Like any grand old house, the McDonald Mansion has its secrets.
But probably the most surprising secret that designers Steve Rynerson and Paul Duchscherer discovered upon tackling what had to be one of Sonoma County's most ambitious residential makeovers was this disappointing truth: The grand old belle of McDonald Avenue was all exterior style with little interior substance.
The plain-jane interior with white walls, lower-grade paneling and home improvement store-grade marble tiles was a shocking contrast to the architectural confection passersby saw from the street — a fancy tiered wedding cake with sweeping verandah and cresting dripping down from the roof like spun sugar icing.
"It was fairly light in detail. It was basically a box inside but with kind of angular ceilings," said Rynerson, an Oakland architect who specializes in historic properties.
So when new owners John and Jennifer Webley recruited Rynerson and Duchscherer to oversee the renovation of Santa Rosa's most storied mansion, their main directive was simply to make the inside of the house live up to the promise of its amazing face.
"They wanted to make the house right," said Duchscherer.
He was was one of the first people Jennifer Webley called in late 2005 after finding his name among the experts listed in the back of a book on Victorian architecture and renovation. An expert on historical interiors, he was a frequent guest on "This Old House" and has written a number of books on bungalows, arts-and-crafts style and Victorians.
Five years and millions of dollars later, these two compatriots, who have known each other for years and worked together on other projects, are close to completing their mission.
Inside, the house is almost unrecognizable, a sensation of elaborate silk-screened wallpaper, antique and custom reproduction fixtures and a massive stained-glass ceiling piece by Reflections Studio of Oakland, which has done art glass for Grace Cathedral and San Francisco City Hall as well as the city's Palace Hotel.
The 15- by 40-foot hall is sheathed in wainscotting with distinctive curved chamfer edging that was fashioned after the landmark Cohen-Bray house in Oakland. Mirrors dress up the corners of the room and a musician's gallery looks down from above, perfect for a string quartet or harp soloist. Off the hall are three elaborately finished themed parlors and a library with rich detail, from a glass-floored catwalk for easy access to the highest volumes to a hidden map room with porthole window, to the antique Minton tile around the fireplace, each tile representing one of Shakespeare's plays. "Hamlet" is at the center.
So how was it that a house with such a fabled reputation came to have such an unspectacular interior?
Rynerson says the house probably never had a lot of over-the-top finery. Col. Mark McDonald and his wife, Ralphine, built the house in 1879 essentially as a summer home. They had a presumably fancier town house on California Street in San Francisco. And it appears that McDonald may have used his mansion as a visual lure to market what he billed as "cheap homesteads" in the McDonald addition neighborhood of Santa Rosa.
The house underwent several remodels and additions. But the greatest insult came in 1977 when a fire came close to destroying it. Then owner Jack Leissring, a pathologist and serious art collector who now lives in a carriage house he split off from the property, didn't give up on the mansion. He drew up plans and did a lot of the rebuilding himself. He did what he could. But his greatest contribution was simply in saving it, said Duchscherer.