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Abandoned house and companion cottage win Petaluma’s top renovation award

When Karen Brown went searching for a property in Petaluma where she and a longtime friend might co-invest and coexist, there was nothing on the market that fit the bill. It was 2013, the nation was coming out of a deep recession and the pickings were slim, especially for affordable properties with two units or enough area to build an accessory dwelling. So Brown walked the streets of the old west side and ended up beating the bushes — literally — to find her dream home hidden among an overgrowth of acacias.

The house was so concealed she almost missed it. A “no trespassing“ sign did not encourage exploration. But she was intrigued. There, set back on a third of an acre, was an abandoned shack with plywood nailed over the doors. It had no foundation and perched on piers in the ground. It hadn’t been occupied in at least 10 years, apart from the possum living in the front room.

Despite all that, Brown saw immediate possibilities. The property was large enough for a second small home, and there was something about the forlorn little cabin that tugged at her heart.

She came to call it “the little house that cried.”

“It was either going to get torn down or somebody was going to come along at the last minute and love it. And that’s what happened.”

The home of Alan Good in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Good shares the property with close friend Karen Brown, who lives in an adjacent home. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)
The home of Alan Good in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Good shares the property with close friend Karen Brown, who lives in an adjacent home. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)

Potential in the ruins

As the creative director of an educational nonprofit, Brown, with her artistic imagination, could see possibility amid the ruins. Her friend Alan Good shared her vision.

“There’s an old saying about ‘location, location, location.’ That was really clear,” said Good, a longtime horticulturist who for years managed the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. “West Petaluma is a wonderful place to live, and the Oakhill-Brewster neighborhood is one of the nicer parts of Petaluma.”

Sitting northwest of downtown, the Oakhill-Brewster area is one of the earliest residential neighborhoods in Petaluma. It features a great diversity of architecture dating from the 1850s to the 1980s and is in an architectural preservation district. Luckily for Good and Brown, the tiny shack had not been included within the official boundaries of the district, so it wasn’t subject to the stricter rules for remodeling in the zone.

The property wasn’t for sale. Brown managed to track down the owners, but it took seven months to negotiate a deal. Collaborating with Petaluma architect Chris Lynch, the friends first designed and built a compact home for Good, then set to work to completely restore the shack for Brown, starting with a new foundation. While contemporary and open inside, Good’s home is like a slightly smaller sister to Brown’s, with the same white wooden siding and covered porch.

The kitchen area at the home of Karen Brown in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)
The kitchen area at the home of Karen Brown in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)

Seven years later, the project is a case study in contemporary downsized living. Rather than a mansion engulfing a large lot, there are two houses designed to fit neatly into the old neighborhood. The historic building is about 800 square feet and the new accessory dwelling is 637 square feet. Together they are still far smaller than the 2,400 square-foot average size of a house in California.

For their efforts, Brown and Good were granted the highest architectural preservation award by Heritage Homes & Landmarks. The organization, a committee of the Petaluma Museum Association, has for more than 50 years encouraged the preservation of the river city’s historic architecture. Architects Daniel Backman and Bill Wolpert and preservationist Christopher Stevick were judges for the awards, which also honored six other projects, commercial and residential, including a new home on Erwin Street noted for its scale and “contexual details” that complement the surrounding old neighborhood.

The judges gave Brown and Good’s project on Kent Street the Award of Great Merit, praising the project for its “restraint” in sticking to simple exterior details like white paint without accents and staying within the original building’s footprint. For example, a kitchen was placed where there had once been an outbuilding, making it look as if it had always been there.

Living small

Brown and Good are close friends but not a couple. The scheme allowed them to live in community while maintaining their own spaces. Both are fans of living small.

“I think these small structures are so much in the spirit of our heritage in the area,” Brown said. Many people didn’t have big, fancy houses and didn’t want to. “This is all we need. We are two friends who bought the property together so we could hand pick our neighbors. And that neighborly spirit also is a part of the heritage of the area.”

The living area at the home of Alan Good in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)
The living area at the home of Alan Good in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/For The Press Democrat)

There were few architectural details left in the old shack to preserve, but Brown and Good tried to save what they could, like the front door. In reframing the walls, they left the strong, original 2-by-2-inch redwood studs in place and added 2-by-4 pieces next to them to meet new codes. They had to create greater space between walls for insulation.

Brown said she’s not certain when the little house was built. Zillow says 1900. Old wallpaper carefully taken from the walls was backed by old newsprint that appears to be from the late 1890s. They haven’t traced the house back to its earliest owners, but it was owned by the same people for years, who rented it out.

“There was one original wall left in the house. The other ones we had to replace because of energy requirements,” Brown said. “But we bought absolutely as close to the original windows as we could get.”

They added the covered porch when they learned from a neighbor that the cottage at one time had one. It gives the little house more character and extends the living space.

The house has only one bedroom. Another room, resembling a walk-in closet but which could have been a children’s sleeping nook, has been set up as Brown’s home office. It’s compact, but the 11-foot ceilings and a wide eight-foot doorway give the interior a feeling of spaciousness.

For his slightly smaller home, Good also opted for high ceilings. Another architect, Brent Russell, helped with engineering and drawing.

Good said he was inspired for his design by some of the historic old ranch cottages at Olompali State Park, just south in Novato. He went for simple, understated V-rustic siding to fit with the style of the house and used modest materials inside as well. In siting the house, Good did everything possible to preserve the many mature valley and live oaks on the property.

“One of the reasons why my house measured 8 feet from the foundation to the trunk of the nearest tree was to make sure the foundation didn’t interrupt the oaks’ existing root zones,” he said. “It’s great. We didn’t have to remove a single tree, and my house is shaded by mature oaks on the hot and sunny west side.”

The living room of the home of Karen Brown in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
The living room of the home of Karen Brown in Petaluma, California on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Inside, the home feels spacious, with a 17-foot-tall peaked roof, 10 double-hung windows and a glass-paneled door. In the ceiling, 4-by-8-foot cedar beams support unpainted construction-grade plywood. Wanting a mix of modern and vintage and natural and man-made materials, Good used industrial galvanized tie rods instead of wood beams.

Good left only enough space in the bedroom for a queen-size bed and end tables. The rest of the area was left open for living and cooking.

“I grew up in an (Architect Joseph) Eichler home in Walnut Creek,” Good said. “I’m comfortable with an open plan where everything opens into one room. And I like lots of light.”

The little compound is working well for the friends. Good uses a small garage they were required to build as an art studio. They have a big 25-by-65-foot vegetable garden, fruit trees and laying hens.

“We couldn’t have imagined something like COVID,” Brown said. Given the challenge of living through the pandemic, the shared property is perfect, she said. “We’re separate enough that we each have our own homes, but we trust each other and were close enough that we can help each other out. We can socialize and we have a friend.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmccona

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