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Seismic retrofitting still looms for Petaluma Museum that has stood the test of time

A 2014 earthquake renewed interest in the museum’s retrofit project, leading officials to establish a specific fund.|

The story of Petaluma's cherished Historical Library and Museum began in the 1890s. Realizing that the library had outgrown its quarters at City Hall, the library trustees, Ladies Improvement Club and others took it upon themselves to find a solution – initiating a public-private collaboration that continues to this day.

The Petaluma Ladies Improvement Club wrote to American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1896 seeking funding for a new library. Carnegie, a strong believer in the importance of local libraries, would donate part of the money needed, provided the community would fund the rest.

The letter went unanswered, but a second request was successful, and in 1901 Carnegie offered $12,500 conditional upon site donation. Addie Atwater, president of the Ladies Improvement Club, owned property at the corner of Fourth and B streets, suitable for the new facility. She sold the property to the City of Petaluma for half of its market value, with the stipulation that it be used for a library. If it should ever stop serving as such, it would be returned to her or her heirs.

Local architect Brainerd Jones was selected to design the library, beating out three out-of-town firms. The two-story Neoclassic, Revival-style building, with its dramatic stained-glass dome, would exemplify Petaluma's civic achievements of the early 20th century. The wood-framed structure is clad with locally quarried stone and Alameda pressed brick.

The Carnegie grant paid for plans and specifications, but an additional $15,000 was needed to complete construction. Trustees established a Library Fund, and donations poured in from individuals and organizations. The Ladies Improvement Club took responsibility for landscaping and the Woman's Club for interior furnishings.

In 1904, the cornerstone was laid and on Feb. 17, 1906, the building opened for viewing. Fundraising continued as furnishings and fixtures were needed and almost everything was on order, though not in place, when the April 18, 1906, earthquake struck. The building was damaged, deemed unsafe before it formally opened.

Seven months later, repairs were made, giving the public access to its new library, but seismic reinforcements were never made.

By the 1970s, Petaluma's population was growing, as was the need for a larger library. In 1976, a new, midtown Petaluma Regional Library opened its doors at 100 Fairgrounds Drive.

This began a new chapter for the original building. The Bicentennial Committee requested landmark status for it and suggested that it be used as a museum. The City Council supported both recommendations. In December of 1976 the building became the city's first landmark. And in 1978 the Museum, operated by non profit organization, opened its doors to the public.

In the late 1980s, historian Lucy Kortum, a longtime museum volunteer, nominated the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, based on its significance in social history, architecture and community planning and it was placed on the NRHP in 1988.

Read the National Register of Historic Places nomination here

The Petaluma Museum Association continues to operate as a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of Petaluma. It maintains a research library, presents exhibits and hosts educational programs within the building.

In 2007, the association, recognizing its role as stewards of the building, hired historic preservation consultant Jill Johnson to prepare an Existing Conditions Report and Maintenance Manual. Funding came from individual donations and a California Cultural and Historical Endowment Grant written by volunteers with help from city staff. The report confirmed the need for a seismic retrofit to stabilize the unreinforced masonry building and protect its contents and occupants.

In 2014 a 6.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the North Bay, doing extensive damage to structures in and around Napa, including the city's 1901 library, whose history and construction is similar to Petaluma's Carnegie Library. This created renewed interest in the Museum's retrofit project. The Petaluma Museum Association established a restricted retrofit fund and city officials reviewed reports and cost estimates, electing to revive the project in 2016.

About $53,000 in transit occupancy tax funding has been spent to update analyses and estimates, Petaluma Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Drew Halter said, finding the building in generally good condition considering its age and the number of earthquakes it had endured.

But, with aging materials, deferred maintenance and limited useful life left on its roof, substantial work in addition to the seismic retrofit is needed to ensure the safety of volunteers, staff and visitors, and to protect the building and valuable collections. By 2017, this work was estimated to cost $3.6 million.

“The Museum Seismic Retrofit has remained on the city's capital improvements list of facilities projects, but funding sources has yet to be determined,” Halter said, adding that the city’s budget this year included $52,000 to go toward a seismic retrofit design. “ But there is no timeline for the design work or a funding source for future construction.”

Halter said the city is actively seeking funding for the project, which he said was still a priority.

Other city support comes in the form of a modest operations budget for facility maintenance, repairs, utilities, custodial as well as a staff liaison between the Petaluma Museum Association’s Board of Directors and city officials and funding for the two part-time employees who manage collections and provide for the operation of the Museum. In addition, the museum association has two part-time employees who cover the front desk when the Museum is open and assist the board with outreach, track donations and maintain a membership database.

Currently, the museum association is seeking funds to hire a full-time executive director. To start that effort, members would like to use the $47,000 in the restricted retrofit fund established in 2014. Debbie Countouriotis, Petaluma Museum Association board president, said in a recent letter to donors that the association "continue to believe that retrofitting the museum is an urgent priority; however, the way to make that happen is by ensuring that the PMA has professional, executive leadership."

New partners will likely be needed if the retrofit work is to be done and the building preserved. Given the building's history of collaboration and generosity and the dedication to maintaining it as a community resource, almost anything seems possible.

In the meantime, an emergency plan has been developed, and staff and volunteers have been trained in cultural collections disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

Speaking on behalf of the association, board member Angela Ryan said the "PMA is grateful to the City of Petaluma for its partnership, and they stand ready to assist in raising awareness and funds, and advocating for the retrofit so we can preserve the history that belongs to all Petalumans."

Katherine Rinehart is a Petaluma author and historian, and served on the Petaluma Museum Association's board of directors from 2003 to 2009, including as president from 2008-09.

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