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Conjuring memories of Petaluma’s ‘Spooky House’

In 1967, attendees of Petaluma’s second annual Beauty Conference were treated to a bus tour around town, looking for areas in need of a face-lift. The major blemishes they identified were dozens of abandoned chicken houses, decrepit remains of Petaluma’s heyday as Egg Basket of the World.

But old chicken shacks weren’t the only eyesores marring the city’s good looks. The west side was pockmarked with timeworn Victorians, many of them carved into apartments during the Depression and World War II.

Following the tour, the city’s Beautification Committee, appointed by Mayor Helen Putnam to help spruce up the town, began a vigorous campaign to burn down the dilapidated chicken houses. By Christmas, 25 had been torched.

The committee then turned its attention to the aging Victorians.

Facing decades of deferred maintenance, many Victorian landlords found it stylish—and less costly—to encase the houses in stucco, aluminum, or asbestos siding. Others merely covered up the polychromatic palettes of their ornamental houses with a single color of paint, commonly white with green trim.

During Petaluma’s suburban housing boom in the fifties and sixties, developers began bulldozing the Victorians and replacing them with modern ranch style homes. With their open floor plans and long, close-to-the-ground profiles, ranch houses offered a more informal and casual living style than the ornate, multi-floored Victorians, which struck many people as creepy and old-fashioned.

That was, until the '60s counterculture rediscovered their beauty.

Among the most striking visual icons of San Francisco’s legendary “Summer of Love” in 1967 were the old Victorians. A band of artists known as “the colorist movement” proudly reasserted their ornamentation and design in a dazzling array of hues as “Painted Ladies,” rekindling a love of Victorian architecture.

That love soon spread to Petaluma.

In February 1968, a group of local women, inspired by Mayor Putnam’s call to beauty, formed an advocacy group for the preservation and restoration of Victorians. They called themselves the Heritage Homes Club.

The club hosted its second meeting at the Victorian home of their newly elected president, Shirley Butti. A fourth-generation Petaluman, Butti and her husband Plinio were in the process of restoring the long neglected Queen Anne mansion they had purchased at 11 Hill Drive.

Locally known as “The Spooky House,” it was originally built in 1886 for Michigan lumber baron Melvin Clark and his wife Emily.

And yes, there were many at the time who believed the property to be haunted. Reports included mysterious late-night lights and the sounds of rattling chains coming from the house.

The Clarks began wintering in Petaluma in 1880, after Emily's father and stepmother, Edward and Sarah Ann Jewell, moved out from Michigan with their four children for Edward’s health. In 1885, the Clarks purchased John McGrath’s 87-acre ranch, which extended from Webster Street across Petaluma’s west hills from Western Avenue to Hayes Lane. The next year they built themselves a three-story, 14-room mansion on the hillside ranch, overlooking Petaluma.

For 14 years, the couple wintered at the ranch with their children, while the Jewells lived there year round, growing oats and barley. After Edward Jewell’s death in 1900, his widow and children relocated to Oakland, and the Clarks’ visits became less frequent. In 1905, they sold the ranch to the Hillside Land Company, a local development group headed by Alexander B. Hill.

The scion of William Hill, one of Petaluma’s early capitalists, “Allie” Hill joined his father’s banking firm in 1886. After his father’s death in 1902, he inherited a fortune that reputedly made him the wealthiest man in Sonoma County. In 1904, he assisted his widowed mother, Josie Hill, in erecting the Hill Opera House at Keller and Washington streets—today’s Phoenix Theater—as a tribute to his father.

A few months later, Hill and his partners purchased the Clark Ranch, with plans to subdivide it into small lots for hundreds of “hillside villas.” Directly behind the Clark Mansion, Hill opened a quarry to provide crushed rock for the development’s roads and sidewalks. He left the mansion itself vacant, renting out a small white house beside it to the quarry’s foreman, German immigrant Louis Neilsen and his family.

Aside from its unfortunate fate of residing upon a formation of valuable basalt, the mansion’s abandonment may have also been related to changing tastes. The egg boom overtaking Petaluma at the turn of the century gave rise to a professional class of doctors, lawyers, and merchants, who had little interest in the stylistic excesses of the Victorian era. They were more drawn to stately houses in the new Tudor and Colonial Revival style, or those of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Sales for Hillside Tract were slow to manifest. Finally, in 1919, Hill asked the city council to abandon his proposed street layout they had approved earlier, and allow him to reconfigure the property into 5-acre farms, which, given the egg boom, were in high demand. He sold the Clark Mansion and 20 adjoining acres to his quarry foreman Louis Neilsen for $10,350.

Three years later, Hill died, and the undeveloped sections of Hillside Tract were sold off to speculators. It wasn’t until after World War II that Hill’s original vision became a full reality. With Petaluma’s role as the Egg Basket of the World in decline following the rise of factory farms in the Central Valley, the city began its transformation into a housing suburb of San Francisco. One of the first post-war suburban tracts developed was on Melvin Street between Dana and English streets.

After purchasing the abandoned Clark Mansion in 1920, Louis and Hilma Neilsen set about restoring it with the help of their four sons. To help pay the mortgage, they converted the upstairs into a five-room apartment rental, and sold dairy cows, hens, kale for chicken feed, and goldfish they raised in a pond that had formed in the abandoned quarry. Hilma Neilsen also took in young children for day care.

By the mid-1920s, the Neilsens began subdividing lots for sale along the road leading to the mansion, which they named Hill Drive, presumably in honor of Alexander Hill, and along Melvin Street, named for their oldest son. After Louis Neilsen died in 1929, Hilma divided the mansion into three apartment units, living in a downstairs unit until her death in 1943.

In the mid-1950s, the Neilsen family sold the mansion to Aloysius W. Boron and his wife. By that time it was well known as “The Spooky House,” which the Borons attempted to lay to rest, saying the “ghosts” were now guardian angels of the place.

Carl Neilsen, who grew up in the house, claimed the haunted rumor stemmed from the ghostly rattling of chains in the quarry, which lulled him to sleep at night as a boy. Eleanor Welch Ameral, who lived in the upstairs apartment during the 1940s, said the rumor started after Melvin Neilsen began studying late nights in the attic, leaving a light shining through the colored glass window, while the rest of the house was dark.

In 1963, Shirley and Plinio Butti purchased the Clark Mansion for $13,000, and reunited it into a single home. By that time, the mansion’s lot had been reduced to one-third of an acre, leaving it cheek-by-jowl with other homes on Hill Drive and Melvin Street. The Buttis restored the exterior in an array of colors, as well as the upstairs, where they lived with their three sons. They put off restoring the downstairs, which Shirley used for storing her vast collection of antiques.

In the spring of 1968, Shirley Butti assumed leadership of the Heritage Homes Club. A year later, one of Petaluma’s most prominent Victorian homes, the Healey Mansion at the corner of Washington and Keokuk streets, was torn down and replaced with a gas station. Built in 1903 by merchant and city councilman Dennis J. Healey, the Queen Anne mansion was converted in 1919 into a funeral parlor, which it remained until its destruction.

The demolition of the Healey Mansion became a rallying cry for the local preservation movement, transforming Butti’s club into Heritage Homes of Petaluma. Over subsequent decades the organization helped to bring a number of Victorians—and their pretty colors—back to life.

The Buttis’ restoration of the Clark Mansion came to a halt in 1981 after Plinio’s death. In 1987, Shirley moved into the house of her recently deceased mother on Eighth Street, and ten years later into a local senior living center. For 30 years the Clark Mansion sat vacant, except for Shirley’s antiques. After her death in 2018, her family sold the house for $949,550 to Karen Maxwell of San Francisco, who has begun its next restoration.

Shirley’s antiques collection was another matter.

While she was alive, she guarded it closely, not allowing anyone to touch it. Despite fears of being cursed for doing so, her family sold the collection in bulk to J.W. McGrath Auctions of Sebastopol. Within weeks of moving the collection to their store and warehouse, the McGrath Auctions building caught fire and burned down.

The Spooky House had spoken.

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