Grandeur Finds a Home Again

Couple Restores Family Victorian

From the Press Democrat Wednesday, September 24, 1997

Visible from a half-mile away, the two-story Victorian is a commanding presence amid the rolling pastures of Chileno Valley.

But until Sally and Michael Gale went to work on it four years ago, the 1883 Romantic Italianate house was more eyesore than eye-opener in the rural valley running just south of the Marin County line.

“It was a wreck,” Sally Gale said succinctly.
Vacant for seven years, the house had taken a beating from the weather and vandals. There was a hole in the roof, all the windows were broken and graffiti covered the inside walls.

In the dining room, a freezer had leaked and fallen through the floor. Part of a staircase was broken up in the yard.

Contractors advised the Gales, who previously lived in Novato, to demolish it and start over.

But the remnants of grandeur remained, like the elaborate plaster medallions from which ceiling light fixtures had been suspended. And beneath its disheveled surface, the old house was solid, built of virgin redwood, Sally Gale said.

So she and Michael ignored the advice, and in 1993 undertook a renovation that won a 1997 award of great merit from Heritage Homes of Petaluma, a preservationist group.

The Gales’ house was one of nine homes and four commercial buildings honored at the group’s Preservation Awards Program on Saturday in the dining hall at the Masonic Building, a former award winner.

The awards, given every other year, are to thank property owners for “taking time to save a piece of the architectural fabric of Petaluma,” said Deborah Riddle, president of Heritage Homes.

“It’s nice to be encouraged,” Sally Gale said.

She also appreciates the compliments from Chileno Valley residents who said they had watched the “ghost house” deteriorate for years.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to be at this stage.”

Their work is not complete, with some fireplaces to be rebuilt and varnish to be applied, and the Gales also plan to rehabilitate the beef ranch facilities — including barns, fences and springs — as well as a stretch of Chileno Creek, where they hope to restore steelhead and salmon spawning grounds.

But the tall house, with spacious 11-foot ceilings, is once again a landmark. Framed by a row of Monterey cypress trees, it sports a dust color with cream trim and blue-green highlights, columned bay windows, three porches and a surrounding picket fence.

Inside, rebuilt fir and redwood floors and stairway balustrades shine, and gleaming antique light fixtures hand from the restored medallions. Most visitors wouldn’t notice, even after Sally Gale pointed it out, that the stairway posts are two-thirds the original piece joined to an extension to meet modern code requirements.

Nor would a visitor realize that it took six weeks of taping new drywall to produce a smooth surface, just like the old plaster and lathe the Gales ripped off the damages walls. Most homeowners opt for a rough drywall surface, which goes on much quicker and cheaper.

The experts were right, Sally Gale said, acknowledging that demolition would have been cheaper. The renovation, she said, “was an illogical, emotional decision.”

Much of the emotion stems from the history of the sprawling ranch, which had been in Sally Gale’s family since 1856. Her great-great grandfather, Charles Martin, bought the spread from Henry Halleck, chief of Staff to President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1883, Martin built a stylish Italianate addition to the 1860’s vintage ranch house. More than a century later, the Gales rebuilt the older part of the house, making it match with the more decorative Italianate, with tooth-nail dentil molding.

They salvaged redwood planks from the older house, reusing them for the upstairs floor, the exterior dentils and even the fence pickets. Round columns between the bay windows were fashioned from old fence posts.

Did the lumber recycling save money? “I think so,” Sally Gale said. “I’m not sure.”

While Sally worked full time as general contractor on the project, Mike, a self-employed private investigator, did much of the work, including milling the reused redwood.

Sally gives much of the credit to more than a dozen craftspeople, who did plumbing, tilling, wiring and other technical jobs, as well as woodworking wonders.

The Gales, who have three grown children, plan to turn the house into a bed-and-breakfast, and to take over the beef ranch operation, currently leased to another rancher. They’ve planted 200 native trees — bays, oaks, willows and aspens — along the creek, and fenced it off to keep cattle from trampling the banks.

Sally Gale has big plans for the ranch, where she expects to live for the rest of her life. “We’re kind of stuck here,” she said.