California Silk Mill in Limbo

Posted on: February 21st, 2008 by Margaret Foster 4 Comments

Petaluma Silk MillResidents of Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco, are hoping another developer will step forward to renovate its 1892 silk mill after 26 investors backed out of a condo project late last year.

Designed by San Francisco architect Charles Havens and renovated in 1922 by Brainerd Jones, the Georgian revival factory is on the market for $7.5 million. In October, the city stymied investors when it said that the project couldn't proceed until the city adopts a new general plan that addresses water conservation--probably sometime in April, according to the city's mayor, Pam Torliatt.

"It was a timing issue," Torliatt says. "The status of our general plan not only affected this development project; it has affected many development projects. We've been in a de facto building moratorium, and legally we weren't able to do anything."

The Petaluma Preservation Group withdrew its contract on the building in October, saying the city's delays have cost it $1.5 million.

"It would transform a city block of blight," writes Skip Sommer, one of the 26 investors, in the local Argus-Courier. "It would be done in "green" construction with conservation of water a primary concern. We've offered to pay the newly proposed water fees."

Last year, the Sunset Line and Twine textile factory's longtime owner, the Agnew family, closed the factory and held an auction, stripping the building of its original doors, staircases, and other original features. Locals have criticized the owner for not securing the building, which has been broken into and vandalized.

Although the development team backed off after two years of planning, city officials, who say they had to consider California's environmental planning laws, say there's hope for the building.

"This wasn't the last chance for the Silk Mill. The more people who know about the building, the more likely it is that another investor will come along," says Teresa Barrett, a city council member. "The financial return is not going to realized for some time to come, but with money, vision and patience it can happen."

The silk mill is in a very desirable neighborhood, says Christopher Stevick, a general contractor and past president of Heritage Homes of Petaluma. "It's in an area that's about to see a lot of development."

Mayor Torliatt plans to see to it that the building is protected. "There are great opportunities for this property that may end up being more desirable than breaking up this structure into residential units," she says. "No matter what occurs with this building, it will stay intact and be restored. That is something that I certainly will continue to support."


The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Preservation Magazine

4 Responses

  1. Nicole Aman

    June 5, 2009


    We recently bought a home just down the street from (and in sight of) the Petaluma Silk Mill. I’d like to set up a link on my Facebook page for people to become “a fan of” this cause. We feel that the development of this property will benefit the city and the citizens of Petaluma. I’d like you’re permission to do this and start a grassroots movement to get property developed ASAP.

    Thank you,
    Nicole Aman

  2. S. Lopez

    June 28, 2009

    This is an *extremely* important building. It is one of the very few examples of east-coast-style nineteenth-century industrial architecture on the West Coast. (I used to work at the Avery Art and Architecture library at Columbia University in New York, which was contacted by the former owners to see if they would be interested in the original plans and elevations of the Silk Mill. The library suggested that these documents be donated to a local museum instead, and they are now at the Petaluma Museum where they are in good hands.)

    But *please* get your reporting right! The former owners did not “strip the building of its doors and staircases.” If that happened, it must have been under the stewardship of the Petaluma Preservation Group. This group is a real estate development company. They are not preservationists. Their plan was to convert the building into condos–not necessarily a bad idea but one which should *not* be misrepresented as “preservation.” I am certain that if you contact any of the former owners they will be more than happy to provide accurate information in your endeavor to protect this building.

    Accurate reporting is really crucial in our fight to preserve worthy architecture and to make people aware of its value. (The value of the silk mill is not just its wonderful façade. The building is full of fascinating history.) When municipalities cannot be expected to fight for these things because of limited funding and competing interests, it’s our duty as citizens to stand up for what we value.

    Thanks for your hard work! –S.L.

  3. Margaret Foster

    June 30, 2009

    Correction: The Petaluma Silk Mill’s longtime owners did not strip the mill in 2007. Instead, the Agnew family sold the building and most of its equipment to the Petaluma Preservation Group, which donated some of the historic equipment to museums, saved some for the planned condominium project, and held an auction for the building’s remaining contents.

  4. Hilary

    September 16, 2009

    I’m hoping that Sunset Line & Twine will eventually become a labor history museum in homage to the workers who have built our city, state and country. Beautiful pictures.