Marin Homes With History

You might compare them to three, well, women of a certain age. For the past 100 years or so, they’ve been residing quietly and uniquely in three different Marin locations. There’s a grande dame in Dominican that’s undergone both reconstructive and cosmetic surgery and looks stunning; a lovely little carriage house in Mill Valley — over 110 years old — that’s had significant work done internally, but exterior-wise remains relatively untouched and quite handsome; and a third charming maiden, bless its heart, that’s located on a walkway in Belvedere and, as they say, “is about to go under the knife.” Let’s meet them one at a time — each has an interesting story to tell.

Carriage House at The Magnolias

The Mill Valley carriage house, built in 1895, is located at 230 Miller Avenue (you can’t see it from the street; unfortunately, condominiums now surround it). Its builder, George Lingard Payne, owned a San Francisco boatyard and intended the main house (still standing) and carriage house to be a summer retreat for his wife, Barbara Marie Frey, and their six children. Because Barbara Marie was from the Deep South, Payne planted magnolia trees on the property and named it “The Magnolias.”

The Paynes or their heirs occupied the property for its first 50 years. “Then in 1946, mother sold the main house, the carriage house and the accompanying two and a half acres,” recalls Pat Payne Castle, “for about $18,000.” Regarding the carriage house, Ms. Castle, who now lives in Mill Valley’s West Blithedale Canyon, remembers it as a two-stall barn, then as a garage. “On the second floor, there was a hayloft and groom’s quarters,” she adds.

In 1960, the entire property was sold at an undisclosed price to Lyman and Elizabeth Emerson. Nine years later, the Emersons were approached by Skip Sommer, a Mill Valley resident and owner of a Sausalito restaurant and hotel. “I was in love with that Miller Avenue property, carriage house and all,” confesses Sommer, now a Petaluma realtor. “I wanted to buy it and build a really fine inn and restaurant.” Unfortunately for him—and possibly Mill Valley—the parcel’s size didn’t allow for adequate parking. “So I bought Millie Provert’s property in Larkspur,” Sommer says. “And started The Lark Creek Inn.”

Meanwhile, by 1972, the Payne property in Mill Valley—originally built as a main house with tennis and croquet courts, as well as a Japanese tea garden and a carriage house—had been redeveloped to include 14 townhouses on its two and a half acres. However, the carriage house and main home remained in place, with the latter permitted as a rentable triplex.

Over the ensuing years the carriage house went through several owners and numerous transformations to its interior, with the exterior (including hayloft door and conical roof tower) still intact, save for the addition of a decorative iron garden gate from San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel and a 100-year-old front door from Stanford University. In the past three years, the carriage house has changed owners twice, and it recently sold for a third time—with prices in the million and a half range. “We plan to create a master bedroom suite, then do some painting and recarpeting,” says the house’s current owner. “Once we’re inside the carriage house,” she adds, “we’re in a world all our own.”

The “Grande Dame” in Dominican

An anecdote about this San Rafael home dates to the mid-1890s. It seems a druggist named T. C. Malone built two magnificent Queen Anne homes on a street adjacent to what is now Dominican University. Both houses (still standing) were designed by Petaluma architect Brainerd Jones and, from beginning, one of them caught the fancy of Agnes Malone, the druggist’s wife.

But just prior to moving in, Mr. Malone rented Agnes’s favorite home to an impressive California state senator. And for the rest of her life (she died in 1963, at age 87) Agnes Malone was said to have looked longingly at the home she’d always wanted to occupy.

And what a house it was (and still is). Built during America’s Industrial Revolution, this four-level home had (and still has) an expansive front veranda, a widow’s walk plus a rounded tower, both with conical roofs, and a front-facing gable—not to mention spindles and brackets everywhere.

A scouring of Marin County title records suggests the property remained in the ownership of Malone or his heirs well into the 1950s. During World War II it was partitioned, and those involved in the war effort—primarily men working at Marinships in Sausalito—occupied its many rooms. “My folks bought the house in 1957,” says Peter Stragnola, who currently lives nearby. Then in 1963, the Stragnolas, Vincent James and Antoinette, sold the home to Geoffrey Lewis, an accomplished artist who would own it for seven years.

“I bought that fantastic house in 1970,” proudly states San Rafael civic leader Ann Brebner. “The artist who sold it to me, a man named Lewis, was certain an earthquake was about to destroy the entire neighborhood, so he moved to Oregon.” Brebner, who at the time was a single mom raising two boys, would later become the driving force in transforming an abandoned Fourth Street movie theater into today’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. “As a family, we loved that house,” she recalls. “We also had all sorts of screenings and parties that film people would attend.”

In 1993, Brebner sold the home to “a man named Skaff,” and nine years later, he sold it to the Robert and Christina Jennings family, quite possibly only the seventh owners of the home in its 110 years of existence. “It’s a wonderful old house,” says Rob Jennings. “There’s a great spirit to it.” The Jennings spent two years and considerable money faithfully restoring the property to its 1890s greatness.

“We kept the original glass, but had all the double-hung windows completely rebuilt,” says Jennings. “We used only craftspeople and specialists, like Nowell’s Lighting in Sausalito, to do the work and supply us with hardware and fixtures.” In its present configuration, the home has a basement, family room, five bedrooms, four full baths—about 3,000 square feet in all.

A Beauty-in-Waiting in Belvedere

For historical perspective, the Panama Canal was completed in October of 1913. That’s about when Dr. Florence Nightingale Ward, a San Francisco surgeon, finished a Mediterranean-style villa she’d built at 10 Pomander Walk in Belvedere. Despite no Central American canal, Dr. Ward had made four trips to Europe to study obstetrics and gynecology prior to building her Belvedere retreat.

In 1908, at age 48, she divorced her philandering husband and raised their two daughters alone. The Belvedere property was a getaway for them, as Dr. Ward had a year-round home in the city, where she practiced at a small hospital/clinic she owned.

Rumors have persisted that architect Julia Morgan —of Hearst Castle fame — did a rough sketch of Dr. Ward’s villa as Morgan often did for close friends, which Dr. Ward, according to Belvedere historian Beverly Bastion, clearly was. However, no documentation of such a role exists. In 1919, Dr. Ward died at age 59 without having spent much time at 10 Pomander Walk.
In the 1920s, the property was purchased by Joseph and Helen Pugh and would remain in their ownership for nearly 50 years.

“During the 1950s,” remembers Joan (Millzner) Palermo, who as a young girl lived next-door, “Joe—he was in the marine insurance business—would always sit and smoke a cigar while Helen puttered in the garden.” Palermo, now the town of Tiburon’s administrative receptionist, recalls the Pomander property as “having a sundeck covered in wisteria and below that, blackberries we’d pick and a tree that cascaded avocados down on our yard.”

By the mid-1960s, the Pughs, according to accounts, had allowed the property to fall into disrepair. After Helen Pugh’s passing, it was acquired by Robin and Loretta Taylor (now living in Corte Madera), who restored much of the home’s former magic and, in 1998, sold it to the present owners, Paul Vincent Wiseman, president of the Wiseman Group, an international interior design firm, and Richard Snyder, an attorney.

Wiseman and Snyder, after living at 10 Pomander Walk for nine years, recently moved to Mill Valley while the property undergoes a complete restoration. “A home needs time to tell you its story,” explains Wiseman, a nationally known designer. “And this home has good energy about it, along with incredible views.” Included in the latter are Corinthian and Angel islands, Belvedere and Tiburon, Mount Tamalpais, Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wiseman sees his personal project taking as long as two years, costing into seven figures, and including such tasks as deepening the basement and replacing all the aluminum window casings with wooden frames. “Because Pomander is a ‘Walk,’ not a street,” he adds, “the house has never seen the likes of an automobile; you might say there’s an almost sacred quality about it.”

Image 2:  Queen Anne Victorian built in Domincan in the 1890’s by druggist T.C. Malone for his wife, Agnes.  Inset, the home as it is today.
Image 3:  Belvedere home built in 1913 by Dr. Florence Nightingale Ward, a San Francisco surgeon.