The Benjamin Ranch house is an excellent example of a modest, late nineteenth century rural Italianate residence in Sonoma County because it is an unusual example and displays excellent integrity. It is typical in size, materials, craftsmanship and its overall simplicity. It is unusual for its design, condition and integrity, particularly the integrity of its interiors.
The Italianate style was introduced to the Bay Area by east coast architect Horace Cleaveland, who designed the Bidwell Mansion in Chico and William Ralstan’s mansion in San Mateo County in what was then called English Roman style (Kirker, 1986:69). The style was promoted for rural and ‘suburban’ houses as well through a number of important authors of the time, including Andrew Jackson Downing, and through plan and pattern books. The style became more widespread when it became associated with the Progressive Movement in farming, a time of reform in agriculture in the United States. Books and journals, including California’s California Farmer (later the Pacific Rural Press), were published that provided guidance to farmers in scientific farm and ranch management practices.
The ‘grander’ Italianate ranch houses are characterized by the following features: a cubic or rectilinear form; general overall symmetry; a very low-pitched, hip roof; a cupola, widow’s walk, or other feature accentuating the ridgeline, or square tower in the case of the Italianate Villa style; a central entry and central entry hall extending the depth of the building; a broad or double door, with a transom or lunette above; tall, narrow windows, sometimes within a segmental or round-arched opening, with pronounced crowns or hoods; large chimneys placed either end of the ridgeline, revealing the symmetrical arrangement of public rooms below; deep eaves with regularly-spaced single or paired brackets on deep frieze board; and prominent verandas or a portico with relatively simple porch supports (Morgan, 2004:130). An example in Sonoma County is the M. C. Meeker residence in Occidental (no longer extant).
“High Victorian Italianate” residences, representing the second phase in Italianate design, were a relatively common building style for prosperous ranch houses in Sonoma County. Architectural historian David Gebhard describes these houses as, “. . . a single volumetric form, richly articulated by sharp, angular details” (Gebhard, 1985:556).
High style Sonoma County examples reflect the characteristics described above. They are typically wood buildings and often display one- or two-story canted bays or alternatively, a one- story portico crowned by a balustrade. Buildings without an entrance portico had a full-width veranda, with a classically-inspired balustrade. The smaller, subservient wings had a full-width open porch parallel to the ridgeline, typically located outside the kitchen. Additional architectural detailing that may have been present included wood quoins, round-arched windows with hoods, a lunette or fanlight windows above the main entry door, and four-paneled doors with the upper panels having round arches, and prominent chimneys. Windows typically had two-over-two- light, double-hung sash (Painter, 2008).