Owner, councilman work to preserve ex-brothel
COUNCIL CONSIDERS CODE EXEMPTION FOR HISTORIC BUILDINGS
If you were a gangster running a brothel and a greyhound racetrack and distilling your own alcohol during Prohibition, there’s one thing you’d want in addition to customers: a quick escape route from the police.
That didn’t work, however, for George White, a Chicago hood who was doing all of the above in a Mountain View house. Even with metal bars locking his doors, secret passages in the attic, an alarm system and peepholes on the front and back entrances, White still got pinched.
He was arrested in 1933 after a raid by the local sheriff, and held on $500 bail, according to a 1933 article by the Mountain View Register-Leader. That faded, yellow clipping is in Gilda Wunderman’s scrapbook, an anthology of the house where White was arrested. She and her late husband, Irwin, bought it in 1963 and turned it into a two-story time machine, without the booze and tommy guns of the ’20s and early ’30s.
‘‘It was during Prohibition,’’ Wunderman said. ‘‘So they built a place that looked like a farmhouse, with a bar underneath and this one had a brothel.’’
history — the basement has three old bars, a ballroom and a chemical lab where previous occupants mixed ingredients for beer and liquor — the 7,500-square-foot house has been the target of city annexation battles since the late ’60s.
After four decades, the city seems likely to annex Wunderman’s property on Eunice Avenue this month. But the annexation comes only after a move by Councilman Greg Perry to protect the old speak-easy and brothel.
‘‘We’re the only residence not in the city and we’re surrounded by the city,’’ Wunderman said. ‘‘I’ll accept the annexation as long as there are guarantees.’’
Perry and Wunderman, who have never met, said they were worried that historic buildings would face demolition because they can’t meet city codes once annexed.
‘‘I don’t want to encourage people to tear down buildings when they have historical significance,’’ Perry said. ‘‘These laws are designed to encourage people to conform, which for a historic structure is completely ridiculous.’’
The Mountain View City Council will vote today on whether to exempt such buildings. If it passes, the Wunderman house will stay the way it is, Perry said. The city will determine whether future buildings meet the same historic standards.
In the early ’70s, Wunderman wasn’t the only ‘‘island,’’ a term describing unincorporated homes in Mountain View. According to newspaper articles in Wunderman’s scrapbook, the city annexed dozens of homes in the past 25 years. Wunderman credited her husband with keeping their land outside city limits until now.
‘‘He fought the city tooth and nail,’’ she said.
Since owning the house, the couple threw a long series of renowned 1920s dress-up parties. Pictures of guys and gals in such get-ups fill most of Wunderman’s scrapbook.
Every nook and cranny of the house has pictures, paintings and statues. A 1950s jukebox, now silent, is lighted up against a wall. The chemistry lab in the basement is lined with small bottles perfect for the inside of a suit pocket.
The old Savoy Whitehall Distillery in the back of the house is long dry, but Wunderman has managed to save some of the labels. And the madame’s room — the most spacious, of course — has a face-level hatch on the door so she could get a quick glimpse of her customers.
‘‘She could be picky,’’ Wunderman said, smiling through the peephole.
Owner Gilda Wunderman acquiesced to annexation by the city after Councilman Greg Perry took steps to protect the home. The city council will consider a plan to exempt historic buildings from city code.