Outdoor Photo Gallery…American Alley

Petaluma’s American Alley has been one of my favorite haunts for photo ops…particularly in the rainy season when the colors really stand out in the morning.

During a recent walk I noticed what I can only describe as a photo gallery of  several images in the alley. All but one appear to have been taken in the alley. 

As to the “who, what and why” behind these photos, I cannot say. Like most things in the American Alley, they just appeared.

They seem to be more than selfies.

They are printed on paper and have survived the rains…so far.  But, being American Alley, some of the photos have already been defaced.

So I present below a “gallery” of shots to preserve the scene as it existed as of  December 20, 2014… 


American Alley

American Alley


American Alley

American Alley


American Alley

American Alley


American Alley

American Alley

 DOOR #3

American Alley

American Alley

 Door #4

American Alley

American Alley


READER NOTE— For those interested in photography, I offer something from the past– Film Shield (Remember Film?)

American Alley WPA Murals–A PostScript

Past articles regarding the WPA murals by Charlie Roetter & Fernando Nugent are filed under American Alley

Last in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

A constant feature of our collective search for the history behind the murals, was encountering the unexpected. During the interview with Frances Rivetti in the alley, Fernando Nugent mentioned, almost casually, that the artwork also extended into the store.  He took us inside Copperfield’s and led us downstairs where he pulled boxes away from the wall to reveal…

© Frank Simpson

Now here comes the embarrassing part for me.  The above photo is the only one I intended to publish from inside the store.  As I was organizing my files for archiving, I noticed another photo I had made inside the store–one that I totally disregarded, but which really caught me off-guard when I really looked at it. I completely missed it…

© Frank Simpson

 Did Fernando predict that someone would come along 18 years later and photograph him on site?

© Frank Simpson

American Alley WPA Murals–Meet the Artist In The Argus

Past articles regarding the WPA murals by Charlie Roetter* & Fernando Nugent are filed under American Alley

Sixth in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

* We learned  today that this is the correct spelling of the name. “Roder” was picked up from the original Argus article in 1995.


Eighteen years after completing his work on the American Alley WPA multimedia murals, Fernando Nugent once again returned to the scene to talk about the project with Frances Rivetti.

By way of history, Fernando was featured in an Argus-Courier article on April 25, 1995, standing in front of the artwork.

Today, May 10, 2012, Fernando is again featured in a column by Frances Rivetti in the Argus: American Alley mural ‘hiding in plain sight’ 

  • For those fortunate enough to be Argus-Courier subscribers, you are in luck! If you are not a subscriber, pick up a copy of today’s paper! The column will not be available online except in the E-edition of the Argus. For information as to how to subscribe, go to Argus Courier E-Edition
  • For readers ourside the Bay Area, including Petaluma Expats living in Washington DC and NYC, I can offer little solace except that Frances has also written a blog article about the interview with Fernando Nugent. In her blog article, Frances also includes photos of me getting down & dirty! Lord, did I really do that!!?  I guess a photo is worth a 1000 words! Check it out now by clicking on Petaluma’s American Alley Mural Mystery. 


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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