House a mystery no more

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For more than 30 years it was Sonoma's "mystery house," an abandoned bungalow choked behind overgrowth and taken over by wildlife. Vandals helped themselves to interior trim, graffiti artists sprayed the walls and several generations of teenagers snuck in to party.

But what was once one of Sonoma's creepiest houses, ironically neighboring the grand Sebastiani family home on Fourth Street East, has gotten a massive, $2.5 million makeover.

When Bill Jasper in 2006 bought an adjoining property further up the hill with access from Second Street East, he didn't even know the old house was behind him.

Eventually, however, the house at 131 Fourth St. E. came on the market after sitting abandoned for some 33 years. Jasper bought it for $1.5 million, mainly with the intent of gaining better access to the flag-shaped lot he owned above it.

A self-described "history buff," Jasper is the former president and CEO of Dolby Labs, the famed sound engineering and digital entertainment company, and a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Press Democrat. He was also intrigued by the challenge of unraveling the mystery of the house and bringing it back to life.

He put together a triage team that included, among others, Sonoma architect Robert Baumann, Sonoma general contractor Jon Currie and Currie's designer wife, Christine. Their mission? To rescue the once grand address from wrack and ruin while maintaining the historic appearance of the century-old dwelling. Now the brown-shingled, two-story bungalow, perched on a knoll behind original stone pillars and fountains, is one of the most striking houses on the street.

The house was built between 1907 and 1910 by Christian C. Bosse, a German immigrant and merchant in San Francisco who earned his fortune in the late 19th century working for a firm with large plantation interests in Hawaii. Originally it was only a single-story, square bungalow, but Bosse made it beautiful.

His obituary, according to Jasper's research, noted that he had "transformed (the property) into a beautiful country estate and the home embodied the exquisite taste of its owner, a real connoisseur. Here he dispensed lavish hospitality to many of his former San Francisco associates and a few local friends."

After his death, it was a chicken farm for about 15 years and changed hands probably a half-dozen times before Raymond J. Martelli bought it for his mother, Mabel Perrino, in 1966.

After Jasper purchased the property through a conservator for Martelli — by then suffering from dementia — he heard from Martelli's niece, who related how her uncle initially fell in love with the house and was eager to fix it up. In 1968 he had moved in and set about trying to get permits. But he ran into trouble with the city and abandoned the house for several years.

Jasper said he was told by the niece that Martelli came back and tried again but eventually, frustrated and furious, he walked away for good, saying, "If Sonoma doesn't want me, then I don't want Sonoma." Because he had other properties and didn't need the income, he just abandoned the house in the late 1970s.

"A lot of people wanted to buy the house, but the owner would just ignore their inroads and wouldn't respond," Jasper recalled. "He was a recluse and didn't want anything to do with this and he didn't need the money."

Inside, it was a disaster.

"I removed 10 bee colonies from inside the walls," Jasper said. They also found an owl's nest with several babies and in the ceiling they discovered the skeleton of some unidentified creature.

Architect Baumann said because the house sits in a historical overlay district, they were required to bring in an expert on historical architecture as a consultant. It was a challenge figuring out to what era to restore the house, since it had undergone several remodels and additions. They wound up keeping the second story and opening up the sleeping porch there. But it was only precariously nailed to the structure, without continuous support from the foundation, so during reconstruction the house had to be repeatedly shored up.

Inside, the house is completely redone but with details that evoke the period, with paneled walls, built-in cabinets, oak floors and honeycomb tiles.

Jasper originally thought he'd rent it out, but now plans to list the house for sale at $4.9 million.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.</i>

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