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This Old House

Author: Virginie Boone
September, 2010 Issue

NorthBay biz profiles the restoration of three historic structures— Edgehill Mansion at Dominican University in San Rafael, McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa, and the Uptown Theatre in downtown Napa.

They just don’t build houses the way they used to. The scale, the detail, the historic significance is hard to duplicate in our modern age. That’s why two renovations of 19th-century North Bay homes are in process: The Edgehill Mansion at Dominican University in San Rafael (ultimately to benefit the students and alumnae of the university), and the McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa, which will continue its legacy as a private home.

Edgehill Mansion

When wealthy merchant William Babcock first moved into his mansion, called “Edgehill,” in San Rafael in 1887, he probably never imagined that, more than 100 years later, it would be restored to its original glory while concurrently being made more modern and utilitarian—necessary ingredients for its soon-to-be everyday function as a “Heritage and Alumni House” at Dominican University.

“The renovation of Edgehill Mansion is an exciting project for us, as it will provide a hub for on-campus activity that will engage our students and alumni,” says Dr. Joseph R. Fink, president of Dominican University of California, who’s championed the transformation of the mansion into the Dominican Heritage and Alumni House. “This is a magnificent reminder of Dominican’s storied past and a restoration of the faith and spirit it has held. The beauty of it is, we're demonstrating our respect for the past and hopefully preparing for the future and the needs of our students, alumni and the community.”

The three-story Victorian mansion was originally built as a wedding gift from Babcock’s father, San Franciscan William Fitzgerald Babcock, for the younger Babcock and his first wife, Helena Redington, and the children they might have.

The original structure was built on a brick perimeter wall foundation, with an irregular roofline and numerous projecting gables, two brick chimneys and several porches and balconies. It had an unusual floor plan for the time, consisting of a larger three-story mass and a number of one- and two-story wings on the north and east facades.

“When Edgehill was first built it was a very simple country farmhouse,” notes Jane Winter, the capital campaign officer for Dominican University and resident expert on the house. “It was large, but it was very simple.”

The Babcocks would ultimately have three children, though none would survive long enough to enjoy this grand estate. Neither did Helena, who would also die young. A grieving Babcock sojourned to Europe to escape and recuperate from such emotional upheaval, and it was there he met Julia May Beck, a widow herself and prominent socialite from Baltimore, who would become his second wife.

Taking up residence at Edgehill in 1895, she is credited with adding many of the grand, Queen Anne architectural touches—wraparound porch, porch columns, Palladian windows—that seem vital to Edgehill now, and which are very much a part of its current restoration.

Queen Anne style, first used in England, was popular among the upper classes in the late 19th century. It’s characterized by a variety of ornamentations with steeply pitched roofs, numerous gable projections and dormers, turret windows, bay windows, textured wall surfaces and multiple porches.

“She wanted a little more elegant home, because that’s what she was used to,” Winter explains. “So things like the decorative molding on the windows, the scallops, a couple of towers, a lot of the [San Domingo] mahogany paneling and beam work that’s very intricate, all of it was added.”

Babcock’s focus was more on the outside. As an amateur botanist, he at one point had 50 greenhouses scattered about the 50-acre property, all since removed to make room for other developments at Dominican, including Edgehill Village, a student housing area across the street from the mansion. Remnants of his avocation include the Monkey Puzzle tree in front of the house, which isn’t native to this area.

Prominent in banking, the Babcocks also owned E.K. Lumber and Mill Company in San Rafael and ran a tugboat operation on the San Francisco Bay, which Babcock himself probably used to get back and forth to San Francisco, giving him the rare ability to commute before the Golden Gate Bridge was built.

Babcock died in 1918, leaving Julia as the sole heir to his fortune, valued between $1 and $5 million. She sold Edgehill Mansion to the Sisters of the Dominican in 1920 for $75,000. Dominican used the property for years as a senior dormitory, classroom, offices, dining hall and the Garden School (a preschool and kindergarten that was open to the public). During its early years, it still included chicken coops, dairy barns and greenhouses.

Church first

Dominican was founded in 1889 by the Dominican Sisters of California, who, after receiving 20 acres of William T. Coleman’s land in San Rafael, built a Renaissance Revival house for their convent and school. In 1915, they opened a junior college with the help of the University of California and, two years later, it became a four-year college, conferring its first bachelor’s degree in 1922.

As Dominican College of San Rafael grew in reputation and population, it was able to expand by buying nearby residences, including Edgehill, which was altered very little. In 1986, it was declared unsafe as a dorm and converted into office space, but after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the mansion was shuttered completely and left vacant. Though interior walls were in good condition, the original brick foundation had started to deteriorate significantly.

The university began to take a renewed interest in the property about five years ago, as it searched for an on-campus location to put a chapel. The university’s board eventually stepped in, approving Edgehill’s restoration in November 2007. Construction began in June 2009 by lifting the building up and putting in a new foundation. It’s slated for completion on this year’s annual Dominican Day, October 9, 2010.

“We started out looking for a chapel and ended up with almost 15,000 square feet of new space on campus, which will be fantastic,” Winter says. “It’s a showcase, a centerpiece and also [a place] to celebrate the history and heritage of the university and all the significant contributions that the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael made when they founded the college and operated it until it was ceded over to the board of trustees in the 1970s.”

“Edgehill Mansion enables us to establish a long desired Catholic chapel and interfaith spiritual programs on campus as well as address other significant campus needs—the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, dining and meeting rooms, student lounges, campus ministry, student government, campus clubs, an international center, a career center where employers will be able to conduct interviews on campus, alumni relations offices and an alumni lounge,” says President Fink. “The restored mansion will be a showcase that includes a place to celebrate the history and heritage of the University and the significant contributions of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael who founded the college and established the values that still guide us today: study, reflection, community and service.”

Set back from the street, Edgehill’s circular driveway will also have 50 new parking spaces, a boon to neighboring Santa Sabina, a worship and retreat center still owned by the Dominican Sisters, which shares the driveway. A cascading lawn will flow down from the house to the street.

The St. Catherine Benincasa Chapel will live on the first floor, where the Babcocks once had a library and the Dominican Sisters earlier had a chapel as well. Architectural glass artist Elizabeth Devereaux, an alumna of the school, is creating the stained-glass windows for the room, which has views out to Mount Tamalpais.

With about 40 percent of the student body identifying as Catholic, the other 60 percent are a range of other Christian denominations, or Muslim or Jewish, so the university felt it also important to create Veritas Interfaith Hall, adjacent to the chapel on the first floor, which will have French doors leading out to the lawn. Toward the back of the house, on the first floor, will be both Legacy Hall, a place for small lectures, performing arts, recitals and community events, and Heritage Hall, which will have permanent and rotating displays, including some multimedia about the university’s history.

The highlight of that may very well be photographs taken by Ansel Adams, who was the resident photographer at Dominican for a number of years. The university has 135 original prints taken by Adams.

The adjacent Garden Room, where the Garden School once thrived, will be the Osher Center’s primary classroom, a space added to the original house by the Sisters that’s being rebuilt as a true rectangle, with the house’s Victorian window style duplicated.

“Edgehill was built before insulation was invented,” Winter explains. “There was an air and light shaft that was probably 20 square feet and went up. On a hot day, you could open windows on either side of the building and the air shaft, and there’d be a breeze that would go through the house to cool it. We’ve recaptured that space and we’re putting our elevator in there.”

There was originally a second staircase that serviced the second and third floors right behind the light well. Built originally for servants, the third floor didn’t need to connect to the main staircase. Still, Dominican felt the original staircase needed to travel from the first to the third floors. It also needed a more utilitarian staircase, mostly for staff who will have offices here. So the building was extended eight feet to put in the new staircase and recapture the light well.

The university is working with Wright Contracting of Santa Rosa, a popular general contractor within the wine industry, who also built Edgehill Village for Dominican. The project is on schedule and on budget, a testament to the quality of the original craftsmanship of the house, so much of it redwood, and to the people involved in the restoration—not only Wright, but architect Mohamad Sadrieh of Sausalito and project manager Pound Management of Oakland, all of whom were tasked with an aggressive 15-month buildout.

All said, the ambitious project is “a bargain” in Winter’s mind. “The total estimated cost of the building move-in costs, including furnishing, is $8 million,” she details. “The construction cost works out to be about $350 per square foot, which is really incredible. A lot of that is because we have a great architect, who’s been very efficient in how he did the design, and we have great contractors and great management. They all get A-plus ratings from us.”

McDonald Mansion

While Edgehill puts on its finishing touches, the McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa also nears completion of its own restoration, a more complicated undertaking in many ways because of the house’s history of additions and piecemeal restorations (as well as a significant fire in the 1970s that wiped away much of the original structure).

Nicknamed “Mableton,” the McDonald Mansion was built in 1879 by Colonel Mark L. McDonald, a Kentucky native, and his wife Ralphine North McDonald, who used the Southern-influenced estate as a summer home from San Francisco, where McDonald served on the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

He soon became prominently involved in Santa Rosa, where he bought 160 acres of land to subdivide, known as the “McDonald’s Addition.” Before long, McDonald Avenue became, much as it is today, the premier street in the area, with the McDonald Mansion serving as a showcase and beacon to others wanting their own grand estates.

During his time here, McDonald also brought the first steam railroad to Santa Rosa, operated the Santa Rosa Water Works Company, the area’s first public utility (also building the reservoir Lake Ralphine, named for his wife), and enlisted the assistance of Luther Burbank in an extensive tree-planting effort. Many of the trees still on the McDonald estate were planted by Burbank as saplings.

The mansion, on an oversized corner parcel, was designed in an unusual Mississippi plantation style, in tribute to Ralphine McDonald’s childhood home. Oakland’s Rynerson & O’Brien Architecture (which is spearheading the restoration) has termed this a “large-scale adaptation of a so-called raised Southern cottage,” detailing how the typical plan included a single main living level, built or raised over an above-ground basement intended as a precaution in case of flood. The second floor, or attic level, was often left undeveloped.

From the beginning, a wraparound porch, a very Southern feature, went all around the house as well. Another of the building’s signature details is its extensive use of flat sawn and cutout wood ornament, details a Rynerson & O’Brien report on Mableton’s evolution. Examples can be seen in the two-tiered roof cresting and icicle-like trim that outlines the various roof overhangs.

“The use of such repeating flat patterns, and their geometric quality,” the report says, “are particularly characteristic of the Victorian era’s ‘Stick’ and ‘Eastlake’ styles (sometimes called ‘Stick/Eastlake’), which enjoyed nationwide popularity during the post-Civil War era.” However, the use of California redwood in some of the mansion’s ornamentation “makes this house a uniquely American domestic hybrid.”

This, and the fact that Mableton is Santa Rosa’s largest city home—14,000 square feet on 1.8 acres with eight bedrooms, eight and a half bathrooms, a grand, multistory entry hall and so much more—is what brought its current owners to the table and committed to undergoing a full restoration.

A succession of owners

John Webley, co-founder of Advanced Fibre Communications, the former chairman of Turin Networks and founder of Sonoma Cools, and his wife Jennifer, bought the McDonald Mansion in 2005 for $3.6 million, a record price for a residential property inside Santa Rosa city limits.

The couple, who have four children, bought the home from Dr. Jack Leissring, a retired pathologist, who had initially listed it for $12.5 million in 2002. Leissring had spent years trying to restore the home to its former glory, especially after a significant 1977 fire destroyed most of Mableton’s roof and second floor rooms, as well as its previously intact original main hall ceiling and skylight.

Leissring had acquired the property in 1974, in dilapidated form, with the intention of restoring it. It was during restoration that the fire sparked. After the catastrophe, Leissring did what he could to reframe the roof and bring the estate back to its previous glory.

The McDonalds themselves had, over the years they owned the house, made many additions, most notably developing rooms on the second floor, prompting the addition of dormer windows, which changed the appearance of the original roofline, probably to accommodate their seven children (though two would die in childhood).

After the 1917 death of Colonel McDonald and Ralphine one year later, eldest son Mark Jr. and his wife Isabelle Juilliard (whose parents left the site of their Santa Rosa home to the city, today’s Juilliard Park), took over the property, beginning their own extensive remodel in the early 1920s.

Mark and Isabelle’s most significant changes included the relocation of the kitchen from the basement to a new addition adjacent to a first-floor breakfast room. They also added a master bathroom and closet, expanded the veranda on the south side of the house and added a balcony off the breakfast room on the north. It’s believed they also added two second-floor bathrooms between the bedrooms previously added on the second floor, with more dormers added to match those installed with the bedrooms.

Mark Jr. and Isabelle had two children, Marcia and Juilliard, who grew up in the house. Juilliard, who maintained the family’s businesses after his father’s death in 1932, would precede his mother in death, dying in 1946 without any heirs. When Isabelle died in 1960, daughter Marcia became the only heir, but she chose to remain in San Francisco, leaving Mableton to deteriorate.

When Marcia died childless in 1971, the mansion’s future looked bleak. Isabelle’s will had left the estate to the University of California and Stanford University jointly. It was, at one point, offered to the city of Santa Rosa, but ultimately saved from the wrecking ball by Leissring in the same year it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A prominent art collector, Leissring used the mansion to house much of his art.

A fresh start

The Webleys are, five years in, finally nearing completion of their own restoration, described by the Press Democrat’s Meg McConahey as a “multi-million-dollar, basement-to-widow’s walk makeover.”

This includes restoring all the original Victorian gingerbread—which gives the mansion the look of a fancy wedding cake—to a re-do of the wraparound veranda, which directly adjoins most of the public rooms in the house and overlooks the grounds in three directions.

Inside, the main floor plan, in much the same layout as the McDonalds’ original, orients around the incredible main hall, which rises two stories in height with a skylight extending nearly its full length. Radiating from it are a library, Turkish parlor, ladies’ and gentlemen’s parlors and grand scale dining room, with adjoining butler’s pantry, in the 19th century tradition.

The Webleys figure they’ve already put in “north of $10 million” in bringing the McDonald Mansion back to its historic and architectural integrity, working with Rynerson & O’Brien Architecture, Masters Touch general contractors and Lawrence Precision Builders. The mansion opened its doors in July for the annual Historic Ball, a fundraiser for the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery (where Mark and Ralphine McDonald both are buried) and the couple plan to host other fundraisers in the future. The Webleys are big supporters of the Santa Rosa Symphony and Green Music Center. The family plans to take residence by Christmas.

Uptown Downntown

The Uptown Theatre in Napa (1350 Third Street), a historical restoration completed earlier this year, brings a landmark building back to life for the masses, who may now enjoy this former 1,350-seat movie theater in its new incarnation as a vibrant, 863-seat live music venue.

Napa Valley real estate developer and contractor George Altamura, the man who made it all happen—with help from granddaughter, architect and designer Jacqueline Altamura, who worked on the building’s interior along with Lisa Holt of Napa-based DLS Hotels—is an entrepreneur on a longtime mission to restore this once-proud place, one he used to frequent as a young man.

Originally opened in 1937, this gorgeous centerpiece of Napa’s downtown, with its ornate Greco-Roman ceiling mural, was the place to be for years. But over time, it fell into disrepair and was ultimately split into several different auditoriums—its history disrespected.

Altamura bought the theater in 1998 but had to shutter it in 2000, since so much of it was in need of love and money. It would take until May 2010 for the Uptown to come back to life, the interior finally, painstakingly restored to its former grandeur, including the ceiling mural.

“I’m so happy with it. I’m elated,” Altamura says of the final result. “The first night I sat in the first row of the balcony, and I was in another world. It’s so beautiful.”

It’s now the preferred venue for such acts as B.B. King, Merle Haggard, Cyndi Lauper, Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash, Chrissie Hynde, Lucinda Williams and so many more. Locals are digging the new scene too, sending Altamura bouquets of flowers, fruit baskets and expensive French Champagne in thanks.

“Everyone’s blown away,” Altamura adds. “Restaurants downtown are getting 800 people a night for dinner before a show. I go in, I’m like a rock star—an old rock star.”

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