Petaluma Adobe gets a facelift

General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo is getting some reinforcements – for his Petaluma Adobe, that is.

A historic preservation group said it has raised more than $100,000 toward a new round of repairs to the nearly two-century-old clay building at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, a two-story structure that predates California’s status as a state, and is the first non-indigenous building in the city.

The repairs focus on plastering the exposed exterior walls, which have been under siege from the elements and from burrowing wildlife, said Philip Sales, a board member of the Sonoma Petaluma Parks Association who helped kick off the recent effort. It is the latest example of community groups that have stepped up to keep the park and its 180-year-old centerpiece whole.

“Deferred maintenance is like water torture. It’s one drip at a time, and over time, things start to fall apart if you don’t deal with it in a more proactive way,” Sales said.

The association in 2012 announced it had raised a total of $70,000 for the park, money that would help it remain open amid a funding shortfall from the state. The effort forged what Sales described as a deeper partnership with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, one that had traditionally occurred in the context of a gift shop the association operated at the park.

The partnership lead to a conversation around other needs at the Petaluma Adobe, including the condition of the building itself.

“Adobe, of course, is just mud. If you don’t protect it, it melts,” he said.

Hired through a county grant, Gil Sanchez, a Santa Cruz-area architect nationally recognized for his experience restoring adobe structures, said he first worked on the “Old Adobe” 15 years ago for a structural stabilization project. Like the missions dotting California, the structure features a style of building involving both clay and wooden elements.

“Its an important structure,” Sanchez said, describing it as likely the largest non-church adobe building in the state.

Brought on through a county grant three years ago to evaluate the Petaluma Adobe, Sanchez sought out a close match for the clay-rich soil that built its walls in order to fill some existing cracks. Nearby sources actually used to build the structure were off-limits due to the historic nature of the site, he said.

Yet a fundamental problem remained – without a protective coating of smooth plaster, water would still be able to work its way through the textured exterior, he said.

“If any moisture comes in contact with the walls, it can travel down smoothly,” he said of the benefit of a plastering.

The conclusion initially raised eyebrows, Sales said, since the walls of the Petaluma Adobe had been without plaster at least since shortly after it was turned over to the state in the early 1950s. His group dug up historic photos from the late 1800s that showed the structure indeed featuring a coat of protective, whitewashed plaster, which was removed after it fell into disrepair.

Since plaster was never included in the state’s official protocol to maintain the structure while preserving its historic qualities, Sales said, it took an extra layer of approval from state parks to allow the work to go forward. But go forward it did, with a first phase on the exterior completed by a team of volunteers in June.

As the plaster continues to dry this week, Sales said it will give state parks officials a sense of the effectiveness of the treatment. A full plastering of the building and a repair of existing damage is estimated to cost between $237,000 and $321,000, depending in part on the level of volunteer labor.

“We’re hoping that state parks will approve the next phase of the work, so we can basically protect the building so it will be here another 150 years,” he said.

The single largest grant toward the effort has been $25,000 from the Native Sons of the Golden West, a statewide organization focused on the preservation of California history. The Native Sons helped the Petaluma Adobe become a park in the first place – the organization’s Petaluma chapter came into possession of the property in 1910, and maintained the site before donating it to the state.

The structure is something of a hidden treasure in Petaluma, a well-preserved example of a historically significant time, said Kristopher Nelson, past president of the local Native Sons chapter now known as the Nicasio Parlor.

The building was the center of a large land grant to Gen. Vallejo in 1836 meant to help finance a foothold for the Mexican government in the area, a counterweight to a Russian outpost on the Sonoma County coast now known as Fort Ross, according to information from the park. California wouldn’t become a state until 1850.

The surrounding 66,000-acre ranch once employed between 600 and 2,000 people, focused largely on the production and trade of hides and tallow.

“People need to be reminded that their community has a history and a culture,” he said. “The Petaluma Adobe, you go through every room, and they tell you what was done in this room, and how the hides were tanned, and how they turned tallow into candles. If you go with a docent and you go through these places, it’s kind of magical.”

Nelson said the Native Sons were committed to helping raise money for future work at the Petaluma Adobe. Other contributions have come from grants awarded through the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission, valued at $22,500 for the first phase, as well as private donations, according to the association.

Sanchez, the architect, said he was happy to be back working on the Old Adobe.

“You get to learn a lot about the building and it’s history. And you get to be a part of it as well,” he said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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