Home & Garden Columns
We all need a sanity break from Berkeley every now and then, but not everyone can fly off to the Seychelles or to Switzerland when the urge to flee is upon us.
Happily, beauty and calm are within easy reach in northern California. Only 55 miles away, the Sonoma Valley offers a myriad historic, visual, and gustatory attractions. Many of these are concentrated in the lovely town of Sonoma, which was built around Mission San Francisco Solano—the last and northernmost of California’s 21 missions.
Established in 1823, after Mexico had obtained its independence from Spain, the mission was secularized in 1834 by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1907–1890), whose title at the time was Military Commander and Director of Colonization of the Northern Frontier.
Vallejo would soon become Comandante General of Alta California. Even after California had joined the Union, Vallejo continued to be active in public life. A member of the first State Constitutional Convention, he was elected to the first Legislature as State Senator.
Nothing marked the difference between Vallejo’s Mexican and American periods more sharply than his residences. As Comandante General, he lived in La Casa Grande, a traditional two-story adobe house overlooking the central plaza. As State Senator, he settled in what he proudly called his “Yankee Home” and “Boston House.”
In 1850, Vallejo purchased a 500-acre tract of open land half-a-mile west of the Sonoma plaza. The land included a free-flowing spring called Chiucuyem (Tears of the Mountain) by the Native Americans. Vallejo bestowed a Latin version of the name on his new estate, christening it Lachryma Montis.
The house erected at Lachryma Montis in 1851–52 was designed and prefabricated in New England, shipped by sailboat around Cape Horn, and assembled on site. The style is Carpenter Gothic—the American wood-frame version of Victorian Gothic Revival, which had come into vogue on the East Coast in the previous decade.
Despite its generous size, General Vallejo’s home appears like a dollhouse thanks to quaint details such as steeply pitched, dormered roof gables; lacy bargeboards “dripping” from the eaves; green-shuttered windows; and porches festooned with grape arbors.
Perfectly symmetrical, the house points its parlor wing to the south, leading forth with a Gothic lancet window on the second floor and a slender bay window directly below. The hall is entered from twin porches flanking this wing on east and west. Behind the hall on the ground floor is the main wing, containing the dining room, the General’s study (he once owned the largest library in the state), and two rear bedrooms.
Two narrow staircases—front and back—climb to the second floor, where the large master bedroom is located over the parlor. Behind it are a small sewing room turned nursery and two bedrooms that were once occupied by the Vallejos’ youngest daughters, Luisa and Maria. With the exception of the nursery, all the rooms in the main house—seven in all—contain white marble fireplaces venting through five chimneys.
Many house museums are furnished with generic period artifacts collected here and there. Not so the Vallejo house, which is filled with genuine family heirlooms, from furniture and paintings to musical instruments and clothing. For the General’s bicentennial birthday on July 4, his embroidered silk vest was put on display in the parlor.
All these treasures came down to us from Luisa, the fifteenth of sixteen Vallejo children, who inherited the estate and lived here until her death in 1943. Luisa sold the property with its contents to the State of California in 1933 and was the first curator of Lachryma Montis, which was turned into a state park.
Typical of mid-19th century houses, the Vallejo residence has no bathrooms—the family made do with washstands and chamber pots. As a precaution against fire, the kitchen was located in a separate building in the rear. A simpler version of the main house, this cookhouse also served as the servants’ dining room, the cook’s sleeping quarters, and a storage loft. It is separated from the main house by an old grape arbor planted with an old Flame Tokay vine that still bears fruit in abundance. This vine is the legacy of Agoston Haraszthy (1812–1869), a Hungarian immigrant who founded the Buena Vista winery in 1857 and is known as the Father of California Viticulture. Two of Haraszthy’s sons married two of the General’s daughters. The Flame Tokay was one of thousands of cuttings Haraszthy shipped from Europe to California.
West of the main house sits the enchanting El Delírio, a diminutive garden pavilion surrounded by trellis work and fronted by a cast iron swan fountain. Here Vallejo wrote his five-volume history, Recuerdos Historicos y Personales Tocantes à la Alta California, 1769–1849.
Behind the cookhouse is a large reservoir lined on one side by a brick-paved wooden pergola. A sizable population of turtles inhabits these waters, and a thicket of prickly-pear cactus dominates the far shore, where a winding stone staircase leads to a reconstruction of the Hermitage. This one-room hut was built for the use of Vallejo’s son Platon during his school vacations and later became the domain of the youngest son, Napoleon, who kept a menagerie that at one time included 14 dogs, several cats, and a parrot.
Returning to the main courtyard, you’ll want to visit the museum located in the half-timbered brick building displaying a gigantic carriage lantern. This structure, prefabricated with imported components, was used for storing wine and produce before being converted to residential use and named the Chalet.
The $2 admission fee also covers other sites in the Sonoma State Historic Park, including Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the Sonoma Barracks, the Toscano Hotel, and Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe.
General Vallejo’s domain might inspire you to emulate his gracious lifestyle. Fortunately, just one block to the west one can dine opulently and memorably in Sonoma’s most highly acclaimed restaurant, The General's Daughter. Built in 1870, this Italianate structure was the home of Natalia Vallejo and her husband, the vintner Attila Haraszthy. The food and wine are fabulous. Bring plenty of money.
363 3rd Street West (off West Spain St.)
Sonoma, CA 95476
The General's Daughter Restaurant
400 West Spain Street (at 4th Street)
Sonoma, CA 95476
Photograph: Daniella Thompson
General Vallejo’s house was prefabricated and shipped from New England in 1851.