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If he is a public benefactor who “makes two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before,” how much more is he a benefactor who causes a beautiful home to rise from a bare sandhill—a home which is not only a luxurious abode for its inmates but a tribute to the refinement and aesthetic tastes of the city it adorns.

For some months past passengers on the California street line have watched with unusual interest the gradual approach to completion of a structure on the corner of California and Taylor streets—an interest arising from the more than ordinary departure from the rut of conventionality, out of which San Francisco is gradually emerging. Perhaps no recently built residence has called out so much comment and controversy; but as the unfamiliar style developed itself and the embryotic promise became rounded to well-balanced completeness in plan and ornamentation, conflicting opinions have finally merged in a unanimous verdict that Mr. Towne has contributed to the artistic homes of San Francisco one worthy to rank as a chef d’oeuvre, not only in novelty of design but in perfection of detail and striking, though severe, taste and elegance.

The aim of the architect, Mr. A. Page Brown, was to unite simplicity of design with variety of detail, while strictly preserving the unities and avoiding all incongruity. The general style is old colonial, the details being a modification of the classic Greek and Roman. The material used is Roman brick in the lower stories and weather boarding on the upper story, the general tone of the exterior being a light corn color with cornice and details of cream white, the roof being laid in cedar shingles of a silvery grey shade. The original design contemplated the use of Roman brick throughout, but the more effective treatment, as now carried out, was finally determined upon.

The house is in extent 61 feet frontage on California street by 54 feet on Taylor. Viewed from the front it gives but a very inadequate indication of the spaciousness and roominess within. The two stories in front expand to four full stories in the rear, all being, through the peculiar conformation of the surface, entered directly from the level of the ground, and the lower rooms being as light, airy and with the same sunny exposure as the upper ones. Only two specific directions were given to the architect by Mr. Towne, one being that every living and sleeping room, whether for family, guests or servants, should have the full flood of sunshine; and the second that, as far as possible, nothing but native woods and marbles should be used in the construction. Both orders have been carried out to the letter.

The principal exterior decoration is the frieze and the faces of the dormer windows. The design is the eagle, with garlands and wreaths. The portico of highly polished California marble is worthy of special mention, not only for its intrinsic beauty, but from the fact that it is the first work of the kind ever executed of native material, as well as probably the finest in detail. The columns and balcony are of grey marble from Colton, Cal., and was furnished by the California Marble and Building Stone Co. The same company furnished the beautiful green marble which forms the rich wainscoting of the interior of the portico. This vividly tinted green variety comes from near Mojave, Cal., and has thus far never been produced in so large a quantity. Its evident adaptability to ornamental purposes, however, will no doubt create a demand which will cause it to be sought and found more extensively.

The first floor has been made as near as possible on a level with the California street sidewalk. A wall of Roman brick surrounds the grounds, which are overlooked by the rear windows, from which can be obtained an unobstructed view of city and bay, with the Mission hills and the Coast Range in the distance.

Entering the vestibule through the classic marble portico and heavy mahogany doors, we find ourselves under an exquisitely molded dome in blue and gold. From this point we obtain a view of the main hall, which, with the broad staircase and spacious landing, is intended as the central feature of the house. A large fireplace, built of blood-red Numidian marble, and large enough to burn four feet logs, enriches one side of the hall, while the jeweled staircase window on the wide landing gives light above and below. The delicate tints of the dome are reproduced in the upper and lower ceilings, while the spirit of the interior decoration—that of the Italian Renaissance—appears in the smallest detail of hall and staircase, pervading, though with less strictness of purpose, the entire house. Both the stairs and high wainscoting are of quartered oak, and the walls are covered with leather richly illuminated with gold.

All the rooms on the first floor are arranged en suite. At the left of the entrance is the drawing room, whose exquisitely delicate finish is not to be broken in upon by overloading, only three small but fine pictures—a Henner, a Coornans and a Lambrecht—being admitted. This lively apartment is finished in white and gold, with delicate French silk panels. The white is laid on in repeated coats to what is known as “carriage finish,” as polished and almost as hard as ivory. A richly carved mantel extends to the ceiling. A striking example of the prevailing harmony is found in the fact that the delicate festoons on the frieze of the white walls are reproduced in the silver fender of the fireplace and even in the border of the carpet. The onyx of the chimney was brought from San Luis Obispo. The room is lighted by sconces of old silver, fitted to either electric or gas lights, the wires and appliances for both extending through the building.

The dinning room has a wainscot as high as the doors and mantels made of quartered oak, and the ceiling is of the same wood with arabesque panels of the color of burnt wood, giving by the simplest means an effect rarely seen in decoration. A rich frieze of tooled Venetian leather, chairs similarly covered with leather of an old Spanish design, the gas fixtures in antique brass, and other decorations, were all specially designed for this apartment, and illustrate the harmony which characterizes every room of this artistic home. A beautiful feature is a fireplace in the green marble referred to, the architect having used only pieces of rarest coloring and exceptional beauty. Another object of equal elegance and convenience is a massive sideboard built in a recess, forming a part of and flush with the finish of the room.

The library and the living room adjoining are wainscoted alike in curly California redwood, the satiny finish and wonderful grain giving the effect of richly watered silk, while the walls and ceilings are in similar coloring enlivened with gold.

The upper rooms are well worth an equally minute description did not space forbid. Each sleeping apartment has its own bathroom, elegantly appointed and fitted with instantaneous water heaters. In fact, the details of this ideal residence which strike most forcibly the eye of the home-lover, are those which have been the special care of the two ladies whose home it is to be. The large linen-presses, the private staircases, the exquisitely neat and convenient contrivances and appliances for every kind of domestic work are a triumph in housing designing and are, in great part, the outcome of the ladies’ own forethought and that domestic home-feeling which no money can buy and no architect can build into a dwelling.

The servants have not been forgotten, their tired feet being saved by dumb-waiters (extending even to the chambers, in case of sickness), shoots for soiled linen, a sewing machine run by water-power, etc. The side entrance and staircase by which party guests may reach the dressing rooms to remove their wraps and adjust their toilets before traversing the grand staircase, is a charming and original design. A playroom in the attic for the little pet of the household, a boy of eight years, contains among other appliances a small stage with curtain and all necessary dramatic appointments. The Durham system of plumbing and house drainage is employed and the sanitations practically perfect.

To enumerate half the striking details is, however, impossible, but the one thing which will most forcibly strike even the sightseeing visitor is the house-like atmosphere which pervades and lends a rarer charm to every luxury and elegance of architecture or furnishing, and which carries with it the conviction that here is a home, and not a mere dwelling place.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser
May 9, 1891