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.