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A Local Family Becomes the Next Stewards of One of Santa Rosa’s Landmark Homes

The Sanders family lost their home in the 2017 Tubbs fire. Their tentative rebuild plans took a turn when friends told them about a historic home in Santa Rosa’s McDonald Avenue neighborhood.

Much of the family’s renovation budget was put to an expanded kitchen where they cook big Sunday meals together. (Eileen Roche)

Editor’s note: Terry Sanders is a candidate for the hotly contested District 4 seat on the Santa Rosa City Council. The other candidates for this seat are incumbent Victoria Fleming, small business owner Henry Huang and Scheherazade “Shari” Shamsavari, a retired health and education professional. The story was reported in early June 2022, before the height of the campaign season. It originally appeared in the print magazine’s special resilience section, focusing on stories of families building new lives after the 2017 wildfires.

The story of how the Sanders family found home after the 2017 fires is one of resilience. Terry Sanders, a retired Oakland firefighter and musician, and his wife Debra, who works with foster youth for the county’s office of education, lived with their 16-year-old son Isaac in a series of rentals for months while trying to figure out how best to rebuild their former Fountaingrove home.

Their tentative rebuild plans took a turn when friends told them about a historic home in Santa Rosa’s McDonald Avenue neighborhood. The home, a landmark Art Deco/Tudor Revival owned for over 50 years by county supervisor Helen Rudee and her family, was going up for auction, and the Sanders family decided to put in a bid. Terry, who knew the neighborhood well after staying with friends around the corner after the fire, remembers thinking it wasn’t likely that anything would come of their bid. And anyway, he and Debra weren’t entirely sure the look of the home was their style. “It looked like a church,” Terry says. “But then when it came on the market, and this all happened, we were just so excited.”

The Sanders home in the McDonald Avenue neighborhood in Santa Rosa. (Eileen Roche)
Debra, Terry and Isaac Sanders. (Eileen Roche)

The family fell head over heels for the house. Realizing it was really theirs was an emotional moment, after long months in rental houses as they negotiated with their insurance company. “Debra and I sat down here, and we said to Isaac, ‘This is your home now. This is your neighborhood. Take a stroll, feel it out,’” Terry recalls. “No more trips to the storage unit, no more any of that, because we’re home.”

A young family moving into the old Rudee place was big news within the tight-knit McDonald Avenue neighborhood. In the large front window facing the street, Terry and Debra propped up a giant teddy bear, one that had belonged to Isaac as a child and which they had saved from the fire, with a note saying how excited they were to meet their new neighbors, just as soon as they could. The giant teddy bear is now a neighborhood landmark in its own right, and is dressed up in special outfits for holidays—or for San Francisco 49ers football wins.

The staircase. (Eileen Roche)
The sunroom. (Eileen Roche)

The Sanders family is just the fourth family to live in the house, which was built in 1931. They hold a deep-rooted respect for the home’s long history, a respect which has been a hallmark for the family through a series of renovations since they arrived at the home in late 2018. “The thing that was important to us was to make sure that anything we did needed to look like it had always been here—the baseboards, the light switches, all the old wood,” says Terry. “We had to let the house speak to us; we had to fit in with it. That was the guiding principle.”

Terry and Debra say they love how they’re able to keep their family life in the home simple and old fashioned. They can rest and read on an traditional sleeping porch off the guest bedroom upstairs or do puzzles in the sunroom off the living room downstairs. “This is another great thing about the house— it’s all analog. There’s nothing digital here. None of that. There’s no coffee maker—we boil water on the stove, and we pour it over,” Terry says.

The great room. (Eileen Roche)

Allowances made to the home’s long history sometimes made necessary updates more complicated.

“We’d hear, ‘If you just let us take all the plaster out, then we can put in the new wiring,’” Terry remembers. “And I’d say, ‘No way. That’s hundred-year-old plaster, man. You need to figure out a different way.’” Plaster and wood were eventually preserved, as was the distinctive flame-colored tile on the home’s exterior—a tile that helps ground the Tudor home squarely in the 1930s Art Deco era, when humble craftsmanship was elevated to high art. “Back in the day, there was no Lowe’s, no Home Depot. Someone made that tile. They had to fire it and make it,” says Terry. “I mean, I have the actual original blueprints for that tile, which I think is the coolest thing.”

The majority of the work the family did, in addition to modernizing plumbing and bathrooms, went into a large new kitchen at the back of the house. Now Sundays are family days, and Debra’s elderly father, who recently moved into a home just five minutes away, comes over so the family can cook a big meal together in the bright, airy space.

And Thursday nights are once again band nights. Terry has played in a Sonoma County blues band with a few friends for over a decade, and they practice in a separate band room out near the carport. Isaac, also a gifted musician, plays on a baby grand piano in the living room that was given to the family after their old piano was lost in the fire. “We’ll come back from a walk in the neighborhood and just sit outside for a few minutes, listening to him playing piano,” Terry says.

The renovated sleeping porch upstairs. (Eileen Roche)
Thursday nights are band nights. (Eileen Roche)

Debra and Terry say now that the family is settled, and now that her father is living just a couple minutes away, they can draw strength from each other in new and different ways. “And that means that we are able to provide that strength to others. When you have found stability like this, it makes it easier for you to be that anchor of stability for someone else who may need someone to lean on for just a little bit,” says Terry. “You know what I mean? ‘When you’re not strong, I’ll be your strength. I’ll help you carry on.’”

Resources

Builder: McIntosh Builders, Santa Rosa, 707-573-3947

Draftsman: Paul Hastings, Santa Rosa, 707-546-2528 paulhastingsdesign.com

Electrical Contractor: Brown Electrical Services, Santa Rosa, 707-396-2070 brownelectricalservices.net

Plumber: Skip’s Plumbing Repair Service, Santa Rosa, 707-291-4955

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