American Alley’s Mural Array–Whodunit?

Fifth in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Past articles are filed under American Alley

Also See Hidden in Plain Sight on Petaluma Patch

Finding the answers as to the “who, what, when and why” behind the artwork on the back of the present day Copperfield’s required the collaboration of several people.

Mattei Brothers Clothing Store

Bill Hammerman was able to come up with the first breakthrough in solving this art history mystery when he established that the man behind the artwork was Bob Mattei of the Mattei Brother’s clothing store. Briefly, Mattei’s had been in business in Petaluma at several downtown locations for 87 years. It occupied the building now known as Copperfield’s from 1965 until the business closed at the end of 1994. (For background on the store, see SF Gate*)

Armed with this information, Frances and I visited with Bob Mattei on March 27. Mattei told us that the clothing market  was changing in the early nineties and he was searching for ways to meet the shifting trends of the marketplace: “I was going for the high school business…jeans, etc. I always had kids from the high school working in the store.” Mattei worked with them to come up with a plan for a separate teenage department or store in the basement and involved them in the advertising and inventory selection. They also came up with the name, The Underground Clothing Store.

According to Mattei: “A lot of the teenagers did not like coming into my store because it was like their father’s store, So I came up with the idea of putting the entrance in the alley…[to provide an alternative entry].”  As a means of attracting customers to the back of the store, Mattei decided that some artwork over the back door was in order. Consequently he connected with two local artists who eventually produced the work.  He did not discuss the concept or the design in the interview except to say that the artists “…ran some ideas by me and came up with the work theme.” To carry out the project, Mattei brought in portable lifts to enable the artists to work and to be able to exit the alley when vehicles needed to pass.

The Artists

We were able to get a better feeling for the timeline of the artwork after Frances established contact with an artist who worked on the project. He provided a critical piece of information–the date of a 1995 Argus Courier article regarding the murals.** 

Armed with this information, Katherine Rinehart located the article on microfilm in short order. From the information contained in the Argus article, it appears that the artwork was completed a few months before the store closed in 1994. This may explain why so few people have any memory of it, or its origins. We did learn from the article that the artists researched and were heavily influenced by the WPA style artwork of the 1930’s when they designed and laid out the project.


*On December 13, 1994, the Argus Courier published an article by Jay Gamel on the store’s closing. Katherine Rinehart wrote a retrospective article about Mattei’s for the spring 2008 edition of Petaluma Magazine: Kentucky Street Suited Mattei Brothers. These articles are not available online but are available at the library. My interpretation of the copyright laws precludes their inclusion with this article.

** I did not attach a copy of the 1995 Argus Courier article or the accompanying photo of one of the artists for the same reason as stated in the above note. The article did report the names of two artists commissioned by Mattei as Fernando Nugent and Charlie Roder.

This series will resume later next month.

So stay tuned!

In the interim, enjoy a brief slideshow documenting the multimedia aspects of the work.

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American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART II

Fourth in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Past articles are filed under American Alley

The Quest

EmbarrassedI must admit to feeling more than sheepish, dare I say embarrassed, as I have walked through Putnam Plaza at least a 1000 times over the years and NEVER noticed the artwork on the back of Copperfield’s until March 17, 2012!

American Alley ©Frank Simpson

AnnoyedTherefore, I was now determined to correct my blatant failure to exercise my powers of observation. I thought it would be a simple matter (silly me!) of just asking my usual sources for things historical.  They had always provided answers in the past.

This time they came up with bupkis…nothing…nada…zip.

So I elevated my inquiry to Bill Hammerman and Nina Zhito. Bill did know of the existence of the murals; however, he did not know the “who, what, when, and why” of their creation.  Bill and Nina independently referred the question to Katherine Rinehart who is an historian and expert on local architecture.  Katherine also knew about the murals, but, like Bill, did not know how they came to be.

At this point I was ready to ascribe the work to space aliens and be done with it all. Instead, I enlisted the help of Frances Rivetti. We met in Putnam Plaza and went back to look at the mural set. She was intrigued and immediately started working her information network–Literally, as it turns out, right there in the alley. It’s a story only she can tell!

As an aside, we have all become accustomed to simply going to our favorite search engine on the Internet for answers. This, of course assumes that all historical records, research materials, etc. are online.  They are not. We assumed there would be at least one newspaper article about the artwork.  We learned from Katherine Rinehart that searching for and locating such an article would be nearly impossible as the archives of the Argus-Courier are on microfilm and are not indexed.  Without a hint or inkling as to when any such article was ever published, we would have to know at least the month and the year to make a search even remotely feasible.

As a result of countless e-mails, phone calls and continuing investigative work by all of the above named people, Frances and I were able to discover the people behind the artwork. Hint–It wasn’t space aliens! 

Our work included, but was not limited to:

  • Interviewing the man who commissioned the work and learning its purpose.
  • Frances focusing on locating one of the artists and finally succeeding.  She used several channels and I suspect she even employed telepathy to pull it off.
  • Finding the Argus Courier article.

You will note that I have only published two photos of the artwork in this series. That was deliberate on my part.  For those who live in the area, you should go see them for yourself.  For those living elsewhere, you will have to “suffer” for a time. I will, however, include a complete set of photos in a later post or perhaps a web gallery.

TOMORROW:  American Alley’s Mural Array–Whodunit?

American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART I

Third in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Past articles are filed under American Alley

At this point, a brief explanation of the photo grid project–the exercise that led me to explore American Alley–is in order. Photo grids have many definitions and applications. My approach is to cover the same territory on a regular basis at different times of the day to see what circumstance and lighting present as possible subjects during each pass. Opportunities vary on each walk.

What I call The Bovine Photo Grid  starts at the Bovine Bakery, runs down Kentucky to East Washington, and then back to the walkway into Putnam Plaza. Next, I scan and/or walk Petaluma Blvd for possible shots, and then proceed to the River and Water Street.  The grid ends by looping back to the bakery.

And so it was on March 17, 2012  

St. Patrick’s Day was cloudy and, frankly, not particularly warm. I decided to go ahead and walk the grid but did so with a mostly pro forma attitude. I just wanted to get through it, take a few pictures, get a cup of coffee, and go home to warm up.

Around 9:30 am, 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.

Confused What the…?Surprised smile

As I stepped from Putnam Plaza into the alley behind Copperfield’s, I was–there is no other word–stunned 

I was looking squarely at a very large mural, in fact, several mural panels stretching across the upper part of the building. As I continued along the back of the store, I tried to absorb the scope of the designs and the sophistication of the work. When I reached the end of the building I had counted or noted:

  • 12 Mural Panels (8 Large 4 Small) on the upper half of the building
  • Several wooden gears integrated with the mural panels
  • What appears to be decorative piping surrounding some of the panels

The next day, I went back to make sure I had not been hallucinating and observed that the bottom part of the building up to the top of the doors was a single mural of several large gears running the length of the building. This work was not readily visible the day before as the walls were wet.  It was obvious that it was part of the artwork on the upper part of the building. 

There was no other conclusion I could come to except that the back of Copperfield’s was home to the largest mixed media public art in Petaluma.  And I will stand by this assertion until someone comes along and points out a larger one! 

Regarding the “style” of the work, I thought of the WPA art work from the 1930’s, although some of it looked to be influenced by Post World War II themes. 

One of the large mural panels really caught my attention as it reminded me of a poster in my father’s office at Caterpillar.  Such artwork was common in the industrial environment in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s…

American Alley © Frank Simpson

But what the heck was all of this doing here in American Alley on the back of Copperfield’s? Certainly it had to be fairly recent given the apparent condition of the work. Who did it? Why did they do it? When was it done?

TOMORROW–Searching for answers in American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART II

American Alley…Hidden Scenes

Second in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Past articles are filed under American Alley

In American Alley what you see or notice is dependent on the lighting, which changes quickly due to the fact that it is a narrow passageway not unlike the bottom of a steep, narrow canyon. 

American Alley, Western Avenue Exit © Frank Simpson

  • Scenes in the “canyon” may only be readily noticeable for a few minutes before returning to the shadows.
  • Another factor influencing color and visibility in the alley is whether the pavement and walls are wet or dry. 


The Nooks & Crannies of American Alley

The slideshow does contain a few examples of unauthorized “street art” but there are other mysteries, known only to those who created them. For example, consider the images of the religious icon or statuary in the wall or the castle by the downspout. 

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TOMORROW:  American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART I — The story of how fickle lighting conditions led me to “discover” the murals behind Copperfield’s and the collective search to uncover their history.

For those who care to linger over any of the photos in this article, see the gallery below.

American Alley…An Introduction & First Impressions

First in a series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Articles will be filed under American Alley

Those who associate me with a certain kind of “reporting” in the past about blight and graffiti will be disappointed in this series.  There will be no ranting or bemoaning the fall of civilization. 

  • It will, of course, be a story about American Alley
  • It will be a story of scenes that are seen, but not seen, or scenes that are only revealed at certain times of the day. 
  • It will also be a story of how a photo exercise led to the discovery of a sophisticated mixed media public mural similar in scope and size to the Petaluma Heritage Mural on East Washington. Seeking the origins of the WPA style artwork turned into an ongoing research project to uncover its history. Several people participated in this effort, including Katherine Rinehart of the Sonoma County Library and, of course, Petaluma’s favorite history buff, Bill Hammerman. 



American Alley may not be all that familiar to many in Petaluma. Until recently, I was barely aware of its existence or function other than to note the frequent tagging on the walls as I drove by on East Washington.

Signage for American Alley off of East Washington © Frank Simpson

My “discovery” of the alley was a result of a photo grid exercise I have been running since February of this year in portions of Petaluma’s Downtown. The exercise has reinforced a lesson I learned some time ago:

There are three ways to see a neighborhood or urban environment:

  • If you drive through, you see things from the perspective of the vehicle. 
  • If you ride a bicycle, more scenes become apparent. 
  • If you walk, still more is revealed to you. 

After my experiences in the alley, I now appreciate that if you walk the same area at different times of the day with different lighting, even more is revealed.

The General Scene

The alley fits the classic definition of an urban alley in that it runs behind the buildings on Kentucky Street and Petaluma Boulevard and functions as a service road for deliveries and garbage pickup. Bill Hammerman advised me that the alley got its name from the American Hotel which was torn down to make way for Putnam Plaza.*  

It is easy to miss and, upon first glimpse, is not particularly inviting…

American Alley Exit to Western Avenue © Frank Simpson

As an aside, if one is curious about the origins of the word “alley,” Wikipedia and some of the online dictionaries report that it is a derivative of a French word: “Middle French ‘alee’ a walk, passage…derivative of feminine of ale, past participle of aler to walk ( French aller ).” In England, they are sometimes called “mews.”

However, American Alley is…well…it is an alley.

To be more specific, it is a commercial or business alley. 

The one way entrance is off of East Washington and the alley terminates at Western Avenue. Along the way it passes through the back of Putnam Plaza, briefly serving as part of the walkway or pedestrian concourse that connects Kentucky St. and Petaluma Blvd. Whether they realize it or not, people who use the walkway are regularly walking along or across part of American Alley at the back of the Plaza…

American Alley "Meets" Putnam Plaza © Frank Simpson

The above notwithstanding, the alley’s main function is a service road, if you will, for the businesses on Kentucky and Petaluma Blvd. 

Consequently, you would expect to see…what else?…deliveries…

American Alley © Frank Simpson

American Alley © Frank Simpson

American Alley © Frank Simpson

 And alleys being alleys, there is the occasional trash bin “inspector.”

American Alley © Frank Simpson

At this point, if I had not ventured further into the alley, the series would end…perhaps closing with a photo demonstrating how this upper stone building facade at the end of the alley has a pinkish or cream color in certain lighting conditions…

Corner of Western Avenue & American Alley © Frank Simpson

It would have been very easy to conclude that I had seen all there is to see. It is just another urban alley.  Move on.

Curiosity, however, caused me to examine the area more closely. 

TOMORROWAmerican Alley…Hidden Scenes

NOTE: *The American Hotel–1852 to 1966. There were actually three hotels as fires consumed the first two at the site. The last hotel “…was demolished in 1996, when the city condemned it. The vacant lot that resulted was later occupied by the present-day Putnam Plaza.” (Petaluma: A History in Architecture page 11 by Katherine J. Rinehart)



American Alley…New Series!

Starting next Monday, April 16, 2012, I will begin a series of articles about Petaluma’s American Alley.  For those who associate me with a certain kind of “reporting” in the past about blight and graffiti, you will be disappointed.  There will be no ranting or bemoaning the fall of civilization.

Instead, it will be a positive story of scenes that are seen, but not seen, or scenes that are only revealed at certain times of the day.  It will also be a story of how a photo exercise turned into an ongoing research project involving several people.

So, as they used to say, “Stay tuned!”

©Frank Simpson