Villa Chanticleer, Healdsburg’s Living Room Thursday, December 8th, 2011 By PETE FOPPIANO / Healdsburg Correspondent
When Healdsburg treated its seniors to a holiday dinner, it seemed only natural to have the dinner at Villa Chanticleer, which has served as the city’s community center since the 1950s. It’s hard to find a Healdsburg resident who can’t recall attending some sort of function there — a wedding, class reunion, fundraiser or community meeting. But before it was purchased by the city, the Fitch Mountain landmark served as a country retreat for French city dwellers and, according to lore, was set to become a casino for mobsters. It was built around 1910 by Auguste and Victorine Praedel of San Francisco as a resort and soon became known as the leading French resort north of San Francisco. It served French cuisine and boasted accommodations for 200 people as well as play areas “for the kiddies.” Praedel built a road (today’s Powell Avenue) on which visitors were transported to the resort by horse and buggy, and later by bus. The road was improved in 1921 and made public. Ownership of the Villa changed several times in the early years, but its modern history, still recalled by many locals of a certain age, really begins in the 1940s. In 1945, the Delagnes family of Healdsburg sold the Villa to San Franciscans named Jack Kent and W. Johnson and the kitchen was destroyed by fire. They rebuilt the main building in preparation for a grand reopening that never happened, and at this point fact begins to mix with legend. Materials collected by the Healdsburg Museum preserve the story, collected from old timers’ recollections and a few newspaper clippings that say Kent had plans to build a casino for “the Hollywood people.” Then in May 1947, a Santa Rosa man named Nick DeJohn was found in San Francisco, murdered in the trunk of his car. He reportedly had ties to Capone’s Chicago Mafia and was thought to be affiliated with Jack Kent. After his untimely end, Kent and Johnson declared bankruptcy and construction halted. DeJohn’s killer was never found, but it was enough of a connection. The Villa had acquired the reputation, in legend if not in fact, as an upscale gangster hangout. The Villa languished for eight years, remaining vacant until the county forced a sale for back taxes in 1955. With no bidders, two local tradesmen who were still owed money by Kent and Johnson took title for the price of unpaid taxes. The City of Healdsburg had been exploring plans to build a new City Hall, and the American Legion had outgrown its facility, which doubled as a community center. Someone suggested buying the Villa as a community center, and in 1955, the City purchased the 17-acre site for $45,000. The price included the main building, the Villa Annex (still widely used today) and 20 cabins (all but four of which had to be torn down). After annexation, the city spent $150,000 finishing and upgrading the facility. The centerpiece of the building is the Redwood Lounge, with a unique painting by Santa Rosa artist Lloyd Wasmuth behind the bar. It’s done in a style known as “juxtaposition,” with each brush stroke a small square. The painting was considered such a trademark that when the Villa was significantly remodeled in 1991, great care was taken to preserve it. Another unique feature is the huge redwood in the parking lot. Originally called “Old Stovepipe,” it was struck by lightning in 1896. The entire interior was burned, but the tree survived and was rechristened in 1972 “the General Eisenhower Tree.” Generations of children still recall playing in and around the tree, staring up through its hollow interior at the sky while their parents danced and ate inside. Today, the Villa Chanticleer continues its intended role as a community, event and wedding center, playing host to public and private events and the facility is open to all. (It’s managed by the Tayman Park Group of Healdsburg, who took over from the City in 2014 and will undoubtedly serve the Healdsburg and beyond for many years to come.)
How did the Villa get its name?
Then-owner Victor Cadoul named it “Chanticler” in the 1920s, referring to the rooster in a French fable. The name was derived from the words “chante claire,” which means “clear singing,” as in a rooster greeting the dawn. When a new sign was commissioned in 1972, it arrived with two e’s instead of one. No one knows if it was deliberate or an error, but the name stuck, and this sign still stands today at the entrance to the Villa. A 1984 newspaper article claimed the rooster is actually the French symbol for a bordello. Gangster legends notwithstanding, that’s probably as close as the Villa ever came to being a brothel.