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Touring vintage Calistoga


If there ever were any ghosts haunting the old Palmer place in Calistoga, they have long since fled.

Maybe owners Bob Fiddaman and Susan Hoffman did such a good a job of restoring and decorating the 1871 mansion that the spooks reputed to inhabit the place didn't feel welcome.

The stunning Palmer House, immaculately decorated in blues and golds with traditional furnishings, framed original vintage French advertising posters and antique European landscapes, is anything but scary.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the three-story "French Second Empire Victorian" flanking Pioneer Park, built for Judge A.C. Palmer with its distinctive French mansard roof and shaded by century-old elms, has long sparked the curiosity of passersby because of its striking architecture. There is only one other home built in the same style in Calistoga.

But it's also inspired ghostly imaginings. The apparition of Caroline, the wife of Judge Palmer, is said to walk the upstairs master bedroom where she died in 1873, adjusting pictures and causing them at times to fall to the floor. She has also reportedly turned on the faucet and lights and rearranged pillows on the bed.

According to Jeff Dwyer's "Ghost Hunters Guide to California's Wine Country," the house, used to be a brothel. The buxom Madam has been sighted at the base of the curved staircase, hands on hips and looking stern. She supposedly died at that spot after falling down the stairs.

Fiddaman, a Napa County planning commissioner, doesn't believe in ghosts. No, he's never seen the apparition of Judge Palmer reading his paper in the parlor, as others supposedly did when the house was a bed-and-breakfast inn known as "The Elms." Nor has he seen the ghost of the servant girl Ruby, who supposedly haunts the third floor clad in a gray and white uniform. And two boy ghosts, who some say they've seen running barefoot over the lawn, have apparently found another place to play.

Folks can judge for themselves on Oct. 20 when the Fiddamans welcome guests to look inside this storied residence, meticulously preserved down to the original window glass, during the Sharpsteen Museum Association's Home Tour.

The first-ever event features five historic homes, including an 1869 church on Cedar Street newly converted into a home, the 1875 Willis House with shiplap siding and unique false front wings on two sides and the Holy Assumption Monastery, occupied by an order of Russian Orthodox Nuns, which has a church patterned exactly after the chapel at Fort Ross.

Also on the tour is a house known during its many years as a B&B as "The Brambles." It might more appropriately be named "The Rambles." From the street the charming 1886 Victorian looks like a small, two-bedroom cottage. But thanks to various additions and an entire second story of rooms, including a small kitchenette carved out of the attic, there is a hint of the Winchester Mystery House about it.

"We were shocked," says Lily of her first visit 12 years ago. "We call it the house of doors. The first couple of times we came to look we got lost."

She's never counted all the rooms. But the couple, who have eclectic and playful tastes and collect curiosities, have found uses for all 3,500 square feet. Corner cabinets in the dining room serve as display cases for collections of everything from dog figurines and Murano glass to Lily's voodoo memorabilia.

Lily, who is drawn to Bohemian colors and objets, remodeled her own bathroom into what hints at a Gypsy wagon, with a curved beadboard ceiling, a colored crystal chandelier and pumpkin-colored walls.

Over the years they have redone virtually every wall and floor, unearthing intriguing treasures, including a stunning original linoleum floor in Lily's downstairs crafts room that she painstakingly cleaned.

Upstairs she has created a little museum-style display of found artifacts from the walls, pieces of wallpaper, a newspaper dated 1892, bottles.

For every artifact they've taken, they've replaced it with something from their era.

Lily said that if anyone unwitting were to punch in a wall at just the right spot they might be shocked to see it bleed red. No worries. That would just be the bottle of good Napa Valley wine they left in the studs for some fortunate excavator to find long into the future.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconaheh@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.