Last summer, while exploring the side streets south of downtown San Rafael, I happened upon a lovely old tree-lined neighborhood with some of the earliest Victorian-era homes I’d ever seen in Marin County. I discovered this was the heart of San Rafael’s Gerstle Park neighborhood. It has a rich and colorful history and retains dozens of well-maintained 19th-century homes, many with their original cast-iron fences surrounding lots with ancient oak trees. The proud owners of some of these historic houses were happy to share what they had learned about their homes for this article, and the Gerstle Park Neighborhood Association keeps good records on many of these residences. The boundaries of this historic district are 1st Street on the north, B Street on the east, Woodland Avenue on the south, and the undeveloped open space on the west.
Lewis Gerstle arrived in the United States from Bavaria in 1845 and moved to California during the Gold Rush. After settling in San Francisco and starting a family, he rented a large house in 1881 in what is now Gerstle Park on San Rafael Avenue. He liked it so much that he purchased the house and a 5-acre tract that August, which became the heart of Gerstle Park. In 1883, a friend of his purchased an adjoining 4.5-acre tract and built a three-story residence on the grounds of the current park. In 1930, the property was donated by the Gerstle family to San Rafael for a city park. A fire destroyed this house in 1955, but the guesthouse remains. Some of the oldest homes in this district date from the years part of it had been developed by an earlier resident, J.B. Short from Kentucky, during the 1860s and ’70s. It was called the Short’s Tract, and was the first subdivision in San Rafael. Here’s a look at some of the neighborhood’s notable homes.
One of the finest Italianate-style raised-basement cottages in the North Bay is the home at 255 D Street. It was built in 1875 for the Fletcher family and lived in by their descendants until 1988. Historians believe it was the first house on D Street, and it retains almost all its original Italianate features: round arched windows and front doorway, balustraded front staircase and S-curved wooden brackets along the cornice line. The current owners have the original deed and told me the plaster rosettes in the parlor and dining room are the originals.
The largest Italianate house in Gerstle Park stands at 127 San Rafael Avenue, set in its original, spacious, tree-shaded lot. It was built in 1879 by a house mover named A.W. Stratton. It has two stories and retains its original architectural features on the exterior, including a slanted bay window on the ground floor, a high-peaked gable on the west wing and a columned porch around the entryway, as well as a massive balustraded staircase in the entry hall. Equally impressive is the ornate cast-iron fence with a latched gate that still surrounds the wide lot, with its towering oak trees and L-shaped lawn. Stratton and his wife, Amanda, were very active in civic improvements, including opening the first public library in San Rafael.
Across the street at 210 San Rafael Avenue is the Davidson House, built in 1880. This residence is in the simplest Victorian-era style, the Stick Style. The intact exterior has wood trim along the corners (stickwork) and lining each of its rectangular windows. The front porch has squared columns, and the rest of the façade is unornamented. The original owners were the Hotaling family, and the house was empty by 1900 and rumored to be haunted. James B. Davidson bought the house in 1920. (Davidson Middle School in San Rafael was named after his daughter Della, who became a teacher and later principal at Short Elementary School in San Rafael.)
At 230 San Rafael Street is one of the oldest houses in the North Bay. The G.R. Elliot House was built in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Elliot was a carpenter, and he built the original section of his home in the Gothic Revival style, sometimes called Carpenter Gothic. This was the first Victorian-era style and was imported from Great Britain. The high-peaked main gable with an ornately carved barge board and pointed arch window are classic Gothic Revival features. The west wing, built in 1868, is in Second Empire style, which was imported from France. It has a Mansard (i.e., curved inward) roofline with dormer windows, features often found on public buildings in 19th-century Paris. The combination of these two Victorian-era styles are rarely found on homes in the Bay Area and are much more common on the East Coast.
Around the next corner at 11 Marin Street is an unusual version of the Italianate vernacular style (i.e., probably owner-designed), built in 1876–77 by Mauritz Kohmann, an immigrant from Germany, for $1,500. It has a wide front porch above a raised basement and a cupola in the center of the hipped roof. In 1907, Flora Murchison bought it with money sent to her by husband Neil Murchison, a merchant marine officer, while he was away on one of his many sea voyages. Neil later served as a San Rafael city councilman.
At 21 Marin Street is a house with a rare mixture of Gothic Revival and Italianate styles. It was built in 1865, probably by John Sims, when it was originally located at Fifth and Eye streets. In 1883 it was moved to the corner of Mission and B streets, where it was used as a boarding house before being moved to its current location in 1903. In 1910, John and Cararina Zanoni, newlyweds from Italy, moved into the house. They raised eight children there, and the family lived in the house until 1963. John passed away at 69, but Cararina lived to be 100. The high-peaked front gable has an intricately decorated bargeboard with an Italianate round-arched window below. The wide front porch has a balustraded railing and brackets between the posts with subtly curved pointed Gothic arches.
A few blocks away, near the northern edge of the Gerstle Park district at 614 E Street is an even rarer example of an early Victorian-era type of home called a “Pioneer Box.” This term refers to smaller single-story wooden houses with little or no ornamental detail, which often have a lean-to addition along the rear. Such houses were built by the earliest Gold Rush pioneers, and there are only a handful of them left in the Bay Area. This one was built by Hans Iverson in 1871, who created a wood, coal and building-supply business and started a family. This pioneer home retains its original wood-latticed windowpanes (i.e., windows with small panes divided by wood lattices). Such windows were the norm for homes and commercial buildings in the early Victorian era, before plate-glass windows became commonly available. The porch has simple wooden posts with small, carved wooden brackets on the upper ends. The two-section addition along the rear was likely added some years after the front part of the house was built, as the family grew and needed more living space.
Note: If you decide to visit Gerstle Park, please respect the privacy of the homeowners and do not encroach onto their property lines. Contact the Gerstle Park Neighborhood Association about events and activities at gerstlepark.com. This article includes research provided by Lane Dooling at the Marin History Museum. The museum can be contacted at marinhistory.org, or 415.382.1182.
Mark Anthony Wilson is an author and historian who has had five books published on West Coast architecture. He teaches art history at Santa Rosa Junior College.