Black House

Chances are Raymond Martelli never whistled ska band Madness’ jaunty tune “Our House” while mowing his lawn. In fact, chances are Martelli never even mowed his lawn.

Perched atop a slow incline from Sonoma’s 4th Street East, a looming 3000 square foot structure sits dormant as it has since its purchase nearly 30 years ago.

Martelli, a resident of San Francisco, acquired the two story, three bedroom home, which sits atop 1.65 acres of prime Wine Country real estate, in 1977 for a mere $30,000 – a pittance to today’s market. An informal appraisal of the house suggests that the current price might be a hundred times what Martelli paid, putting the property and its sizable lot in the range of $3 million.

Shortly after its purchase Martelli, however, abandoned the property, which soon became overgrown with weeds and fell into a decline so precipitous that intervention from the City was necessary to prevent it from becoming a nuisance to the neighborhood.

The property at 131 4th Street East is now colloquially known as the “Black House” for it’s darkly painted exterior and generally ominous appearance.

“Property in Sonoma is at a premium, someone drives by, they’re looking around and see the property and are interested in possibly purchasing it because, obviously, it doesn’t appear to be lived in, so they come to City Hall and ask who owns it,” says Sonoma city planner David Goodison of the home, which has been boarded up since the early 90s.

“The city does have some very basic appearance standards that were updated fairly recently by city council that were intended to make sure that properties don’t become a nuisance through the manner in which they are maintained, or – as the case may be – not maintained,” explains Goodison. “In the case of this property, it actually went through an abatement process that I think was started in 1989 and probably finished up in 1993, in which the city came in through an abatement and cleared a lot of brush off the property and boarded it up, because it was just open to all comers before that time.”

There is little information available about the property. Local folklore suggests that a disagreement brewed between Martinelli and the city after the owner illegally erected bungalows on the site, later alleged to have been bulldozed by the city. Since then, the property has remained empty. Though Martinelli could not be reached for comment, however, St. Helena-based psychic Cynthea Knight could be.

After trespassing onto the property by stepping over a low, stone wall (which, of course, is not recommended), Knight, accompanied by this reporter, followed the “energy traces” of the property. She found particular resonance surrounding a decrepit fountain, but decided she could just as likely be remembering an episode of Rod Serling’s 70s era TV fright fest
Night Gallery, in which a partygoer learns his fellow guests are all ghosts. The clairvoyant quickly eschews this notion and soon receives a mental image of a man she surmises was once a Black House resident.

“I see an old guy, standing on the porch who owns the house and doesn’t want anybody in it. I don’t think he’s the current owner,” says Knight, a bright-eyed woman with bobbed hair. “He’s old and a little bit portly. He’s literally on the front step. Perhaps he’s the first owner. There were a lot of parties around the fountain,” she explains as her voice trails.

“Maybe there were little girls playing around the fountains.”
While discussing the fountain, the sound of running water becomes eerily audible. After following the vestige of a trail leading to the south side of the house (apparently blazed by a sweet-toothed trespasser as evidenced by the inexplicable presence of a strawberry soda can), we learn that the swishing noise is not water all. Undulating above head is a phalanx of bees darting in and out of a hive nestled in a hole in the upstairs attic wall.

Undaunted, Knight continues her reading, nodding her head as we stare at the buzzing colony.

“This just doesn’t happen,” she says forebodingly, then adds “People really loved it here.” After a beat, her eyes narrowed and she says drolly, “I get a lot of fairy energy around here and I’m not even into fairies.”

Knight points to what was once a terraced garden at the rear of the property, which is now a jungle of brambles rimmed by a cement walkway slicked with mud and algae.

“I keep seeing a little girl running through here, laughing and skipping wearing her fairy princess costume and doing her thing,” she says Knight.
Whether or not a fairy princess lived on the premises is lost to history.

“I don’t know of anyone ever living there,” says Wayne Wirick, Jr., the City’s Development Services Administrator.

Over a dozen years ago, it was Wirick’s task to oversee the boarding up of the property when it became something of a local hangout.

“That was something we did several years ago in response to kids and vagrants breaking into the building either causing damage or lighting fires and things like that inside the building,” recalls Wirick, after the City’s appeals to Martelli went unanswered. Finally, a formal abatement process had to been enacted to address the City’s concerns regarding the property.

“We asked Mr. Martelli to kind of clean things up and he didn’t do it, so we did it for him,” says Wirick. “Most people want to take advantage of their property in town. It’s definitely an unusual circumstance, but Mr. Martelli is an unusual individual.”
Wirick has never met Martinelli, but has attempted to contact him on several occasions to no avail.

“All of my attempts to contact him over the course of the 25 years that I’ve been here have been unsuccessful. For some reason, and this may relate to some issues that happened before I worked for the city, I don’t think he cares much for the city – so city bureaucrats trying to contact him doesn’t interest him. I’m speculating, I have no way of knowing that,” says Wirick. “As far as trying to figure him out, I stopped trying to do that a long time ago. It doesn’t make any sense in my mind.”

Psychic Cynthea Knight’s services can be retained through prettyrubberwoman@yahoo.com.

Originally published in FineLife.

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