Monday, February 05, 2007

Willotta Oaks

Willotta Oaks -- The Rural Housing Development in Suisun Valley Remains Cutting-Edge After Five Decades
By Barry Eberling

Willotta Oaks neighborhood, the rural housing development amid Suisun Valley farms, has many old-timers and newcomers. (Photo by Christine Baker)

FAIRFIELD - A 20-room-plus Victorian mansion built by one of Solano County's most important pioneer families burned in 1952 and the Willotta Oaks neighborhood rose from the ashes.

Today, Willotta Oaks is a unique neighborhood still going strong. It has 70 or so homes on a horseshoe-shaped road tucked amid Suisun Valley farms.

The small residential community has a sense of history - its very name honors William and Lottie Pierce, who owned that mansion at the time of its fiery demise. Blending their first names together yielded "Willotta."

It also remains cutting-edge after five decades. No other sizable, rural housing development exists amid Suisun Valley's farms. County growth laws have kept further undertakings at bay, though there's a recent proposal for 20 homes adjacent to Willotta Oaks.

For now, Willotta Oaks remains a one-and-only, with custom ranch houses occupied by old-timers and newcomers alike.

Among the relative newcomers are Jerry and Sheila Neckel, who moved to their house on Willotta Drive in 1999. They are raising two children. Their real estate agent thought the house might be too "Brady Bunch," but the Neckels disagreed.

"We fell in love with it, because it was just so cool in the back yard, it was a half-acre, a huge back yard with a pool," Sheila Neckel said.

Then there's the ambiance of being the lone neighborhood in a beautiful, rural area.

"It's very peaceful here," Sheila Neckel said. "There's not a lot of traffic, nor people living on this street . . . I really want to keep it the way it is. I think a lot of people feel that way."

Origins of a development

Long-time residents include Jack Keeler, who served as the real estate broker when the late Lewis Pierce III started developing Willotta Oaks in the mid-1950s. Lewis Pierce III was a son of William Pierce.

"In those days, it didn't take much to get anything approved," Keeler said.

The Keelers were among the original Willotta Oaks residents.

"I was in business in Fairfield," Keeler said. "The valley doesn't have as much wind as Fairfield. It was in my judgment a nice place to live - it still is."

Stanley Harris built his Willotta Oaks home about 40 years ago. The community hasn't changed much in subsequent decades, he said.

"Not appreciably, not as far as its general appearance, its roadway and everything," he said. "The only difference is they've built more houses."

His home is on the site of the long-gone Pierce mansion. At one point, Harris put in a backyard swimming pool and came across several large stones. Those stone were foundations for an addition to the mansion.

Willotta Oaks could get some company in its splendid isolation. Scott Olson wants to build 20 homes on an adjacent 53 acres. County growth laws prevent building such a neighborhood on prime farmland, but Olson has argued the soils on his land really aren't prime.

The drive to build the homes stalled before the county Board of Supervisors last year, but could reemerge.

Sheila Neckel doesn't want city-style development next to Willotta Oaks. She might be able to accept a rural-residential undertaking.

"If it was a small subdivision, not a whole slew of houses or tract homes," she said.

Keeler sees the day when more neighborhoods such as Willotta Oaks get built in Suisun Valley. The demand is there, he said.

"It's going to change, in my judgment, because the farmers can't make a living on their property," he said. "I may not see it, but it's going to happen."

Even if Willotta Oaks someday gets a neighboring development, it will remain unique in terms of its history.

A palace, then a fire

The story starts with the first Lewis Pierce, a former San Francisco baker who came to the county in the 1850s and founded a ranching and farming empire.

Lewis Pierce built his palace in 1884 and decorated it with furniture brought by ship around Cape Horn. The three-story Victorian over the years had such touches as an elevator that ran in the center of the building. It had running water in an era when that was a rarity.

His son, William Pierce, inherited the mansion. A man with a thin face and sloping forehead, William Pierce left his mark on the county. He was among those who pushed for the Monticello Dam that created Lake Berryessa reservoir, which provides water for county farms and cities today.

In 1948, William Pierce got named the Green Valley Court judge and ran the court out of his mansion.

The house caught fire at 1:30 p.m. March 23, 1952. The zinc roof made it hard for the 60 firefighters from five departments who fought the blaze.

Harris was among those who watched the mansion burn. At that time, he lived several miles away. He remembers being at the movies, hearing the Pierce house was on fire and joining the onlookers.

"It was quite a mansion at the time," Harris said, adding it would have been for any time.

People rushed in to save the furniture, taking out such things as mirrors, chests and even an Italian fireplace they dismantled. They put the items in the yard in front of the burning mansion.

"Pierce has so many friends helping him to save his stuff that he can't get into his own house," said one bystander as reported in the Solano Republican newspaper.

Finally, the top of the house collapsed onto the third floor.

A defective flue in the basement oil furnace cause the fire, the Solano Republican reported. But he's always heard that peach pits or oily rags burned spontaneously, said Austin Wedemeyer, who lives across the street from Willotta Oaks and married the late Linda Pierce. Linda Pierce grew up in the mansion.

His wife claimed to have smelt something hot and burning in the mansion for several days prior to the fire, Wedemeyer said. The mansion didn't burn completely, but later was demolished, he said.

Lewis Pierce III developed Willotta Oaks and built a home there for his father, William Pierce, Wedemeyer said. William Pierce died in 1962 at age 87.

A 1954 advertisement for Willotta Oaks links the then-planned community with the old Pierce mansion. A photo of the mansion is at the top.

"One of Solano County's most authentic and distinctive Victorian residences located on Rockville Road along Suisun Creek on land granted to Chief Solano, chief of Suisun Indians over 100 years ago," the flyer said, adding in small print that fire destroyed the mansion in 1952.

Beneath this blurb is the pitch for Willotta Oaks, "a modern home district."

"Within flowering orchards, along winding roads, through beautiful towering trees," the flyer said. "A romantic and extremely picturesque setting for California living."

Harris is among the first people who responded to the Willotta Oaks marketing efforts and built a home there. He expressed no regrets.

"It's a nice place," Harris said. "We've been happy for over 40 years."

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

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