The Redwood Lodge

Redwood Lodge is one of the remaining early Mill Valley houses in Blithedale canyon.  It is now nestled in a grove of large redwood trees but when the house was built they were young, second growth redwoods just beginning to replace those logged in the canyon in 1851.  Jean Keiler, granddaughter of the original owners, still lives there and on a gray, March afternoon she graciously showed me through the house and entertained me with tales of her family, its past residents.

George E. Billings was 17 years old when he came to SF with his family from Cazenovia, NY in 1868.  He held several jobs before going to work for the Hall Shipbuilding Yards in San Francisco.  The Hall family also had a shipbuilding yard on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound area.  He must have done well there.  In 1874 he married Susanna Maria Hall, his boss' daughter.  The couple set up housekeeping in San Francisco.

In 1890 Henry Bridge, a yachting friend, told him about the Tamalpais Land and Water Co. auction advertised to take place in Mill Valley.  The two went to the auction together planning to buy property in Cascade canyon.  The lots they were interested in there went to a higher bidder so instead they bought, between them, all the lots along the creek on Corte Madera Avenue from Bigelow (now Eldridge) to Winwood Place.  Billings purchased lots 206, 207, 208 and 209 for the then grand sum of $2,125.  The Billings' at first used the site as a camping place after sailing over from San Francisco.  Apparently they enjoyed that very much and built a summer home on the property in the following year, 1891.

By 1896 the Mill Valley and Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway was built and in operation from the depot downtown to the summit.  The right of way ran alongside the Billings property across the creek from Redwood Lodge with a stop on Eldridge at what as then the southeast corner of the property.

In 1901 the Billings' enlarged the original summer house which they called Redwood Lodge.  The Billings' house in San Francisco escaped the 1906 earthquake and fire but the family, like many other, had come to Mill Valley for safety at the time, and considering the gracious amenities of suburban living offered by Mill Valley, decided to make Redwood Lodge their year 'round home.  They then made further additions to the house.

Redwood Lodge is a shingle-style house with some features showing the influence of the Craftsman Style.  The plan was originally asymmetrical but since Mr. Billings "liked to add rooms from time-to-time," according to his granddaughter, Mrs. Keiler, it has also become, over the years, very irregular and picturesque as well.  Walter Ratcliffe of Berkeley was a friend of Geo. E. Billings, "although younger," and was one of the "tennis regulars."  He was the architect for at least some, if not all, of the building.  The roofs are of the hip type with operable skylights and attic dormers.  The front porch has a skylight and bracketed columns.  A basement at the rear of the house was used for storage of the home canned goods.

The living room and dining room are unpainted redwood paneling (as is most of the rest of the house) with sloping soffits and boxed beams.  There is a large, Craftsman Style fireplace of clinker brick in the living room and a smaller fireplace of smooth surfaced buff brick in the dining room.  An office alcove adjoins the living room with a spindlework screen above head height and a panel of glass brick-like lenses above (marked "PH Jackson & Co., Steel locking frame with reinforced lenses, Patd. Nov 22, 1904") that allows natural light to filter down from an operable skylight in the roof of the sewing room above.  Both of these features probably date from the 1906 additions.  There are some glazed, sliding pocket doors between the living room, the dining room, and the open stairwell.  There are large, almost square windows lining the dining room and the breakfast porch.  These windows originally had thumb grips so they could be lifted slightly, then tilted a little so that they would slide into slots in the sills where they were completely out of sight and the dining areas became, in effect, outside dining porches.  The staircase, with its large square newel posts undecorated except for a four-sided convex curve at their top, rises in a stairwell open to the upper floor, turns 90 degrees and ascends into what might have been a "billiard room or game room" in the parlance of the time, the predecessor of our present day recreation or family room.  When the family decided to live in the house year round, a master bedroom and bath were added at this level and the room became Mrs. Billings' sewing room.

The house contains a variety of Craftsman Style wrought iron and hammered copper light fixtures typical of the period.  Some have glass shades and some have bare bulbs, also typical of the period, although the carbon filament bulbs in use then gave a softer light than bare modern bulbs.

... to be continued.