by Kate Nixon
When I was younger, if someone said the phrase “historic preservation”, I immediately thought about my hometown of Petaluma, California. My hometown remains a growing city 45 minutes north of San Francisco determined to keep its artsy and quirky heritage and at the same time, attempting to keep up with housing demands and expansion. My town was known for a wide array of architectural styles and because of the town’s turn of the century prosperity in the dairy industry and influence as THE egg capitol of the world, the downtown buildings were maintained, were treasured and now currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic downtown boasted a lively main street, the world’s first and only Chicken Pharmacy, and a large riverfront community (a reminder of the Riverboat era and a busy commercial center back in the 1900s) that would give way to neighborhoods filled with Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and the Arts & Crafts Bungalow.
My childhood in Petaluma was filled with experiences in these historic buildings: seeing “the Nutcracker” performed on a stage built in a circa 1908 schoolhouse with creaky floorboards; learning how to tap dance and staring at the intricate stained glass windows at the St. John’s Episcopal Church designed by Ernest Coxhead, an English architect inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement, and the school field trips to the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum — a building with two floors of warm wooden interior walls, cool tiled floors, and home to the largest free standing stained glass dome in Northern California.
As a child and student, I had no idea just how vibrant of a community I was living in with such a rich architectural heritage until later. I also knew the great divide in California; the wealthy in the bay area and those who could no longer afford to pay rent in Northern California, let alone in a house in an historic neighborhood. So in 2014, when I caught wind of the “Saga of Cedar Grove Park” in my own hometown, I paid attention. Now as an adult knowing how crucial historic preservation is, this enrages me.
In March of 2014, there was a request by the owner to demolish the Beck House, a house in the Cedar Grove Park neighborhood of Petaluma. The Cedar Grove area is considered the site of the earliest historical-era structure in Petaluma built in 1850. At the time of the request, this house was infiltrated with squatters, covered in graffiti, and had been neglected. The house had also been modified over the years, starting in the 1950s. A report done by the city ruled that since the house had been modified and squatters had badly damaged the house, the house had no historical value left. The property owner claimed the city delayed approval of permits, while the city had harsh words for the owner who not only neglected the Beck House, he had let the same thing happen to the Bloom-Tunstall house, another historic house on his property. A month later, the city council had voted to approve the demolition of the Beck House and multiple other structures in that area…with the exception of the Bloom-Tunstall house. Since the house had been built in the 1860s and had documentation proving as much, it had historic protection and was allowed to stay standing.
After a while, I had lost track of news about the Tunstall house. I had hoped that at some point someone or some organization could take on the house to save it. Then in January of this year, the news came that the house burned down due to a massive fire, engulfing the structure in flames at 5:00 AM. The house was a total loss with the damage estimated at $100,000.
Historic Preservation has multiple uphill battles; the pressure for expansion, the crisis of what to do with a homeless population, and finding a dependable organization to consistently maintain historic houses are just a few of the many problems affecting the organizations who attempt to keep historic heritages in tact. For that and other reasons, I will be holding a Historic Preservation roundtable on Sunday, August 7th as part of my Arts & Crafts In August week-long online event with live and recorded sessions. It is my hope that historic preservation organizations can share stories, trade tips and be able to take action.
Until next time,