The McDonald Mansion’s stylish street presence, and its prominent corner site on an oversized parcel, made it an effective tool in the marketing and sales of residential lots in the newly established “McDonald’s Addition” neighborhood. As a result, McDonald Avenue soon became the address of choice for the most prominent citizens of the expanding city of Santa Rosa. However, no other home built on the street ever eclipsed the visual prominence of Mableton and the sprawling scale of its grounds.
“Mableton”, circa 1882. This is the earliest known view of the house, taken from a lithograph published in the 1880’s. It was built in 1879 as the summer home of the Mark L. McDonald family, whose primary residence was in San Francisco. The family chose the name “Mableton” after the Mississippi plantation home of Ralphine North McDonald. Note the original two-tiered roof cresting and the bands of patterned roof shingles (now missing), which are to be restored. Partly visible on the far right of the image are the carriage house and the gazebo. Courtesy of Sonoma County Library History Annex and Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
It was in homage to the Mississippi plantation home of Ralphine North McDonald’s childhood that the McDonalds called their summer home “Mableton”. Unusual for substantial California homes of its era, the architectural form of the house can be described as a large-scale adaptation of a so-called “raised Southern cottage”. The typical plan of such homes included a single main living level, built or “raised” over an above-ground basement that was intended as a flood precaution. The second floor or attic level of such homes was often left as undeveloped space, but was sometimes utilized for later expansion.
Initially, the wrap-around porch or verandah, another characteristic Southern feature, surrounded all four sides of the house. This defining element creates a strong link between the house and its landscape, where specimen trees, spacious lawns and abundant flowers completed the ideal summer home setting.
One of the building’s signature details is its extensive use of flat sawn and cutout wood ornament (seen in the two-tiered roof cresting, and icicle-like trim that outlines the various roof overhangs). The use of such repeating flat patterns, and their geometric quality, are particularly characteristic of the Victorian era’s “Stick” and “Eastlake” styles (sometimes called “Stick/Eastlake”), which enjoyed nationwide popularity during the post-Civil War era. The style moniker “Steamboat Gothic”, coined in reference to similar decorative treatments applied to large riverboats of that era, is likewise evoked by Mableton’s low-slung proportions and long verandahs. The application of California redwood ornament to a Southern building form makes this house a uniquely American domestic hybrid.
In the early lithograph view, the stepped pyramidal (hipped) form of Mableton’s roofline is completed by two tiers of cresting, and its surface is enriched by successive bands of patterned shingles resembling horizontal stripes. While the verandah and second floor roofs are pierced by small “eyebrow” vent openings, the upper roof is primarily broken by a single central gable with an arching bargeboard. In the verandah roof, a smaller gable occurs above the main entry stairs. Still missing are the larger dormer windows that were added for bedrooms developed later in the attic space.
Visible on the left side of the house is part of a two-story rear addition across the rear, which supplanted the original verandah there. Within the former rear verandah space, a hallway and stairs were built to access the added second floor bedrooms. Later the rear addition also sprouted second floor dormers, and a square bay window on the left side of the first floor level.
In addition to the main front entry stairs, those seen extending from the left side of the verandah are one of an original pair of stairs placed on opposing sides of the house. Partly visible on the right side are the carriage house (with a cupola and weather vane), and the top of the gazebo projecting above the trees. The original configuration of the curving driveway, with its pair of triangular planted “islands”, remains in place today.