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.”
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.
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.
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.”