About 15 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa is a mansion that’s not a mansion, and a treasure that’s hasn’t been particularly treasured at times. It’s the William Hood House (AKA Hood Mansion).
Now tucked behind the county’s Juvenile Justice Center, the old house has lost the commanding view of northern Sonoma Valley that it possessed when it was built in 1858. The talking points (PDF) prepared for an open house a few years ago provide the best overview of the history of the building: Hood, a house builder and grape grower, bought a half interest in the nearly 19,000 acre Rancho Los Guilicos in 1850, obtaining complete ownership a few years later. In 1858 he married and began construction.
(ABOVE: The William Hood House c. 1898, courtesy the Sonoma County Library/Sherman Boivin Collection
BELOW: Hood Mansion today, from approximately the same viewpoint)
Most of Hood’s original house is architecturally unremarkable; it’s a nice Victorian-era farmhouse, as seen in the historic photo. Most notable is that it’s made of brick, even including the downstairs interior walls, which are finished with plaster. The talking points explain why this was unusual:
At the time, brick was a very expensive building material. Very few manufacturing kilns had been established in the area, and their weight made them costly to transport. Therefore, most brick buildings from this period were made from clay deposits found nearby and fired on site. The somewhat uneven appearance of the bricks on Hood Mansion are a testament to the handiwork of the local craftsmen. In all likelihood, the bricks were manufactured on site by Native American workers.
The Hood family lost the property through foreclosure, as also happened to the wine-making family that followed. In 1905 the lender sold it to Thomas Kearns, a Utah silver tycoon and former U.S. Senator. Kearns had an opulent home in Salt Lake City and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, including President Teddy Roosevelt. For him, a simple farmhouse would not do, so he hired someone to enlarge and modernize the building. Thanks to a small item in the Press Democrat, we now know that someone was architect William H. Willcox.(Another article with greater depth about Kearns and his years of ownership is available here.)
Willcox has been mentioned several times in this journal (read an introduction here) and had been an nationally-esteemed architect since the 1880s. In Santa Rosa, he was planning to build a auditorium large enough to host state and national conventions, as well as providing a civic center; he also proposed creating a water park between Main and E street, which would have transformed the town’s focus. Alas, the 1906 earthquake struck when he was apparently just weeks away from having enough funding to begin the big pavilion, and in the disaster’s aftermath, the money men were interested in rebuilding what they had personally lost, not investing in their mutual future.
Willcox was really the only logical man for Kearns to hire. The scope of the project went beyond what could be entrusted to a carpenter-builder, and Willcox was about the only experienced architect who could keep an eye on the construction. Other qualified architects working around Santa Rosa at that time lived farther away. Brainerd Jones was busy in Petaluma, John Galen Howard (who designed the Empire Building) was in Berkeley, and J. W. Doliver (the new county courthouse) and Victor Dunkerly (a Frank Lloyd Wright collaborator who built the Overton Hotel) were in San Francisco. While Willcox mainly lived and worked in San Francisco, he kept an office in Santa Rosa that he shared with a civil engineer (another bonus, considering that the project involved a unreinforced brick building in the Santa Rosa Plain, where the occasional aftershock still made people twitchy).
Sadly, the Hood House modifications are the only works of Willcox (
currently known) to survive in Sonoma County. (UPDATE) Some of the additions were quite modern; other work blended so well with the pre-Civil War building that there are questions about what details were part of the original construction. Thanks to the county Facilities Department, myself and a handful of architects and historians were given a chance to examine the building. Here’s my guess on what Willcox completed in 1908:
Viewing the front (Hood House faces west) it’s immediately apparent that the building was widened by about 30 feet, as seen by comparing the historic and current photos above. (CLICK or TAP on any photo to enlarge.) The seams between old and new brickwork are easily noticed in person. To expand the house on the north side, Willcox had to only add a second floor to the original one-story extension of the main house, which might have been Hood’s dining room.
Willcox gets credit for the entire south side of the house, which he turned into the new formal entrance. The roof of the portico is supported by the same cornice brackets as found on the front of the house. Thankfully the county left its original brown shingle when a new roof was put on the rest of the house; these shingles were a favorite material of the Bay Area Arts & Craft movement, and serve to introduce visitors to the spectacular dining room behind the door.
Nearly everything in the dining room is oak: The enormous table, floor, beamed ceiling, paneled walls, and the huge sideboard that nearly fills the inside wall. Above the table, an array of lights illuminate the room as well as the ceiling beams, all fixtures in the Craftsman style. In 1908, this room would have been considered ultra-modern design.
The dining room commands half of Willcox’s addition on the southern ground floor; the southwest side is an equally large reception room. The modern touch here is the cove ceiling; the rest of the room is unadorned, except for a nice fireplace with a Roman-themed break front portraying a woman’s head and grape leaves. Willcox also placed fireplaces in each pair of upstairs bedrooms on the north and south walls as well as in the dining room, giving the house a total of eight fireplaces (I think).
Where else did Willcox leave his fingerprints on the William Hood House? An architect on our tour proposed that fancy moldings in some of the old rooms were too opulent for a mid-19th century farmhouse, and suggested that Willcox made a pass through the entire home to update details and unify the design. I disagree; the trim work upstairs is modest, particularly in the rooms Willcox created. But I agree that these downstairs moldings probably were not part of the original construction and were added sometime during the late Victorian era. Perhaps the investor who owned the property between the 1893 Hood foreclosure and the 1905 purchase by Kearns brought in a contractor to put some lipstick on his white elephant.
The history of the house after the Willcox changes is detailed in the talking points linked above. Briefly: Kearns sold it after WWI, and the property was subdivided. The home became part of a compound owned by a men’s organization, then the state, then finally Sonoma County. The house is lucky to have enjoyed good stewardship: Had the Fates been unkind, the bricks of Hood Mansion could just as easily be melting back into the local mud from which they came (see: Carrillo Adobe). The county deserves full props for its earthquake retrofit and stabilization of the building in recent years.
The county does, however, deserve shame for the darkest moment of Hood House: Turning the place over to a clique of interior decorators for a Bicentennial Decorators’ Showcase (“a display of more than 20 historic rooms decorated by leading designers!”) that left many interiors in the esteemed old building defaced – and possibly, damaged – with mid-1970s crap-ola. Woodwork was painted in trendy colors; avocado green linoleum was glued to antique counter tops and cabinets; room after room has wallpaper competing for the most frenetic design and clashing colors, some of which can be glimpsed in the photos above. One interior room has a wall covered in wood shingles, with other walls (and ceiling!) papered in a cartoon-y floral orgy that looks a plea for help from someone who’s watched way too many episodes of the Partridge Family.
Most of the damage done by the showcase can be undone, but that The Ugly is still around more than three decades later attests that the work won’t be easy or cheap – it’s another big project in a house that has a list of big projects crying for attention. There’s a measure of irony that Willcox was available to accept the Hood House project because post-quake Santa Rosa was too distracted to see the best interests for its future. Then exactly 70 years later, his work there was defaced because the county likewise failed to weigh the long-term impacts of a poor decision.
Architect William H. Willcox is at the Overton from San Francisco. Mr. Wilcox says the new residence on Senator Kearns’ place at Los Guilocos [sic] is about completed.– “Around the Corridors”, Press Democrat, June 5, 1908