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A LOOK BACK AT THE CLEMENTE INN: FROM HOTEL TO SPEAKEASY TO RESTAURANT TO APARTMENT TO...A PARKING LOT?

A century ago, the heap of rubble at 17367 Sonoma Highway in Agua Caliente was a popular hotel and restaurant.

A decade ago, one local investor held out hope that it could become one again, but a long, brutal fight for permits and redevelopment money killed that dream. Now it appears the funding may return, this time to clean up the mess.

The brick-and-stucco building that stood on the spot for close to a century started its life as the Clemente Inn, the name it's known by today. But in between, it had many other names and purposes.

The Clemente Inn was built between 1912 and 1920 by the French-born Clemente family.

It was furnished with the overstuffed fussiness of the day, filled with embroidered pillows, photographs and paintings of bucolic scenery and potted ferns. The wall-papered dining room, known for its French cuisine, held a long wooden bar, a player piano, a phonograph known as a Victrola and a dance floor.

The Clementes lived in a ground-floor apartment, and a portion of the basement was an ice cream parlor.

In its early years, the Inn was a major destination for visitors who enjoyed the nearby hot springs. When Prohibition got under way, the Inn added a new sideline: illicit sales of alcohol.

A 1925 newspaper clip from the archives of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society & Depot Park Museum reveals that C. Clementi, "proprietor of Sonoma Valley's leading French restaurant," paid a $350 fine for "illegal possession of liquor."

Ownership changed in 1928, something that occurred frequently in the decades ahead. Most of the names given to the building are lost, but a few can be unearthed from historic records and old newspaper clips.

According to the Historical Society's Diane Smith, the venue was once known as the Robin Hood (probably in the early 1930s). From 1937 and into the early 1940s, it was transformed into The Castle with a restaurant called the Castle Grill. The building later was used as a series of caf??s and restaurants, a grocery store and an apartment building. Without care, it slowly decayed. Nearly four decades ago, its last inhabitants left for good.

Despite its decay, the historic building had many admirers. It was designated Sonoma County Historic Landmark #28 in 1989, and about that time was bought by an entrepreneur who dreamed of turning it into a hotel with an 18th-century Russian architectural fa??ade. Those dreams faded with the estimated $4 million price tag, and in 2000, local resident Marty Edwards bought the property.

Edwards, too, had a dream for the Clemente Inn. She wanted to fix it up and turn it into a restaurant, so she sought redevelopment funds.

She tried for more than eight years, running through a maze of requirements from the Sonoma County Permits and Resource Management Department and the Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Meeting governmental requirements and obtaining permits was time-consuming, expensive and filled with delays. In the end, funding guidelines changed, and the money Edwards sought was committed to Highway 12 improvement.

Meanwhile, the building continued to decay. The roof fell in. The walls crumbled. Walking across the floor was unsafe. The county finally designated it dangerous, and it was razed in mid-2009.

"In 40 years of that place being vacant," Edwards said, "I'm the only person who ever got permits to do something about it. The whole long process was so brutal that I can't even adequately describe it."

Now the Sonoma County Redevelopment Agency is seeking $175,000 from the Board of Supervisors to undertake due diligence, the first step toward buying the land from Edwards.

If its proposal becomes a reality, the land that once held the Clemente Inn will become a parking lot.

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