Despite its stature as one of Benicia’s historical treasures, the Fischer-Hanlon House was looking more decrepit than dapper in recent years. Tucked away next to the State Capitol Building, the period house sported peeling paint and faded, broken shutters. The sight prompted some to wonder if it was abandoned. But the Gold Rush-era house on the 100 block of West G Street no longer bears the look of neglect. Thanks to a brand-new coat of paint that restores exterior colors to a creamy white set off by green shutters, in early May the house debuted its return to glory. Benicia State Parks Association volunteer Mike Caplin said the house was last painted about 40 years ago. “The state was getting some comments from people in the neighborhood. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blight but it was an annoyance to people on the street, the old-timers,” he said. A Main Street Program volunteer, Caplin also said First Street merchants had long wanted something done about the house’s appearance.
A California landmark, the Fischer-Hanlon House is part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park which includes the State Capitol, a carriage house and servant quarters, plus a garden featuring an old wisteria tree, a Belle of Portugal rose bush and an orange tree that dates back to the 1850s and which came by ship around Cape Horn. The house was originally built in 1849 on First Street during the Gold Rush. After a fire damaged the hotel in 1856, merchant Joseph Fischer moved it and restored it at its current spot, putting the original front of the house in the back by the garden. Three of Fischer’s grandchildren last lived in the home, all three unmarried sisters with no descendants. Hanlon sisters Catherine and Raphaelita donated the home and its contents to the state in 1969, in memory of their late sister Marie. Historic advocates say the house is invaluable in that it gives people a glimpse of middle class life in the mid-1800s. Volunteer Diana King, a docent since 1986, said the house brings the past to present reality and prompts people to think about their own family history.
After making repeated funding requests, state parks superintendent for the Contra Solano Sector, Ryen Goering, said $32,000 was finally released from maintenance funds to do the much-needed painting. Workers showed up in early May to scrape off the last remains of the old paint and apply new coats to the house and picket fence. Prior to the new paint, the decorative shutters were so faded they looked like aqua blue rather than bright green, and some shutters on the west side had fallen off. Though the state parks department has weathered through financial challenges in recent years, money was found for the work. “We were able to budget for it. The community has asked for it repeatedly. It’s been a long time,” Goering said. Besides improving the appearance, the paint helps protect the house, preventing water damage and mold, he said.
New exterior paint, though, is by no means the only needed repairs and maintenance work. The house has foundation issues, and some of the windows need to be replaced, Goering said. To help highlight and prioritize needs the state is completing a historic structures report that will analyze and catalogue every square inch of the house, plus its contents. The report will help direct more work based on a priority list, and also help the state to work with the association and other organizations in completing projects. For those like King, who have a strong love of the house, such repairs and maintenance are vital in assuring the graceful home dating back to Benicia’s earliest days endures for future generations. “Historic preservation is so important. We need to understand how people lived and we can tend to forget. If it’s not there to look at and enjoy, and think about the mores and cultural activities of the time, they are going to go away. Some of those things are not worth losing,” she said.
The Fischer-Hanlon House is open for guided tours on Sundays and, occasionally, on Thursdays and Fridays if docents are available. Most days the docents are dressed in period costumes to add to the atmosphere. To make a group reservation or to check hours, call 707.745.3385.