A beloved Tudor Revival home at the corner of McDonald Avenue and 13th Street in Santa Rosa has officially gone back to the future.
The circa-1931 house, where former Sonoma County Supervisor Helen Rudee lived for more than 60 years, has new owners who have just completed a restoration and renovation that celebrates the past while preparing for the future.
Some of the restoration included painstaking efforts to modernize the kitchen without erasing the character, and a push to return a special “sleeping porch” to its original state.
Construction crews also tried hard not to destroy too much of the one-of-a-kind plaster walls.
For Terry and Debra Sanders, the six-figure restoration investment represents a new beginning on another level: The duo and their now-15-year-old-son Isaac lost their previous home in Fountaingrove to the Tubbs fire in 2017, and this is the first time the close-knit family has been able to settle down since then.
“It’s been an expensive labor of love but worth it,” Terry said. “We’re just stewards of this place for as long as we’re lucky enough to live here. It feels good to be able to call it home.”
County history converges onto one home
If you’ve ever strolled the McDonald neighborhood, you likely know the Rudee house at 725 McDonald Avenue.
It’s set back from the street with a beautiful lawn. It has colorful tiles on the front. It’s so stately that passersby often mistake it for some sort of community center. And it’s been that way for nearly 100 years.
The two-story home was designed by Russell Guerne de Lappe, grandson of the Swiss immigrant, George Guerne, for whom Guerneville was named. It was built by Robert Whiting in 1931. Whiting lived in the home for a time, then sold it to Donald Carithers, owner of the White House department stores. The Carithers family lived there for more than 20 years. Then, in 1957, Dr. Bill Rudee and Helen moved in.
Bill Rudee died in 1995 and Helen Rudee owned the home she died at age 100 in 2018. The Sanders family bought the home the following year, making them only the fourth owners of the historic spot.
The Sanders family knew immediately what they were getting themselves into. With floors of random-width oak, doorknobs of crystal and pewter, a floor-to-ceiling living room window, and a copper-hooded art deco (non-working) living-room fireplace, the interior of the house had a multitude of original touches.
It was, as Terry described it, “old and beautiful, all at once.”
Fountaingrove to McDonald Avenue
The Sanders family certainly never expected to own a historic home in the McDonald neighborhood. When the couple moved to Sonoma County from the East Bay in 2006, they purchased a new house in the Fountaingrove neighborhood with sweeping views of the city down below.
Then, on the night of October 8, 2017, their home and most of the rest of the neighborhood burned to the ground.
This loss was particularly difficult for Terry, who is a firefighter in Oakland. Debra is the foster and homeless youth education services coordinator for the Sonoma County Office of Education. The two spent months agonizing over the decision to rebuild. Like many who lost their homes in the Tubbs fire, the family rented while they battled their insurance company over payout totals.
Ultimately, they opted to buy, and in 2019 they purchased the Rudee house for $2 million.
The family couldn’t afford to begin a restoration right away, and they wanted to get a sense of what it was like to live in the house before they started. They moved in and did nothing. For two years.
“We really wanted to let the house speak to us,” Terry said. “What we learned was that being in the house really made us want to slow down. We couldn’t help but be transported to the past. We sat in the living room and looked at the fireplace with this fantastic old copper hood and it was like, ‘We gotta preserve this.’ That was our guide.”
Creative updates while maintaining charm
The restoration began in April 2021. Most of the work focused on two areas: The kitchen and a window-lined sunroom on the second floor that — at least back when the house was first built — was known as a “sleeping porch” because it was the coolest room in the house on hot nights.
For both jobs, the Sanders family hired McIntosh Builders out of Santa Rosa.
The kitchen presented the biggest obstacle. The inherited kitchen was galley-style, with brown cabinets that likely were installed in the 1970s. Contractors came in and ripped the room down to the studs. They tore out a bathroom to create more space and upgraded plumbing. They also built in a breakfast nook and installed new white cabinets made to look old.
The porch, which faces west, was a different challenge. Over time the windows had been walled in and part of the porch had been converted to a closet. Contractors tore out the walls, put in new windows and hung a daybed from the ceiling, effectively returning the room to its original purpose.
“The bones of the house were great,” said Scott McIntosh, who owns the construction company. “We tried to make all these structural fixes and have everything look like it had always been there.”
The Sanders family hired Brown Electrical Services Inc., also out of Santa Rosa, to upgrade the electrical.
Matt Brown, the company’s principal, said that while the project was a “standard rewire,” old homes always present unforeseen problems. He added that his crews took advantage of attic space to run new wiring around the house.
“For us when you work on a home like this one, you’re always trying to be creative in how you get to certain areas without just tearing walls open,” he said.
Subtle decorative touches
According to Terry, the last of the work on the house was completed in mid-March, roughly 16 months after it began.
That means that the initial restoration on the Helen Rudee house is complete.
Of course, no home improvement project is ever truly finished. Terry and his wife gradually have been decorating the house with period pieces — Terry calls them “analog” to differentiate them from “digital” items of today — and nods to yesteryear.
These touches are subtle but noticeable around the house. Sanders, who plays in a blues band called the Dylan Black Project, has invested in an old wooden radio cabinet that sits next to the fireplace. The couple also has kept a little clock on the kitchen wall that has “Helen” written in plain script on the bottom — this clock was there when Helen Rudee owned the place, yet another literal piece of history.
“The most important thing for us now is to respect the history of this home,” said Terry Sanders. “We’re ready for that responsibility.”