In the history of societies everywhere, apexes of art and design come at times of prosperity. Sonoma County experienced such an apex at the turn of the 19th century and for a few decades after that.
One word: Chickens. So, if you were a chicken rancher, made wealthy by selling your wares down the Petaluma River to San Francisco and beyond, and you wanted to build a new house to suit your family’s status, first, you hired an architect. And not just any architect…a sophisticated and highly skilled architect that you could trust to design the stateliness you sought. In Petaluma, this meant Brainerd Jones, or for a few lucky properties (5 in all) Julia Morgan.
In Katherine Reinhart’s book “Petaluma: a History in Architecture” it is suggested that an incredible 80 percent of the buildings in the city’s historic west side core have been designed by Jones-although many have been lost to redevelopment.
Jones was a Petaluman, and active member of the town. And his houses were anything but cookie cutter as he designed them to client needs and tastes. But all are clearly beautifully designed. From imposing Queen Anne Victorians to Edwardian Colonials, he is known for adding amusing and idiosyncratic details.
Typical Jones details of the 1905-1920 period, seen in dozens of houses throughout town, include roofs that flare out at the end like Chinese pagodas, giving even his most Eastern of Colonials a curious Asian flavor. Dormer roofs often flare as well, and he loved paired dormers and heavy window boxes.
Other Jonesian motifs include X-shaped window patterns found in porch and dormer windows, three-dimensional pyramidal beam ends in fireplaces and cabinets, bands of windows a la Frank Lloyd Wright prairie style and small windows sandwiching larger windows. These motifs are prolific throughout buildings of the period, whether they were actually designed by Jones or by a copycat.
His brick houses of the 1920s, several of which line stately, tree-lined D Street are wonderful compositions of arches, turrets, arcades and gables. One of Jones’ notable houses boasts a crenellated corner-oriented entryway, and windows that vertically span the two-story living room complete with a Juliet balcony and elegantly ample brick fireplace.
Jones designed many commercial buildings as well including the Carnegie Library, the Silk Mill and the Opera House building in the heart of Petaluma’s downtown.
Also in this west side neighborhood can be found a few Julia Morgans-the other architect of the time favored by the landed gentry. Perhaps most recognizable is the Georgian revival perched on the hill above Penry Park, owned for years by sisters Mary and Martha and loved for its ornate detail and abundance of garden roses. Embracing the Arts & Crafts movement whole heartedly, her interior details can be nothing short of stunningly beautiful in their graceful simplicity.
We are lucky to have such works of art in our midst. Significant to the history of Petaluma, to the Architecture of the time and to their examples of craftsmanship at its best.