Life as a house
A mid-century residence tells the tale of Chico history, agriculture and architecture
In early 1959, Edward Reynolds strode through a 7-acre almond orchard, mentally noting the size and species of the nut trees, automatically calculating the yield in pounds—the whole time keeping an eye out for a suitable location for his new house.
Reynolds was the plant manager at Tri-Co Almonds, Inc., the largest independent almond handler and processing company in California. Tri-Co stood on the southwest corner of Whitman and East 20th streets, where Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s hops field is now located.
Reynolds was beloved by his workers and friends alike. He was a quiet man, which obscured the fact that he was a scion of a well-to-do Chico family, one that had exerted influence locally in both business and politics since the 1870s. The house he was soon to build was markedly different from the large and often ostentatious mansions—like the Goodman House and the Stansbury House—that Chico’s wealthy families historically had favored in the late 1890s.
Reflecting the changes that had come along by the mid-20th century, Reynolds opted for the prevailing nationwide style of the times—a ranch house. The style is loosely based on early Spanish Colonial forms seen in the American Southwest, modified by influences borrowed from the Prairie style, and to a lesser extent the Craftsman style. Asymmetrical exterior facades, long roof overhangs and massive, centrally located chimneys are Prairie style, whereas natural materials and muted earth-tone colors come from the Craftsman period.
The Reynolds residence is an uncomplicated, single-story, wood-framed building—clad with vertical clear-heart redwood-board siding, topped off with a low-slope roof with deep overhangs—closely embracing the site. It differs from ornate mansions by its lack of decoration. The residence is not a cookie-cutter home like many other period houses in the Park Estates subdivision, which is bordered on the north and east by Bidwell Park and to the south by Parkview Elementary School
Reflecting his family’s own desires, as well as the spirit of the times, Reynolds’ house values privacy over showiness, modesty over grandiosity, while at the same time subtly creating a sophisticated space where prominence is projected inward.
The house speaks volumes about how Chico has changed over the years, changes that were reflected by the Reynolds family’s own history.
Reynolds’ grandfather, E.T. Reynolds, arrived in San Francisco in 1869 at the age of 22. The Gilded Age culture didn’t fit his Midwest upbringing, which exposed him to both agriculture and small business.
Reputedly, in 1870, E.T. Reynolds walked north from San Francisco, arriving in Chico with nothing but a bedroll. From this humble beginning he went to work for Charles Sherman, hauling supplies up to the mining camps and lumber mills around Butte Meadows, coming back down the mountain carrying a full load of lumber.
His hard work proved fortuitous, and he became a business partner with Sherman. During the off-season, they both hired themselves out to plow fields. In 1876, they leased a large tract of land in Colusa County and began growing wheat and barley. After five years of making good money, they bought 1,600 acres of the Reavis Ranch along River Road, which today is home to Chico’s Water Pollution Control Plant.
E.T. Reynolds entered politics in 1884, when he was elected to the Butte County Board of Supervisors from the 2nd District, where he served for 17 years.
Edward Reynolds’ father, Sherman A. Reynolds, inherited his father’s political ambitions and was elected in 1915 as a city trustee (a City Council member, in today’s parlance) from the Third Ward, then one of Chico’s electoral districts. He chaired the fire, light and water commission and was instrumental in equipping the Fire Department with motor power on the steamer wagon and fire truck.
Sherman A. Reynolds attended Chico Normal School for a few years but quit early to enter the fruit business with his father. In 1898, they established the E. T. Reynolds and Son Co., specializing in fruit drying, packing and shipping. By 1902, business had boomed, and they expanded to occupy two warehouses on the northwest corner of West First and Cherry streets. Eventually, E.T. Reynolds and Son merged with another local nut processor, later becoming Tri-Co. Almonds, Inc., where Edward Reynolds managed the plant operations.
The warehouse buildings and land owned by E. T. Reynolds and Son were donated to Chico State in 1971. One hundred-plus years of industrial-agricultural history was torn down about seven years ago to make way for construction of Chico State’s Wildcat Recreation Center, which opened its doors in 2009. The only remaining link to that past is the lumber—milled from original rough-sawn roof timbers, sanded smooth and covered with a glossy finish—now adorning the reception counters in the gymnasium’s lobby. These remaining timbers are a true facade, masking the Reynolds’ robust industrial past.
The 1960s were transitional in Chico, whose well-off residents were moving away from the pronounced display of social status between the 1920s and the mid-1950s. People joined groups and social clubs such as the Comanche Riders, the Cosmos and the No Host Dance Club. Many would gather in the late afternoon at the Hotel Oaks, and then retire to someone’s house in the evening to dance and enjoy catered parties.
The transition away from this conspicuous display of wealth began in 1941, during World War II, when the Chico Municipal Airport became the home of the Army Air Corps base. At the height of the war-effort activity, the air base employed more than 4,000 personnel. This boom brought a lot of money to town and many wannabe young pilots (aka flyboys).
A local old-timer and former Tri-Co Almonds employee said that “the flyboys fell in love with local girls, came back after the war, and established many new businesses.
“The newcomers melded harmoniously with the local agriculture crowd.”
Reynolds made his move in 1960 and purchased the 7-acre orchard tract, carving out one lot for his family and selling the remainder off to the Park Estates residential developer.
At that time, social circles were as influential in the soft governance of Chico as the Bidwells were in their day. During the 1960s, local movers and shakers outsourced their medical care and residential designs to the Bay Area. Reynolds acted locally and hired architect Lawrence G. Thomson, who was born and raised in Chester.
Thomson began his practice in San Francisco and was influenced by acclaimed architect Bernard Maybeck, who had developed an eclectic vocabulary of designs, borrowing heavily from regional indigenous elements.
Maybeck’s most recognized work is the Palace of Fine Arts, located in the Marina District of San Francisco, next to the Presidio. Maybeck mentored Thomson and architect Julia Morgan, famous for her work on the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Locally, she designed Chico State’s Albert E. Warrens Reception Center, the former President’s Mansion, at 341 Mansion Ave.
Thomson spent countless hours studying Maybeck’s turn-of-the-century houses in Sausalito and Tiburon, and in the Berkeley Hills. In fact, Maybeck’s family occasionally babysat Thomson’s son.
Notable parallels between Maybeck’s and Thomson’s work include experimentation with innovative building materials; extensive use of native woods; large, full-height windows that blur the line between indoors and outdoors; broad eaves to shade interior views; handcrafted details; spatial integration with the landscaping; and environmentally responsive building orientations.
These features are evident in the well-known local buildings designed by Thomson, such as the Chico City Council chambers and the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.
Thomson’s goal in designing Reynolds’ house was to maximize personal privacy and indoor/outdoor social spaces simultaneously, without losing scale and intimacy, which can easily occur with larger residences.
Basic interior elements in the 2,400-square-foot house include a living room/entry foyer, a dining/family room, a kitchen/ breakfast nook, two bedrooms, a den, three bathrooms, and a laundry room that connects the house to the carport. Exterior elements consist of two outdoor patios, one covered by the deep roof overhang, and an oval-shaped swimming pool with sitting benches around the wide concrete pool deck—all surrounded by a beautiful, tranquil backdrop of Japanese maples, dogwood trees and flowering rhododendrons.
Thomson’s formidable design challenge was to organize and link these interior and exterior elements together, arranging the spaces to accommodate their inherent functional needs—providing smooth spatial transitions that imbue the experience with richness, beauty and fun.
He mastered the design challenge, in part, through the careful and subtle use of underlying axial orientation, which simply directs the eyes toward a specific view, or in a certain direction, or to a particular object. Among other methods, he accomplished this by ending hallways with windows instead of solid walls and contrasting floor textures/materials at key intersections.
The home is designed such that every move and turn keeps day-to-day life fresh and invigorating. But Thomson’s design starts long before the front door is opened; the location of the residence is a key element.
Approached from the street, the front entry appears distant, framed by a set of clay-brick piers demarcating the street-side driveway opening. With no formal sidewalk in sight, a long, narrow, curved driveway beckons arrival at the front door.
Once there, the architecture feels a bit underwhelming. But the mood lifts immediately once inside the entry foyer. Looking at the far end of the living room, the dark-brown posts separating the floor-to-ceiling windows frame the backyard landscaping, glowing greenish-yellow from the sun’s illumination and drawing one’s eyes outdoors.
The living room divides passive and active functions, with the sleeping quarters to the left and the dining and kitchen areas to the right. A hallway that crosses in front of the entry alcove connects the two opposing functions.
The right side of the living room is anchored by a large free-standing brick fireplace, squat and wide, prohibiting an easy view around its sides. Moving forward, two unexpected passageways are revealed, one on each end of the fireplace, that lead to the active portion of the house. This massive, centrally located fireplace is another space divider, far more exciting than a simple sheetrocked stud wall.
The best outside view is along the glass walls that stretch from the living room to the breakfast nook. The real grand vista is courtesy of Bidwell Park, where old-growth sycamores loom tall on the skyline, again focusing the eyes. This time of year, smaller deciduous trees with full canopies shorten the vista, providing enclosure and perceived privacy. In the winter, barren tree branches create a feeling of expansion, allowing the eyes to roam freely into the horizon, reducing indoor isolation.
Kevin Quinn, the home’s owner from 1998 through 2010, firmly believes Thomson achieved his initial design goals by taming “the wild chunk of space” with his design skills. Quinn credits Thomson for framing views “in his head, before those rooms or windows existed,” and said that Thomson “uses scale but he doesn’t compete with it.
“Thomson intended everything about this house to be particular to this lot and this site,” Quinn said.
Erin and James Horgan bought the house from Quinn in 2010. James is a second-generation Chicoan, who runs his own accounting firm for professional service companies; he specializes in accounting services for doctors, dentists and lawyers. Erin came to Chico to go to the university, and ended up falling in love with James and the city.
The couple lived in Tucson, Ariz., for a time and then moved back to Chico. One day when bicycling through Bidwell Park with their two young children, they spotted a for-sale sign tacked to the backside of a wooden fence.
Erin arranged to see the house and said the living room is what sold her on the residence. “I fell in love with the view out to the back yard,” she said. “I would have bought the house for the living-room view itself.”
She also loves being in the back yard, and said she especially appreciates the changing seasons “where winter colors are beige, brown and blues coming from the sky” and “the summers are green and filled with blooming colors from the maples and dogwoods.”
The couple also enjoy the immediate access to the park and the seclusion to raise their children.
Great architecture is hard to pin down, but you know it when you see it, feel it, sense it—and when it satisfies. Mediocre architecture, on the other hand, provides ample opportunities for criticism; imperfections are easily recognized.
Reynolds and Thomson created a wonderful residence—a space with a continuous sense of presence and balance.
This house tells a fabulous story, linking the history of an early Chico family to the region’s early agricultural industry and also to Thomson’s exemplary architecture—a past worthy of recognition.