Restoration of Petaluma’s music store reveals long-hidden curiosities

One recent afternoon, as a small handful of customers were testing guitars and asking in-depth questions about the durability of various amplifiers, Chris, director of Tall Toad Music, pointed to a black and white photo of the size of a poster posted high on the wall behind the counter.

“This,” said Chris, who prefers to give only his first name, “is a photo of the interior of the store in 1900.”

The historic Dry Goods Store once occupied the main level of the building that was originally constructed – and still belongs to – the Petaluma Masonic Lodge. Its cornerstone laid in 1881, the completed building was opened in 1882 and is best recognized as the site of Petaluma’s iconic clock tower. Tall Toad owner Charlie Cowle took over the space in the mid-1980s, moving the music store from its original location in Old Petaluma Mill, just across the street.

The point is, I’ve looked at this photo for years thinking, ‘You know, this is what this place was like,’ Chris said. ‘There’s such a lovely Victorian feel to the New Borough. York in parts of Petaluma. Wouldn’t it be cool if the interior of the store matched the vibe of Petaluma? “

Chris began to suggest a complete restoration of the floors in the store, convinced that something interesting awaited under that old carpet. But the time it would take to close the store and get the job done never seemed financially feasible.

Then COVID-19 crippled downtown Petaluma.

Last March, when the State of California launched its first order for COVID-19 home shelters – as well as what has become a mandatory 10-week shutdown of all non-essential businesses – the venerable Tall Toad Music of Petaluma chose to put the long timeout to good use, quickly replacing the sounds of strumming guitars and ukuleles with the pounding of hammers and the whine of power saws.

Over the following weeks, layer after layer of old flooring, long hidden under a layer of faded gray carpet, was painstakingly excavated. Underneath it all are a number of mysterious and age-old curiosities, as well as the original floors of the historic building, an antique assemblage of 1880 old spruce.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, re-ground,” Chris said.

The first step was to clear the space of shelves, furniture and other obstacles, a project that took almost a week.

“Every guitar had to go somewhere,” Chris remarked. “All these boxes had to go to the back, so that the floor was completely empty. Then it took us a month to get the carpet, and the layers of particle board and subfloor. Every time we took a part of it, it would explode.

Eventually, the building’s original spruce floor was uncovered. It was, naturally, a little less wearable, but still beautiful and with obvious potential to shine again.

Planks weren’t all they discovered.

“We found a secret door in the ground,” Chris said, clearly smiling behind his mask.

We will come back to this secret door in a moment.

One of the most striking results of last spring’s renovation is the addition of a long strip of newer walnut, starting near the front door and leading up to the counter. It was designed to look like a large fretboard, with metal inlays to make the connection clearer.

“One of the gentlemen who works here, Dave, when he saw the rough wood he said, ‘Hey, that looks like a handle,’ Chris explained. ‘So we decided,’ We’re a store of guitars. Let’s just make a neck of it. ‘”

In the middle of the neck is a striking inlaid image of a musical toad.

A high toad, obviously.

“A local luminary, Larry Robinson, who makes a lot of guitars, put the toad in it,” Chris added. “He drew the frog and sculpted it, then filled it with anodized aluminum. It’s pretty cool, and people really like it.

While engaged in the renovation that lasted for weeks, Chris admits that the team became slightly obsessed with figuring out the reasons for the many curious things they were discovering. To hear him describe it, it looks like a form of architectural archeology.

Chris made his way to a space where a clear, square installation of fresh wood stands out against the aged and polished wood that surrounds it.

“This is one of the weird things that we discovered,” he said. “When we found this area, the original spruce was sagging about an inch, really just pushing down. My theory is that this is where the safe in the dry goods store was.

Pointing to the image above the counter again, Chris showed an indication of where a wall cut the room in half, suggesting that the eventual safe would have been in the back room of the store.

Alice P. Darby