On a cool Tuesday morning, a crew began taking down the south-facing wall of the old livery stable at the site of the David Yearsley River Heritage Center, ironically bringing the work in progress a step closer to completion.
It was a key step in a multi-million rehabilitation project aimed at transforming the historic structure into an interpretive center and museum dedicated to educating people about the Petaluma River.
Members of Friends of the Petaluma River watched on happily as the weather-beaten wall came down, knowing that it meant that a new one would soon go up — and faster than many expected.
"It's so significant to that the building is ultimately being preserved and enhanced and used as a river heritage center," said a pleased Elizabeth Howland, wife of the late river advocate David Yearsley and leader of the Friends of the Petaluma River in an earlier interview.
The more than 100-year-old stable, best recognized by a bright blue "Ghirardelli" sign painted on one wall, has a long history in town. It was built around the turn of the last century and moved to Steamer Landing Park from the northwest corner of D and First streets in 2004 to make way for the Theatre District parking garage.
Once the stable, which is owned by the city, was relocated to its waterfront locale on McNear Peninsula, longtime riverkeeper David Yearsley saw an opportunity to rehabilitate the structure and create a place where Petalumans could learn about and celebrate the history and environment of the river.
The Friends of the Petaluma River assumed responsibility for the stable about three years ago and Yearsley, along with a slew of dedicated volunteers, began fixing it up, replacing the floor and clearing out years of accumulated debris, among other things. Early on, they identified replacing the south-facing wall as a priority to making the structure sound. But doing so, they recognized, required money as well as manpower.
Over the years, Friends of the Petaluma River gathered funds through events like the eclectic, arts-based Rivertown Revival festival. This year, with one dollar out of every $5 entry fee for the festival going specifically to the wall project, $10,000 was raised. In August, the Moonlight Fandango brought in roughly $6,000, thanks to some generous community donations, Howland said.
With some seed money, the group brought in engineers and last spring developed a plan to tear down and replace the wall, then obtained city approval for the project.
Still, the group was short on the funds needed to hire a professional construction crew until it received an unexpected $35,000 donation from Merlone Geier Partners, the developer of the Friedman's shopping center set to be built on North McDowell Boulevard. The donation came as a result of a controversial settlement with a group opposing the project, the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, which had appealed the city's approval of the shopping center.
The settlement, in which the association agreed to drop its appeal of the shopping center in exchange for Merlone Geier donating monies to various projects around town, drew praise from some and criticism from others.
One group named as a recipient of $10,000 in the settlement — Heritage Homes of Petaluma — declined the money, saying that accepting the donation was not in keeping with the group's mission of restoring historic structures.