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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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SANTA ROSA HIGH SCHOOL VERSION 2.1

Happy 140th birthday, Santa Rosa High School! Or maybe it’s really the 137th, as the high school was discontinued between 1880-1882, but hey, when you’ve got that many candles on the cake, it’s okay to be a little fuzzy on the particulars.

The current high school is the town’s third; the original was the Fourth street public school that taught children of all grades (it was at the current location of Fremont Park to Brookwood Avenue). When that became too crowded in 1895 they built a school just for high school students on Humboldt street, the same location as today’s Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts. It took Santa Rosa only fifteen years to outgrow that place.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa High School Annex, 1941. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

There was nothing wrong with the Humboldt street high school – it rode out the 1906 earthquake with no reported damage – but it was just too small.

“Visit, if you will, the present High School building and see for yourself the crowded condition of the classrooms,” Probation Officer John Plover was quoted in the Santa Rosa Republican. “You will find there two classes stuffed in one corner of the basement in a place never intended for class rooms, where there would be small chance of escape in case of fire or quake.”

Plover was speaking at a 1911 alumni meeting seeking to drum up support for a municipal bond to buy the land next door to the south and build an annex. Mention “school annex” today and it probably calls to mind temporary buildings, trailers, and similar cheap-but-quick solutions. What Santa Rosa wanted to build was a state-of-the-art education center that would serve all schools in local districts for decades. It would have a gymnasium/auditorium that could seat 1,000, a stage, shower rooms for both boys and girls, even classrooms dedicated to teaching typewriting and “household sciences.” A large playground with a quarter-mile track would lend a campus atmosphere to the grounds. The drawback: All this would cost the eye-popping sum of $80,000, about one-fifth of what was spent on the sprawling and palatial county courthouse a few years earlier. That was a LOT of money to ask voters to approve for a mere annex to an existing school.

Amazingly, the bond measure passed with apparently no squawk. By contrast, the 1923 bond to build our current high school faced a citizen’s lawsuit that threw the town into uproar, and that was to pay for a new school which was urgently needed because the Humboldt street high school had burned down – more about that in a following article.

The Santa Rosa High School Annex was designed by architect W. H. Weeks (William Henry Weeks), who created hundreds of similar nice, sturdy buildings around Northern California, including our beloved Mendocino Ave. high school about a decade later. His drawing, shown below, appeared in both local newspapers in advance of the bond vote, and amusingly shows the building at the intersection of two great boulevards. The actual Humboldt street that we all know and love is so narrow that bicyclists could be imperiled if drivers try to pass (or so say bicyclists).

The Annex remained part of the high school even after the new building was opened at the present location. In 1942 it was christened the Santa Rosa Junior High School, which it remained until it was demolished c. 1970. A neighbor who still lives across the street watched bemused as crews of workmen struggled to tear it down; it was so well built, he says, the demolition contractor lost a bundle on the project. Should the city ever decide “progress” demands we get rid of the current high school – still going strong despite 90 years of continuous use – bring a sturdy lawn chair and a mountain of popcorn. It’s gonna be a loooong show.

DESCRIPTION OF THE NEW ANNEX
Features of Proposed New Structure to Be Added to Santa Rosa’s School Equipment

The plans for the proposed new high school annex to be erected on the lots on Humboldt street adjoining the high school on the south, call for a very artistic structure, which gives promise of providing many of the necessities which the high school has been in need of for some years past.

The new structure is to face west…and will have a basement and two stories. The exterior will be rather plain but the interior will be fittingly for the various purposes for which it is intended.

The basement will have girls’ dressing and sanitary rooms with showers and all other conveniences on the north front and the duplicate for boys on the south front. On the east will be the household science department with dining room, pantry, lockers, sewing room, fitting room, drying room, janitor’s quarters, lumber and storerooms, heaters, motor for circulation, teachers’ room, lockers, etc.

The main floor, or first floor above the basement, will include a commodious gymnasium or auditorium with vaulted ceiling through the second floor surrounded on the second floor with balconies for use in seating spectators during exercises of various kinds and various indoor sports. This will be one of the features of the building and will provide the long-desired quarters for all kinds of gatherings in connection with the schools of the city.

There will also be three commodious class rooms on the first floor with an apparatus room, girls’ and boys’ cloak rooms, corridors, and a suitable stage with all modern conveniences for presenting dramatic plays, etc.

In addition to the balconies on the second floor for the auditorium or gymnasium there will be four class rooms, teacher’s room and typing room, in addition to corridors, cloak rooms, and necessary closets, etc.

The exterior of the building will be of concrete plaster with terra cotta cornice and trimmings for doors and windows. There will be a double entrance in front–one on each end of the building–while other entrances are provided for the north and south sides of the structure.

[..]
– Press Democrat, November 19, 1911

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THE HOUSE THAT MARY BUILT

“That brown shingle house across from the high school? It’s probably a Julia Morgan,” an architect told me shortly after we moved into the neighborhood in 2006, naming the famous designer of Hearst Castle. In a recently updated survey of work by Brainerd Jones – the architect of Comstock House – it is listed as one of his buildings. Somewhere in the years between, I was told that while it was unlikely to be an actual Frank Lloyd Wright design, it must have come from the drafting table of someone who trained in the master’s office.

930 Mendocino Ave. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

For decades, the identity of the architect who designed the lovely home at 930 Mendocino Avenue has been a mystery. Even the late Dan Peterson, who literally wrote the book on Santa Rosa’s architectural heritage, didn’t know who designed it – and he not only had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, he owned it for a number of years, using it as his architectural office. But it’s now known that the building was designed by Mary Rockwell Hook.

Umm…who?

She was related to the property owners (more about that in a minute) but this was not nepotism at work. Mary was a capable architect as this building shows, even though it was only the second of her designs to be built. She was also a pioneer several times over, for whom recognition is overdue.

Mary Rockwell Hook (1877-1978) decided to become an architect in 1902, during an era when few professions were open to women and any who wanted a career were suspected of being something between an ardent feminist or political radical. She had qualified support from family; her father approved of the artistic aspects of architectural study and paid her tuitions, yet expected she accept no salary when she found a job. And of all the professions to pursue, architecture was among the least welcoming to women at the time, having evolved from the manly building trade. At the first firm she approached for a job she was told, “We’re sorry but we could not take a woman. You can’t swear at women and they can’t climb all over full sized details.” But the next office was glad to accept her. “They never needed to swear and I could manage full size details,” she wrote in her memoir. So rare was her kind that even by the time she reached middle age, you could have assembled every single American female architect in a small school auditorium that seated 200.

Although she was denied entry to the fraternal system that advanced the careers of her male colleagues, she had a major advantage: Mary was a Rockwell. The wealthy and esteemed family (introduced here) spent much of their time traveling abroad or visiting each other; she and her four sisters were immersed in high culture. After she graduated Wellesley College in 1900, for example, the family spent eight months in Italy and Switzerland. They were barely back home in Kansas when her uncle, General Adna Chaffee, was appointed military governor of the Philippines. So off they went again, this time visiting Japan and China and the Middle East as well. The next year were trips to Venezuela and Sicily. And so life went for the Rockwells.

Her architectural studies began in 1903, when she was the only female student in that department at the Art Institute of Chicago. Reference works state she studied and/or graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but that’s not quite true. According to her autobiography, she was enrolled in an atelier operated by Jacques-Marcel Auburtin, a rising star in French architecture (and who had recently proposed marriage to one of Mary’s sisters). Mary did take an entrance exam – being the first woman since Julia Morgan to get that far – but received a failing grade. In truth, she could not have attended the school for very long, even if she had passed all the exams; although it was no longer off-limits to women, there still was a policy that students couldn’t be older than thirty, and Mary was already 29.

But at the same time, being accepted by an atelier was a not insubstantial achievement. They acted as an adjunct to the Ecole proper; some were even located inside the main building. It was a bit like having workshops training medieval journeymen grafted onto a modern college. You studied – often for years – at an atelier préparatoire to prep for passing all three entrance exams, then once you were admitted your student work was prepared under the guidance of an atelier, possibly the same one. A very good overview of the tradition-bound Beaux-Arts system as it worked around the turn of the century can be found in this book.

Here is exactly what Mary wrote of her Beaux-Arts experience, which biographers consistently misstate:

Through Kitty’s acquaintance with Marcel Auburtin, I arranged to study architecture at his atelier in Paris. He had seven Americans enrolled – all graduated of Yale and Princeton. When these boys heard a girl was coming they didn’t like the idea. They decided to name me “Liz.” It turned out that we all became lifelong friends. These boys worked three years before they passed all the examinations to enter the Beaux Arts.

We all took the first examination. I learned that I was the second woman who had ever taken an examination at Beaux Arts. The other woman was Miss Morgan of San Francisco who later devoted most of her life to the building of the Hearst Palace of great renown in California.

One must pass the first exam to qualify for the second, then must pass the second for the third, and so on for several weeks. None of us passed the first one, but what a memorable day! They put me in a big library with guards and locked the door. Hundreds of French boys begin to take these exams every six months, beginning at 14 or 50 years of age. All day I could hear them yelling and singing.

When the day was over one of the American boys came to rescue me. He said he would take me by the back way because all day the French boys had been planning to throw buckets of water on me as I entered the big courtyard. He had a taxi waiting and we ran, falling into it with our drafting boards, “T” squares and triangles.

Incidents of gender harassment aside, it left fun memories. She and a couple of her sisters lived in the raucous student quarter of the Left Bank and she wrote happily about bicycle sojourns into the countryside. She was still in Paris when the April, 1906 earthquake hit Santa Rosa. Her mother later told her, “On the morning of the earthquake she [mother] appeared fully dressed with hat, veil, and gloves and wondering if she shouldn’t call her sister, Mrs. Finlaw, to cancel their dinner engagement. A call she couldn’t have made. All the phone lines were down.”


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Mary returned to Kansas City later in 1906 intending to join an architectural firm, only to be told by father Bertrand that he would consent to her working in an office only as an unpaid student. It would be easy here to wave off Bertrand as being a paternalistic jerk but he was a loving parent and notably forward-thinking. The Rockwell family has a 1911 newspaper clipping that commented Captain Rockwell had “recently attracted considerable attention by the assertion that the daughter or daughters of a family, no matter what their station in life, should be taught a profession in which they could earn their own living.” It was more likely that he was being protective, knowing she faced discrimination that might be insurmountable and it would be easier for her to walk away from an unpaid internship than bear the professional stigma of quitting a position without expecting references, should she feel a need to leave. And Papa did actively support Mary’s ambitions; he purchased a lot in a Kansas City subdivision for her to build her first house (modern view to right).

She later wrote that house “followed the latest trends of California cottages” and the design, with its asymmetrical saltbox roof with extended eaves and dormer windows, was in keeping with the contemporary Arts & Crafts style. In particular, it resembles Gustav Stickley house design No. 28 (example here) which she could have seen in a 1905 issue of his magazine, “The Craftsman.” After it was completed, she lived it in for a month “to try it out.”

From her autobiography: “Next came a house for my sister Florence Edwards in Santa Rosa, California.” The Edwards’ moved in autumn of 1908, so the home at 930 Mendocino was designed 1907-1908.

She designed a house for a college friend and her father purchased another Kansas City lot, this intended for her to build an 11-bedroom family manse. That home and eight others she designed in the area between 1908 and 1927 are on the National Register of Historic Places (PDF). Together, they describe what might be called a “Mary Rockwell Hook style” that was in step with the progressive craftsman designs coming from leading architects at the same time.

RIGHT: Mary Rockwell c. 1911 PHOTO: Rockwell Family Archives

Her homes were usually asymmetrical, according to the authors of the Register nomination for the Kansas City houses, with a “T” or “L” shaped ground plan instead of a square or rectangular box. Windows were plentiful and also not symmetric, and the floor plan was often multi-level with irregularly shaped rooms. In some, she included an area that could be used as a stage. The home she designed for herself was described as “a rambling aggregation of intersecting wings and extruding gables, dormers, decks and porches.” She incorporated outdoor space into the designs with sleeping porches, upper decks, balconies, patios that were called “outdoor living rooms” and even integrated swimming pools. She gave rooms an Old World touch by often making fireplaces and chimneys out of rough stone and antique tile. “Long before recycling of materials became an economical advantage, Mrs. Hook was rummaging in demolished buildings and salvage yards for useable or picturesque artifacts, which were employed both structurally and decoratively.”

The Santa Rosa house matches her typical style, although in appearance it’s quite different from the Kansas City houses. It fits into the shingle-style “First Bay Region Tradition” that characterizes residential designs from that period by Julia Morgan and others and she may have also been encouraged by character of the neighborhood, where there were new and prominent Brainerd Jones buildings in this style – Comstock House, the Saturday Afternoon Club, and the lost Paxton House – just down the street. Mary would have been very familiar with those shingled places; she was designing the house for sister Florence, who was a past president of the Club, and the Oates family (first owners of Comstock House) threw a party for another of the Rockwell sisters in late 1907, just about when Mary would have been drawing architectural plans.

Mary loved sleeping porches, and wrote in her memoir, “This and That,” of once waking up with snow on her blankets. Her original design for the Rockwell family home had a sleeping porch off of every bedroom, and the Edwards House in Santa Rosa had a screened porch as large as a regular bedroom. Now enclosed with windows, the exterior of the porch can be seen above left, and the door to the porch – shown here opened – has a diamond paned lattice window that lights the second floor hallway.

(As the building has been converted to private offices, only common areas are pictured here. CLICK or TAP on any image to enlarge.)

Similarities to her first home design can be seen above in the dormer windows, strong roof corbels, and square bump out window seat in the living room. The earlier house also had a juliet balcony, although the railing is currently steel and not likely to be original. The balcony on the Edwards House faces south and is now heavily shaded by mature trees, but would have brought considerable natural light into the second floor hallway. Note the decorative balusters that continue the craftsman design of the glass doors, discussed below.

The ground floor plan of the Edwards House is quite novel. From the front door is a large entrance hall with a free standing stairway in the center. Walking directly forward passes under the stairway’s landing and directly into the living room. At the foot of the stairway on the other end of the entrance hall are four matching glass doors partitioned into a Arts & Crafts pattern very similar to Stickley designs of that same period. Above left: The double doors that led to the dining room, and to their immediate right, another door into the living room.

Above: The glass door leading into the panty with the alabaster stained glass illuminated from behind.

The pantry is quite large in proportion to the 3-bedroom house and suggests Mary’s sister, Florence, had quite a dish collection. In a short essay about the 1906 earthquake (transcribed here) she lamented that  “…[We] listened to the crash of our beautiful wedding china and glass as it smashed on the floor. My parents screaming as they both fell down on the floor amid glass and china and cut their knees and hands.”

Although the kitchen is bungalow-sized, the lighting is very good with a pair of east windows and one facing north providing supplemental light. A sunny kitchen was not to be taken for granted; in many home designs of that period the kitchen was an afterthought. In Brainerd Jones’ original 1904 design of Comstock House, for example, the stove was in the least ventilated part of the room with the single source of natural light being a window connected to a porch, several feet behind the cook – it must have been onerous to prepare the simplest meals. Inclusion of a well-designed kitchen shows the architect understood how domestic work functioned, and may demonstrate a significant advantage for architects who grew up in Victorian America as girls instead of boys. Mary wrote in her autobiography that at her first job, the head draftsman asked her, “tell me, what does a butler do in a butler’s pantry?”

Most of the windows in the Edwards House are casements, which were very modern at the time and part of the Mary Rockwell Hook “style.” But the latches on these dual windows above the stairway landing would require a ladder to open, making it impractical to cool the second floor at the end of a hot summer’s day by inviting in the foggy marine layer.

Current owner Trae Seely deserves highest praise for his good taste and judgement in restoration of the house, but the interiors may have been modified by some of the (at least) five previous owners. The complete lack of ornamentation is surprising; except for the alabaster glass doors and picture rail, the house is spartan. There is no wall crown molding, nor basic details such as returns on door or window trim. Missing are typical craftsman style features such as box beams and natural wood paneling, except for the fireplace mantles. As the closeup above right shows, the crown molding above doors, windows and cabinets is not just simple, but minimalist. But while there are examples such as the newel post that do show signs of replacement, why would someone would tear out substantial original woodwork? It would be very interesting to compare these interiors to those in other houses she designed in that period. If original, it would be notable as a pre-modernist take on the general craftsman style.

Mary Rockwell Hook’s career divides neatly into two chapters. The latter part began in 1935 when she purchased 55 acres near Sarasota, Florida for only $10,000 and designed many of the homes there, including an artist’s colony (more about that period here, including another portrait).

But the first part began with the house for her friend and sister Florence, and concluded in 1929 with the final construction of another California house for her sister Katherine in Woodside. That chateau-like manor house, called “Le Soleil,” is as opulent as the Santa Rosa house is humble, with gold leaf ceilings and a 12-car garage. Sister “Kitty” – the same one who was once engaged to the Beaux-Arts atelier master – married Francis Crosby, who was president of the famous Key System streetcar service that linked San Francisco and the East Bay cities (until General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Phillips Petroleum conspired to put them out of business, that is). Like the Edwards House, Le Soleil is mostly unknown as a Mary Rockwell Hook design, and her name wasn’t mentioned in promotional materials when the estate sold in April, 2013 for $8,400,000 (photos here, here and here).

Also in the first part of career she designed most of the campus for the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school and local cultural center in a remote area of the southern Appalachian Mountains. From her memoirs it is clear this work meant much to her and although the site is now a National Historic Landmark, it never brought her great acclaim. But that certainly was okay with her; while she clearly loved architecture, she did not have the ego driving her to want to be The Great Architect. By the age Mary decided that she wanted to pursue a career in the field, Julia Morgan already had a BS from UC/Berkeley in Civil Engineering and had completed an internship with Bernard Maybeck. There were years that Mary did not practice architecture at all; near the end of WWI she worked for the Post Office translating “Spanish trade mail” and later spent a year working for a charity assisting French peasant-farmers trying to reestablish their lives postwar. She often spent hours a day riding horses and sometimes toured in amateur theatrical productions. It seems that she had a well-balanced and happy life right up to her death at age 101.

As for the Edwards House, Florence and her husband did not live there long. It appears that they moved in during the autumn of 1908, judging by the newspaper clipping mentioned below and because the Rockwell family scrapbooks contain an October 12, 1908 receipt from the Fountaingrove Vineyard Co. for five gallons of “Saut (sweetened)” – presumably sauterne, which was quite popular in the day – that cost 75 cents a gallon, plus another buck for the keg. Presumably there were more gallons of the cloying sweet wine on hand when James was elected mayor of Santa Rosa in 1910 and invited the congratulatory crowd that gathered outside their home to come in and have “something to eat and drink.” Hopefully Florence didn’t lose too many pieces of her replenished dishware collection that evening.

The Edwards apparently sold the house in 1913 to Milton Wasserman, one of the larger hops dealers in the area. Florence and James Edwards moved back to McDonald Avenue, where he had lived most of his life, this time taking up residence at number 925, directly next to the Mabelton mansion.

     The James R. Edwards are now comfortably installed in their handsome new residence on Mendocino avenue. They have certainly good reason to be proud of their new home and the friends who have been privileged with an inspection of the interior furnishing and arrangement cannot say too much in compliment of the taste displayed.

    – “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, November 22, 1908

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