alfred hitchcock the birds Author: Mary Jo Bowling
One hundred and forty years after the Potter School was dedicated on October 31, 1873 and 50 years after Alfred Hitchcock immortalized it by shooting scenes from
The Birds there, the grand Italianate schoolhouse high atop a hill in the tiny Sonoma County town of Bodega continues to fascinate us. Shortly after the release of Hitchcock’s film, the Taylor family bought the building, and it has (mostly) been a private home ever since. But this year, in a rare opportunity, you can party at the schoolhouse in an event that raises money for the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center. In advance of the Halloween happening, Leah Taylor, the current owner, opens the doors of the schoolhouse and shares the secrets of one of California’s most storied (and haunted?) structures. Photographer: Sponsored Post Photographer: Leah says that, in a sense, Hitchcock first saved the schoolhouse by filming The Birds there and that her mother saved it the second time. “Someone was considering tearing it down for the redwood before the movie,” she says. “And who knows what would have happened to it if my parents hadn’t purchased it.” For today, she feels that she is the caretaker of the building’s legacy. “Sometimes I wonder if I own the building or if it owns me,” she says. “After all these years, I think I’m ready to pass the torch to another person and see what the next incarnation will be—but who knows, maybe I’ll come back!” The Haunted Halloween at the Bodega School event happens on Saturday, October 26. Tickets can be purchased on the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center website. Photographer: In all the years she’s lived there, Leah has mostly heard things, except for one memorable sighting. “It’s sounds cliché, but I saw a shadowy figure of a little girl floating about three feet off the floor,” she says. “She had long, shoulder-length hair and a white aura.” Despite these happenings, the Taylors never considered moving. “It never disturbed me, and I don’t think it ever rattled my parents,” she says. “I’ve loved living here. I don’t believe there’s another place like it.” Photographer: After the family had made the second floor inhabitable (in addition to the tattered roof and guano-covered floor, there was no heat, electricity or water) they started staying there. Originally, the upper floor was one large open space, but the Taylors partitioned it to create a kitchen and bedrooms. Even so, at night the whole family would sleep around the hearth for warmth. One Sunday morning, the Taylors had their first paranormal experience. “We were all sleeping in the big room, and it was early on a morning that had both sun and fog. Suddenly, we heard a clear, bright voice exclaim, ‘It’s Sunday morning!’” As background, Leah notes that in its community center role, the Potter School was the scene of raucous gatherings that lasted well into the next morning. This was just the start of unexplained noises. “Sometimes there is the very clear sound of party noises, a cacophony of people talking at once,” says Leah. “Other times, there are the sounds of children laughing, or footsteps.” On the morning of our interview, Leah says that she had been awakened by a man’s voice calling out a short, one syllable name that she couldn’t catch. “I thought it was my son calling our dog,” she says. “But when I went down to check it out, he hadn’t nor had he heard anything.” Photographer: The Tucker family discovered this old piano buried under bird dung on the second floor. Although it no longer works, they kept it as a relic of times gone by. It is likely this instrument served as entertainment for the community center. Photographer: The room that is now the living room was once the community center. “When we bought it, there were huge gaping holes in the roof and big snow-white owls living there. The floor, the old stage, and a piano were covered with about a foot-and-a-half of bird droppings. The windows were boarded up, so it was dark and musty,” says Leah. “The entire family worked on cleaning it up.” Eventually, after the building was restored, Leah’s mother ran an art gallery in it. After attending college on the East Coast, Leah returned to live in the school, and over the years operated a theater, a restaurant and a gift shop in the building. Now, it functions solely as a private home. Photographer: “When my parents bought the building, we started working on it,” says Leah. “Not only had the windows been boarded up, but the staircase had been taken out. The only way to access the second floor was a set of stairs running along the outside of the building. We installed a staircase and started on the upstairs in 1971.” Photographer: The reason Leah Taylor lives in the schoolhouse today is simple: Her mother fell in love with it nearly half a century ago. “We moved to Santa Rosa from Texas in 1963. My father was a high school physics teacher and my mother was a third grade teacher, and I think that the schoolhouse resonated with both of them because they valued education,” Leah says. “However, my mother was a creative artistic who loved history, and she was the one who was really passionate about it.” It was Mary Taylor who spotted a small real estate ad in the newspaper listing the school for sale. “We had passed it often on the way to the beach,” says Leah. “Mom was in love with the building and wanted nothing more than to live there. They weren’t moviegoers, so I doubt they had seen The Birds. My father went along with it, but said they would have to find a way to make it pay for itself.” Photographer: Pecking Order Photographer: When the then Potter School (named for county sheriff Samuel Potter, the man who donated the land it sits on) was completed in 1873, life was very different in Bodega. Then the town boasted five sawmills and eight hotels, all serving a thriving lumber industry and booming populace of mainly Irish immigrants. On the day it opened, the school enrollment totaled 130 (today, the town population weighs in at just 220). The second story served as the community center for the busy town. By 1961 the population and industry had diminished, and the building had deteriorated, making its upkeep too costly for the town to bankroll. The school was abandoned, but the doors remained unlocked, and for years residents helped themselves to the leftover books and desks. In 1962 Alfred Hitchcock came calling, and made the location famous. A few years after the film crews vacated the premises, the Taylor family bought the then falling-down building and made it a private residence. This is what it looked like when the Taylors purchased it in 1963. Taylor infers that the schoolhouse maintenance and upkeep had a role in the eventual demise of her parents’ marriage.