(UPDATED 2019) Santa Rosa made plenty of nitwit decisions in the 1960s (freeway, city hall compound, splitting Courthouse Square, etc.) and on that list of mistakes was allowing a developer to tear down Luther Burbank’s home. What’s that, you say? Burbank’s old house still exists? Sorry – Luther moved out of the cramped little farmhouse as soon as his nice new home across the street was completed.
Burbank lived in his fine place on Tupper street from 1906 until his death in 1926. During this time it was his home-office, with almost all of the first floor dedicated to running his business. After he moved, Burbank referred to his former residence and surrounding grounds as the “Old Homestead,” or just the “Experimental Farm.” Burbank’s focus was clearly on the new house; It was on those front steps that he was photographed with Edison, Henry Ford, and other celebs that came calling, and he turned his front yard into a showcase for Shasta Daisies or other “new creations” that he sought to promote.
Thanks to the Press Democrat’s 1906 gossip columnist Dorothy Anne, we have a detailed description of Burbank’s lost home, transcribed below. It was in the modern Craftsman style and larger than it may appear in photos – besides the five upstairs bedrooms and private den, there was a reception room, library, big main office for Burbank and his secretary, and photograph catalog room.
After Burbank died, his widow Elizabeth soon moved back into the farmhouse and the house was leased or sold in 1933 to the Burbank Business College with the understanding “Luther Burbank’s office and the room in which he died will be preserved for all time,” according to the Press Democrat. It was later sold to the Salvation Army, which leased it to the County Farm Bureau in 1945 until the group made it their own headquarters in 1947. The Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency (URA) purchased it in 1963 and demolished the home on April 2, 1964 in order to realign Sonoma Avenue.
While there are a great many photographs of the house, few are in color and most of those were postcards, where a black-and-white image was hand-tinted, then often printed in oversaturated color. We know it was originally red-brown with a grey roof; Dorothy Anne claimed it was exactly the color seen at right, although she does not mention how she knew the formula. In the mid-1910s it became a grey house with a red roof, as seen above. This is confirmed by a color photograph in “Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application” Vol 12, 1915, where the grey walls are partially covered in ivy. When it was sold in 1933 it was described as “red adobe.” The sand-colored house below is almost certainly a colorist’s error and appears to be a do-over of the same image shown immediately above it. Note that the caption is wrong and the foliage in the foreground of both images is fake.
(Photos courtesy the Sonoma County Library Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Collection unless otherwise noted)
Mr. Burbank’s New Home
Mr. Burbank’s new home aroused my interest and curiosity many months ago, when one day while driving I espied two men excavating in the lot where rumor had told me he intended to erect a dwelling.
I watched the sacks of cement, piled up directly against the fence, the lumber and timbers, the bundles of slate roofing, the bricks for the chimneys, the big kegs of nails, disappear from their respective places in the lot, as they were slowly but surely worked in to shape by the artisans, until now the structure stands before us completed. A substantial, commodious home of twelve rooms, [illegible microfilm] equipment, beautiful in fixtures and furnishing and attractive every decoration.
The architecture is a combination of Colonial, Old Mission, and Burbank. Its square [illegible] and massive roof bespeaks of old Mission days, while [illegible] bordering the wide Southern veranda with its basket-work tiled floor, and supporting the balcony above tell of Colonial times. Mr. Burbank added to these two styles an Italian pergola.
The house is a frame structure, its exterior of cement on wire netting. In the interior there is no plastering, compo board being used. The slate roof, with its projecting cornices, is supported by girders resting on lookout beams. If you mix Venetian red and yellow ochre you have the exact shade in which the house is painted, with dark, cream trimmings.
Mr. Burbank’s home, which is patterned somewhat after his late father’s home in Lancaster, has no flashing coloring, nor extravagant furnishings, no gaudy carpets, no jarring interior finishings. All is sensible, harmonious and artistic.
Upon entering the house, I was struck by two things, its warmth and comfort and the harmonious color decorations of walls, woodwork, and furniture. I had to go through but a few of the rooms to discover Mr. Burbank’s favorite color. It was the beautiful golden brown shades that commence in a pale champagne and merge into the richest, warmest golden-red brown. All through the house these shades predominate, with the exception of the sleeping apartments.
On crossing the threshold, at the front door I found myself in a large, commodious hall finished in weathered oak, carpeted in brown, at the end of which is a grand staircase. On the west side is the reception room, connecting with a large library by an archway. These two rooms, lighted by big broad windows on the south and west are finished in natural redwood, highly polished, and are papered in a tapestry papering, combining the colors of red, green and brown so adroitly that it closely resembles the fine old tapestries of England. These rooms are furnished in heavy mahogany furniture, with green rugs and hangings. The walls of the library are lined with low book-shelves, well-filled with modern signatured books. On the east side of the room was blazing a bright fire, but throughout there was a homelike glow of light and comfort.
Leaving the library and stepping out into the hall, I found at the foot of the stairs a doorway leading into a room furnished in light wood and papered in a pale shade of yellow. This is where Mr. Burbank keeps his private collection of thousands of photographs. The room, although a north one, is particularly well adapted for this purpose, for its broad leaded windows on the north light it wonderfully well.
To the right of the front door as one enters is a small reception room. Here many titled personages and celebrities, and all persons desiring to see Mr. Burbank will await his pleasure. It is comfortably furnished with easy lounging chairs and table, on which is scattered reading matter, so the waiting will not be made too tedious. But Mr. Burbank is an extremely busy man, a hard worker, and much as he would like to give his time to people who desire to see him, it is generally an impossibility.
Opening to the east from the reception room is the main office, complete in office regalia of desks, stenographer’s outfit, telephone, letter files, books for reference, etc.
The east side of the office borders on the hall which leads to the kitchen. This hall connects with the cross hall that runs at right angles from the main hall. Out of this cross hall on the north opens the dining room. This room is not large in its proportions, but is extremely comfortable in appearance, with its Sierra pine finishings and furnishings. The china closet, sideboard and pass closets are built in on the east end, giving a substantially finished appearance.
The kitchen, out of which opens a large and commodious pantry, is not too big to be a burden to the caretaker. It is finished in sugar pine, with white walls, which makes a good background for the glistening new range, spotless tables and the bright linoleum on the floor.
Mr. Burbank’s mother’s room is the extreme east corner facing south. Here a sweet-faced old lady of ninety-three years sits by the window in a comfortable big rocker, watching with interest the people who come and go to and from the house. Her room, Mr. Burbank with his customary kindness and thoughtfulness for her comfort, has furnished just as she desired, with heavy walnut furniture, comfortable easy chairs and her own treasures. Truly this little old lady, with her frilled lace cap, her dainty apron, over the neat black dress, sitting by the window makes a pretty picture in her celebrated son’s new home.
I climbed the broad stairs slowly, admiring the particularly pretty weathered-oak banisters, until two-thirds of the way up on the landing I paused to open the door, and look down the back stairway. Imagine a back stairway that is light; that has broad steps; that is easy of descent; one on which the ceiling is not so close that endanger your brains when you stand erect in descending! Can you conceive of all these four surprises on one back stairway? Mr. Burbank has them in his. Surely he should have as much credit for this as for the production of a new plant!
Mr. Burbank’s den was next inspected. This is a medium-sized room facing south, finished in light wood and paper, with a paper that combines the shades of deep brown and light pink. This den is Mr. Burbank’s sanctum sanctorium. When he wants to be absolutely alone either to rest, to study or to write, it is to this room he repairs. It is well furnished with a big desk, comfortable lounging chair, his chosen books and his personal souvenirs. The bevel plateglass door opening upon the balcony will enable Mr. Burbank at any time to step out and survey the progress of the work being done by his employees in his experimental grounds opposite. He also intends to sleep upon this balcony, he says, in the summer time.
Opening from the den is the sleeping apartment of Mr. Burbank. This room, with expansive southern and eastern windows is simple in its furnishings. A modest pale blue enameled bed harmonizes with the delicate oak finishings and dainty light-blue wall decorations. A bureau of oak, a table, a convenient chair or two, plain matting with rugs, complete its furnishings.
Off this bedroom is a closet so extensive in size that it would arouse the jealousy of any woman viewing it. It so impressed me that I could not help saying: “You don’t mean to say that you intend to occupy all this alone?”
Mr. Burbank looked at me with a quizzical expression that inferred that I had lost my reason.
“Rumor says,” I commenced bravely–but got no farther. A light of intelligence broke over his face, he shook his head, laughed heartily and said, “I deny emphatically any such intentions. That report is absolutely without foundation.”
I was disappointed. I had thought I had a “scoop.” [Editor: Burbank married his second wife, Elizabeth, ten years later.]
The guest chamber on the southwest end is finished in delicate shades of pink and cream, and is as yet unfurnished.
The bedroom at the northwest corner is furnished with a view of making comfortable any visiting relative. It is furnished with a birds-eye maple set with brass bed, and is papered in a delicate shade of cream, has a charmingly artistic window-seat running along its big west window, and a splendid clothes and hat closet.
A servant’s room on the north side completes the upper floor, with the exception of a good-sized linen closet and a big tiled bathroom with its white porcelain tub, basins and other conveniences of the modern, up-to-date bathroom.
In the cement basement I found the secret of the genial warmth of the house, for here roared a big furnace sending up the heat in six large pipes. The neat piles of wood on all sides showed that winter cold will not affect that home.
It is with regret that we see Mr. Burbank leave the pretty little vine-clad cottage he has occupied for sixteen years, and from which he has actually been crowded out because of lack of space. There he has lived quietly and unostentatiously, [sic] with his mother by his side, and there by his study, industry and genius, he has risen step by step to pre-eminence in horticultural fame.
May his new home bring new thoughts, new inspirations, new hopes realized, new joys, new pleasures and new honors–for honors fast continue to crown Mr. Burbank, the most distinguished horticulturalist in the world.
Mr. Burbank wishes me to state that his home is not on public exhibition.– Press Democrat, December 22, 1906