa Rosa’s social world. In addition to the people present from this city a number of invitations were sent to other cities and the out of town guests were present.

– Press Democrat, June 11 1903

 

BRILLIANT AT HOME
Elaborate Social Function at the B. W. Paxton Residence
Mrs. Paxton and her Mother, Mrs. Mary E. Marshall, Held a Reception Wednesday Evening — Elegance Never Surpassed in this City.

Never was there a more brilliant social function given in this city than the reception at the handsome Blitz Wright Paxton home on Healdsburg avenue Wednesday evening. The hostesses were Mrs. Paxton and her mother, Mrs. Mary E. Marshall, and the hours for the reception were between 8 and 11 o’clock. The guests, several hundred in number, passed and repassed in a constant and brilliant stream through the spacious reception rooms during this period.

Combined with the elegance and varied beauty of the costumes worn by the feminine portion of the company and the soft brilliancy of the electrical effects, was the beauty of the home furnishings, the whole enhanced by floral decorations, the most perfect that nature could produce and art devise. Pink and green were the dominant shades, both in the floral adornment and in the electrical tints. Fragrant azaleas and honeysuckle, carnation and roses entered into the decorations with exquisite effect and the graceful bamboo formed an artistic background, its drooping ends bending from doorway and arch. From fern and floral bower of marvelous beauty on the balcony above the reception hall, the softest music floated. Thus were all the senses charmed music, fragrance and artistic beauty being combined. The music was furnished by Vanderhoof’s orchestra.

The entertainment provided was most elaborate. In one room a company of daintily gowned young girls presided over the punch bowl. The supper room was magnificently appointed and the repast was a triumph of the caterer’s art. Chefs and caterers from the metropolis had the affair in charge and the refreshments were served at dainty tables.

Assisting Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall in the reception of the guests were Mrs. Samuel K. Dougherty, Mrs. James Wyatt Oates…

…Mrs. Paxton’s costume was of white brocade satin covered with an overdress of most exquisite hand lace. The corsage was low and to the skirt was attached a court train. Her hair was dressed becomingly high and adorned with an aigette [a feathered headdress]. Her ornaments were diamonds, many and brilliant. Mrs. Marshall was costumed in black satin, with an overdress of gauze. A train also finished her gown and her corsage was slightly low at the neck [and] like her daughter her ornaments were diamonds.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 11 1903

 

Real Estate Transfers

Blitz W Paxton to Jane M Paxton: Oct 4, ’01, Lots 4, 5, 6, S 30 ft Lot 3, Walter S Davis’ Add to Santa Rosa; $3500

– Press Democrat, December 31, 1904

 

THE PAXTON TEA A BRILLIANT AFFAIR
NEARLY THREE HUNDRED GUESTS CALL TO MEET MISS ANNA MAY BELL OF VISALIA
Elegant Paxton Home on Healdsburg Avenue Transformed Into a Veritable Bower of Beauty

The elegant Paxton home on Healdsburg Avenue was the scene of a brilliant reception Thursday afternoon in honor of Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia. Almost three hundred guests called between three and six o’clock to meet the popular girl in whose honor the affair was given.

Miss Bell is a relative of Col. and Mrs. James W. Oates of this city. She has spent much of the present summer here, where she has many friends. She is a charming girl with friendly, cordial manners that make her a great favorite wherever she goes and the reception of Thursday afternoon was one of the most successful of a large number of functions that have been planned in her honor this summer.

The house was a veritable bower of beauty. The decorations were entirely pink. The reception hall and parlors were decorated with La France and Duchesse roses and amaryllis blossoms. The dining room was fragrant with great clusters of beautiful pink carnations attractively arranged and placed where they showed to advantage. Master Marshall Paxton stood in the doorway and ushered the guests into the reception hall, where they were received by Mrs. Blitz Wright Paxton, the hostess, assisted by Mrs. J. W. Oates, Mrs. T. J. Geary, Mrs. M. H. Dignan, Mrs. Wm Martin, Mrs. Mark McDonald, Mrs. Frank Doyle, and Mrs. James Edwards. Mrs. Paxton looked charming in a handsome silk gown trimmed with heavy pearl lace. Miss Bess Riley, Miss Jessie Robertson, Miss Zana Taylor, and Miss Bessie Porter served ices and cakes in the beautifully decorated dining room. Music was furnished during the afternoon by C. Mortimer Chapin and Mrs. Berry.

– Press Democrat, September 15, 1905

 

 

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NOT OUR WETTEST YEAR, NOT EVEN CLOSE

We’ve certainly gotten a lot of rain this year. Now imagine getting even more than this during just 25 days.

The Press Democrat recently (March 2, 2017) offered an article, “Santa Rosa on its way to wettest year on record.” As of that date, according to the “Press Democrat Data Center,” the city had recorded 52.07 inches of rain, “more than all other years save for two since 1904 when record keeping began.” The PD also claimed the wettest rain year was “1982-83, when 55.68 inches fell in the city.”

Well, no. For starters, weather records didn’t suddenly begin in 1904; the old county histories list rainfall totals going back to 1853-54, and the PD used to print annual tables before the turn of the last century. Although there are a few years around 1920 where summaries aren’t reliable, we’ve got a pretty good picture going back over 160 years. Going by all that data, 1889-1890 was the wettest rain year with 56.06 inches measured.

I posted a correction to their article on my OldSantaRosa Facebook page and thought it was a settled matter – until I came across an article from the January 2013 Scientific American. “California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe.” Described there is the winter of 1861-62, when there was so much rain that the Central Valley became a giant lake up to 30 feet deep. Napa was flooded to four feet and Sacramento was under ten feet of water, remaining accessible only by boats for months. It was a disaster hard to imagine today.

Lucky Sonoma County! According to the histories, that rain year we received 46 inches – higher than our average of about 30 inches, but certainly manageable. But just for fun, I decided to see what the Santa Rosa newspaper had to say at the time.

Holy. Cow.

The items from the 1862 Sonoma County Democrat, transcribed below, documented Santa Rosa receiving 58 3/8 inches of rain over six weeks – more than the all-time record for entire season. And there were two snowstorms, with the last one leaving more than an inch in the town.

“The roads everywhere are almost impassable, and wrecks of buggies and stages are common,” reported the paper after New Years’ – and it was about to get worse. On January 9 “the town was completely submerged – the water being in several of the streets about fifteen inches deep…Almost every bridge in the county has been carried off, and for four days we were entirely deprived of communication with any section.” Again Santa Rosa Creek flooded the town on January 21 and the town was cut off from the outside. “As we write our town is just overflowed from the creek, the water reaching to our office door – a distance of quite two hundred yards. Rain has fallen heavily all day, accompanied toward night with thunder and lightning! What a time!”

All together it rained for 25 days over six weeks. No one died (as far as we know) but animals drowned and “a few houses in various parts of the county… [lost] their perpendicular ‘posish.’” It was such a mess that a wagon with a team of horses took sixteen days to travel from Petaluma to Santa Rosa.

Why did the old county histories coverup this historic flood? The reported 46 inches for that season first appeared in Robert A. Thompson’s 1877 “Historical and descriptive sketch of Sonoma county, California,” and his numbers were copied in later histories. Thompson’s booklet – which was unabashedly a promotional item to encourage people to move here – did mention Santa Rosa plain lightly flooded sometimes. But to reveal only fifteen years before there was a disaster that killed livestock and destroyed property might understandably make a few potential property buyers skittish.

So how much total rain did Santa Rosa received in 1861-62? Alas, the local newspapers never reported a total, as far as I can tell – probably also to not scare away newcomers. But we can make a guess: Normally, roughly 45 percent of our annual rainfall happens during that window, and it otherwise was an exceptionally wet year overall.

If the Santa Rosa newspaper was accurate in measuring over 58 inches during that time, it could mean the rainfall total for 1861-62 was over 130 inches. That may seem crazy, but it’s in line with other parts of the state mentioned in Scientific American where they experienced four times normal precipitation that year.

Even if you shave those numbers back, our ancestors still received around twice as much rain as we have (so far) in 2016-2017. Could we cope with a disaster of that magnitude? I don’t want to think about that – and unfortunately, I doubt our public agencies are spending any time thinking about it either. And did I mention that a flood of that magnitude apparently happens less than every 200 years?

 

1879 flood in Guerneville, the oldest known image of a Sonoma county flood. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

The Weather and the Roads. — During the last week much rain has fallen. Some of the rain-storms were accompanied by violent wind. No serious damage has been done, and the creeks generally have graciously kept within (under the circumstances,) reasonable boundaries. The roads everywhere are almost impassable, and wrecks of buggies and stages are common. Daily stages have become per force semiweekly, and daily mails ditto. But the heavy rains of the season, we doubt not, are now over.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 2 1862

Wintry. — On Saturday night last the good folks of Santa Rosa and vicinity were visited by quite a snow storm. It lasted about two hours, and on Sunday morning the hills surrounding the town presented a very beautiful appearance — the tops being clad in white.

A day or two previous, we were visited by a thunder-storm, which is also very unusual in this locality. We have heard of a very pleasing incident which occurred on that day, and which we think is worthy a place in our columns. Little Edgar C., about 4 years old, was playing in his father’s yard when the first clap of thunder came. It was probably the first he had ever heard, and he ran immediately in the house to his father and asked, —“Pa, did you hear the clouds bursting?” Shortly after, when the thunder had ceased, he went to the door and observing the clouds beginning to disperse, he turned to his mother and remarked, —“ Ma, it is not going to rain—God was only fooling you.”

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 9 1862

The Storm in Sonoma County. – During Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the rain came down in torrents, causing a great flood, which has probably done more damage than even the great flood of ’52. From every section of the State we have news of the most terrible results. In Sonoma county, though comparatively less property has been destroyed than in other portions of the State, yet we, too, have suffered. On Thursday night, about midnight, the Santa Rosa creek began to overrun its banks, and by two o’clock the town was completely submerged – the water being in several of the streets about fifteen inches deep, and flooding several buildings. It remained in this condition until about daylight, when it commenced to recede, and by 10 o’clock the streets were free of water. Our greatest sufferers this time were persons residing immediately on the banks of the creek. Mr. Wm. H. Crowell, Deputy County Clerk, sustained heavy damage by the caving and washing away of a large portion of his land, together with fences, etc.; he estimates his loss at $1,500. Mr. E. D. Colgan of the Santa Rosa House, was damaged in the neighborhood of $1,000, by loss of stock, land, fences, and a beautifully cultivated garden, that was entirely covered with sand from the creek, and all the plants destroyed. Mr. John Ingram suffered a great deal, from loss of fences and damage to his orchard. These are the principal sufferers that we have heard of, though all persons residing along the creek were damaged to some extent by loss of fences and stock. The Santa Rosa bridge still holds on, notwithstanding the foundation at each end is partly washed away. Almost every bridge in the county has been carried off, and for four days we were entirely deprived of communication with any section. We are informed that the saw-mill of Messrs. Caldwell, Levy & Witty, at the month of “the canon,” on Russian River was swept away, and a great amount of damage done all along the banks of the river.

At Sonoma, we learn the old courthouse, an adobe building, settled down and fell to pieces. The upper story of the building was occupied by the Odd Fellows and Sons of Temperance, as a lodge room, and the ground floor by Mr. N. Kavanaugh, as a saloon.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 16 1862

The Great Storm and Freshet Rain has fallen hereabouts without material cessation, since the last issue of the Democrat — the severest storm and fresh, et ever experienced in this part of the country, since its settlement, still continues without any sign of abatement. The sensitive streams rise and fall with the capricious falling of the rain. The banks of Santa Rosa creek have been washed away to that degree, that the capacity of its bed is nearly doubled. Wo do not learn of much damage other than all may imagine in the destruction of such ordinary kind of property as fences, bridges and cattle, beyond the carrying away of the dwelling of ’Squire Spencer, situated upon a slough near Healdsburg, and the undermining of a few houses in various parts of the county, causing them to lose their perpendicular “posish.” Santa Rosa bridge was doubtless prevented from floating off, from the fact of its being secured by ropes. The roads are impassable, and not a few of our citizens have experienced some inconvenience from a want of provisions and other necessaries, as well as the utter absence of postal accommodations, in consequence. No mails have been received since Thursday of last week, no stage has reached here from Petaluma, since then, and but one from Sonoma, which got through on Sunday, bringing San Francisco papers of the 18th — our latest intelligence from the outside world. A loaded team bound for Ukiah, reached this place the other day, from Petaluma, having been sixteen days on the road, a distance of as many miles. It resumed its course, but only got a mile and a half from town, when it was obliged to “lay over.” As we write (Tuesday evening.) our town is just overflowed from the creek, the water reaching to our office door – a distance of quite two hundred yards. Rain has fallen heavily all day, accompanied toward night wit – thunder and lightning! What a time!

P. S.— Wednesday, 3 p. m. — Petaluma stage with mails, arrived at 1 p. m. Raining hard.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 23 1862

Snow.—The second snow storm of the remarkable season, took place on Tuesday night, when it fell to the depth of quite an inch. So seldom does snow visit our inhabitants, that the oldest of them cannot remember that the valley has been thus visited before since its settlement.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 30 1862

The Weather, etc. — since the heavy rain of Sunday, the weather has been such that our farmers have been enabled to re-commence plowing. They wisely exert themselves to the utmost to put in as large crops as they possibly can. Roads are improving every day.

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 6 1862

THE QUANTITY OF RAIN.-We have been favored with a statement of the amount rain that fell in this neighborhood, from December 22d to February 2d, inclusive. The rainy days of December, commencing with the 22d, were: the 22d, 23d, 24th, 26th, 27th, 29th, 30th, and 31st; January 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 20th, 22d, 23d, 24th, 27th; February 2d. During these days of December, 8 5/8 inches of rain fell; of January, 48 3/8 inches; of February, 1 3/8 inches – making a fall of 58 3/8 inches of rain in the course of six weeks. Besides this, snow fell on the 30th and 31st days of January.

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 13 1862

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