“I am beginning to feel a bit like the archaeologist who stumbled across King Tut's Tomb,” confessed unstoppably tenacious community photo blogger, aka Petaluma Spectator, Frank Simpson (pictured in action in the photo series above), in an early email missive to several connected scriveners, historians, artists and photographers in the area, back in the middle of March of this year.
“It must be something in my genetic coding,” he wrote: “always stumbling across controversy and/or mystery. The entire Petaluma history community, it appears, all scratching their heads.”
If I were to count the exact number of emails that would follow this initial outreach for what would unfold as Simpson’s great American Alley Mural – Whodunit Mystery Series, I’d say I personally shared in over 60 online communications, numerous phone calls, an extremely wet and windy, shared investigative road trip to Healdsburg, with two, ultimately fortuitous field meetings on location, downtown!
Our mission was to find out precisely when, why and who had produced a striking series of huge-scale, multi-media mural panels depicting 1935-Style WPA (Works Progress Administration) art, pipes and cogs covering the American Alley-side back wall of Copperfield’s Book store.
Simpson shot a series of photographs of the mural on first sight, during one of his regular downtown ‘grid’ sessions, in which he captures street scenes and subsequent stories for his popular weblog. “I was on the pedestrian walkway connecting Kentucky and Petaluma Boulevard. I had just taken a few steps into Putnam Plaza when the sun broke through a hole in the clouds. At that point I happened to look over my shoulder at the back of Copperfield’s when something on the upper wall caught my eye. I ignored it momentarily, but then thought I should take a quick look to see if it was just the light playing tricks on me - or whether something was there.
“I was looking squarely at a very large mural, in fact, several mural panels stretching across the upper part of the building,” he said. “As I continued along the back of the store, I tried to absorb the scope of the designs and the sophistication of the work.”
This is a story of scenes that are seen but not seen. Of art that is hiding in plain sight and an investigation beyond the nooks and crannies of a well-trod service area that turned into a cooperative research project involving historian Katherine Rinehart of the Sonoma County Library, Petaluma’s much-loved history buff and Petaluma 360 Blogger Bill Hammerman, several others, Simpson and myself, with a collective focus to uncover the mural’s history.
By the time Simpson had reeled me into the mystery, he’d exhausted his first round of inquisition, astonished that even the Downtown Association, museum history docents and Copperfield’s staff themselves had absolutely no idea as to the origins of such a substantial example of public art.
“Easy,” I’d assured him, figuring with extensive contacts throughout our community, this one would be a doddle to sleuth. After my own cross-channel investigations failed to shine any light on our mystery artists, Simpson met me downtown to re-strategize, take another look at the mural and scratch our heads in unison.
If you have ever doubted the power of showing up in person, as opposed to huddling behind a keyboard, emailing all day, take it from me that my little visit to gawk again at the artwork at the back of the bookstore’s exterior would be so serendipitous that the answer to our mystery actually walked right up for a hug and a hello. Turns out that Elisa Weber of neighboring Della Fattoria went to school with American Alley mural artists Chuck Roetter and Fernando Nugent (pictured above), both of whom still live in the county, Nugent still residing in the same downtown neighborhood as the almost 18-and-a-half--year-old mural that he and Roetter had produced, remarkably with little more than exterior paint and wood, on commission for Mattei Brother’s Underground Clothing Store, that had catered to teens and was accessed by a back doorway in the Alley.
Hammerman put us in touch with Bob Mattei, who still owns the building, with his brother Jim. My Super-Sleuth pal, Simpson suggested an in-person interview with Mattei in his Dry Creek, Healdsburg home, a remote and wildly beautiful spot that the longtime retailer had moved to after retirement. Something told me this was not a wild goose chase, but one of those stories that come along every once in a while, taking quirky twists and turns to reveal layers of fascinating local history. Well, that and The Petaluma Spectator, being the persuasive chap that he is, promised me a post-interview latte and pastry pit-stop at Healdsburg's Cousteau Bakery.
"My dad, Fred Mattei, bought the building in 1964," a charming, tall and tan Mattei told us, as we sat inside, overlooking a raging torrent of a winter creek down below the back of his private, hillside property. It was raining cats, dogs and anything else that could easily be swept down the creek to the Russian River that day. "The Elks Lodge was on the 2nd floor of the building, originally," he recalled. His grandfather had played Pinochle (a card game of set-making and trick-taking) there in the afternoons.
A fire in the bar next door destroyed the roof of the building that housed, beneath the Elks Lodge, a sports store, pet store and liquor store, as well as the bar. Mattei's father moved his clothing store from the building across the street that is now Avatar Punjabi Burrito, formerly Arams, at 131 Kentucky. A few doors down, another devastating fire broke out on the block, in 2002, altering the line-up of storefronts that has now expanded into a much larger space for Copperfields than Mattei Brothers initially occupied.
"It was my Dad's idea to build the golden concourse walkway from what was then a flat parking lot behind the store. He donated the walkway property to the City with the understanding that the city would maintain the walkway and parking lot," said Mattei, adding that an original two-lot building on that side of the street had housed the old post office before it moved to the boulevard to the building that is now 24 Hour Fitness. His grandfather and great uncle, Richard and Valenti Mattei were first generation Swiss-Italians, born out in Marshall. Their first clothing store location opened in 1906 and was located down the street, next door to Couches Etc. The family's building that now accommodates Copperfield's was the Mattei's third and final location for 87 years of full-service men's (and later, teen) clothing sales.
Bob Mattei joined the family business in 1964, the year before his father moved operations across to 134 Kentucky Street. His brother, Jim, ran the sporting goods store in that same building. "We ran a red carpet shop," said Mattei. "In the 60s, it was an Ivy League shop." By the early 1990s, the business climate had changed dramatically for the sale of mens clothing, with competition coming in all over town. "We had decided to adapt towards the high school market, more jeans and T-shirts, back in the 70s" said Mattei, who offered work experience in the store to students to teach work ethic . "The idea eventually came up to open an exclusive shop for the youngsters, with teenagers working there, doing the buying, the advertising, building the dressing rooms and laying out the store," he said."We kept changing, kept trying to keep up with the times."
Hence the development of "The Underground Clothing Store" in the basement of the main store. "Kids wouldn't come in through the front doors of what they thought of as their grandad's store," said Mattei. "So a less intimidating entrance was made from the Alley." The store's walls and ceilings were covered with posters of bands that had played the Filmore in San Francisco.
"In kicking ideas around with the kids, we came up with the mural idea and young, local artists were recommended."
A couple of months later, the store celebrated its opening with a night time party, juke-box music and offering free gift wrapping and delivery of clothing purchases around town.
“We thought that down the line, Copperfield’s might have painted over it, but it has remained in great condition, with only a couple of minor tags,” said Nugent, an International Auditor at UPS, who, I’d tracked down finally on Facebook. He explained how the name of the store had sounded industrial and Roetter, an artist and photographer, had envisioned the gears, piping and a distinctive WPA-style theme. He and Nugent, also the mural artist of the staircase logo in the Phoenix Theater and an SRJC graphics design student at the time, completed the American Alley mural and additional, still-existing artwork inside the entrance to the store (now the Used Books section, downstairs at Copperfields), on October 31st, 1993, just one year before Mattei Brother’s closed the doors of the original store, upstairs, followed by the Underground, a year later.
Nugent agreed to meet with Simpson and myself to walk and talk and view the American Alley mural from the artist’s perspective. It became clear as he focused our attention on each panel that the industrial looking scenes were actually based on Petaluma history, incorporating the river, housing, the granary, rail, planes, hatchery machinery.
"It was Chuck who had the vision for the industrial-style gears and piping," explained Nugent. "What you see today is actually a scaled back version of his original plans. Kids were always milling around in the alley, or walking through, so the Mattei's were smart to capitalize on the traffic."
Coincidentally, Nugent had been studying WPA era posters at the time, in graphic design classes at the J.C. "It was great to be able to bring our own Petaluma version to life," he said. Coming of age in Petaluma area at the tail end of the Punk era, the young artists were also part of a skateboarding team named "Rat Patrol". Roetter's brother Steve was a pro skater and the downtown area, particularly the Alley, was a haven for boarding and hanging out.
"We showed Chuck's plans for the mural to Mattei and he loved it. After that, we used chalk to sketch it out and set about producing each panel, with the use of a scaffolding machine," said Nugent. "We tried to show a lot of history of Petaluma from the 30s and 40s."
Roetter and Nugent brought in pal Eric Harrison (of Solo Salon) to help them paint. The fact that taggers have largely left their work unblemished is a testament to the beauty and intrigue of Roetter and Nugent's remarkably untrumpeted legacy of public mural art.
Working in unison to tell such a richly layered story across multi-media platforms in a spirit of collaboration has only thickened the plot of this as a rewarding mystery to help solve and subsequently share.
Frank Simpson’s compelling and detailed series on the American Alley Mural, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ can be found at: http://frankpetaluma.wordpress.com/category/american-alley/. Simpson's father was one of the founding members of the National Safety Council. "I vividly remember WPA poster art on his office walls," said Simpson. Nothing, however, to the scale of work he'd eventually stumble upon here in Petaluma.