North Coast Journal



Carson Mansion, the inside story

by Wally Graves

The first authentic restoration of Eureka's 18-room Carson Mansion has been quietly underway since 1988. The restoration is based on research done by a North Coast historian, and is being realized through the efforts of local artisans and designers in the employ of the mansion's owner, the Ingomar Club.

The famous carpenter Gothic structure is scarcely a "mansion" compared, say, with the sandstone Pittock Mansion in Portland, Ore. (now a public preserve), or the stone and brick Flood Mansion in San Francisco (now the Pacific Union Club). Rather, it is a modest mix of Scotch middle-class interiors garnished with Victorian excesses and enhanced by stunning woodwork never likely to be repeated.

Some call its darkened wall coverings and heavy overhangs oppressive. Others question its "taste."

Whatever one's opinion, it is a rare survivor of America's gilded age.
Its walls reveal the imprint of William and Sarah Carson's Victorian gaslit interiors of 1886 before the Spanish-American War, overlaid with their daughter-in-law Mary Bell's decors dating from her and her husband Milton Carson's occupancy in 1914 before World War I.

In turn, Mary Bell's niceties -- added gradually through the 1930s -- were hidden by grass cloth and other "modern" touches encouraged by the late Ernest Pierson, an Ingomar Club charter member, commencing with the club's possession in 1950 after World War II.

The mansion's original gasolier light fixtures have long been turned electric, and over the years many moved or replaced; plaster walls have been papered, stripped and papered anew; layers of paint applied at whim; ill-advised "art" painted on a parlor ceiling; an electric elevator installed in a study, then abandoned; a bedroom become a bar since abandoned; a servants' room made a historical display; a ballroom turned pool hall; fabric and curtains and furniture worn, outgrown, discarded.

Bay windows, ornate ceiling cornices and moldings, a blank door leading nowhere installed solely for effect -- all these have been preserved intact, thanks to a firm perimeter foundation, and thanks to sturdy interior basement walls and arches beneath a long central hall.

In 1886 the Carsons' oldest son Milton was 21, their daughter Carlotta, 19, son Sumner, 13, and William Wilson, 8. Three years later Milton moved out to occupy his wedding house, the Pink Lady, across the street from his parents.

Their mother Sarah lived in the mansion 18 years till her death in 1904 -- some say never comfortable in its demanding surroundings. By 1912, upon their father's death, the house was left to Milton and his wife Mary Bell Carson, who occupied it throughout their some 30 remaining years. Ingomar members bought the house from Milton and Mary Bell's daughter.

Intact today, though dysfunctional, are the seven flamboyant fireplaces (four on the ground floor, three on the second) some with pale semi-translucent onyx mantels and facings, others in false grain wood, or metal, or tile, framed in neoclassic fluted columns and ornate cornices, some with gilt framed mirrors, others in plain wood, or wood carved in oak leaves and acorns.

William Carson gave his architects, the brothers Samuel and Joseph Newsom from San Francisco, free rein in fashioning this Victorian marvel.

No plan for the house was ever discovered either among the Carson papers or the Newsom Brothers collection. The mansion may well have begun as a facade, and ended where chance might lead. Its roof at one time was decorated in horizontal swaths of red.

"White walls," the Newsom brothers wrote, "unrelieved by any color, are relics of barbarism."

The current restoration began with a two-year redecorating of the club's flat roofed (some say ill-conceived) single-story addition overlooking Humboldt Bay. The addition was built in the early 1950s for drinking and dining.

The restoration of the mansion proper began in 1990 with the Parlor, immediately to the right upon entering the western double oak doors which have been left intact depicting a stained-glass medieval hunter, and a damsel with hound, overseen from above by a pensive male. (These doors remain locked but for special occasions. Everyday traffic enters by keycard through a nearby modern door.)

Restorers repaired the parlor's cracked plaster, and on the walls installed a paper faithful to Carson's original rose-colored leaf design. An unfortunate post-Carson ceiling of multicolored vines was returned to its two-tone cream. The cornice trim returned to its four colors of ashes of roses, dark rose, blue-green, and butter yellow which were found to match exactly the colors of a pair of French bisque statuettes (a man and a woman) discovered in storage.

Two huge rosettes on the parlor ceiling hold mismatched alabaster chandeliers.

After the parlor, the work turned farther along the central hall to the baronial, wainscoted family dining room. Off came its 1930s copper-flecked burlap wall covering. Beneath two wall sconces restorers discovered fragments of a blue and gold paper which earlier had been laid over the room's original plaster of Carson's day.

Today, an almost exact Scalamandré paper duplicate, designed for restorers of another Victorian, in Newport, R.I., has been installed.

Intact is the heavy oak sideboard and buffet in the family dining room with its beveled mirrors said to be in imitation of Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. The original oak dining table, seating 14, is in place beneath a cast bronze and molded glass fixture. More diners can be seated at a second, round table by the south windows.

Next for restoration came the music room, to the left of the main entry, with its northerly stained-glass window of a woman in flowing gown poised above an onyx mantel, and framed in leaf-carved Philippine mahogany rising to an imperial wooden cornice. The window is one-of-a-kind, cleverly placed above a fireplace where the chimney should be. (The flue is diverted for this special effect.)

The room's west window alcove shaped from three kinds of Carson's redwood -- burl, curly and straight grained -- overlooks the street. The ceiling is dominated by a huge plaster rosette from which hangs an original five-armed cast bronze fixture.

Remarkably, the room's floral silk brocade wall fabric is original, as is the room's pianoforte and organ.

Carson's original blue-gold and brown-gold velvet portiere drapes, supplemented by heavy double sliding doors six feet across, turn the dining room, music room and parlor into private dining spaces carpeted in a varicolored vine pattern. The carpet is reproduced from a fragment discovered in an upstairs closet.

The main hall's raised-plaster ceiling, supported by fluted light brown primavera pedestals and urns, was next to be restored to its two shades of cream discovered beneath three coats of darker paint. The ceiling is interrupted by a high carved arch supporting a redwood filigree leading to the stairs -- and, today, leading to a small door opening to the one-story addition.

The restoration continued up the stairs and second floor hall where a grass cloth wall covering -- in place since the club took over -- was stripped, to the dismay of some members who considered it "original." The plaster walls in Carson's day were painted red, later papered in a frieze of browns and peacock blue.

Today's solution to this unstable surface is a Venetian red two-tone paper simulating the variety of tones in the original red.

A massive staircase rises from its hall bench of pale primavera mahogany up a wide stairwell wainscoted and balustraded in primavera under heavy burl redwood pillars, all bathed in a north light through stained-glass windows celebrating the arts of music, literature, elocution and science. Its original newel post flame lamp fixtures are in place.

The upstairs hall's famous horseshoe arches, four in number, lend a Moorish touch to this interior lit solely by the stairwell, and by stained-glass windows at its western end.

The arches are built of cast plaster painted in Carson's day a dark false grain to look like wood. The false grain was overpainted in a cream enamel in Pierson's time. Now the arches are restored to Carson's false grain so cleverly that some club members assume the arches were stripped to their "natural wood."

A new carpet will be laid this winter throughout halls and stairs, replacing the familiar red one of recent years which will be recycled to the servants' rooms above.

This new carpet was verified by an original room-sized piece found recycled in a bedroom. A section was photographed, blown to life size, thread count assessed, and duplicated by computer.

Woven 27 inches wide in Scotland in an overall foliage pattern of deep reds, brown reds and geranium pink flowers on a cream background, the carpet will be joined into room-sized blankets in San Francisco

The next areas for attention will be Mrs. Carson's bedroom (sometimes called the library) noteworthy for its huge, gilt-framed mirror over its fireplace. The room is joined through a bath to a commodious bay-windowed area called the card room.

The bath was, for a brief time, made available for wives and other lady visitors to the all-male club. (Female guests now use the redecorated powder room in the club's addition.)

William Carson's bedroom across the hall to the north, a plastered room painted a Pepto Bismo pink by Mary Bell Carson -- now covered in mustard yellow -- is noteworthy for its middle class simplicity. For many years it served as an upstairs hangout for club members, complete with portable bar and girly pinups.

These second-floor rooms will be painted or repapered to their original, based on recovered fragments.

On the third floor, attention has turned to Mary Bell's ballroom, the 32-foot-high, skylit, wainscoted area which will take some 70 rolls of wallpaper to restore.

Its restoration is open to some controversy. Under the rubric of "earthquake repair" it is being fully renovated, but in the interests of time and economy, modern wallboard will support new paper, to the dismay of historical purists.

In Carson's day, the ballroom was bare plaster designed as a Victorian picture gallery, though all Carson's art is long gone. For years the room housed two pool tables under oblong fake Tiffany shades out of place with the original cast brass wall sconces. Its false grain bead board wainscoting six feet high is intact, awaiting only touch up. (Bead board is "beaded" by lines scored parallel to the grain.)

For years this room featured on its walls the "Plaques of Ingomar" fashioned in plywood by the late Dr. Sam Burre commemorating the winning of the Redwood Empire.

The third floor servants' rooms and bath will remain much as they are, with their brown false grain doors and casings, and painted plaster walls.

Overlooking the street through its small, westerly dormer window lies the "historical" room that was once a library, now a mini-museum holding Carson memorabilia and guarded by a locked see-through door.

Its westerly companion is the billiard room where Carson's slate table still stands within wainscoting whose 1930s paint conceals an original two-toned embossed paper resembling cowhide. The restoration within the wainscoting will be a brown glazed overlay simulating the original.

Only in this closed billiard room, and in the upper unfinished closets, is one struck with the musty dust-dead air of old mansions.

Elsewhere, the circulation of the club's business and its warm kitchens suggest the pleasant aroma of a truly lived-in house.

To reach the famous tower Carson was forced to climb the rear servants' stairs from the second to the third floor, bypass the servants' bedrooms and bath, and enter the drafty tower through the ballroom.

An elk's head dating from Carson's time hangs in the tower's third-floor entry mounted over the earliest of several coats of yellow paint applied to the horizontally laid bead board that lines the narrow tower walls. Carson, in his later years too weary to climb the bare wooden stairs, rested beneath the elk's head. His chair, and small table with ashtray, remain on a worn tan linoleum floor, which will be recovered.

The final pair of the mansion's 18 rooms to be restored are on the ground floor at the rear: the small morning room where the Carsons ate breakfast in the east light, now used for staff meals, and Carson's study, now a club office.

The morning room's original Lincrusta wall covering -- a pressed product like linoleum -- is still in place under coats of paint. Its original linoleum floor is covered with vinyl, but is destined to return to the pattern of Carson's day.

In the study, the hole in the ceiling for the elevator which served Milton Carson in his old age is now sealed. The "elevette's" small cage lies idle -- a fine place to store paintings. The room's original light fixture is now in the main hall, but will return when a replacement for the hall fixture is found. The study's original paneling, and fireplace, and glass case of stuffed game birds, remain.

The original kitchen today serves adequately as a food prep room.

No alterations are planned for the five bathrooms decorated variously in blues, false grain wood and creams. The original porcelain basins are mounted in marble counters, the tank toilets set on marble risers, all but one of the porcelain tubs faced with wood.

The house spans 60 feet across and 90 feet deep. Its three stories suggest a massive 16,000 square feet of Victorian luxury.

But when the indentations, and porches, and false turret, and receding roof lines, not to speak of the 2,000 square feet of hallways and stairs, are discounted, the living space of the towered mansion is less than that afforded club members in their one story addition -- about 5,000 square feet.

(Compare this with the 64,000 square feet of the new county library next door.)

The addition is function itself: a generous kitchen, a huge banquet room seating more than 100 under coffined ceilings supporting expansive crystal chandeliers, a bar with reproduction fixtures, a powder room and men's room, all overlooking through plate glass windows a shoreline which once was William Carson's mill fed by his 20,000 acres of virgin forest.

Eureka's historians, designers and artisans have turned for their custom-painted wallpaper to specialists Bradbury and Bradbury, and Mt. Diablo, in Benicia, and to Scalamandré in New York. Antique lighting fixtures have come from Ruiz in Alameda, and Nowells in Sausalito, with authentic reproductions from Rejuvenation Hardware and Lighting in Portland.

With such an elegant restoration, the mansion verges on becoming a public treasure.


SEE ALSO ESSAY: "Shoot-out at the Ingomar"

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