Mary and David Lee (Jeff Kan Lee / Press Democrat)

By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

Mary and David Lee found their slice of real estate heaven right here in Petaluma, and completely by accident.

When it comes to being homeowners, this is not their first rodeo. They owned a 1929 vintage home in San Francisco’s Richmond District, and when Mary had enough of the hustle and bustle, they bought a comfortable home in east Petaluma.

Then, in 2003, when the stock market went south, Mary thought it would be a great time to invest in real estate. The market was soft and she, like many others across the nation, felt the right hands-on investment would provide more security than she could find on Wall Street.

Driving through her favorite section of town, the Foundry Wharf just south of D Street, she spotted an 1860 Greek Revival farmhouse on E Street, east of Petaluma Boulevard. It looked like it could use far more than the average amount of TLC.

The home in 1966.

But in Mary’s vision, it had the perfect elements: architectural integrity, the right access to natural light, plenty of space for a garden (her passion from a childhood in Burma), walking distance from downtown.

At the time she had no idea that she was about to merge her lifestyle with her favorite neighborhood’s charm.

Mary’s initial inquiries were disappointing. She learned that the house was zoned mixed use and an offer had already been accepted. There was no kitchen at all, and plans were already in the works to convert the house into a commercial enterprise.

The Lees were still intrigued by the house’s charm and location. Mary felt sure she would be able to fix it up and rent it to a local business or “turn it” as her first bid at a retirement fund.

Then everything fell into place. The prospective buyer backed out, fearing far too much labor-intensive rebuilding. The owners accepted the Lees’ offer and Mary’s contingency that the house be completely cleaned out. The house had been declared uninhabitable at the end of the 1990s and then turned into a multi-bedroom rental primarily inhabited by students. Previous tenants’ possessions and years of collected junk were stacked to the ceiling.

Backyard with working garden space.

Getting the permit to begin renovation took two years, but by that time the Lees were ready for a breather. They took three years off before digging back in in 2009.

Once started, they worked non-stop, sometimes far into the night using car headlights to light their way. David, who owns and operates a drywall business, enlisted the help of his friends in “the trades.”

While waiting for a turn in the economy, his buddies had the time to help out. They had their work cut out for them.

Mary recalls seeing daylight in some areas between the wall and the floor, meaning that much of the work would be structural.

Tiny cramped hallways, the building norm in Civil War times, were removed, and walls were torn down to allow the inner structure to breathe. The original porch was expanded to overlook the garden area. The transformation was completed in 2010 after just 12 months of construction.

Mary’s eye for detail led her on research missions, driving through four North Bay counties gathering ideas for paint colors and other details. She settled on a pale parchment/eggshell tone.

As passersby stopped to ask questions about the quirky project, Mary’s connection to the community grew until she started seeing the cottage as an ideal living space instead of an investment.

In September, the project earned a Preservation Award from Heritage Homes of Petaluma. The plaque hangs in a large room overlooking the courtyard.

Although they still live on the east side, they just can’t resist spending time and living the simple country life — downtown.