The History of Villa Zanetta

by John Eagle 
Director of Development and Public Relations, Well Lit Theatre at Villa Zanetta
(This article appears in the 2008 Festival Program Book and was also featured in Sonoma Monthly in May.)

In the Sonoma Valley, there is an estate known as Villa Zanetta. Local lore has it that Forrest Hendrickson, wealthy merchant and the originator of Villa Zanetta, was among the 80 passengers who perished in the wreck of the steamship Columbia heading from San Francisco to Portland in 1907. The tragedy also took the life of Mr. Hendrickson's traveling companion, Marcella Wheeler, listed in the passenger manifest as Hendrickson's "secretary." Learn more about Forrest Hendrickson and the wreck of the Columbia...

Original Villa Zanetta
Villa Zanetta in the early 1960s, before the expansion.

Mr. Hendrickson's secretary seems to have been his second mistress. The first, known to history simply as Zanetta, was busy at the 8,000 square foot villa tending to her tidy little business, not to mention the five children of the union she had enjoyed so long with her benefactor. Fortunately, with the help of a crafty attorney, Zanetta was bequeathed the villa in Forrest's will and Mrs. Hendrickson, living in Napa with her own passel of children and problems, was none the wiser.

Villa Zanetta nestles into a lush hillside, surrounded by 60 acres of woodlands. The original mansion was a rangy Tudor construction, added onto, one too many times. There is a lake, and a stream with little burbling waterfalls. Deer, ducks, geese, frogs, bobcats and all manner of birds call the 60 acres "home." The Villa and its grounds back up to many acres of wilderness. The occasional bear visits Lake Zanetta, and the mountain lions come for sips of lake water, too.

But, overall, it is a safe and pastoral place.

Villa Zanetta has experienced a few face lifts over the years. When she died in 1935, Zanetta passed over the five children, whom she hardly knew, their having been palmed off on the The Boys and Girls Catholic Aid Society of Oregon for safe keeping while she ran her business at the Villa. Her courtesans needed the rooms.

With a fine sense of irony, Zanetta left her estate to the Catholic church, who changed the name and turned Villa Zanetta into a summer camp for troublesome boys; an early version of the Catholic Youth Organization camps. A dorm was built, and a chapel. In 1949, the Catholics sold the camp to three investors who called themselves The Highwaymen Conference Group. They put a million dollars into a renovation, had a big party, got some attention and had several small conferences at Sulphur Stream Conference Center before falling three heads first into bankruptcy. That might have been because there was no Sulphur Stream. They lost money so fast, one of the Highwaymen said it was like "throwing $1,000 dollar bills out the window of a speeding locomotive."

The founders of the Well Lit Theatre at Villa Zanetta, Robert "Diesel" Edwards and Hayne Williams, reveled in returning to the original name of the estate when, in 1957, they picked up the languishing property for a relative song.

Their goal? To follow their creative dreams.

Hayne and Diesel took the old and beautiful but badly remodeled Tudor mansion, its dorm, barn and tiny chapel, and created a prizewinning art colony, where thespians and musicians of all persuasions come together to create beauty, to embrace their watchers and listeners within the arms of the nine muses, to fill their ears with the joys of music, to delight the eye and warm the heart.

The duo of Hayne and Diesel have spent the last fifty years growing Villa Zanetta into what it is today.

Each season, each month, each week, in fact, there is something happening in the vortex of the Villa Zanetta; in the Well Lit Theatre plays are produced, symphonies performed, and dancers twirl and leap across the stage. Puppet shows are still performed in the Tiny Little Theatre in the barn. Even the local chorus, the Sonoma based Bella Voce Chorale, share their voices with the appreciative audiences on the stage of the Well Lit Theatre.

This Season marks the 50th anniversary of Villa Zanetta.

Copyright © 2008 Villa Zanetta