Park your vehicle at a locked gate behind the Benbow Inn, stroll down a paved walkway for about a quarter-mile, and you’ll come to a hidden gem: a Tudor-style house perched on a wooded bluff above the South Fork of the Eel River.
Designed by renowned California architect Julia Morgan, the two-story, three-bedroom residence was built in the 1920s for San Francisco hotel owner Margaret Stewart — for whom the home was her “dream of a Scottish manor,” as the coffee-table book “Julia Morgan, Architect,” put it.
Sadly, after the three-acre property passed into the hands of other owners beginning in the 1950s, the house, along with two associated dwellings — a two-bedroom “guest house” and a one-bedroom “carriage house” — fell into what the book described as “a prolonged period of neglect.”
That downward spiral — which included a time when a pony was allowed inside the main house — changed dramatically when Marin County residents Allison Huegel and her husband Jim Sergi bought the property in 2000 and embarked upon a three-year renovation. While Huegel, speaking last Friday, would only say that the remodel was “expensive,” the man who leads tours of the compound, property manager Derek Crews, said over the weekend that the cost was “at least” $3 million.
Speaking of tours, they’re just of the main house — the other two dwellings are occupied by renters. Tours have only been available to the public since last summer. While Crews conducted several on Saturday for close to 20 people, many of them guests at the Benbow, tours generally take place — by appointment only — Monday through Friday. The cost is $20 per person.
In a reprise of an event held at this time a year ago, a house and garden tour dubbed “Treat Your Mum” is taking place on Saturday, May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. It includes tours of the more than 4,000-square-foot main house offered at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., along with the serving of tea and scones on an outside terrace.
Advanced reservations are required for the event, the proceeds from which will be used to pay for upkeep of the property. Call 415-317-2034 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for the cost, it’s $31 per person — or $1 more than last year’s affair, which drew over 100 people. “We had to turn people away last year,” recalled Carolyn Crews, Derek’s wife and the manager of an on-site gift shop. “We thought we would give people another chance to come.”
“It’s quite a feather in Southern Humboldt’s cap, but hardly anyone knows about it,” she added.
One reason for the property’s below-the-radar profile is simply that it’s hard to find. While it is not close to being visible from Highway 101, it also cannot be seen from the Benbow — which by the way was built at roughly the same time.
Another factor is that it’s a private home that until recently hasn’t been open to the public — although it has been possible to rent it out for special events. Family reunions, an al fresco dinner for the Los Angeles Film Commission and a gathering for Save the Redwoods League that attracted 125 people have been held at the site in years past.
More recently, a wedding took place there this past December and another wedding is scheduled for June.
As for why it’s a feather in Southern Humboldt’s cap, the most obvious answer is that it was designed by Morgan, the architect of more than 700 buildings in California, including Hearst Castle in San Simeon. A National and California Historical Landmark, the Central Coast mansion belonged to legendary newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Orson Welles’ classic film “Citizen Kane.” Hearst died in 1951.
Morgan, who lived from 1872 to 1957, was a pioneer of sorts. Graduating from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree, she was the first woman to be admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she studied architecture. She was also the first female to receive, posthumously in 2014, the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects.
But as a tour on Saturday led by property manager Derek Crews made clear, Huegel and Sergi’s restoration is another reason to go see the place. The job that was done — the designer was a San Francisco architect named Duncan McLeod, while the builder was DEL Biaggio Construction out of Ferndale — was impressive enough to merit a write up in the May 2004 issue of the magazine “Traditional Home.”
“We did an extensive remodel,” Huegel acknowledged. “But we tried to be true to the original.”
The single most impressive space in the entire house is the 800-square-foot “Great Room,” which features old-growth redwood beam ceilings — beams that bear decorative rosettes — chandeliers, exposed wall timbers, paneled doors and a large arched window in the Gothic style that looks out onto a lawn. Huegel called the room “cathedralesque.”
“It has a churchy feel,” agreed Derek Crews during the tour. “Margaret Stewart was a Christian Scientist [and this is] like a Christian Science reading room,” he added, referring to Morgan’s client.
The Great Room is not identical to what it was before Huegel and Sergi’s restoration. The chandeliers, for example, are not original. Nor is any of the furniture, save for a U-shaped carpeted bench in front of the fireplace. And even that Huegel and Sergi had reupholstered.
In the kitchen, according to Derek Crews, “the only thing original is the floor.” A sunroom off the Great Room that looks out on the river had been a screened “sleeping porch,” as Huegel called it. It’s now glassed-in. Upstairs, the master bedroom is more spacious than it used to be — in a vertical sense. “Originally it had a low ceiling,” Crews remarked as he stood in the space.
To some extent, Huegel and Sergi’s renovation was a salvage job. The Great Room’s wide-planked oak flooring, for example, had to be refinished. Decorative drapery brackets that were original to the house and were found rusting in a bucket in the basement now adorn the Great Room’s chandeliers. And a bookcase was torn out to reveal the stone fireplace it had been built in front of.
One sign of the “sensitive” restoration that “Traditional Home” magazine applauded is the repetition of Morgan’s Gothic arch design — such as in a window in the master bedroom and in more than one built-in bookcase. The leather-embossed rosettes on an upstairs fireplace echo the rosettes on the beams in the Great Room. The house’s original curtains live on today in three large pillows that can be found in the master bedroom. And the cabinetry in the kitchen was done in the craftsman style that Morgan is known for.
Huegel and Sergi even went to far as to add something that was in Morgan’s architectural drawings but was never constructed — stone pillars that today can be found built into the outside of the house.
“The original quarry up the road was reopened so that the stone that was harvested would match” existing stonework on the property, Huegel explained.
Huegel admitted that she and her husband also undertook the renovation for a reason that had nothing to do with loyalty to Morgan. “We wanted the house to be livable,” she remarked.
Which explains such amenities as a bathroom off the master bedroom — the main house has five bathrooms in all — a 1,000-bottle wine cellar in the basement, and a shower, also in the basement, that features a low detachable nozzle perfect for washing a pet.
“Women love the dog shower,” Carolyn Crews shared.