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 first archival materials posted to the Comstock House electronic library are the January 1904 and November 1905 Press Democrat special sections promoting Sonoma County, which were primarily sent outside the region in hopes of luring new residents and businesses. Heavy with (mostly true) data, these inserts are a great starting point for anyone interested in the era just before the Great Quake.

Predictably there were items on industry and farming (“Manufactures Fast Increasing,” “Round About Us Orchards Sweep”) and boasts about the quality of local schools, medical care, transportation, and even hunting (“Where the Wild Goose Honks High”). Churches were given prominent mention, but more space overall went to wineries and saloons. There were photographs of dimly-lit hardware and drug store interiors, race horses standing awkwardly still, and many oval portraits of businessmen, most of whom, I’m sure, were coincidentally Press Democrat advertisers.

The greatest value in these sections may be in what they tell us about the smaller, outlying towns that were rarely mentioned otherwise in the newspapers. Land in Cotati was selling for $45-100 an acre, and the new county road connecting the village to Santa Rosa and Petaluma has been built (there’s even a picture). Green Valley – which would be renamed Graton in 1906 – boasted of “Piney Woods,” a 40-acre grove popular for picnics that the owner fancied to be a zoological park with pet deer, a raccoon, a pair of monkeys, and a brown bear.

Aside from a few creative headlines (“Where Hums The Busy Honey Bee”), though, there’s little entertainment here that hasn’t been already mined: See earlier posts on French Louie, the frog king and the summer Saturday nights downtown, where we all met to listen to the band as the out-of-towners leered at our hatless girls.

As the flip books for these entries are full-size newspaper pages, some of the text may be hard or impossible to read, even when magnified. To view a higher resolution copy of any page as a PDF file, select the page number from the popup in the lower right of the frame and click on “RAW PDF.” For more information, see the description of how to use flip books in the previous post.

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Pity our children’s children’s children; if our 22nd century descendants want to do a little genealogy project they will probably find only our archived Facebook or mySpace pages, and there they will learn of great-grandma Tiffani’s dismay that someone named Sanjay didn’t win an American “Idol,” or find only a missing-file icon for a youTube video of grandpa Trig’s cat slurping spaghetti that was viewed 8,362 times. “Oh,” our future kin will lament, “if only they still had real newspaper obituaries in that era, so that we could discover more about our ancestors!”

Don’t count on it; newspaper obits always have been hit-or-miss. In recent decades, obituaries have become a major revenue source for newspapers, no different from any other kind of advertisement. Now a typical 50-line death notice in a major U.S. paper can easily cost over $500 (and that’s usually just for the first weekday, not counting Sundays and not counting photos) unless the deceased is considered “newsworthy.” But if your family can’t afford it and no one on the classifieds staff recognizes the dearly departed’s name, rei memoriam sempiterna oblivione delere.

In Santa Rosa a century ago, the dead were newsworthy or nothing — there were no newspaper columns stacked up with short, paid obits, as found today. The deceased generally had to be white, well-known about town, revered as a “pioneer,” or have suffered a ghastly, violent death. But Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley clearly loved to tell stories, and exceptions were sometimes made for those with unusually colorful pasts. Which makes it odd that Finley twice flubbed an opportunity to tell the story of Haln Killigrew Dunbar. It wouldn’t have been a hard obituary to research; all Finley needed to do was drop by the nearby library.

Santa Rosa’s new library almost certainly had a copy of the 12-year-old book, Hard Life in the Colonies, and Other Experiences by Sea and Land, by local author Catherine Carolyn Jenkins (spelled as, “Jenkyns” in the book, for whatever reason). Cobbled together from letters written by two of her brothers and friend Dunbar, the book covers their adventures from 1873 to about 1878. And adventures they had, indeed. Brother Arthur was conned into shipping out as a merchant seaman at age 16, and sailed around the horn; brother Gilbert saw Asia and India as a sailor, meeting Dunbar while serving as a mercenary hired to fight the Maori in New Zealand.

It is a ripping yarn, filled with events that might have appeared in 19th century novels by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or even Dickens. The narratives span the high drama of a moonlit battle against pirates in Hong Kong harbor to the down-and-out life on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, where Gilbert washed restaurant dishes alongside a French count while poor Dunbar cleaned the degutting chutes at a pork slaughterhouse. Gilbert was stabbed in the same spot on his head twice by bayonets, first by Calcutta police when he was among a group of rioting sailors, then years later by a drunken soldier he was attempting to disarm.

The supporting cast of characters is no less amazing, from cowardly ship captains to “Mercury Jack” Mitchell, whom Gilbert and Dunbar met in the Napa quicksilver mines, to poor Amos, who “drew but blanks in the lottery of life.” But no further spoilers here; download the book for a good read, as long as you’re comfortable with a slower, rambling 19th century style.

Gilbert and Dunbar bought a small, rundown homestead along Mark West Creek after the San Francisco chapter of their adventures, and their chronicle ended until this Press Democrat item appeared, 27 years later. The belated obit (misspelling Dunbar’s first name as “Haley”) stated Gilbert intended to move his old friend’s body from the local potter’s field to his own plot at the Rural Cemetery, but historian Jeremy Nichols, who is preparing a book on the burials at the Chanate site, says that Haln Dunbar is still there in the graveyard, his exact whereabouts now unknown. But presumably his long-time companion Gilbert sometimes visited and remembered happier times: Of the Englishman and Irishman friends tromping around New Zealand singing songs from the American Civil War, or memories of their little ranch, where Dunbar built an Aeolian harp in their shack window, “letting the winds tell their secrets in sweet sounds.”

County Physician Receives Interesting Letter Giving History of H.K. Dunbar Who Died Recently

Haley K. Dunbar, an old man who died at the county hospital on November 2, and whose remains occupy a grave in the county’s cemetery on the hill near the poor farm, was in his day a man of note. This fact is brought out in a letter which was received on Wednesday by County physician J. W. Jesse from Gilbert C. Jenkins, an old friend of the deceased, who resides in the Freestone country. By accident Mr. Jenkins heard that the man had passed away and wrote to the doctor for particulars of his death. It seems that some time before Dr. Jesse became county physician Mr. Jenkins, so he says, made a request that in the event of Mr. Dunbar’s death, he should be informed, so that the remains, instead of being buried [illegible microfilm] should be interred in his (Jenkin’s) plot in the cemetery.

Mr. Jenkins says that the deceased was a graduate of the famous Trinity College, Dublin, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts from that university. He was also proficient in Greek and Hebrew and other tongues. He was once prominent in fraternal life, and was a member of an old and distinguished family in the old country. He was an artist in modeling pottery, and some of his art work, Mr. Jenkins says, found its way and was considered almost priceless in the palaces of the late Queen Victoria. The late pioneer James Marshall of this city on the occasion of a visit [illegible microfilm] purchased some of the pottery modelled by the late Mr. Dunbar from the famous Belleck Pottery. Mr. Jenkins, who did what he could for his old friend after reverses overtook him, will now endeavor to have his remains moved and interred in the Jenkins plot in the cemetery.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1904

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