On May 3, 1989 I first saw the Frisbie-Walsh House while on an important business trip to Benicia, CA. My first thought was “this is my house.” Even as I gingerly walked around the neglected grounds, with old abandoned cars and piles of garbage and trash, I believed the house was a treasure, and I mentally jumped from corporate architecture in San Francisco to historic preservationist.
The challenges ahead
However, the amazing charm of the house with its incredible detail of drip bargeboard molding, pinnacle and pendant at eaves, roof pitch, scale and balance, resonated with me, and the importance of my trip was quickly dismissed.
I visualized embracing the entire process of scraping, patching, painting and restoring the interior to the grand design I felt it must have had within the past fellow architect’s original vision.
Purchasing & city issues
After gathering as much information as I could that day, I returned the following weekend for further investigation. I found the elusive owner and made an offer on Monday morning. The actual closing took many months, as the owner insisted on a property lot split, which required Planning Commission approval. By then I had learned about much of the house’s history, including the past owners, Captain John B. Frisbie and Captain Walsh. There was no thought of not creating my own vision for this century’s update and use of this amazing example of East coast architecture, significant in California’s development history.
As I threw myself into this massive undertaking, I was often asked, where does one start? It seemed that since the town had looked at the sad wreck for so many decades, the exterior was a good place to begin. A large amount of donated paint was used, as well as a substantial amount of caulk.
Balancing the options
A new foundation was not an option, as the chimneys would collapse and cause the house to fall down. So the chimneys were taken apart, and then repointed with an elastomeric epoxy type mortar to better adhere to the original brick. All the windows were taken apart, reglazed, patched, and had new guides added. We also found ‘slumped glass’ to replace the broken panes and match the patina of age.
Army of friends
So with a small army of friends, three airless paint sprayers and hundreds of gallons of paint, the overall building was completely painted with three coats. However, it was not a color to my satisfaction, so it was painted again a short while later. I began research immediately to see if I could find any grants or funds for significant historical properties and found there was only one financial incentive: the Mills Tax Credit. This bill had been pushed through the state to restore the Hotel Del Coronado by Senator Mills in the 1970s; it reduced property taxes significantly if one qualified. After endless inquiries to the California Preservation Foundation, I finally convinced the economic development person for the City of Benicia that this bill could assist historic property owners to restore their buildings. After two years, I was finally able to secure this valuable tax credit.
Opening as the “Captain Walsh House Bed & Breakfast Inn”
Due to construction costs, the idea of turning the house into a business began to evolve and necessitated a ‘business loan.’ The original design was my own, but with the public’s expectation in mind, I tried to be a bit more traditional.
The Inn’s room names were as quirky as the designs; The Epifania Room was a showcase for the First Lady (Epifania “Fannie” Vallejo Frisbie) that resided there. The Harvest was a play on the previous owner’s name, Harvey B. The Library contained secret passages, a hidden staircase and a Murphy bed. The Inn was featured on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens, The American Encyclopedia of B&B’s, Frommer’s Travel, many articles and three episodes on HGTV and was very well-received.
The Frisbie-Walsh House is at 235 East L Street in Benicia, CA. This Gothic Revival style cottage was built shortly before 1850; it is a prefabricated house (the timbers cut, numbered, hauled to Benicia and assembled at the site). Gen. M.G. Vallejo commissioned New England architect Andrew Jackson Downing to design three similar houses, one for himself, one as a wedding gift for his daughter Epifania (Fannie) and son-in-law John B. Frisbie (the Frisbie-Walsh house), and one originally owned by Captain Schillibar (it was destroyed in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake).Vallejo’s house, named “Lachryma Montis,” is now a museum in nearby Sonoma, CA.
John B. and Fannie only lived in their house for two years. They sold it to Capt. Walsh who lived there until the 1880s.