Two women standing in front of a Kelley House sign. One holds a black and white cat.

Kelley House founders Beth Stebbins and Dorothy Bear, with Kelley the cat in 1979. (Photographer: Ray Brooks)

On September 21st the Kelley House will open a new exhibit—Kelley House Museum: Building a Home—to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The exhibit will follow the origins of the Kelley House Museum from its inception as the Mendocino Historical Research Institute (MHRI), paying tribute to the people who had the vision and determination to turn a decaying old house into a research center and museum. It begins with a look at our founding mothers, Beth Stebbins and Dorothy Bear, following their journey from casual researchers to creators of the wonderful museum we know and love today.

Beth and Dorothy moved to Mendocino in 1969 and began to develop a love for the local history and architecture. Dorothy was a retired librarian with a passion for research, and Beth was an amateur photographer who was greatly inspired by the distinct look of Mendocino’s architecture. Their passions eventually led to the creation of the MHRI, filing incorporation papers on November 27th, 1973. The two then spent 1974 working to acquire the dilapidated Kelley House to turn into a museum and offices for the Research Institute.

Their work inspired the local community to preserve the town’s many stories and artifacts, and they were able to attract fundraising support from many local historians and artists. Although they failed to raise all the necessary funds by the end of the year, their ambitious plans were saved by Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack-in-the-Box fast food chain and son of a Mendocino native, who bought and gifted the house to MHRI. In April 1975, restoration work on the house began.

Items on display will include photographs from the restoration endeavors and Anne Kendall Foote’s bespoke wallpaper reproductions, as well as some of the earliest donations Beth and Dorothy collected, such as census records from the 1860s, clothing from the Kelley family, and the Ford family’s Bible. There will also be materials from Beth and Dorothy’s first exhibit, Mendocino Homes, which was displayed at the first Odd Fellows Hall (which now houses Highlight Gallery) before the MHRI was officially created.

Kelley House Museum: Building A Home will be open from September 21st, 2023 to February 26th, 2024.

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.