SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For a century, the large, white home has lorded it over its corner of Poverty Ridge here.
Perched several feet above surrounding streets, its white-columned porch beckons passers-by to stop and visit. Inside, its large picture windows frame the lush green views while flooding the rooms with light. The redwood paneling gleams.
Tucked under the staircase and around corners are built-in benches and cubbyholes with room for refuge and daydreams.
Located at the corner of T and 22nd streets, it’s one of Sacramento’s most eye-catching houses and the former home of one of the city’s most famous residents: author Joan Didion. It recently opened for its first public tour.
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“It’s truly an amazing house,” said Christine Weinstein of the Sacramento Old City Association (SOCA).
Winner of two National Book Awards, Didion helped sell the house — although she had no direct hand in the deal.
Its current owners, Chris and Julie Dolan, stumbled on the house by accident in 2008 while searching for a second home in Sacramento.
Chris Dolan, a trial attorney in San Rafael, has always had an interest in older homes and antiques. When they first saw the house, it had been vacant for more than two years and needed TLC.
“This is my husband’s dream home,” Julie Dolan said. “He has incredible vision. He’s a renaissance man and he could see all this house has to offer.
“I’m an English major,” she added. “I fell in love with the fact that it was Joan Didion’s home.”
Through thoughtful remodeling, the couple brought the historic home into the 21st century while making it all look original.
Plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems all got high-tech upgrades. “Green” insulation was installed. The modern kitchen area combines three former rooms, including a butler pantry and service porch, into the right size for family dining and entertaining. The attic became a state-of-the-art media room with components tucked behind paneling.
“We love to entertain and now we have the room,” Dolan said.
The Didion House has always blended styles and eras. So do the surrounding homes.
Its midtown neighborhood’s nickname refers to a time when poor Sacramento residents in the late 1800s sought refuge on the hill when floodwaters swamped downtown.
Before World War I, Sacramento’s upper crust built grand homes on Poverty Ridge, which they renamed “Sutter’s Terrace.”
The name “didn’t stick,” said Catherine Turrill, one of the SOCA experts coordinating the tour.
The three-story, 7,000-square-foot Didion House was commissioned in 1910 by pioneer Mary Kendall Ross-Roan, a longtime director of Sacramento Bank. Designed by Seadler & Hoan and built by Seller Brothers, the eclectic house combines Colonial Revival with simpler Prairie School style in a unique California blend.
The Didion family bought the house in the late 1940s. Frank Reese Didion used the first-floor front office for his insurance business. His daughter, Joan, then a McClatchy High School student, lived in the home for two years before leaving for college. (Joan spent her childhood years at a home just around the corner.) She also started writing seriously as a teenager.
“I can imagine Joan, sitting here, reading or writing,” said Dolan, as she gazed out the window tucked below the staircase.
Joan’s bedroom was in the southeast corner. But much of the home appears from an era long before her stay.
Period antiques are everywhere. The dining room is papered with its original “Tiffany velvet,” deep-olive-green cloth that was popular when the home was new. Leatherlike covering textures the entryway walls and up the copper-capped staircase.
Genevieve Didion, Joan’s step-grandmother and a longtime education leader, lived in the house until her death in 1974. The Dolans purchased the house from her family.
Mrs. Didion collected antiques and items that caught her eye. She accumulated a large assortment of glass lamp globes and shades. The bedrooms feature 8-foot, gilt-framed mirrors salvaged from a department store.
Many of Genevieve’s furnishings came with the house, Dolan said.
“She left some amazing things,” she added. “I kept finding all these goodies in the basement.”
It’s all here now, lovingly displayed by the Dolans.
Said Dolan, “I think the Didions would be happy.”