John Wilmer: Cornerstone of Caledonia Street

By Steefenie Wicks, Sausalito Historical Society

Jack Tracy’s book, Sausalito Moments in Time, describes early Caledonia Street as a center of activity since the year 1841.  That’s when Don Guillermo Antonio Richardson finalized the purchase that would allow him to “enjoy freely and exclusively, appropriating it to the culture and use that best may suit him.” The history of the street continues to be well known for its many local community activities, like the 4th of July parade, the Easter parade, the Halloween parade and the Portuguese community’s annual Festival of the Holy Ghost.  (The 132nd Festival takes place on May 20 this year.)

Being located at 333 B. Caledonia Street since 1997 has turned John Wilmer into what locals in this neighborhood call a real cornerstone of the community.  Wilmer puts it this way: “After being here for the last 21 years, residents now consider me a local; that’s not a bad thing.”

John Wilmer and his dog Cali       Photo by Steefenie Wicks

John Wilmer and his dog Cali       Photo by Steefenie Wicks

John Wilmer is the first to tell you that 21 years ago there were hardly any businesses on Caledonia Street, except for the hardware store and the bar Smitty’s.  Wilmer says, “You had what I’d call your ‘anchor’ places like the nail salons, the dry cleaners the hardware store, and Smitty’s, but that was about it.  Today there are all kinds of unique shops here on Caledonia Street which means that more of the community residents will come here and shop; this is a good thing”.

Wilmer calls himself a self-taught artist.  His skills include photography and painting along with antique furniture restoration.  His father, Dr. Harry Aaron Wilmer II, was the first psychiatrist to introduce group therapy into the medical world at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland.  His father continued his group therapy work in the late 1960’s through the University of California at San Francisco, eventually establishing the Youth Drug Ward at Langely Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute (now Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute).  His therapy also included creative seminars which featured artists like Joan Baez and the actor Rod Steiger. 

Coming from such a diverse, unique family made Wilmer look deeply into himself to explore his art.   Wilmer says, “I think that is why I like to work alone, invent my own techniques in how I do my art, it’s a bit of my background growing up with my father.” In the beginning he wanted to teach art therapy, but this proved a bit more difficult way to make a living.  He soon found that his art and photography would take him on another path.

For a while he lived in New York and became part of the art community there. During this time, he began to refinish antique furniture for himself, then for friends; this turned into a career move.  He eventually moved to Seattle where he worked at both his painting/photography doing the antique furniture refinishing as a way to support himself.  It was during this time that he met D.J. Puffert, who had his own art/antique store on Caledonia Street.  Years later, as Wilmer’s reputation for his work grew, he found himself on Caledonia Street in Puffert’s old studio warehouse space.

He ran into the cartoonist Phil Frank at an estate sale in town; the two had a lot in common: a love for the possibilities of reworking antique furniture.  Soon they were working on joint projects together, creating something new out of something old.  Phil could often be found just hanging out with Wilmer at his studio space, the two putting their heads together on new projects.

“Phil would come by just to drop in, to say hello but before he left we’d be working on a project that he’d had an idea about,” Wilmer recalls. “He was a very creative fellow, always thinking, full of ideas.” 

Caledonia Street has grown over the years along with Wilmer’s art studio /warehouse.  When you enter his space it’s like taking a tour into another world.  Part art gallery, part shop space, part antique furniture store ─ who knows what you will find him working on?   Wilmer feels that the best part of having the studio is having an open space to develop different projects in different locations in the complex.

 “Caledonia Street,” he continues, “is inspirational.  When I came here it was very low key but now the area has grown up a notch.  I have watched my neighbors’ children grow up.  Watched as world famous restaurants found their home here. Why, there is even a high-end bike store down the street that caters to the rich and famous. Here I can have my doors open, I can greet the public like I would in my home, never having to worry about anything being stolen.  I have an entire record collection in binders on the street in front of my shop.  People love to come by, go through the stacks, telling me that this album or that was one they remembered from some special event in their lives, the stories are always ones that make me feel good about myself at the end of the day.”

Wilmer feels that his space has become part of the neighborhood, where his doors are always open to residents or tourists to drop in, say hello or just see what his latest project is about.   He remembers when his children were small, their favorite program was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and now he wants his world to be like that, part of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood on Caledonia Street in Sausalito, California.