House History

Sangster-Underwood House 1899-2009
A Trinidad Treasure

An Architectural Essay, Ron Johnson




SANGSTER-UNDERWOOD HOUSE built 1899-1900 photo after 1909

The Sangster-Underwood House is a Victorian cottage in the Italianate style. There are several contemporaneous styles in the Victorian Period from 1837-1901 that correspond to the life of Queen Victoria and end with her death in 1901. In Northern California many turn-of-the- century homes were a mixture of various Victorian and revival styles: Queen Anne (1880-1900), Stick/Eastlake (1860-1900), Italianate (1840-1910), Colonial Revival (1890-1920), and Tudor Revival (1890-1935). Why is the Sangster-Underwood house called a Victorian cottage? Because it is a one story house and is not a mansion. Nor is it a home of a person of great wealth. The Sangster-Underwood house was built in 1899-1900 by A. C. (Sandy) Sangster. Improvements to lot 10 appear in the tax records in 1899 and increase the following year when he and his family moved into his new home. His half-brother, Warren Watkins Jr., was the builder as confirmed by a board found in the house with his signature and the date 1899. In 1906 Sandy Sangster went bankrupt and unexpectedly died of pneumonia after which the house passed to James and Martha Underwood. Martha Underwood was a Watkins and daughter of Rose Anne McDonald Watkins Sangster, one of three early pioneer women of Trinidad.

Generally the public perception of Victorian architecture is one of considerable elaboration of detail with surfaces filled with decoration. The most famous Victorian home in the United States is the Carson Mansion, 1884-1886, in Eureka, California.


This mansion includes many stereotypical Victorian characteristics such as gingerbread with pierced curvilinear ornament, bargeboards with jigsaw designs, shingles in fish scale and other patterns, projecting bay windows, a tower with a turret, and three colors of paint. This is what most people expect to see when they look at a Victorian house. The Sangster-Underwood house shares little with the Carson Mansion, except that it is built of local coast redwood on a pier and post system. Because none of these stereotypical characteristics appear in the Sangster-Underwood house doesn’t mean it isn’t a Victorian home.

In fact William Carson’s first home, which was built in the 1870’s, is in the same Italianate style as the Sangster-Underwood house. It was originally sited where the company office is now and was moved to 1521 Third Street in 1914. It was not unusual to move a house on rollers or by other means in California in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In Trinidad with its mining and timber traditions the features mentioned above probably would have seemed pretentious and out of place. The first dwellings in Trinidad were tents followed by two saloons that were shipped all the way around the Horn and then assembled. Some of these early buildings were metal, brick, or non-native wood. The population of Trinidad exploded in the 1850s when many residents were seeking gold. Most buildings were very simple without decorative features and many were unpainted. Buildings that were painted, such as the Occidental Hotel, which was run by the Watkins-Sangster family, were usually painted one color, lead white. (destroyed – Galindo and Van Wyck streets) Early photographs of the Sangster-Underwood house confirm the house was unpainted emphasizing its redwood siding.

The Sangster-Underwood house has typical Italianate Victorian features such as the low pitched hip roof with overhanging eves. A hipped roof is one whose external angles are formed by the meeting of two sloping surfaces. Overhanging eves and open porches are practical in our climate with a long rainy season. Decorative brackets and dentils in larger two story Italianate Victorians are lacking. Most typical is the horizontal wood siding and the L-shaped plan of the house. The corners of the Sangster-Underwood house have pilaster-strips but lacks the quoins (from the French word coin, corner) that were in imitation of stone blocks. These pilaster-strips reinforce the corners with vertical emphasis. They also protect the corners from weather and echo the windows with their usual two to one ratio of height to width. A key element in identifying Italianate houses is the overall form of the windows and their vertical proportions. In many Italianate Victorians the upper part of the window was arched but flat-topped windows as in the Sangster-Underwood house were also used. Windows were also often used in pairs to provide more light and visual interest. Paired windows add extra expense to a house and were often restricted to the front of modest homes. The use of paired windows on three sides of the Sangster-Underwood house confirm that light and beauty were important to the builder. To emphasize the windows even more they often have window caps or hoods, which are projecting horizontal moldings over the top of the window. The Sangster-Underwood house has several paired windows as well as hood moldings that project above them, but lacks projecting polygonal bays that would appear in larger homes. The flat-topped caps of the Sangster-Underwood house are very clean and functional, five inches in height extending over the length of the window top with a five inch projection. These give greater emphasis to the windows like an eyebrow over the eye, and they harmonize with the overhanging eves and porch roofs. The Sangster-Underwood house had two open porches that added interest to the entries and provided protection from sun and rain. The long open porch fronting the kitchen with its full length of stairs emphasizes the breadth and approachability of the house.

It is unlikely an architect was hired to design the Sangster-Underwood house, and it is similar to A.C. Sangster’s first house from 1895 in its simplicity. Pattern books with architectural designs had appeared as early as 1880 in San Francisco as Pelton’s Cheap Dwellings and by 1884 Picturesque California Homes was published by Samuel and Joseph C. Newsom. They were the most famous architects in California and designed the Carson Mansion. It is possible a ready made plan may have been adapted to building the Sangster-Underwood house. There are many Italianate Victorian homes in Arcata and Eureka, both cottages and larger two story homes, which could have served as models.


SANGSTER-UNDERWOOD HOUSE January 2009 after relocation

RIECKE HOUSE 1900, now Trinidad Art, Ned Simmons photo after 2005

The other surviving turn-of-the-century home in Trinidad, the Riecke house (Trinidad Art, Ned Simmons), was built in 1900 and is similar in plan with a hip roof and overhanging eves. The Riecke house has a front porch very much like that of the Sangster-Underwood house but lacks its Italianate paired windows. The windows and doors have been replaced in the Riecke house, so some of its Victorian character has been lost, but we are very fortunate to have both of these homes as the last of their generation.

The Nineteenth century was a period of revivals, especially looking back to the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Our national architectural heritage looks back to the Renaissance and to the great Venetian architect, Antonio Palladio (1508-1580). Victorian Italianate architecture may seem a distant descendant having passed through Britain, but it used Palladian Italian elements flexibly and imaginatively. Italian Renaissance farmhouses and even simple villas were built in stone. On the North Coast various Italianate features from stone were readily adapted into redwood in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There is a beautiful simplicity in the Sangster-Underwood house that undoubtedly seemed modern to the builder of the home and to fit the character of those who were to live in it. The elaboration of other Victorian styles probably seemed too fussy to them. The Sangster-Underwood house has a handsomeness of forms and surfaces that are not overlaid with superfluous decoration.

Gardens complemented the beauty of Victorian architecture and larger homes often had quite wonderful ones. When Martha Underwood was living in the house she developed her gardening aspirations for the home. Her garden was not a Victorian pleasure garden such as that of the Magdalena Zanone House from 1908 on 1604 G Street in Eureka. The Zanone pleasure garden included a small menagerie with a grizzly bear, a shooting gallery like those in early arcades, and picnic facilities. People came to this garden for outdoor pleasures as the name suggests, and this included an exotic palm tree, magnolia bush, and row of cypress trees. The Sangster-Underwood house also had 100 year old cypress trees along Ewing Street that protected the house from incoming storms. Early photographs of Trinidad show it a treeless town, at least in residential areas, so the Sangster-Underwood house was exceptional in its early use of trees.


Martha Underwood proudly developed her garden that her family and friends could share. Her prize plant was a purple rose with a yellow center, known as the veilchenblau, as remembered by her niece, Lanette Watkins. A photograph from Mollie Susan Anderson, present owner with her brother Lee Susan, shows Martha gazing at this wondrous rose that she highly cherished. This climbing rose was first hybridized in Germany in 1909 and is noted for its apple fragrance. It is often called the blue violet or blue rambler.
museum-8-07SANGSTER-UNDERWOOD HOUSE January 2009 after relocation

museum-interiorSANGSTER-UNDERWOOD HOUSE Interior January 2009 after relocation