You’ve probably never heard of California Historical Landmark #864. That’s because you’ve probably never heard of the town in which it resides. The Gable Mansion sits on the corner of Cross and 1st Street in the quaint Victorian neighborhood of the city of Woodland. I grew up rollerblading with my friend Claire through the quiet streets of that neighborhood, thinking for all the world that there was no surer sign of success than living in that big, old house.
It is big: 11,202 square feet to be exact. It is old: built in 1885. It is expensive: valued just under $1.43 million by the county assessor. And it is pink. That’s right: a pale shade of seashell pink that catches the eye but doesn’t scream out at passersby in an obnoxious way. In fact, this big, old, expensive, pink Victorian manor is really quite beautiful. From the outside.
As a kid in the nineties, I would glide by the Gable Mansion on my rollerblades and wonder what it looked like inside and who in the world got to live in such a magnificent house. Claire and I would stand in front of its wrought-iron gates lined with rose bushes (over 650 in total) and wait for someone to step out the front door so we could get just the slightest glimpse of the interior. Plus we wanted to see the people that lived there. For we assumed it must be people (plural) since it was so enormous, with six bedrooms and five full baths.
It was Claire’s favorite house in the world. Mind you, for a couple of preteens in Woodland in the nineties when the internet was still not much of a thing, “the world” consisted of five square miles of suburban housing surrounded on all sides by endless fields of corn and tomatoes. We hadn’t really seen “the world” yet. Sacramento was our nearest reference point for cosmopolitanism. And the occasional trip to San Francisco was about as fantastical as Disneyland. No, the world was Woodland, and all the rest was fluff.
Claire and I bladed past that house hundreds of times in our childhood, and never once did we see anyone coming or going. Who lived there? What was it like inside? It was a mystery. There were other mysteries in that neighborhood, like: Who had mounted a set of bronzed testicles on the garden wall at 515 1st Street? Or whose ghost was haunting the old-timey Opera House on 2nd Street? But the Gable Mansion was the most mysterious. The sheer size and heft of the house made us believe only the most fabulously wealthy could live there. That and a rumor around town that it was listed for sale at one million dollars. This was 1997, and we were kids, so a million dollars was the first wish we’d ask a genie to grant us if we’d had a magic lamp. A million dollars was huge. And the person who could afford that sum… Well, they’d arrived.
Now with the internet, the mystery is gone. The first thing I learned from the internet was that the house had never sold for a million dollars. In fact, Jeff and Starr Barrow took ownership of the Gable Mansion in 1997 for $675,500. They fixed up the house over the years and, in 2018, put it on the market for $3.85 million.
It never sold.
You may wonder why a 42-room Victorian manor wouldn’t sell at the bargain price of $3.85 million. Perhaps it was because Jeff and Starr Barrow were asking more than twice the value assessed. It’s in Woodland, not Los Angeles, after all. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t listed long enough to find the right buyer who would appreciate it. The house was taken off the market in 2019. Or perhaps it was because, as one San Francisco critic suggested, it was “just too much to be true” (Curbed SF, April 19, 2018).
“Too much” is being polite. Now there are countless photographs of the renovated interior splashed all over the internet. There is also a short YouTube video that is listed as a “documentary” but is essentially a sales pitch starring Jeff Barrow, the current owner. So I have finally seen the inside of the Gable Mansion. And I have finally seen its wealthy proprietor.
How do they compare to my childhood fantasies?
All the online articles advertising its sale in 2018 say the Gable Mansion has been “modernized”. But a more precise word would be “Frankensteined”. The interior has become of a patchwork of original features (hand-carved balustrades, gas chandeliers), added flourishes that are supposed to evoke the era in which the house was built (hand-pressed tin ceilings, “Tiffany-inspired” stained-glass tableaus made by Starr Barrow), and modern upgrades (a projection movie theater with fiberoptic stars that light up when you push the “romance button”, an endless lap pool/spa in the basement surrounded by three flat-screen TVs). When I watched the YouTube video with a friend, he thought of Liberace.
A second series of videos from Good Day Sacramento (May 7, 2018) takes us on a guided tour of the mansion. Each bedroom is “themed” with its own original hand-stenciled wallpaper and matching rug. The real estate agent is quick to point out a 300-gallon saltwater fish tank that occupies a corner of the kitchen—a permanent installation that compels future buyers to invest in the complicated care of saltwater fish. The kitchen itself is new, erected on the site of what the real estate agent claims was once “some kind of covered porch area.” Even in all its modern glory, the new kitchen appears outdated, stuck somewhere between the nineteenth century and nineteen-nineties.
The host of Good Day Sacramento points out the elevator—“It goes up and down. That’s amazing!”—on his way to the entertainment center in the basement. I’m immediately struck by the free-standing slot machine, the life-sized cutout of Star Trek’s Leonard McCoy, and the vintage Pinocchio marionette, all of which suggest Jeff and Starr Barrow are collectors of a particular sort. In fact, the whole house is littered with tchotchkes that would make William Randolph Hearst jealous.
In addition to these “improvements”, the carriage house has been outfitted with its own independent living space, perfect for an Airbnb. The attic, too, has been transformed into a 3000-square-foot “penthouse” complete with kitchen and gym. More than one family could happily occupy this property with room to go around. However, only Jeff and Starr Barrow are lucky enough to live inside this funhouse.
The perfectly preserved exterior is still as beautiful as I remember. Except for the addition of a swimming pool off the kitchen, the house and grounds look like they could have been plucked right out of 1885 when Amos Gable, a wealthy cattle rancher, had the house constructed for $36,000. But looking inside is like looking through a kaleidoscope of the past, present, and future. Nothing sits quite right, and everything is a little too bright.
The Gable Mansion, which in Woodland circa 1997 looked so grand, exhibits few of those markers of class that would set it apart from similarly-sized houses in neighboring San Francisco or Los Angeles circa 2021. One can only guess why it didn’t sell, despite a “global” marketing campaign. But to hear Jeff Barrow talk about it, the Gable Mansion is the pinnacle of wealth and success and—with its endless pool and penthouse accommodations—should command more than twice its valuation, because, he says, it is “very modern and yet historically significant.”
I recently asked Claire what about the house had captivated her as a child. She said, “It looked like the set of a movie and it was larger than life.” Both signifiers still apply, and perhaps as children, we would have been introduced to the pink carpets and pinball machines and said to ourselves, “This is exactly what I want when I grow up.”
Nicholas Ponticello is an educator and writer in Los Angeles, California. He graduated from University of California, Berkeley with degrees in mathematics and astrophysics and later earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Ponticello is the author of Do Not Resuscitate, a fictional biography that considers transhumanism and the intersection of technology and sustainability. Do Not Resuscitate won a Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award, an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, and a CIPA EVVY Award. His second novel, The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown, also won a Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award and was listed as one of 100 Notable Books from the Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition.