Next time you’re walking in downtown Santa Rosa, take an eyeful of the “Empire Building,” and notice that something’s wrong. The building itself is quite 20th century – but the clock tower harks back to America in the years after the Civil War. What were they thinking? Slapping an old-fashioned clock tower on an elegant new building does not fine architecture make.

Now the most well-recognized structure downtown, it was originally the Santa Rosa Bank Building, built at the same location of the bank destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1906. John Galen Howard, one of the top architects on the West Coast, designed the new building at the same time as he was creating the campus for University of California/Berkeley and most of its key buildings and landmarks (Sather Gate, the Greek Theatre, the Campanile, California Hall, Doe Library, for ex).

Howard’s drawings of his original design appeared in both local papers in 1908 (the copy at right was taken from the May 16 Santa Rosa Republican – click to enlarge). It shows a building very much in his Beaux Arts style; it would have looked quite at home at the university, and in fact, his exterior for the Santa Rosa Bank resembles an office building version of the Hearst Mining Building, which he had completed the previous year. On the ground floor is rusticated masonry with ornamented keystones above each arch. The roof line has a wide overhanging eave that sits on the top like a crown. The primary difference with what they built was that the overhang was scaled back considerably and simplified. And, of course, a clock tower was added.

To anyone schooled in architecture at that time, the clock tower must have been jarring. John Galen Howard’s building was classically-inspired modern architecture, with strong clean lines; the clock tower was in the too-busy Second Empire style from about forty years earlier. Almost identical clock towers can still be found on courthouses and government buildings built 1870s-1880s, particularly in the South and Midwest; the one here in Santa Rosa might well have been ordered from a factory that prebuilt the things. (UPDATE: The mechanism was made by E. Howard & Co. but they did not provide the enclosure.) And, of course, Santa Rosa even added the garish touch of a gilded dome with a weather vane on the peak. All in all, it was a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies plopping a double-wide on the roof of their nice mansion to house Jethro’s less sophisticated kin.

But why the clock tower at all? In “Santa Rosa’s Architectural Heritage,” Geraldine and Dan Peterson write that “…community sentiment toward the clock tower of the earlier building on the site was strong enough that the roof line was redesigned…” If there was any discussion of this in the papers, I’ve overlooked it – but it’s certain that the earlier building did not have a clock tower. The image below is an enlargement of a section from a postcard showing pre-earthquake Santa Rosa, and the old place clearly had neither a tower nor clock.

More likely adding the clock tower was another manifestation of the town’s love/hate attitude towards progress, as has been often discussed here. Some Santa Rosans were undoubtedly ecstatic that a world-class modern architect was designing the tallest building in town; but I imagine a few of the powerful good ol’ boys looked at the plans and remarked, “put a clock tower up there, like we have back in Missouri – you will see it for miles when the sun hits its glory.”

Today no one notices that the building and clock tower clash in style and scale; all focus is on the quaint old tower, and John Galen Howard’s building has become simply its base. There are dozens of photographs found on the Internet but none are of the building itself with the tower cropped out; however there are many closeups of the tower alone. And whoever thought of painting the dome gold was inspired – nothing shouts “what a classy place!” like bling.

Obl. Comstock House connection: One of the first tenants to move into the pretty new building was lawyer James Wyatt Oates. A 1914 view of his offices at rooms 300-301 can be seen here in a photograph of junior partner Hilliard Comstock at his desk.

(Right: Detail of postcard showing the Empire Building c. 1917, when it was the Bank of Italy. Both postcard views courtesy the Larry Lapeere Collection)


Colonel Oates’ New Offices

Colonel J. W. Oates has moved his law offices into an elegant suite of three offices in the third story of the handsome Santa Rosa Bank Building. The furnishings will be very artistic and everything will be very neat.

– Press Democrat, June 3, 1908


Handsome Structure Completed and Occupied

The Santa Rosa Bank has moved into its magnificent new building on Exchange Avenue, a structure that rises four stories high and ranks among the best constructed buildings in the state, a credit to the well-known and old established financial institution, a monument to enterprise and a prominent landmark in the new and greater Santa Rosa.

The progress of construction of the new bank building has been watched with interest during the months that work has been under way. It is a “Class A” steel structure, and at once appears to everybody on account of its solidity and massiveness. And now that the finishings have been installed, the effect is most pleasing.

The bank’s quarters in the new building are ideal for the transaction of business–care having been taken that this should be so. It is admirably lighted and the tiled floor, the fixtures and all other points are in pleasing accord. The work of moving into the new building was begun last night so that everything could be in readiness for the commencement of business on Monday morning.

The handsome furnishings, including the desks, chairs and the furniture are all solid mahogany. The fixtures and finish, also of mahogany, were made by P. H. Kroncke of this city. It is a compliment to Mr. Kroncke and Santa Rosa that such work could be turned out here. Lomont & Co. did the painting and decoration work.

In the right hand corner of the main building is the president’s office, attractively arranged and furnished for the purpose to which it will be put. Next in line is the receiving teller’s window, then the paying teller’s window. The cashier’s office and then the bookkeeper’s department are all provided. All these departments are thoroughly equipped with everything necessary.. There is a handsome frontage of heavy plate glass. The directors have a nice room. Taken severally and as a whole the furnishings could not have been selected with more taste in order that they should be in keeping with the general appearance of a very fine modern bank building.

The safe deposit department is complete in its arrangement, and the double burglar and fire-proof vaults, and the new book vault cannot be excelled. A personal inspection imposes one with the strength of the vaults.

From the entrance doors on Exchange avenue one steps into the main room, and while the requirements of the bank officials have been looked after in every particular, the comfort and convenience of the bank patrons has not been lost sight of. There are desks and seats and other accessories for their use. An elevator runs from the ground floor to the roof. The three upper stories are fitted up as offices for professional men, and others, and many of them have already been taken, and are occupied. The building throughout is well ventilated and has all modern conveniences in the way of heating apparatus, lighting, etc.

Nearing completion on top of the immense structure is a great clock, whose dial can be seen for miles all around the city. This will be lighted at night and will be the finishing touch to a building of which many larger cities would be just justly feel proud.

The directors of the Santa Rosa Bank are…


Frank E. Cherry was the superintendent of construction, and he naturally feels proud of the results obtained. The building has been completed under the estimated cost by the architects, Howard & Galloway. In fact, at considerable less cost than the original estimate.

It has been suggested to the officials that in view of the fact that the bank building is one the publicly generally would like to inspect that they set apart some evening for this purpose.

– Press Democrat, July 26, 1908

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If the newspapers could be believed, 1908 Santa Rosans faced great risk of being run over by a thirty horsepower car being driven at the breakneck speed of 25 MPH.

Although there were several arrests for speeding the previous year, the problem became endemic as more people bought automobiles. “There are several auto drivers in the city who are running their machines very near the danger line,” commented the Santa Rosa Republican. “Sooner or later, if the brakes are not put on, there will be trouble… city authorities are determined that the crowded streets shall not be made speed tracks by speed-mad auto drivers.”

The speed limit that year was 10 MPH, up from 6 MPH in 1904, then raised to 8 MPH the year after. A quick search of 1908 Bay Area newspapers shows that city speed limits varied between about 10-20 MPH. Oakland had a limit of ten miles per hour for the business district, and 18 MPH in residential areas. In the cross-country races between Oakland and San Francisco via San Jose, drivers were expected to stay below 20 MPH.

Car owners objected to the 10 MPH limit, claiming that their “big engines” would stall if not driven faster. Also at a City Council meeting, Dr. McLeod argued that physicians should be exempt from the speed limit because they might be rushing to an emergency. (This wasn’t the first time a doctor wanted special treatment. Dr. Crocker of Healdsburg, who in 1905 struck a wagon carrying a family of five and seriously injured at least one passenger, tried to avoid a fine by claiming auto regulations were unfair.)

Part of the problem was that it was still the age of horses and bicycles, and few could accurately judge how fast a car was moving – and that included some drivers; speedometers, sometimes called “speed-markers,” were not yet standard equipment on all vehicles. So the Republican newspaper offered a helpful article comparing speeds of bikes and wagons and cars, pointing out that a bicyclist on a smooth road could easily reach 15 MPH. That article concluded with a sympathetic nod to the motorists, noting that “few of the large automobiles can get down to 5 or 8 miles without ‘killing’ the engines, the machinery being constructed for higher speed.” Still, “there is no doubt that many autoists here get ‘speed mad’ and drive their cars at a dangerous clip. Some regulation is doubtless needed.” The speed limit was set to 10 MPH with a maximum fine of $50.

Given the uncertainties, it was promised that enforcement would be lenient. “While a speed of 12 or 15 miles may slip by the observant policeman, 30 and 35 ‘won’t go,'” a policeman said. Not that everyone slowed down; a month later, it was noted that “Officer Lindley has recently come in for a lot of abuse for arresting automobilists who violate the speed ordinance.” (It’s also possible, however, that the police department had discovered that traffic violations can be a lucrative cash cow for local government.)

The same article reported George W. Davis had to do some “lively moving to get out of harm’s way” of one driver. “The young man at the throttle condescended to blow the horn, but there was never any shutting off of power to prevent an accident. The speed burners seem to think that if they give a man warning they are coming they have done their whole duty. It is then up to the individual to get on the way or be maimed, according to the way of thinking.”

Arthur Parent of Petaluma Makes a Speedway Out of Fourth Street Monday

Arthur W. Parent, a young man of Petaluma, who is said to be a reckless auto driver, was arrested by Police Officer Boyes Monday afternoon for making a speedway out of Fourth Street at a time when there were many women and children and vehicles on the street.

When Parent dashed up the street people stood aghast, expecting to see an accident. Police Officer Boyes caught the number of the car and send his bike along at a lively pace. Parent stopped at the local establishment and then Officer Boyes took him over to the police station, where he put up $15 for bail. It’s not likely that he will appear for trial for there are too many witnesses as to his speed to make it worth the while. He gave his name to the office when arrested.

According to statements made here Monday afternoon it seems that this young man runs his machine regardless, and has come nearly getting into trouble in Petaluma. The arrest on Monday afternoon should be a warning to several young chauffeurs here who have been doing a little scorching themselves.

– Press Democrat, April 28, 1908
Reporter Tries Out an Auto a Car and a Bike

With the idea of getting some correct information on “speeds” of different classes of vehicles in the city, a Republican reporter this morning paced an automobile, then an electric car and finally himself. The auto belongs to Mr. H. H. Bowers of Sebastopol Avenue, a fine machine of about thirty horse power capacity and about a 40 mile speed limit. With Chief of Police Rushmore and Officer John M. Boyes aboard to see that the newspaperman did not get mobbed or smashed up, the “pacers” started. At the rate of ten miles an hour by the speed indicator the auto was 33 seconds going along Fourth Street from B to A, or a distance of about 490 feet. This is one of the longest blocks in the city. Ten miles an hour spells 880 feet a minute–14 2/3 feet a second, so with this second base, the mathematical timer can follow it out to an infinitesimal figure.

On the upper part of Fourth Street the party paced an electric car and the little speed -marker on the auto caught the big machine going 17 miles an hour. The speed was lower, however on the business portion of the street. To get a more practical idea of what 10 miles an hour looked like, the reporter on a bicycle paced the auto, or rather, let the big 40 horse power machine pace him. He learned that quite a slow speed on the bike will be about 5 miles and the ordinary work on the pedals will reach the 10 mile rate. On the smooth pavement of the bicycle rider, at 15 miles, could easily keep in touch with the gas burner, but at 20 miles it left him behind pumping his “durndest.”

Ten miles an hour is not a rapid speed and a passenger can safely jump from the auto at that rate, while 5 miles is slow. A man can walk 4 miles an hour and a buggy or light vehicle will ordinarily travel 12 to 15 miles in that time. Few of the large automobiles can get down to 5 or 8 miles without “killing” the engines, the machinery being constructed for higher speed. On the whole it seems that the auto speed limit proposed to the City Council Tuesday evening is somewhat low. However, there is no doubt that many autoists here get “speed mad” and drive their cars at a dangerous clip. Some regulation is doubtless needed.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 29, 1908
Dr. McLeod Asks that Physicians When Responding to Emergency Calls Be Given Immunity Bath

At the meeting of the City Council last night Chairman Johnston of the Ordinance Committee, introduced an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for drivers of any automobile, motor car, etc. to drive faster than 10 miles an hour within the city limits of Santa Rosa. Violation of the ordinance is made punishable by fine not to exceed $50. In lieu of payment of which find to be jailed at the rate of one day for each two dollars. In the regular course of the ordinance it was referred back to the Ordinance Committee to report again at the next meeting.

Dr. J. H. McLeod addressed the Council and stated that a physician in cases of emergency would exceed the ten-mile limit, and he thought in cases of life or death the arrest and fining of the physician violating the law should not follow. The doctor spoke from experience, and said the flyer he had to put up was a clear loss as the case he attended was a charity case. City Attorney Ware opined that one law must govern all.

– Press Democrat, April 29, 1908

Speed-Mad Chauffeurs Racing Through the Streets

There are several auto drivers in the city who are running their machines very near the danger line and some day the public will be interrogating in a fierce “why?” It is becoming the usual thing to see a great 30 horsepower car plunging down a city street at a speed prohibited by state, county and municipal laws, and sooner or later, if the brakes are not put on, there will be trouble.

Late Sunday afternoon when the streets were thronged with pedestrians out to enjoy the cool evening, after the blistering day, a big touring car appeared on Mendocino Avenue going north. Five or six young men where the occupants and they were enjoying themselves to the limit. As they passed the residence of Chief of Police Fred Rushmore the machine was not at its greatest speed, but the officer called out a warning. Near Cherry the car had attained a speed of 35 or 40 miles an hour. As the great vehicle rushed roaringly passed it made as much noise and tore up as much dust as a railroad train. At College avenue a carriage containing several ladies hurriedly pulled to one side and the auto slowed down slightly to prevent a smashup. These young man–all well-known– had been on an all day ride in the country, but had concluded to return to town and take in the streets. The shaded thoroughfares are more comfortable, possibly.

The speed limit was set by the city council June 17, the ordinance went into effect on the 18th. Any auto driver moving more than 10 miles an hour within the city limits may be arrested and fined for the offense $50. Signs will be placed at different points in the city lines for the information of strangers, but the local chauffeurs need no such warning.

“The city authorities are determined that the crowded streets shall not be made speed tracks by speed-mad auto drivers. In the country they may have at out with the supervisors, but in town they must consider slower vehicles and pedestrians.” This is the statement of a city official and it means everybody. Ten miles is not a rapid rate and the automobile people complained that it “kills” the engine of the big 40 horsepower machines to slow down to that speed, but this theory will have to be concreted into a fact and moreover law is law. While a speed of 12 work or 15 miles may slip by the observant policeman, 30 and 35 “won’t go,” the cop says.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1908

Police Will Arrest All the Speed Burners

The local officers intend to strictly enforce the city ordinances providing for a speed not exceeding 10 miles per hour in the city limits. Some men have been arrested recently for violating the ordinance, and persons on the streets assert that these men were traveling at a rate exceeding 20 miles an hour. One enthusiastic automobilist who is experienced in these matters, asserts that a machine driven by a local man came whizzing around a corner Thursday evening traveling at a rate of 25 miles an hour.

Recklessness on the part of chaffeurs and automobile owners brings the sport of running machines into disrepute and brings forth the displeasure of the people on the heads of all who run autos. This is not as it should be. There are many careful and conscientious drivers, as compared with the reckless ones, but all are judged hastily with those who break the laws.

George W. Davis came near being run down Friday by a youth who came through town too lively for the speed limit and the safety of pedestrians. It required lively moving to get out of harm’s way. The young man at the throttle condescended to blow the horn, but there was never any shutting off of power to prevent an accident. The speed burners seem to think that if they give a man warning they are coming they have done their whole duty. It is then up to the individual to get on the way or be maimed, according to the way of thinking.

Officer Lindley has recently come in for a lot of abuse for arresting automobilists who violate the speed ordinance and this should not be so. An officer should be upheld by all the people for doing his duty, and be made to feel that the people appreciate his efforts to enforce the law.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 25, 1908

Offender Against Speed Laws Taken Into Custody

Officer John M. Boyes taught an offending auto driver a valuable lesson on Monday, when the man passed through this city at a rate of speed estimated to be about 50 miles an hour. The man was arrested at Petaluma by Constable Jimmy Sullivan on the request of Officer Boyes, who was fortunate enough to have learned the number of the auto driven by the offender.

The car was numbered 12570 and the name of the man arrested with the car by Constable Sullivan was given as McDonald, a San Franciscan. The man called up Officer Boyes after being taken into custody in the southern city and try to “square” the case with the officer, but the latter is not the kind of man that can be “squared” with, and he promptly told the offender that the only way he could secure his release would be to put bail for his appearance here when wanted.

Those who saw the speed developed by the driver passing through the city were wrathy, and the good work of the officer is being committed not only by the public in general, but by automobilists in particular. These men want the laws enforced and will give their aid to the officers whenever they can to prevent infractions of the speed limit.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 25, 1908

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In 1908, Santa Rosans flocked to see the first demonstration here of the latest technological marvel: Something they called “radio.” The representative from Marconi’s company wowed audiences for four nights talking about messages sent to/from ships at sea and between distant places, all communications in the precise stutter of Morse Code. (The demonstration was actually part of a con game; see here for details.)

What was demonstrated here was really known as “wireless telegraphy;” in that era, the transmission of voice (or music) was called “wireless telephony,” and it would still be two years before the first broadcasts could be heard anywhere in the Bay Area from pioneer station KQW in San Jose (although that signal probably didn’t reach as far as Sonoma County). Not until after WWI would the the first commercial radio stations in San Francisco begin operating. But even after there was something to hear other than dots and dashes, it was still difficult to listen to; radio was a headphones-only affair until the first electrical speakers appeared in the mid-1920s.

For the first twenty-five years of the Twentieth Century – and particularly the first decade – Santa Rosa was a pretty quiet place. Sounds were more occasional than constant, and rarely interruptive. Here there was no smokestack industry running heavy machines that gave cities of that time a constant low hum. The farm town grew slowly, so there was no ongoing racket of major new construction (except for the months after the 1906 quake).

The private sounds heard from houses were small and likely appealing; someone practicing piano or another musical instrument or singing. Aside from player pianos, recorded music was soft; the graphophone and phonograph of the day had wooden or metal speakers that could barely be heard in the next room.

Outside, there would have been dappled background sounds: The clop of horses and the chug of the occasional automobile, probably the crow of roosters because so many homes kept backyard chickens. Twice a day, everyone heard the garden water schedule whistles, and at night, most everyone would hear the low of cows in Noonan’s stockyard at the corner of College and Cleveland Avenues. There were sometimes fire bells heard clanging. In those first ten years of the century, people individually created little noise; many walked or glided silently on bicycles or rode the electric streetcars. There was civic pride in that most of the downtown streets had been recently paved with smooth, noise-muffling macadam (which makes the thumpity-thump around old Courthouse Square from those ersatz cobblestones all that more ridiculous).

In his landmark book on soundscapes, “The Tuning of the World,” R. Murray Schafer points out that ambient noise levels generally increase each year all over the world, no matter what the society or whether it’s urban or rural. There are no more quiet places; sound is now heavy and continuous, much of it the result of incessant aviation and road traffic. Another major factor was the invention of the radio loudspeaker. Now the little box that was never quiet could be heard everywhere, and soon was.

The crowds at that 1908 exhibition were promised wonderful things would result from the development of the “wireless,” and things wonderful surely came to pass, but at a price they could not have foreseen. Some twenty or more years later, there were probably Santa Rosa residents who were in that audience who now found themselves kept awake by dance music playing on a neighbor’s radio, as they wondered what happened to the peaceful little town they used to know.

Very Interesting Lecture and Exhibition at the Skating Rink Last Night

H. C. Robinson, representative of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph exhibitions lectured in the Pavilion rink on Monday night to a very large and interested audience on the science and possibilities of wireless telegraphy, giving practical demonstrations of sending and receiving messages without wires, including several feats of ringing fire bells, lighting electric lights and operating danger signals through the mysterious agency of Hertzian waves.

It was perhaps the first working of wireless apparatus Santa Rosa people have ever had the opportunity of inspecting and having the various phenomenon explained by a man who evidently knows the science thoroughly.

The lecturer gave a complete history of the discovery of the wireless principle of transmitting signals through the air. He took it up from long before the time Dr. Hertz discovered his now historic “ether wave” until the present day, when it has become a part of the modern complex civilization, and has passed out of the stage of being a novelty and a curiosity. He told of what progress has been made in the past few years by Marconi and how necessary wireless telegraphy has become in war and peace. He said that nearly every warship and all the great navies is now equipped with wireless apparatus. He told of how the great liners on the ocean keep in touch with the entire world while passing from continent continent. Newspapers are printed on hundreds of the “greyhounds of the sea” daily, through the aid of wireless; ships report themselves hundreds of miles out at sea, passengers can communicate with their friends at home as easily as if they were on land and had the telegraph and telephone at their disposal.

It is now a common thing, said the lecturer, for news dispatches to be sent from ships, and he mentioned the fact that Secretary Taft received the news of his mother’s death by wireless while on board the steamer President Grant in the English Channel.

Not only is wireless used by ships at sea, but America and England are linked together by wireless, and it is only a matter of a short time when cables will be as much out of date as stagecoaches are now in the big cities. Even on the Pacific Coast the seaports, from San Diego to Alaska, are in constant touch with each other, and during the recent telegraph strike much news was transmitted by wireless.

Mr. Robinson went into the commercial possibilities of wireless and told how it would soon supplant the telegraph and cables. There is no doubt about its success, he said, both from a commercial standpoint and in every other way it has reached the stage, where it was recognized as the greatest discovery and invention combined in the present century.

Tonight, Wednesday and Thursday night similar electrician exhibitions will be given by Mr. Robinson. Admission is free.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1908

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