City Council mulls Marcy House’s future

Sonoma’s Marcy House has come a long way.

Built on a property near Clay Street and Broadway in the 1800s, the elegant little farmhouse faced demolition in 1989 – but was spared by a community rallying around its historical landmarks, said city historian George McKale.

“It caused quite a sensation,” McKale said, describing the spectacle of the house being picked up and moved to its current location at 205 First St. W., on city-owned property alongside the police station. “It actually was a huge, huge deal.”

Last Monday, March 17, the Sonoma City Council considered the next chapter for the house, which since 1989 has been occupied by the Sonoma Sister Cities Association under a dollar-a-year lease. That group made a great effort at the time to get the house moved and rehabilitated, and has been using it ever since as its main meeting place. Delegates from any of Sonoma’s six sister cities around the world often arrive there first to meet with local representatives.

Recently, however, the group’s 25-year lease ran out, and the city now has some choices to make.

According to Planning Director David Goodison, as part of its lease, Sister Cities was obligated to cover maintenance and utility costs. The house currently needs an estimated $15,000 or more in upgrades, he said, and the association says it cannot cover those expenses.

Goodison said the city could agree to cover those upgrades itself and renew the lease. Or it could find a new tenant, such as the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, which may be able to pay for the upgrades under a similar lease.

Or another option is “splitting off the portion encompassing the Marcy House, rezoning it, and selling it as a residence,” Goodison said during a presentation to council members.

Stephen Marshall, president of the Historical Society, told council members, “We have an interest in the Marcy House.” He said its location – right across First Street West from the Depot Museum – would be perfect for storing the group’s archives. And he noted that, if given a chance at a lease, his group would require a “60-day due diligence” period to make sure everything checked out.

He added, however, that comments made at the meeting “kind of gives me second thoughts on whether it’s going to be available or not to us.”

Those comments included renewed, though noncommittal, interest from the Sister Cities Association, as well as remarks from council members, including Mayor Tom Rouse, who said, “We as a city are beginning to question our ability to be good landlords.”

Councilmember David Cook reiterated that thought, which also has been expressed at previous council meetings. “We’re probably at a point in time that I think we do need to start selling some assets,” he said.

“I think that it is time that we get back to governing and get out of the real estate business.”

Whether that conviction will be applied to the Marcy House remains to be seen. After hearing that the Historical Society can come back to the city with a full proposal in 60 days, the council voted unanimously to continue the item in order to give the group some time. Meanwhile, the Sister Cities Association will remain in the house on an extended lease for the next couple months.

Although the exact date of its construction is unknown, the house – originally located at 20245 Broadway – was sold to French immigrant Jules Gustav Marcy in 1891.

As McKale noted, “Mr. Marcy himself was, back in the 1880s, a rather important figure in Sonoma. He was a founding member of the Sonoma volunteer fire department. He was a member of the International Order of Odd Fellows. And he played in the Sonoma Valley Band – at the time that was a really big deal.”

The two-bedroom house stayed in the Marcy family until 1969, when it was sold to new owners. Two decades later, the owners proposed razing the house for a new development – and the city came to its rescue.

That bespoke a level of cooperation that McKale says he doesn’t notice anymore.

“Not only was the city behind the move … but more important, the community seemed to back it,” he said. “I don’t know that we see those same types of gestures going on today.”

Although historic preservation does occupy much current discussion, to McKale the talk seems more antagonistic in nature. Back then, by contrast, there was a “more cohesive frame of mind” when it came to historic preservation, he said.

McKale noted that selling the Marcy House as a private residence won’t endanger it.

“It doesn’t mean if they sell it that the historic nature is going to change,” he said. “The house is still subject to the Environmental Quality Act” regardless of who owns it.