When Jack and Charmian London sought an architect to design their Dream House on Sonoma Mountain, they turned to Albert Farr, a San Francisco architect whose small firm designed grand residences in elite enclaves like Piedmont and Tiburon. He was the chief architect of Belvedere.
Farr did high end work in a wide variety of styles, from brown-shingled Arts and Crafts houses and English cottages to Tudor mansions and Norman farmhouses, according to Dave Weinstein, author of “The Signature Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area” (Gibbs Smith, 2006).
“He was one of the most prominent architects of his time,” Weinstein said. “It’s not surprising Jack London would have heard of him.”
But while Farr’s reputation was fated to be most closely associated with a house that was in ruins before it ever was occupied, many of his other homes are still standing a century later, commanding high prices for their timeless elegance.
Among them is a neo-Colonial at the corner Sixth and C streets in Petaluma that Farr designed in 1901 for William Lewis, one of the town’s agricultural barons.
A rare Georgian revival amid the Victorians, Queen Annes, bungalows and Mediterranean homes commonly found on Petaluma’s old west side, the stately residence has sheltered five families over the past 115 years.
And now the caretaking has fallen to Susan Muscatell and Mike Deverell, “newlyweds” who wanted a family house big enough to contain their blended clan of adult children and grandchildren.
“Most people our age are downsizing,” said Muscatell, who is 68; her husband is 73.
The pair actually exchanged vows at the house, as did one of their sons earlier this summer.
“Mike has two adult children, and I have three, and 10 grandchildren altogether,” said Muscatell, who had a career in wine sales after raising her children. ”We just thought it would be so much fun to get married here. But since we’d both been married before we wanted to have something low key and private for our kids. So that’s what we did.”
In April 2013, the pair bought the 3,750-square-foot mansion with five bedrooms, a sun porch, formal dining room and two parlors. Since then, they gave it a fresh coat of white paint with blue trim, added cheerful window boxes, combined two upstairs bedrooms to create a master suite and finished out the sun porch into a sun room.
They also tore down an unsightly old garage from the 1920s, replacing it with a garage that melded with the architecture so well that Heritage Homes and Landmarks of Petaluma, a local preservation group, singled it out for a special preservation award last year.
The public can take a peek inside on Sept. 18 during the upcoming Heritage Homes Biennial House Tour. The house is among seven residences open to visitors, including others designed by Brainerd Jones, a contemporary of Farr and perhaps the most prolific early 20th century architect in Petaluma.
But Farr also left a mark on the town with five distinctive homes, including one just up C Street he built in 1910 for Lillian Lewis Fleissner, the daughter of William and Mary Lewis. He did another house on Eighth Street for the same couple 13 year later.
“A lot of people think Petaluma was nothing but chickens,” said Katherine Rinehart, a historian who oversees the History and Genealogy Library that is part of the Sonoma County Library.
Rinehart said Petaluma of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a lot of residents made rich by agriculture, either directly from large landholdings or through support services like grain and banking. And that wealth was poured into impressive homes by prominent Bay Area architects like Julia Morgan, Earnest Coxhead and Farr, who also designed The Benbow Inn in Garberville.
“All that money had to go somewhere,” Rinehart said.
The Londons hired Farr to build The Wolf House after Charmian’s cousin hired him in 1907 to design a house in Atherton. It burned before they could move it, but after Jack died, Charmian turned again to Farr to design the home that would one day contain a museum to her husband — The House of Happy Walls, now part of Jack London State Park. Farr obliged, despite evidence that London was arrears in his payment for The Wolf House.
Known to friends as “Bert,” Albert Farr was born in Omaha; grew up in Yokohama, where his father ran the postal system; and later returned to Oakland, where his dad served as postmaster, Weinstein said.
He was not formally trained but apprenticed with a British architect, Frederick Richard Barker. By the late 1890s he had developed a wealthy clientele. He continued to design houses, churches and public and commercial buildings until a few years before his death in 1947.
Farr did a wide variety of styles, including a French Renaissance chateau in Piedmont and a 3/4-size reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Chicago. Weinstein said Farr was known for his delightful details, such as the angel holding up the entry canopy of a cottage in Belvedere.
The Colonial he designed for Lewis has little pineapples tucked within the corner eaves, pineapples being a symbol of welcome in Colonial times.
When Muscatell and Deverall bought the house at Sixth and C, it came complete with the original blueprints and a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, letters and other ephemera telling the story of the house through its various owners. The couple also has the original building contract on fragile onionskin, indicating the house would be built for “twenty-five hundred and ninety-nine dollars in United States Gold Coin.” The architectural specs said all labor and materials would be the best of their kind, and anything that wasn’t up to snuff would be “immediately replaced.”
It was built for beauty and to last. But Lewis didn’t live there long. He came across the plains in a wagon train to Petaluma and amassed a 2,000-acre dairy ranch near San Antonio Creek. On July 31, 1911, at 81, he died in the house and was laid out in the parlor for viewing.
Lewis was described in his obituary as a “typical gentleman of the old school, quiet, modest and unassuming;” he didn’t care for public life and “devoted his attention to home, family and business.”
When his widow died in the early 1930s, the house was sold to A.P. Behrens, who managed the Petaluma branch of The Bank of America. A newspaper article announcing the sale referred to the home as “one of the most beautiful and artistic in the city” and indicated that Behrens planned improvements.
It remained within the Behrens family for 60 years until it was purchased in the early 1990s by physician Tom Stanton and his wife Cynthia.
They did some major structural renovation and, in the process of rewiring, found a number of little objects within the walls, random souvenirs from the house’s various occupants. They now sit in a display under glass.
Among the time traveling tokens are an ivory billiard ball, two pipes, a handful of bullets, a Mozart minuet nibbled by mice, wire-rimmed glasses, an embroidered red satin dancing shoe and a packet of thread. Those treasures remained with the house when it was sold to another couple in 2004.
In April 2013, Muscatell and Deverell became the fifth family. The couple had been living in Marin. But they were attracted to the idea of living near downtown.
“I wanted a place where I can walk to stuff. We’re within six blocks of everything here,” said Deverell, a retired partner with the financial services firm Deloitte and Touche.
Muscatell dresses in blue and white, a color scheme repeated throughout the house, from the blue and white Delft tile she put around a fireplace in the entry to her vast collection of blue and white China and pottery.
“I’ve been collecting it all my life. I just had so much fun picking out all the blues to go with white,” she said. “My eyes just gravitate to it, and I can’t help myself.”
Blue and white plates are perched on the plate rails in the dining room. Blue and white hand-painted Royal Copenhagen can be see through the glass doors of a built-in china cabinet.
The couple said they liked the fact that much of the hard work was done before they arrived — foundation, plumbing, electricity. And while changes had been made, they were subtle.
“It’s why we fell in love with this house,” Muscatell said. “I walked in and said, ‘Oh my god. It hasn’t been screwed up. It’s like all original everything.’ That’s something you don’t see.”
That means all original paneling, crown molding, floors, doors and distinctive vaulted entry.
The couple did close in a sitting porch, turning it into a sun room that makes perfect display space for their collection of art glass.
Muscatell said she is determined that this be her last house. If the stairs become a problem, she figures a rear servant’s staircase could be replaced with an elevator.
“There are days when I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I just want to stay in this house and enjoy it. I’d be content to stay here forever. There are so many great rooms just for sitting and reading. Many evenings we sit out under a tree in our Adirondack chairs and have a glass of wine and enjoy the feeling of looking up at the house.
“I feel special and lucky to be living in a house that is 116 years old. I never thought it would happen. I told my kids I never plan to leave again. They can carry me out in a box.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.