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The Coleman Mansion — 1882

920 Peninsula Way, Menlo Park

An 1878 inheritance from Bonanza king William S. O’Brien allowed his sister, Maria O’Brien Coleman, to purchase 165 acres in Menlo Park from O’Brien’s partner, James C. Flood, and from Robert Doyle. The property was bounded by Ringwood Avenue, Bay Road, Berkeley Avenue, Coleman Avenue and Arlington Way. Maria hired architect, Augustus Laver, the architect of Flood’s opulent neighboring estate, Linden Towers, to design a mansion as a wedding gift for her son, James, and his bride, Carmelita. Among the social elites of San Francisco, James Valentine Coleman was a San Mateo County Assemblyman and Georgetown Law School graduate, and Carmelita Parrott Nuttall was the granddaughter of wealthy San Francisco banker, John Parrott.

Augustus Laver (1834–1898), a British born and trained architect, emigrated to America in 1857. His practice blossomed when he secured commissions for three of North America’s most celebrated public buildings: the Ottawa Parliament, the New York State Capitol and San Francisco’s original City Hall. Although his civic designs were done in fashionable Gothic architecture, his residential and commercial buildings were Italianate, a style popularized in America by Andrew Jackson Davis from 1840 to 1890. Laver combined the architectural vocabulary of the classical Italian Renaissance with contemporary picturesque aesthetics in designing the Coleman residence.

It took two years to complete the 22–room Italianate mansion and over $100,000 to build it.  The lumber alone cost a fortune as the house is double walled and has abundant architectural detail. Although symmetrical in design, it has an interesting array of curves and angles. The corners of the building feature quoins, giving an impression of permanence and strength. This effect is accentuated by wide, beveled redwood siding on the first floor, which becomes narrow clapboard on the more ornate second story. Twenty fluted Corinthian columns support the curved twenty–foot wide verandah which encompasses the front and sides. Above the columns is a row of classical dentil molding, and the columns rest on intricate paneled bases. The porch balustrade is wood with cast iron insets in a floral design.

The upper story has a low–pitched, hipped roof with projecting eaves supported by carved corbels.  The imposing cornice has a running flower pattern interspersed with square, raised medallions. The architrave area below is decorated with raised circles in square medallions. An arched broken pediment intercepts the roof line at its center.

One of the most remarkable features is the highly decorative fenestration. Tall, pedimented windows on the first floor are accompanied by second floor arched windows ensconced in layers of arched molding. All the windows have scrolled keystones and flanking pilasters. Centered among the windows on the second floor, is a faux palladium–like “window” with an elaborate shell pattern. The second floor windows look out on a large Renaissance balustraded balcony formed by the verandah roof. The Coleman mansion, like 15% of Italianate houses, originally had a signorial tower but it was removed in a remodel.

A sweeping staircase, gleaming hardwood floors, high ceilings, marble, crystal chandeliers, and paneled doors and wainscot once graced the interior of 920 Peninsula Way. This mansion was intended to host lavish parties, which wealthy San Franciscans commonly held in their Peninsula estates.  John and Carmelita Coleman, however, never held such an event. On July 5, 1885, in their San Francisco home on Taylor Street at 5 a.m., a loaded revolver discharged and killed Carmelita. Given the station of the husband, police deemed the death accidental, although there were rumors that the marriage had been unhappy.

In 1905, James Valentine Coleman sold his mansion and property to Livingston Jenks who subdivided the 165 acres into the neighborhood known as Menlo Oaks. From 1906 until 1909, seminarians from nearby St. Patrick’s lived in the house, as the ’06 earthquake had destroyed their dormitories. By 1929, humanitarian Josephine Duveneck purchased the mansion and 10 acres for $26,500 to house the Peninsula School. Peninsula, founded in 1925, is renowned not only for its exemplary progressive education but also for the more mundane facts that it was where Jerry Garcia played his first paying gig and where the boarding school scenes from the 1974 movie Escape to Witch Mountain were filmed. The most legendary event associated with the mansion is the occasional sighting of Carmelita’s ghost, clothed in a green, diaphanous gown. Whether one is a believer in the supernatural or not, it’s easy to understand why Carmelita might want to visit one of the finest and oldest Italianate style buildings on the Peninsula. ©

© Margaret Feuer

PAST, May 16, 2014

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