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Zerillo Mansion Recalled At Historical Society Meet
The storied home of Lorenzo Zerillo, who founded the Riverbank Canning Company that became the largest tomato processing plant in the world, married an opera singer who had debuted in Rome, and built the St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in her honor, was discussed at a local meeting this past week.

Former Superintendent of Schools Martin Petersen bought and lived in the Riverbank landmark from 1979 to 1984 and entertained local historical society members with tales of the mansion during a "Memories" story telling period slated for each second Tuesday of the month. The public is invited to the 11 a.m. meetings at the museum.

Located at Callander Avenue and Topeka Street where Highway 108 curves around the church, the 14-room Zerillo Mansion was built in 1912 by O.J. Hobart, a Santa Fe Railroad executive at a reported cost of $22,000, according to a newspaper story by Walt Williams that is now a historical society document.

Zerillo bought the house in 1927, married opera singer Frances Gettys and brought her to California to enjoy his lavishly furnished home complete with a rose garden, grape arbor, a swimming pool and 70 acres of land.

The mansion at that time was reputed to host members of the Alioto and other prosperous families from San Francisco at basement parties that went on for days besides more sedate music lovers who came to hear Mrs. Zerillo sing in the living room.

Discovery of a staircase leading from the second floor to the roof brought rumors that visiting members of the Mafia kept a lookout stationed there, said Petersen. He and his family used it simply to climb to the flat, railed roof to watch the stars on summer nights.

There is another rumor there are ghosts in the basement. Petersen said his 10 year-old son Matt heard noises there and their old dog Princess refused to go down to the basement although the animal would sleep on the landing at the top of the stairs. He hired a psychic to investigate and dispel the myths. She spent an hour in the basement, reported she heard noises and sensed a presence and believed there was a body buried beneath the foundations, said Petersen.

Decorating the house with antiques (Petersen's wife is an interior decorator) they held family gatherings of 60 or more relatives, hosted dances and political fundraisers in the marble floored basement and opened the house to the public including one year for a Cheese and Wine festival tour.

He recalled an old, red-flagged Cadillac belonging to John Seaman Sr., when he ran for Governor, standing in the driveway. On another occasion, he invited Governor Jerry Brown who wrote back he was unable to attend but sent a staff member.

One of two crystal chandeliers disappeared from the dining room during his stay but he tracked it down to an antique store in Empire, bought it back and restored it to its original place.

Following Zerillo's death in 1966 and his wife's sale of the mansion, it passed through the hands of numerous other owners including Petersen. The mansion is now owned by Gil Wymond who formerly owned the Burger King restaurant chain and used it as his headquarters for that and other businesses.

Concealed among large trees, the house on its exterior looks much the same as it did in Zerillo's day with an orchard, formal rose garden and grape arbor leading over marble paving blocks to a swimming pool and guest house that is a miniature replica of the mansion.

Interior features include floors of polished oak and wall paneling of mahogany, oak and cherry wood, four fireplaces faced with tiling imported from Italy, bathroom fittings of brass and ivory and numerous other expensive furnishings.