“Chico is not without its places of interest. When the building is completed the town will contain one of the finest private residences on the Pacific coast, which is now being erected by the Hon. John Bidwell.” – Marysville Daily Appeal, May 27, 1866
Standing in the heart of the city of Chico, Bidwell Mansion stands as a tangible legacy of John and Annie Bidwell. Completed in 1868, the luxurious mansion would have been one of the most elaborate and modern houses of its time in northern California, reflecting the status and influence of these two significant Californians. Today, it represents one of the finest examples of early Victorian-era architecture still standing in California. Restored to the 1868-1900 historic period, the mansion is now operated by California State Parks as a house museum, allowing the public to come interact with a piece of their history.
Bidwell Mansion proved to be a substantial step up in living conditions for John Bidwell. Up until then, Bidwell had spent most of his life on the frontier and living in relatively primitive lodgings. After his arrival in California in 1841, for the most part he lived and worked in places associated with John Sutter, such as Fort Ross, Sutter’s Fort, and Hock farm. By the later part of the decade he was branching out on his own and established himself independent of Sutter.
In 1847 he was living on the Farwell grant in a log and mud cabin located on the banks of Little Butte Creek, near modern day Durham, several miles south of where the city of Chico would be laid out. When he purchased half of Rancho del Arroyo Chico in 1849, he moved over to the north bank of Big Chico Creek. The location of this first settlement would have fallen somewhere within the modern day park boundaries of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. This location afforded many advantages, including access to a consistent water source, residing above the flood plain of the Sacramento River, and lying strategically adjacent to the main north-south route to Oregon. This route evolved over the years from an informal trail, to the Shasta-Marysville Stage Road, to the Esplanade that the city of Chico enjoys today. This location remained the center of Bidwell’s agricultural empire, throughout its many changes.
John quickly added more buildings beyond the meager cabin he called home. Soon he had a substantial complex built up, consisting of several ranch buildings including a store and a granary. A major turning point came in 1852 when Rancho Chico was raided by a band of hostile Indians, burning down the entire complex Bidwell had built up. John quickly set about rebuilding. With the aid of the Mechoopda Maidu Indians, who had moved on to the property with John soon after his arrival, a large adobe building was erected and acted as a hotel as well as his living quarters. This historic building stood close to the Shasta-Marysville road, close to its crossing of Big Chico Creek. The “Old Adobe,” as it was known, appears prominently in several photographs from the era and has been roughly located by modern archeological methods where the park’s lawn lies today.
All sources point to this building remaining as John’s primary residence until Bidwell Mansion was ready to move in. For several years after the completion of the mansion, the adobe remained on the grounds as a nostalgic historical relic. John was less sympathetic than many locals and remembered the “Old Adobe”, saying, “I had an old adobe house that was built in ’52 – an insect-infested house. A great many people say ‘let it stand.’ But I removed every vestige of it. It had no charm for me.” John took the final step of tearing the “Old Adobe” down in 1874. Nothing remains of the physical building, but a prominent painting, made in 1887 and given as a New Year’s gift to the Bidwell’s, hangs in the office of Bidwell Mansion today.
In addition to the “Old Adobe,” new buildings continued to be quickly put up throughout Rancho Chico. Newspaper descriptions detail the growth and diversity of ranch buildings. Several important buildings sprung up around the area contained within today’s park boundaries. Also in 1852, the Chico store was built on the south- east corner of the grounds, appearing in several photographs. This store served as an important nexus for the rancho and also served as the post office. After the creation of the town of Chico in 1860, John moved his store downtown to the corner of front and Broadway and the original store building was eventually torn down. In 1853 John Bidwell built his first flour mill across the road from his store.
This location remained the site of Bidwell’s flour mill, in all its various iterations, until its final version was torn down in the 1960s. An apartment complex now sits in this location, which is just across the Esplanade from BMSHP. Other buildings in this area included various sheds, ranch buildings, and residences for workers.
Building Bidwell Mansion
All known evidence points to the “Old Adobe” serving as John Bidwell’s primary residence from 1852 until the completion of Bidwell Mansion. By the 1860s, this arrangement appears to have become unacceptable to John and his refined ambitions. John was interested in leaving behind the wild days of the 1840s and 50s, and becoming a respectable member of Victorian society. He appears to have begun planning for the mansion in the early 1860s, although not much is known about this process. It appears that construction was well underway in late 1865, when John, while on a trip to Washington D.C., wrote one of his contacts in Chico about information regarding the “new house.” Construction did not wrap up until 1868, a period that corresponds to many important changes in John’s life. John’s term in Congress between 1865 and 1867 certainly dragged out the construction time of the home. Strained finances, due to John’s extended absence and investments in other projects, also played a role in halting completion of the home.
John also underwent a significant moral transformation during this period, converting to Christianity and becoming a staunch prohibitionist. This had an effect on certain aspects of the home, such as the third-floor ballroom/billiards-room, which became used for “more moral purposes.”
Of course the most important change in John’s life was his marriage to Annie Ellicott Kennedy in April of 1868. John may have planned the initial design and construction of the home, planning on remaining a bachelor for the remainder of his life, but once he began his pursuit of Annie, she certainly played a role in the latter planning and completion of certain aspects of the home. Their letters show Annie giving suggestions on various pieces of furniture and features of the home. After her arrival she helped oversee the final completion of the home, even going as far as to physically help install the wall-to-wall carpets in the home. So while it is true that John planned and built the house before ever meeting Annie, and had planned on never marrying, the final home in 1868 certainly reflected her influence. And of course she would play a central role in the changes made on the home over the next fifty years.
Very little is known about the early construction of the home. John Bidwell hired architect Henry W. Cleaveland to design the home. Cleaveland was a prominent architect of his day. Originally from New York, he authored a book on home design and was a founding member of the National Association of Architects before coming west to California. In order to oversee construction of the home, Cleaveland built and resided in the small outbuilding behind the mansion Details of construction throughout the several years of construction are minimal and leave many questions unanswered. It appears that many of the workmen came from San Francisco, and that work was conducted seasonally.
The home is an Italian Villa style of Victorian-era architecture, and is constructed of stuccoed brick. It is three stories high, including a tower on the front that rises an additional two stories. The elaborate design features include a hipped roof with central monitor, elaborate cornices, arched and hooded windows, and a wraparound veranda on the second-story. The home included formal rooms for social events, spacious bedrooms for guests, an office, a library, and an attached kitchen and washroom. A natural air circulation system helped keep the home cool, while eight faux-marble finished fireplaces from New York warmed the home by burning coal. New technology was eagerly incorporated in the home, including gas lights throughout the house. A generator would have produced a form of coal gas on site. An open space in the walls allowed for pipes to channel the gas throughout the home.
The home would have impressed any traveler to the area. It stood out as one of the finest architectural accomplishments in California at the time. It was made all the more impressive by its location in beautiful, but rural, Chico.
A Living Home
In 1868 John and Annie returned from their wedding in Washington D.C. and took up residence in the new home. Together they resided in the home for the next thirty-two years. Throughout that time the home underwent various changes, modifications, and updates. Both of the Bidwells’ diaries note constant work being done to the home. One September 29, 1873, for example, John notes in his diary that, “Hopkins began painting house.” On September 5, 1891 he noted, “Mansion roof finished – but the veranda has to be repaired.” For the rest of their lives, the Bidwells continued to make changes to the home, including updating the plumbing and lighting systems in the home. Following John Bidwell’s death in 1900, beginning with Annie Bidwell and continuing throughout ownership by the college and CSP, Bidwell Mansion underwent many changes and additions.
After the Bidwells
In 1914 Annie Bidwell donated 24.72 acres, including the mansion, to the College Board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America to be used as a co- educational Christian school after her death. Soon after Annie’s death in 1918, the Presbyterian Church determined it would not be cost effective to establish and upkeep the mansion as a school and in 1922 sold the mansion and 10.21 acres for $10,000 to be used as a dormitory for the then Chico State Teachers College.