HILLCREST HOUSE IS ONE OF SONORA’S ARCHITECTURAL BEAUTIES. MEET THE WOMAN WHO IS DEDICATED TO PRESERVING IT, WHILE ALSO LIVING IN IT AS A MUCH-LOVED FAMILY HOME.
History & Design
Spanish-style homes are abundant throughout the posh enclaves of Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills and Monterey. There are even handfuls found in many Bay Area neighborhoods, but in the hills of the Sierra Nevada, the charming design is a bit unexpected.
Sonora was settled by miners from the Mexican town of Sonora in the 1800s, however, so it’s only fitting examples of the distinct architecture still exist here. One home in particular has bucked the renovation trends—and the elements—for nearly a century.
Spanish revival architecture was at its peak in California and Florida in the 1920s and ’30s. Built in 1931 just blocks from Sonora’s historic downtown, the Hillcrest House has had only two owners. That, combined with current owner Shiree Segerstrom’s meticulous upkeep and devotion to authenticity, has kept it one of the town’s most enchanting architectural gems.
Segerstrom and her late first husband bought the home essentially on a handshake in 2000. Friends of the family were looking to sell the home to someone they knew. “We went to take a look at it and were blown away by the charm and beauty,” she says. “The owner made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We agreed to the terms and shook hands on the spot. It was one of the two most beautiful homes in downtown Sonora.”
An interior designer, Segerstrom wanted to keep the original flavor of the home and was inspired by the Fabulous Forties of Sacramento and Balboa Heights in San Francisco. There’ve been no structural changes to the home, only minor upgrades to flooring, appliances and fixtures.
“I really appreciate architecturally sensitive remodels—mixing old and new. They can cohabitate,” she says of maintaining the historical integrity. “There’s no other house like this (in the area) that’s so intact.”
Spanish- and Mediterranean-style homes are known for their rich stylistic design, which this Sonora home embodies perfectly with curves and arches, white stucco exterior, painted tile, ornamental ironwork, and built-in alcoves and shelving.
Hillcrest House is ideal for gatherings, and Segerstrom often hosts ladies’ teas, fundraisers for the local repertory theatre, home tours and birthday parties, of which there are many (a large extended family all live in the same neighborhood). In addition to countless Thanksgiving dinners, she’s even hosted a wedding on the front doorstep.
A storybook sea foam arched front door, with a glass and iron inset window, opens into an expansive entryway. The spacious living room features a 12-foot vaulted barrel ceiling and floor-to-ceiling wood-paned casement windows overlooking the side garden. An abundance of natural light shines on handcrafted oak floors, while original wrought iron light fixtures complement the stunning wrap-around iron staircase. Built-in bookcases, hutches, and perfectly placed alcoves (even a mini niche designed for a telephone) are exemplary of the craftsmanship of the time.
Segerstrom handpicked every piece of furniture in the home, most of which have greater sentimental than monetary value. Several unique furnishings create a comfortably elegant living room. Lush plants in bright ceramic pots sit with silver lamps and a selection of books on a round antique table. An Edwardian couch with oak-carved base and arms is the perfect place to lounge in front of the fireplace, which is adorned with original painted tile. A number of taller décor pieces and elements, including topiaries, candelabras and angular shelves, are incorporated into the flow of the rooms. Deep-red and green accents, as well as a variety of plants and greenery, are also abundant.
“I like a lot of plants,” she says. “I think it’s important in this day and age to have plants offset some of the acidity we get from the internet.”
Heavy drapery and rich fabrics, common in Spanish revival, accent the windows and furnishings. Original vintage draperies from the main room were repurposed as slipcovers in the master bedroom. White, almost sheer, curtains offset the heavy iron and darker hues and help keep the living room light and airy.
The home also features a formal dining room, three bedrooms, a breakfast room and laundry room. A fourth bedroom was creatively transformed into a sunroom and office. The kitchen, which was remodeled in the ’70s, was more recently stripped of the linoleum to uncover the original Douglas fir wood floors, which were then stained to match the neighboring oak. The cabinets were painted a fresh white and appliances were updated.
Tile, Tile and More Tile
Segerstrom wasn’t a fan of the two tiled bathrooms when she purchased the home and had every intention of redoing them from top to bottom. Taking her mother’s advice, however, she left the tile and let it be the focal point of the rooms. She painted the walls Swiss Coffee (a muted white) and introduced just the right fabrics and towels to punctuate the classic colors.
The master bathroom is adorned with pale lime green subway and hexagonal tile. The second bathroom features pale yellow subway tiles with burnt red accents, as well as a gothic window, iron grate and built-in cabinetry. A club and spade motif is subtly evident in the accent tile and can be seen in small details throughout the house.
Situated on two terraced lots, the grounds are as much a part of the Spanish ambiance as the home itself. Mature oaks, a giant Japanese maple, azaleas, ivy, bay laurel, lavender, boxwoods, roses, and a combination of liquid amber, lilac, willow, birch, olive and cherry trees create a serene vibrancy.
“It took 87 years to cultivate,” she says of the quarter-acre setting. “It’s really beautiful and an ongoing project. I have a wonderful gardener.”
Small topiaries, meandering trails of pea gravel and slate stepping stones, fountains, birdbaths, built-in benches and a koi pond cultivate a park-like setting. Several sitting areas are nestled throughout the grounds, inviting friends and family to enjoy the Sierra air. A small portico, complete with a wall of paned windows, fecund greenery, candles and dark wicker furnishings serves as a retreat for yoga or reading.
There’s no shortage of small towns in the Sierra, each with its own story of mining, timber and railroads. But tucked away in the shadows of Yosemite is Sonora. It’s a little more out-of-the-way than most of the region’s historic hamlets, accessed by the scenic Highways 108, 120 and 49. It’s somewhat of a well-kept locals’ secret and often discovered by those making their way to one of the West’s most breathtaking national parks.
Touted as once being the biggest, richest, rowdiest, roughest and toughest mining town in the West, it’s now settled into a wooded oasis of arts and outdoor adventure. Sonora is home to a thriving theatre scene. The Sierra Repertory Theatre has a stage in Sonora as well as at the Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park. Sierra Rep, as it’s known, presents nine shows a year and employs more than 100 artists. Stage 3 Theatre Company is relocating from its downtown location this year and plans to reopen in the spring.
The historic downtown is a storybook scene with homes and buildings dating back to the 1800s. The town’s distinctive signature red church and Tuolumne County Courthouse are two iconic landmarks of the area. The main thoroughfare comes alive every month with 2nd Saturday Art Nights. Annual gatherings put the spotlight on Sonora’s music, libations and local artisans. And while the town has expanded and grown as most do, downtown is still a bustling hub, drawing people to an eclectic selection of shops and restaurants. The Diamondback Grill offers its own wine bar and frequent winemaker events, while Emberz specializes in wood-fired cuisine, organic ingredients and unique cocktails. Sonora Joe’s Coffee Shop often stays open late for open mic, poetry and prose, and game nights.
Visitors can also look past the architectural landscape and artistic offerings to discover a forested terrain profuse with creeks, streams and trails to hike, bike and fly fish. The popular Dragoon Gulch Trail is an “urban escape trail” providing a bird’s eye view of downtown, showcasing the best of Sonora’s historic and natural treasures.