Early morning blaze burns old Sonoma Valley resort

A bit of Sonoma Valley history was laid to waste Thursday by a furious fire in El Verano that left the century-old structure known as Paul's Resort in ashes.

Soaked and charred timbers, areas of blackened roofing and portions of redwood siding were all that remained by dawn atop the foundation of the 10,000-square-foot building across Verano Avenue from Maxwell Farms Regional Park.

A gaping hole opened to the sky above the dance area where generations of Sonoma Valley residents and out-of-towners kicked up their heels on Saturday nights in days gone by.

"It's like losing a family member," said Yvonne Marcucci-Thibault, who grew up on the property once owned by her father, Paul Marcucci Jr., and ran the poolside snack bar as a teen-ager.

"Part of our history is gone," said lifelong Sonoma Valley resident Laurie Udby, who resides in one of several tiny houses on the property. "That was part of the town a long time."

The resort was built in 1908 at the El Verano rail station 20 years after the Santa Rosa-Carquinez Railroad opened the way for visitors from San Francisco and elsewhere, drawn by local summer resorts, the geothermal hot springs that gave neighboring towns their names and, eventually, a proliferation of speakeasies in the area, according to local historians.

The place was owned and operated through Prohibition and the Depression by Paul Vannucchi, then sold during the war to Paul Marcucci, who, by coincidence, was able to run the business under the same name.

Marcucci and his wife, Eve, expanded the resort, adding a swimming pool, dance hall and, little by little, small guest houses that were rented sometimes for a night and sometimes for most of the summer, though now they serve as full-time residences.

A musician and composer whose claim to fame was the World War II tune "Remember Pearl Harbor," Marcucci entertained guests who came north from San Francisco, sometimes "playing the organ with one hand and the trumpet in the other," his daughter said.

Marcucci-Thibault said they lived in most of the units at some point while they were built, eventually moving into a larger ranch home at the front of the property.

Paul's underwent several incarnations through the years, serving as a resort, nightclub, restaurant, smorgasbord and discotheque. Marcucci-Thibault and her husband, Roland Thibault, bought the property in 1972 around the time her dad retired. It was boarded up about a decade after that after serving as a Moose Lodge, Thibault said.

The swimming pool out back has long since been filled in and is now overgrown with grass and shrubs. The railroad is no more, and cats are more common than resort guests these days.

But Roland Thibault had recently cleaned up and repainted the bar, dance floor and stage, bringing it back to life for a night of nostalgia Feb. 2 in honor of his wife's 70th birthday. They'd hoped to have more parties there.

"To walk in and have dinner and dancing — it was magical," Marcucci-Thibault said. "Then this ... It's hard to take."

Fire investigators were still trying to determine what started the 2:34 a.m. blaze, which was sending up huge mounds of flame and smoke before fire crews could get on scene, Sonoma Valley Fire Division Chief Spencer Andreis said.

The blaze was believed to have started in the front of the building and spread through the attic, where tight tongue-and-groove construction made access challenging and timber construction fueled the flames, Andreis said.

Udby said the height of the flames, the exploding glass and the thick smoke pouring from the building were frightening.

"I knew when I got up, it would be gone," Udby said.

Thirty-two firefighters battled flames for several hours and were still hosing down hot spots across the building's remains seven hours after the fire started, dumping enough water — 700,000 gallons, Thibault was told — that it flooded the neighboring Little League field once called Paul's Field, jeopardizing Saturday's opening day festivities.

Marcucci-Thibault said it was all still a shock.

"It's tough," she said. "It's going to take a few days to sink in, really. It is quite a loss."

Press Democrat photographer Conner Jay contributed to this report.