We study spontaneous dimerization transitions in a Heisenberg spin-1 chain with additional next-nearest-neighbor and three-site interactions using extensive numerical simulations and a conformal field-theory analysis. We show that the transition can be second order in the Wess-Zumino-Witten (WZW) SU(2)2 or Ising universality class, or first order. We argue that these features are generic because of a marginal operator in the WZW SU(2)2 model and because of two topologically distinct nondimerized phases with or without edge states. We also provide explicit numerical evidence of conformal towers of singlets inside the spin gap at the Ising transition. Implications for other models are briefly discussed.