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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *