Exploring the Many Mysteries of Petaluma's Lan Mart Building

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The Lan Mart Building, 2021.
The Lan Mart Building, 2021. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

When you're stuck in the tiny, old-fashioned elevator of the Lan Mart building, no one can hear you scream.

Upstairs at the Lan Mart: A long, narrow corridor of closed doors, beyond the elevator.
Upstairs at the Lan Mart. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Anne Bishop—the owner of Pilates With Anne on the second floor—discovered this a few years ago, on her way to teach a class. Because her pilates studio wraps around the elevator shaft, and she knew she had a room full of students waiting for her, Bishop, on realizing the elevator was jammed, called out for assistance. Despite being separated by only a single door, not one person on the other side heard her. "I couldn't believe they couldn't hear me yelling!" she recalls now.

If you're wondering why a pilates studio would have an elevator shaft running through the middle of it, then you've probably never been to the Lan Mart. The historic building harbors an endless number of discombobulating quirks: miniature doors built into random corners, odd crawl spaces, a row of locked doors where there should probably be businesses, and at least one—the staff informs me—secret corridor.

The Lan Mart also contains a confusing number of staircases; a fact highlighted in December 2010, after the dead body of a 52-year-old local man was discovered beneath one by a PG&E employee. Not all of the stairs, however, are accessible to the public. One of the most obvious examples of this are the basement stairs barricaded behind a locked gate, in the middle of a major walkway.

Stairs to the basement from the Lan Mart's ground floor.
Stairs to the basement from the Lan Mart's ground floor. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Somewhat predictably, rumors of the Lan Mart being haunted are rife in Petaluma. During my first visit there, two employees from two separate businesses casually mentioned ghostly activity, entirely unprompted, within the first 15 minutes. One, who asked not to be named for fear that it might impact business, told me they often open up and find objects in their shop have moved during the night.


It was rumors like these that prompted Renew Yoga owner, Pamela Maldonado, to take action before she opened her business upstairs. "We were told that the Lan Mart was probably haunted," Maldonado explains, "so I asked four of my reiki friends to help me smudge the studio. Smudging is a clearing ritual that removes negative energy. I am very sensitive to energy and in all the years I have worked here I've felt no negative energy."

Despite being directly next door to Maldonado's yoga studio, Anne Bishop is convinced that strange things are afoot in the Lan Mart. She says the most common indication is her ceiling fans turning on and off of their own afford. "I'm always like, 'Well, that's the ghost!'" Bishop laughs. "I do feel a presence sometimes. A couple of times, I've hung something up in my studio and just immediately received this mass of energy of 'No, don't put that there.' And then it ends up falling out of the wall."

Joanne Hansen, co-owner of the Lan Mart's popular Old Chicago Pizza, believes that one strong presence upstairs may be her husband, who died in 2016 after running the restaurant for 38 years. "Michael was a man with a big personality and his presence is still to be felt, especially after closing," she says.

Michael Hansen's picture still adorns the wall of Old Chicago.
Michael Hansen's picture still adorns the wall of Old Chicago. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

The strangest encounter I heard from Lan Mart employees happened to Drew Washer, who owns and runs the ground floor variety store Heebe Jeebe. At the time, she was running a seasonal Halloween store upstairs. "I was always kind of creeped out up there," she says. "The light switch was on the far door from where I had to walk out. So at night, I would turn it off and just run really fast.

"One morning before opening," Washer continues, "I saw this very classic looking apparition. It passed by my door, moved down the hallway and turned right towards the stairs. It was a really strange image."

Plants on the ground floor, put in place by Anne Bishop, after a Feng Shui expert advised her that something bad had happened in the area. Drew Washer saw an apparition heading to the area early one morning as she set up her shop.
Plants on the ground floor, put in place by Anne Bishop, after a Feng Shui expert advised her that something bad had happened in the area. Drew Washer saw an apparition heading there early one morning as she set up her shop. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Bishop tells me that a visiting Feng Shui practitioner was also drawn to those stairs, advising her to put plants around them in an effort to clear "challenging energy." Bishop has been doing so ever since, though the Feng Shui expert didn't offer any clues as to what might have happened there.

With a history as long as the Lan Mart's, it could be just about anything.

The Lan Mart dates back to 1876, when a man named George Pury built a three-story hotel on a block that had, for years, been part of Petaluma's burgeoning Chinatown. Its construction began in the middle of a concerted effort to push Chinese workers out of Petaluma, and indeed, all of Sonoma County. Mass immigration—prompted by both the gold rush and the construction work offered on Charles Crocker's railroad—was openly talked about at the time as "the Chinese problem." At one point, the Petaluma Argus newspaper proposed a boycott on any business hiring Chinese workers, and town leaders threatened to cut off the water supply to the "Chinese District."

As Chinese workers got pushed out, the Cosmopolitan Hotel went up on what is now Petaluma Boulevard, close to the corner of Western Avenue. The hotel had 46 bedrooms along with a barber, cobbler, parlor and dining room, as well as a saloon. There was also a social hall that served as a meeting place for local fraternal club the Loyal Order of Moose. (The club, an international organization, still exists in Petaluma today. A 2006 Press Democrat article reported that "prospective members must pledge that they believe in a supreme being, have not been a member of the Communist party, and have not been convicted of a felony.")

After the Cosmopolitan opened for business, so did the Centennial Livery Stable next door. On its face, the stable provided convenient accommodations for travelers' horses. But it also happened to house a brothel upstairs that remains infamous among Petaluma locals.

After the 1906 earthquake, the stables, brothel and hotel were all combined behind a single facade. Bishop believes that Maldonado's yoga studio once housed the saloon, and that her pilates studio used to be connected brothel bedrooms. "It's not a very big space but there are three doors in here," she says. "There used to be four, but one is the elevator shaft now."

More change came in 1930 when the Gross Building was constructed behind the Lan Mart, facing out onto what is now Kentucky Street. It served first as a miniature golf course and later as a grocery store. By 1969, after the Lan Mart and the Gross had slipped into disrepair, the buildings were saved from demolition by a couple named Victor and Marisa DeCarli. The DeCarlis restored and combined the two buildings into one big shopping mall—today's Lan Mart. (The DeCarlis still run two stores there—Christmas Fantasia and Marisa's Fantasia.)

The Kentucky Street side of the Lan Mart, which used to be the Gross Building.
The Kentucky Street side of the Lan Mart, which used to be the Gross Building. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

In interviews, across the board, everyone working in the Lan Mart expresses great love for the building, despite the architectural quirks and ongoing rumors of a haunting. "One of the things we joke about in the building is that once you move in, you don't leave," Bishop says. "Everyone here is a longterm tenant."

Bishop has given the matter a lot of thought, and believes she's figured out why so many business owners feel such a deep attachment to the Lan Mart. "I think a lot about the women who worked in this space when it was a brothel," she says. "It was probably a really hard life, doing that work back in the day. Being in here, you have a sense of them—I feel a kinship and I've always felt defensive of them. But most of the businesses here now are women-owned," she continues. "And I feel there's a significance in that.


"I want the spirits of those other women to feel like the tide has turned," Bishop says. "Women succeeding here is a way to reclaim the space for them."