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The Old Silk Mill

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
September, 2018 Issue

The residents of Petaluma have always had a soft spot for their old silk mill, looming large at the corner of Jefferson and Wilson streets. For decades, it manufactured fine sewing products, including silk threads and embroidery silks. Standing since 1892, no Petaluman alive today can recall when it didn’t exist. In 1986, the building was successfully nominated for National Register of Historic Places status through the U.S. Department of the Interior. But when the last manufacturer moved out in 2007, the imposing brick structure began a slow decline that lasted years despite its historic significance.

During the past two years, the silk mill was remodeled to offer lodging for business and leisure travelers—a landmark that’s sure to be around for another 100-plus years. After an intensive restoration project that ran into multiple delays, it’s now the Hampton Inn Petaluma, offering 75 modern guest rooms accented with decorative reminders of the building’s past.

“The Petaluma community is excited to see this building come back to life and become a prominent landmark again, like it used to be,” says Perry Patel, a partner with BPR Properties of Palo Alto, the developer of the project. “A lot of sentimental feelings are attached to it.”

Only a few short years ago, you might have thought there was no hope for the empty and deteriorating former factory—tagged with graffiti and scattered with the detritus of trespassers—and that it would eventually be torn down to make way for other uses on the land. But in 2009 a group of investors bought the building, eyeing it for a potential condominium project. That idea was ultimately scuttled in favor of converting it to a hotel.

The hotel officially opened in June, and plans are underway to host a special tour of the hotel for local residents this autumn.

The renovation

BPR Properties has a successful history of rehabbing old buildings into showplace hotels. “We were not in unchartered waters with the silk mill project, and not unfamiliar with the challenges we might face. We’ve done a number of similar projects over the last 10 years,” says Patel. In 2009, BPR completed a massive restoration of the Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Berkeley, a mission-style structure dating to 1910, which returned it to its former glory. “It was an existing hotel but very distressed and in need of big improvements. It’s a large, full-service hotel of 199 rooms, and with a restaurant and meeting spaces, and encompasses an entire city block.”

Similarly, BPR renovated the Oregon Pioneer Building in Portland into the 120-room Hi-Lo Hotel, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection. “It was built in 1906 and was a former office building,” says Patel. “That was also an adaptive reuse project, like the silk mill.”

Why did BPR focus on the silk mill in particular? “It’s the kind of project that’s right up our alley,” explains Patel. “We look for these types of distressed buildings, to take on a challenge that not many developers will take on because of the unknowns they might encounter. I view that as a strength of our company. BPR does its own construction, so we can absorb some of the extra costs of those unknowns. Many communities are receptive to developers like us because the properties have become eyesores.

“For BPR, it’s a pleasure to work on these types of buildings, but the opportunities to find them are getting fewer and further between. It can be a much longer process from start to finish than a project coming right out of the ground, but that’s the nature of the business, especially in California.”

Asked about the cost of renovating the silk mill into a mid-range hotel, Patel declines to reveal a specific figure. “We’re a private company, and so we typically use our standard line—‘It was a multi-million-dollar project.’”

Location, location, location

“This is the only Hilton product in Petaluma [Hampton is a division of the Hilton Portfolio of Brands], so it offers a new option for millions of Hilton Honors members to earn and redeem their points,” says Max Childs, the new hotel’s general manager. “This is also filling a niche in Petaluma, where there are not many mid-scale hotels. By adding more hotels rooms we’re adding tax revenue to the city and increased spending by visitors in restaurants and stores.”

Childs ticks off the main benefits of the new hotel: “Location, location, location. It’s near the SMART station, walking distance to downtown, and also near the fairgrounds. Some of our local companies have shown a lot of interest in putting up their business clients here.”

Generally, Hampton Inns are geared to the business traveler. “This is a very unique Hampton, but it will still serve the purpose of business travelers who want that branded experience of a Hampton,” says Patel. “I estimate the business-to-leisure ratio will be 65 percent to 35 percent. But from the leisure traveler’s perspective, it’s in a great location for reaching Sonoma and Napa, where hotel rates can be much higher.” (At press time, the room rates for Hampton Inn Petaluma ranged from $139 to $339.)

Childs was able to curate his staff carefully well ahead of opening date. “We had anticipated being ready to open by the fall of 2017, but there were construction delays and other challenges. I had my operations manager and sales coordinator early on, and we worked at my dining room table until our temporary office was ready. We also brought onto the staff some of the people who lost their jobs when the Fountaingrove Inn and Hilton hotel were destroyed by the Tubbs fire.”

Preserving history

Plans for transforming the old silk mill into a hotel were first submitted to the city in summer 2015, and seismic work began in summer 2016. By that fall, the building plans were approved and construction got underway. To discourage trespassers, BPR installed an alarm system and smoke detectors. “The building had been targeted by vandals and some had even tried to light fires inside. So, we closely monitored that activity beforehand, and we had no issues once construction began,” says Patel.

Lilly Bianco, an associate planner with the City of Petaluma, helped process the project through the city’s historic site plan and architectural review process. “The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places for a long time, but was never formally recognized as a local landmark. So as a condition of city approval, BPR had to memorialize the building as a local landmark on the deed.”

It’s up to the city’s discretion, she explains, but when plans are submitted for an adaptive reuse of such a historic property, the developers must follow standards set by the U.S. Secretary of Interior. “There are 10 basic standards for retaining a building’s historic character, and then a whole set of guidelines that inform how you can or can’t modify the building.”

According to Bianco, BPR completed a historical structures report that identified the silk mill’s historic significance and to single out what could be removed and demolished, and what needed to be retained. “When the planning department received the project and application, we considered the extent to which those modifications would be appropriate under those standards. It’s a basic framework to follow.”

One element on the site that needed serious repair was the building’s tall, brick smokestack, which didn’t appear to be structurally sound and was later found to be unstable. BPR removed seven feet of the chimney’s “throat,” had the remaining masonry remortared, then replaced the “collar” back on top so it looks original. It’s also securely strapped to the main building for seismic compliance.
“It didn’t appear to be structurally sound, and as we did a little more investigating we found that it wasn’t stable,” says Bianco.

“That chimney isn’t going anywhere anymore,” adds Childs.

The long brick building with two towers that faces Lakeville Street used to be one big open space inside, according to Childs. The renovation required all new plumbing, electrical wiring, a fire suppression system, efficient heating and cooling, and some of the latest technology available for things like key card activators. The hotel now has LED lighting throughout, most of it programmable.

Untangling the unknowns

Working with the City of Petaluma from start to finish was largely seamless, says Patel. “The city was understanding in trying to find the right balance of historic preservation versus the financial feasibility of the restoration outcome.”

While it may appear that the biggest component of the silk mill renovation was the actual historic preservation, another modern-day challenge slowed down the project. Near the west side of the building is Sunset Park, a city-owned half-acre sandwiched between Lakeville Street and Erwin Street, the hotel’s frontage road.

“Sunset Park became the public improvement component of the silk mill project,” says Patel. “BPR doesn’t own this piece of land, it wasn’t part of our purchase of the property, but we are now responsible for maintaining it. The city doesn’t want to dispose of it.” New landscaping, a bus stop, public seating and a water fountain were installed by BPR as part of its deal with the city.

“This park wasn’t getting much attention in the past,” says Bianco. “It wasn’t super welcoming.”

The City of Petaluma was “fantastic” to work with on the silk mill project, says Patel. “It was easy to engage with everyone closely, particularly in untangling the unknowns we discovered on the public improvement side that we weren’t aware of. I hold no ill will toward the city about the Sunset Park improvements.”

There was definitely a lot of community interest in the silk mill project, says Bianco. “The city wanted to make certain that specific conditions were implemented, so a lot of attention was paid to the details including mortar colors, paint colors and new windows and so forth. There was a lot of back and forth between the city and the developer throughout the project, and hopefully it resulted in a better project because of the attention to detail.”

The city, Bianco adds, has always looked at the silk mill as an important community resource. “So there was, of course, an elevated level of focus on this renovation. It was a learning experience for all of us, and everyone is happy to see the building being used again.”

Honoring history

To further honor the building’s past, BPR Properties, the hotel ownership management company, expects to curate a small display of historic photos and information after the hotel has been open for a few months. “We already think of this as kind of a museum because of the historic elements we restored and kept,” says Childs. “The old freight elevator has been preserved, though it’s no longer functional, as well as the old stairways. The entrance to the hotel is under the old water tower on the Wilson Street side of the property. The local Methodist church also donated to us an old watercolor painting of the silk mill. There’s a lot of love here in Petaluma for this building.

“We have great respect for the people who toiled here and around those string machines for so many years,” he adds. “Some of them might even want to come to stay the night, and if they do, we’d love to pick their brains and hear their stories.”

According to Patel, some of the original factory equipment that was saved may be incorporated into an exhibit. As for repurposing a historic landmark in Petaluma, it’s a project that’s been especially meaningful for Patel. “It’s always gratifying to work on a landmark within a community that has such rich history,” he says. “Our hopes for the hotel are to be the market leader for guest service and an employer of choice where our team members can share the history of the hotel. And lastly, to be a destination within the community where people can come and stay.”

Modern Amenities Amid the History

Anyone who remembers the Petaluma silk mill from its former life as a factory will be delighted by its rebirth as a Hampton Inn hotel. Many architectural details have been preserved to respect its historical legacy, and most of the 75 guest rooms––including nine suites––have 14-foot ceilings and exposed brick.

The rooms all have modern conveniences for business and leisure travelers, such as free WiFi, high-definition TV, mini-refrigerator, coffee maker and work desk. Photos of Petaluma decorate the walls of the rooms, along with window shades showing a map of the city. The new hotel is compliant with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), throughout, and several ADA rooms are available. Guests can use the fitness center and the business center, and also enjoy the complimentary hot breakfast the Hampton Inn brand is known for.

Since the hotel has only enough parking spaces for its overnight guests, it’s currently restricted from offering alcoholic beverages, featuring local craft beer and wines, only to their overnight guests and invitees. “We hope that will change in the future,” says Max Childs, general manager of the hotel.

Through the Years

Built in 1892, the old Petaluma silk mill—as it’s commonly known—weathered decades of nearly continuous factory use. It was constructed by the Carlson-Currier Silk Mill Co. of San Francisco along Jefferson Street, and became the largest silk mill west of the Mississippi River when Carlson-Currier bought a competitor, California Silk Mills.

A year earlier, Petaluma business pioneer John McNear was seeking to develop several blocks of land he owned east of the Petaluma River. He met with the Carlson-Currier owners on the site and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: If they built their new silk mill on his property in Petaluma, McNear could guarantee financing, a nearby railroad spur, and according to published histories, a labor market that would “beat their doors down.”

Edward Carlson, who hailed from Bremen, Germany, believed the eastern Petaluma hills resembled the old country. The fast-thinking McNear declared he would name the new street that would lead to the mill “Bremen Street.” (It was renamed during World War I to honor President Woodrow Wilson.) Carlson-Currier purchased McNear’s land for $1,500 in gold coins, as the story goes. Architect Charles Haven was hired to design a structure that would resemble the textile mills of England and New England––all 20,000 square feet of it. Referred to as a “Georgian Colonial” for King George of England, the mill was built for $36,000. The machinery to outfit the factory cost almost as much.

Despite nearly burning down in 1906, in a fire that leveled adjoining industrial buildings, production flourished in the silk mill. In 1921, Carlson-Currier merged with a competitor, Belding Brothers-Hemingway Co., and the mill was then nearly doubled in size, to 40,000 square feet. In 1941 the mill closed down, when President Franklin Roosevelt halted all trade from Asia and the importation of silk.

It wasn’t idle for long. The Sunset Line and Twine Co. of San Francisco moved in to produce nylon and rayon fishing line, rope, twine and thread, and it remained in the building until closing in 2007.



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