Blue Wing Adobe: portal to Sonoma’s past & future
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Since 2001, Sonoma residents have been accustomed to seeing the Blue Wing Adobe, which dates back to 1838, sitting shuttered, empty and seemingly forgotten.
But one Saturday afternoon last month, the adobe—located on East Spain Street across from Mission San Francisco Solano—came to life again. The occasion? A reception for a group of documentary filmmakers embarking on the first leg of a Mission-to-Mission horseback ride. The journey will take them from Sonoma, site of the last Mission built in 1823, to San Diego, where the first Mission was born in 1769.
“It was a great moment,” said architect Ned Forrest, a director of the Blue Wing Adobe Trust. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2010 to help preserve the 100-foot-long building made of adobe brick. Originally one story high, a second story and balcony were added between 1849-1852. The outer walls were once whitewashed with lime plaster, but it has faded and disappeared over time, leaving the original bricks exposed.
“From its earliest days, this building was all about hospitality,” Forrest said, “and it was wonderful to see people in it again having a good time. Horses were tied up out front, and inside there was the kind of simple wholesome food you would have found in the past. We had Mike the Baker’s bread, local wines, olives. People were happy.”
And if the Blue Wing Adobe Trust achieves its goals, the ancient building will eventually open its doors to on a permanent basis.
After 130 years in private hands, the Blue Wing Adobe was acquired in 1968 by California State Parks. “The state just basically kept it as it was,” Forrest said. “In 1984 they made certain repairs, including putting on a shingle cedar roof. They wanted to preserve it and planned to turn it into a house museum, interpreting the 1850s period.
“They got as far as doing a major historic structures report to identify cultural periods. But then money became tight, and nothing happened. So it’s just been sitting there since 2001.”
But early last winter, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation signed a partnership agreement with the Blue Wing Adobe Trust to identify suitable adaptive reuse that would achieve three goals: retain the adobe’s historic integrity, serve visitors to Sonoma State Historic Park, and serve the community.
“Our mission is to get all the ducks in line to make it possible for someone to take over the building,” Forrest said.
“We’re hoping to lease the building to a private owner or group who would accomplish and fund the restoration according to our plans. We’d remove the fear factor by dealing with the state and state parks, because that’s a formidable process to go through, a complicated bureaucracy. We’d also take care of the engineering and architectural work.”
Examples of possible tenants for the building include a winery tasting room or a restaurant (Monterey’s highly-acclaimed Restaurant 1833 is housed in an 1833 adobe).
“My ultimate vision,” Forrest said, “is that we buy historic buildings as they come up, restore them, and lease them. That keeps the buildings alive and in use.”
Forrest said that Sonoma is one of the rare locations in California where a good bit of the land from early settlement times remains untouched. Pointing to a horse pasture across the street, he said: “There was a horse pasture there in Vallejo’s day, and it remains there today. And behind the Blue Wing there’s an empty field where the Indian village stood. It’s amazing that so much remains as it was, still part of the original context surrounding the Blue Wing. We should do everything we can to save it for future generations.”
Forrest estimates the cost of renovating the Blue Wing Adobe at $1.75 million. The first and most important work needed, at a cost of $304,000, covers seismic improvements, drainage, and roofing. “That would stabilize the building,” he said.
When all renovation and improvements are completed, the building “will be healthy, look great on the street, and stay there indefinitely.”
The first recorded mention of the Blue Wing Adobe was in 1838, when an official noted that Antonio Ortega, once General Vallejo’s mayordomo, lived in a small two-room adobe measuring 35′ x 35′, at that location. Ortega later turned one of the rooms into a pulque house.
“Basically it was a tavern,” Forrest said. “Pulque is a fermented product of blue agave cactus.”
Over its 174-year history, the adobe has filled many purposes. Its most romantic period was probably during the Gold Rush and ensuing decades, when it served as a hotel, gambling hall, eatery, saloon and assayer’s office—sometimes all at once.
“California was so primitive in those days,” Forrest said. “Imagine how amazing it must have looked, coming all the way from San Francisco, which was basically just a fort. You’d get here, where you had a place with food and drink, a real bed. It was a comparative palace.”
In 1895 the Blue Wing was purchased by Agostino Pinelli, who used it for wine storage (in 1911, a fast-moving fire broke on First Street East was put out with a steady stream of Pinelli’s wine). In 1940 it was sold to sugar-widow Alma Spreckels and her then-husband, Elmer Awl, who wanted to turn it into a men’s club, but their divorce ended that plan.
Five years later the adobe was purchased by the Murphy family, then-owners of the Sonoma Index-Tribune. The Blue Wing was later sold to William and Eleanora Black, who converted the second floor to apartments and opened the bottom floor to shops. When they sold the building in 1968, tenants continued living and working there. The last tenant moved out in 2001.
The building’s interior hasn’t changed much over time. “Adobes are austere and modern at the same time,” Forrest said. “They work well with either antiques or modern furniture.”
The Blue Wing may be ancient and in serious need of renovation, but it nonetheless conveys a feeling of substance, of being made to last. The two-foot-thick walls, the windows recessed deep into the adobe, and the solid redwood floors mute the sound of passing cars and lend a feeling of intimacy. With a fire crackling in one of the simple fireplaces built into the walls, it would be easy to think you’d wandered back into time.
“What’s so important about the Blue Wing,” Forrest said, “is that it contains almost everything that is California; it’s a melding of what’s happened here. Native Americans made those adobe bricks. Yankees came along and built the second story in 1849, taking a Mexican-era phase and adding a layer of modern American civility on top of that. And so it went. You can find light fixtures from the 1940s.”
Long an adobe devotée, Forrest has traveled the world to study these structures. He and his wife/design partner, Leslie Whitelaw, live in Sonoma’s 1847 Ray Adobe, which they restored in 1995.
“These buildings are all over the western hemisphere,” he said, “in arid regions. They’re the fundamental vernacular of the southwest, a fantastic type of building for our climate—cool in summer, warm in winter.
“I like to look at these buildings and reverse-engineer them to find truths for the present day. No matter where I go, these buildings are more alike than they’re different. You can learn a lot from older buildings. Historic buildings are a metaphor for the human endeavor.”