Phyllis Rankin stood up for preservation guidelines

Imagine you're on a walking tour through some of the west side's oldest residential neighborhoods such as the Carpenter, Brewster or Oak Hill districts, enjoying the beautifully preserved and charming blend of Petaluma's architectural heritage that binds these areas and gives them character.

If you like what you see, it wouldn't be inappropriate to pause for a moment to thank a dedicated group of individuals who spearheaded the 1985 City Council ordinance that designated six square blocks, totaling 77 homes, most of them built prior to 1925, as the city's first official historical preservation district.

The district was formed following a vociferous community outcry that sought guidelines requiring architectural changes in new construction and remodeling be reviewed by the city's Historic and Cultural Preservation Committee. What provoked the architectural kerfuffle was a proposed modern-style duplex that historical preservationists felt clashed with the existing residences.

Phyllis Rankin joined the fray by leading a petition drive with hopes of preventing property owners from making drastic changes to their buildings or eliminating them altogether, such as the earlier razing of the old City Hall, Washington Grammar School, the Healy mansion (Sorensen Funeral Home) and other historically significant structures.

A native of San Francisco, Phyllis lived in Petaluma as a child before moving to Alaska, Colorado and Los Angeles before returning here in 1972 along with her husband and five children.

Always wanting to live in an old house, she made an exhaustive search before finding the one she wanted: a prominent 10-room Victorian at 600 B St., originally built for Dr. H.S. Gossage in 1898.

"It's such a great experience to live in a big old house. This is where my heart is, it's become my lifetime project," said Rankin, just the fifth owner of the 113-year-old property.

The roundabout journey that led to her current front door began when her parents, Phillip and Betty Bell, along with Phyllis and her brother, moved from San Francisco to Montana, where her father learned the refrigeration trade. They came to Petaluma in 1942, where Phillip Bell opened Bell Engineering, and the family lived at 941 B St. until they moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1949.

Phyllis left Alaska for Western State College in Colorado to study art and drama and, "because the school had its own ski run." In 1954 she married Los Angeles native Jack Rankin, a Pacific Telephone employee, and the couple lived in Southern California before moving to Mill Valley in 1970 and to Petaluma two years later.

She became involved with Heritage Homes when the historic 1906 Carnegie Library was being threatened with demolition and later served on the Petaluma Historical Museum's first board of directors.

"I was a bookish child and I didn't want them to do anything with my library," declared Rankin.

Twelve-foot ceilings and antique furniture nicely complement every room of her home, and old seed bins from the former M. Vonsen Co. feed store offer a vintage touch to the library of the residence that's been a feature of the Heritage Homes tour. "

This house has always been a work in progress. When we moved here, we enthusiastically did the upkeep. We've painted three times, replaced the roof twice, and I've replaced the wallpaper in almost every room."

For many years, Phyllis could be seen riding her eye-catching 1937 Pilot bicycle all over town. Completely restored in 1991, with new spokes, new paint, and fresh chrome, the bike had been her prized possession since childhood before it was stolen from her yard last summer. She'd like it back.

Harlan Osborne's column, Toolin' Around Town, appears every two weeks. Contact him at

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