The historic Didion house brings out the curious
The elegant four-story house has sat majestically on the southeast corner of 22nd and T streets in the downtown Poverty Ridge area since 1911. Internationally known author and Sacramento native Joan Didion once referred to her former residence as a “wedding cake,” while her aunt, Mary Didion Armstrong, who later lived in the house for thirty years, would often comment how it continuously attracted the public’s attention. It is one of the most interesting local structures to have survived from the Colonial Revival period, which thrived in California roughly from 1895 until 1910. A prominent architectural firm, Seadler & Hoen, designed the house, while some of the city’s most accomplished women have lived in it.
William Roan and his wife Mary Ross-Roan commissioned the house, and her unusual background greatly contributes to its historical importance. Mary Elizabeth Kendall was born in Illinois in 1845, the daughter of Judge William and Berzilla Kendall. The family immigrated to California by way of the Nicaragua route, and in 1857 they moved to Sacramento where her father established a 132-acre farm located five miles southeast of the city, in the Fruitridge area. He also ran the local post office. Within four years of arriving in the area Mary became the wife of Charles H. Ross, a veteran settler of California who had arrived in 1847. At the time of their marriage Charles was a well-established businessman: he owned a 1,200-acre ranch, he was a director of the Sacramento Bank and later he even served a term as County Supervisor (1867-1869). Charles Ross died in 1876 and left a large fortune in the capable hands of his young widow. Eventually she assumed his place as a director on the board of the bank, and in the thirty years that she held this position Mary Ross gained a reputation as “the woman banker.” At this time, she was certainly one of the few female bankers in the country, and it was undoubtedly under her influence that married women could open their own accounts at the Sacramento Bank.
In 1901 Mary became the wife of William Roan, who worked as a salesman for Weinstocks Lubin department store, but she hyphenated her married names, probably because of her prominence within the community. Mary provided the financing for their new home, and she would have been responsible for the interior’s lavish details. She decorated it with the assistance of a prominent local furniture store, the John Breuner Company. In 1913 Sacramento historian William Willis commented, “One of her chief pleases has been the beautifying of her home, and a stranger, noting with admiration the artistic arrangement of lawn and flowers, would promptly decide that the lady of the house possessed the most refined taste; such an opinion would be deepened by a view of the interior with its aspect of culture and simple elegance.” Unfortunately, the couple did not get to enjoy their new residence together for very long. In October 1912 William Roan slipped on the sidewalk at the house and broke his leg; complications developed, and by early November he was dead from pneumonia.
Mary Ross-Roan continued living at the house until her death in 1917, although it is unclear if she lived there alone. A year after her death a petition was filed in the court of Judge Peter J. Shields charging that “the distribution of more than $450,000 was ‘not written or signed’ by Mrs. Roan, and that the purported will was made through the undue influence of Fred Ankener, a friend, and William S. Kendall, a nephew.” Percy West and Horatio Hurd, nephew and grandnephew respectively of Mary’s first husband filed this scandalous petition, as reported in the Sacramento Bee on October 31, 1918. They claimed because Mary’s estate comprised entirely of money from her first marriage that her wealth should be distributed equally among the immediate members of the Ross and Kendall families. They also claimed that Mary had reverted to her second childhood at the time that the will was written, and that she was unable to fairly distribute her possessions. The petitioners went a step further by claiming that she “developed a great desire and infatuation for men who were much younger than herself…On account of her distressed mental state and her abnormal weakness for young men, she became violently enamored of Ankener, notwithstanding the great differences in their ages.” Thus Ankener, who acted as her chauffeur, and her nephew William, who was also a director at the Sacramento Bank and her primary heir, were accused of conspiring to control her actions.
While deciding on the validity of the petition, quite likely Judge Shields would have been aware of the situation. Not only was Sacramento a small town at this time, in which everyone knew everyone else’s business, but the newly-built Shields residence (2009 23rd Street) was located around the corner from Mary’s home. The case may have been settled out of court or dismissed, since no official records on his decision have been located, but other resources suggest that some of the petitioners’ claims were exaggerations. In March 1917, the Sacramento Bank published a small pamphlet to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and short biographies of the bank’s directors were included. According to their publicity department, “Although Mrs. Roan has passed the age when most men are willing to lay down the cares and worries of business, her strong physical and mental endowment enable her to continue as one of our ablest directors.” While it was no doubt good business to advertise that she was still currently active with the bank’s affairs, this information suggests that her health was fine. Her obituary notice also supports this idea, as it claimed she was ill only one week prior to her death.
Mary’s house remained vacant until 1922, when her nephew and heir William Kendall moved in with his family. At this time a local firm, Duensing Decorative Furnishings, redecorated the interior, although some existing features like the wall sconces with mica shades found on the first floor, and the simulated leather wallpaper found throughout the house were not altered. In the dining room, however, Joanna Kendall added Tiffany velvet wallpaper that changes colors when you move around the room, and she exchanged a large circular stained-glass fixture for a delicate tier-drop chandelier that continues to hang in the room. By 1929 the Kendall’s daughter Mary and her husband M. Russell Richardson resided at the house. Throughout her years living at her great-aunt’s house Mary Richardson rearranged the rooms to suit her needs. As this Mary was an accomplished pianist she placed a grand piano in the parlor, while a large gong was kept at the end of the entrance hallway for meal summons.
The house changed ownership to the Didion family in the latter part of the 1940s, at a time when the State of California decided to further expand their office buildings into the neighborhoods surrounding the Capitol. Among the many houses in the area that faced destruction was the Didion home located at 1213 O Street. Genevieve and J. Frank Didion challenged the State because they thought their lovely Victorian house was under appraised, but in the meantime, they purchased 2000 22nd Street from Mary Kendall Richardson for their future home. While the case was in court J. Frank Didion’s eldest son and his family moved into the house. (It was during this time that Joan received a rejection letter from Stanford University, which she had framed and keeps as a memento.) J. Frank Didion died in March 1953, so at the end of the year his widow moved into the house alone. Genevieve H. Didion was a well-known community activist. For many years she was a member of the Board of Education, she prompted legislation that resulted in the construction of Sacramento State University, and she founded Camilla Grove at the State Capitol in memory of the area’s pioneers, just to name a few of her many accomplishments. An elementary school located in the Pocket area was named in her honor in 1981.
Mrs. Didion only made superficial changes to the interior. For instance, she removed many of the stained glass or frosted art nouveau light fixtures, although later her daughter, Mary Didion Armstrong, found some of them in the attic and reinstalled them. However, most of its notable features have remained the same despite different owners. There is still beautiful red fir wood found throughout the interior, particularly as dado paneling along the walls. The house has its original exposed oak hardwood floors, sometimes with a linear pattern in walnut, which was part of a modern interior in the early twentieth century; floors found in earlier Victorian houses would have been completely carpeted. The ceilings in the den and the dining rooms are ornately decorated, while either an egg and dart pattern, or dentil motifs are found around the ceilings throughout the house. One interesting feature located upstairs was a screened sleeping porch with a Murphy’s bed. The disappearing bed was a practical innovation used during the summer nights to escape the heat trapped indoors during the daytime, although the house also boasted an early form of California air-conditioning, a system of strategically placed vents that naturally encouraged air to circulate.
The house continues to fascinate passersby, perhaps because it is such a substantial reminder of an era of gracious living. Personally, as a young child visiting her grandmother the large structure scared me, although after living in the house as a teenager, it inspired me to study the art and architectural history of California. Today, the Didion House is known as one of the great residential masterpieces from the early twentieth century to have survived in the Capital City.
Julia Armstrong-Totten is a professional archival and provenance researcher. Previously, for over two decades, she was a Senior Research Editor at the Getty Research Institute’s Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance.