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WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER

It happened without any warning: “Santa Rosa’s Public Library will close at 6PM today and suspend services until another building can be found,” the Press Democrat article announced on November 17, 1960.

What town closes down its library? And can they even do that? Oh, sure, the old building had its faults, everybody knew. The building could be overcrowded after school or on weekends and the shelves were so full that books were also piled on the floor, which had something of a slant.

Behind those ivy-covered walls the place was thick with sentiment. Three generations of Santa Rosans had warm memories starting with children’s story hours, of later reference desk help with homework, of taking home lightweight books to pass the time or stronger reading to sharpen one’s wits. Out-of-town newspapers had classified ads to help find a new job or place to live that wasn’t here; magazines presented stories and pictures of places to dream they could someday see.

soad(RIGHT: Scene from Shadow of a Doubt, 1943)

And not to overlook that the building was a landmark – the library had been a centerpiece in two major motion pictures, with the Chamber of Commerce touting it as a tourist attraction.

Whatever was wrong with the old place, couldn’t the damage be fixed?

No, authorities said. Or maybe yes – with the caveat that everyone would hate how it looked afterwards. But it wasn’t really that simple a question because the real, unspoken answer was this: “Don’t ask the question because we’ve already made a decision.” And what the city and Library Board of Trustees had decided to do was tear the building completely down and replace it with something they had already committed to build. Landmark, public will, and everything else be damned.

The given reason for padlocking the doors was that the building wasn’t up to fire codes and was structurally unsound. A letter to the Trustees from City Manager Sam Hood told them to immediately “move out of the building or close it” (i.e. shut down all town library services).

1961library(RIGHT: Find the temporary Santa Rosa Library. Photo: Sonoma County Library)

After a mad scramble to find space downtown, a shrunken version of the Santa Rosa Free Public Library opened just three weeks later on Exchange Avenue across from the courthouse. It was now in a former dance hall, on the second floor above the “Uptown Beauty Salon” and the “Bambi Room” cocktail lounge. The new digs were probably not rated to carry that much of a weight load and were just as much a firetrap (or more) than the old library, as the only access was via a narrow set of stairs. And so the world turned for over six years, until the new library finally opened on February 19, 1967.

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The topic of the old library still comes up surprisingly often on social media; in FaceBook nostalgia groups some can still recall being there and lament that it’s gone. It also often comes up in regards of the 1906 earthquake, as photos of its partial collapse seem to be second in popularity only to those of the courthouse with its toppled dome.

In those forums two reasons are usually given for why it was torn down. Its unreinforced masonry was a huge danger (a topic discussed below) and/or it was another victim of Santa Rosa’s maniac efforts in the 1960s to destroy much of its own history, when the downtown area was declared chock-full of urban blight that must be bulldozed ASAP. Those dark years are handled in the ongoing series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”

But neither of those arguments were made at the time – when the push for a new library began in 1959, the only issue was that Santa Rosa had outgrown its 6,000 sq. ft. building. As the Library Board hired an architect and bickered with the City Council about their proposed construction budget that year and over much of the next, not once did any article in the Press Democrat mention there were safety concerns about the building. It was just the library was very crowded and had to limit purchases of new books because there wasn’t enough shelf space.

bookstacked(RIGHT: Books stored on the floor in Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, 1960. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The budget debate had two angles. The Library Board said they needed $1,250,000 while the Council argued they could cut back by eliminating frivolities, such as an elevator and air conditioning. The Board insisted the new library stay at the same location, while some on the Council wanted its prime real estate sold to help pay for the new place.

Jumping into this conflict came Hugh Codding, who in that era kept relentlessly popping up in the news like an Alfred Hitchcock cameo. Codding was his usual obnoxious – yet charming! – self in trying to sweet-talk both sides to instead remodel the old shoe factory, on the west side of modern Brookwood Ave between 2nd and 3rd. Sure, it had less than half the space the library needed, but so what? There was plenty of parking. Even when librarian David Sabsay pointed out that 4 in 5 patrons walked to the library while doing other downtown errands, old Hugh was undeterred and followed with a pitch for a lease-back deal. The word “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary (nor was “rebar” apparently).

Through 1959 and early 1960 talks slogged on. Did the library really need to buy so many new books? Why can’t it be moved out to the sticks so we can sell the property? Hey, Codding is back with a new proposal for his old factory! And while we should never cast all of our elected officials as bonafide idiots, at one City Council meet an apparently exasperated Sabsay even had to explain that a library was a hallmark of, you know, civilization.

Finally, in May 1960 – fifteen months into the process – the city sent the chief building inspector over to evaluate the old library’s condition. From the PD article on the report, it seemed like he was still giving the City Council the option to kick the can further down the road, although his conclusion was that “the structural safety and stability of the building are questionable.”

But the details found in the report should have caused the building to be immediately red tagged. Floors were overloaded with twice the weight they were designed for and not fastened to the foundation, which was settling unevenly. Efforts to brace the building after the 1906 earthquake included two steel cross beams connecting the opposite walls – but that rigidity only made matters worse as the library’s foundation settled, resulting in severe vertical cracks and the walls bulging outward.

librarybracing(RIGHT: Bookshelf bracing in Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, 1960. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Ironically, the report appeared exactly a week after the PD printed a promo section with the claim, “The Santa Rosa library facilities are good, although not large enough at present for the growing city, but plans call for new and larger library facilities soon.”

The Library Trustees hired a San Francisco engineer to produce another report. His conclusion was that the only way the building could be made structurally sound was by encasing the whole shebang in a steel exoskeleton, then covering that with four inches of high density concrete. Less City of Roses, more City of Chernobyl.

A senior state Fire Marshal surveyed the 57 year-old building and said that unless two more exits were added there was no “reasonable degree of safety from fire and panic to occupants.” An electrician’s report stated the wiring was “very inadequate” and a fire danger. They immediately took the space heaters away from library staff.

The City Council had already approved putting a library construction bond on a Jan. 1961 special bond election along with several million$ for city infrastructure improvements. But after those alarming reports came the tense meetings with the city where it was decided to lock the doors; the city library’s future now rested on spinning the election roulette wheel in hopes the public would agree to build a new library.

Things began moving fast. Until the new library was built, the city library would have to immediately find an interim location for the two years that was expected for construction. Before they settled on upper Bambi, Codding had offered a spot in Montgomery Village that used to be the Big Boy Market (2400 Magowan Drive, currently Dano’s Liquors). Everybody ignored him.

Voters who read the Press Democrat now found a steady stream of alarming articles casting the library story as a crisis. “I’m amazed to find some people who still think the building is usable,” said City Manager Sam Hood. A library Board member called it an “acute and desperate situation.” Councilman Karl Stolting pointed to the part from engineer’s report about the unbolted floor joists and remarked that an earthquake jolt might knock them off the masonry, causing the floors to pancake. “At least don’t have so many kids in there,” he remarked.

But the hair-on-fire award goes to the editor who wrote a PD op-ed, “Library Closing Overdue” just a few months after that promo piece assuring that “the Santa Rosa library facilities are good”:

If you want, you can take along a plumb-bob to confirm that your eyes are not playing tricks on you when they see that the stone walls are bowing outward. You can bring along a spirit-level to confirm that one of your legs is not shorter than the other, but that the floor actually sags downward. Take a look at the leaning walls and the sagging floor of the main library floor. Then go down to the basement and look at the children’s library that is directly underneath. Figure out for yourself whether you would want your own children in there.

Let’s hit the pause button for a moment to consider what someone living in Santa Rosa at the time might have thought of all this. Part of it would have felt very familiar – because it was almost an exact replay of the ongoing courthouse drama.

The story of events leading to the demolition of the downtown courthouse are told in “HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE,” but to recap: By the early 1950s it was recognized that a larger courthouse was needed. Someday a new one would be built on the site northwest of town which would also be the new home for all county offices but there was no great hurry, just as the City Council would later dawdle over the question of whether a new library was really needed.

The came the 1957 earthquake. The courthouse damage was cosmetic, not structural; repairs could be made and while they wouldn’t be cheap, repair costs and other needed upgrades would still be a fraction of the price to build a new whole place. But out-of-town consultants told the Board of Supervisors the best thing was to tear it down and sell off Courthouse Square. Similarly, the city didn’t take the library’s problems seriously until a San Francisco engineer in 1960 said that building could be fixed at a reasonable cost with the exoskeleton, but it wasn’t worth doing it.

The Press Democrat – firmly behind any flavor of redevelopment – never missed a chance to make the quake-damaged courthouse seem a deathtrap, like it would later paint the library as a ticking time bomb. In 1957 the PD falsely told readers the courthouse may be in structurally “poor condition,” just as in 1960 the paper would exaggerate claims of library danger via collapsing floors (a scenario not mentioned in the engineer’s report).

In both cases, the way forward required voters to approve construction bonds. The courthouse bond measure was on the ballot in November 1960. It failed to pass.

The library bond came up two months later and the PD tried hard to make it seem appealing to voters, with big front page stories. The old library had reached max efficiency back in 1930, when the population was just 11 thousand; there were now over 30k residents. The new library was projected to fill the city’s needs all the way up to 1980 and would have a modern design including a “glassed-in smoking court.” It also failed to pass – badly, getting only 36 percent approval of voters.

Bonds for the courthouse and the library continued to march lockstep in defeat. In 1961 courthouse funding was again turned down. In 1962 it was voted against twice, and once more in 1963. They tried again to pass a library bond in 1963 and it likewise failed.

It’s almost easy to understand why the courthouse bonds couldn’t pass. They were asking for lots of money (about $34 million in today’s dollars) and was strongly fought by the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association. Opposition to the library bond seemed to come from people who apparently never actually used the library. A sample of letters that appeared in the PD:

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  “The engineers say the building shouldn’t have been repaired after the 1906 earthquake, but it’s still standing after 54 years, so it must be pretty sound. When will our public officials get it into their heads that we want economy.”
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  The library could be expanded by building a two story annex on the west side of the property, suggested Harry B. Fetch, with a parking garage underneath it. He added he would not vote to construct a new building.
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  A voter wrote he would approve a bond for $500k but not a penny more, since the library was mostly just used by high school students.

The Friends of the Santa Rosa Public Library created a short film, “The Library Story” to shame the town into supporting a bond and finally, in 1964 voters approved the $1.25M bond to tear down the Carnegie Library and build a new one at the same location. This time the vote wasn’t even close – it won with almost 84 points.

Construction didn’t begin for almost a full year. Shortly before demolition started in March 1965 the public was invited to take one last look inside the building – if any readers remember taking this final tour, please contact me. A PD photo by John LeBaron, taken through the old glass entrance door, showed the book checkout desk, now littered with junk. Leaning against it on the floor was the original portrait of Andrew Carnegie that had welcomed patrons to his library for so long.

Dedication of cornerstone for Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, April 13, 1903. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Dedication of cornerstone for Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, April 13, 1903. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

There’s no question that the Carnegie Library was structurally unsound and there was no realistic hope of saving it. But claiming its fatal flaw was just “unreinforced masonry” is simplistic hand waving.

There were other buildings in Santa Rosa with unreinforced masonry that weathered the 1906 earthquake without serious problems; St. Rose church, two years older than the library, came through with trivial damage – its Nave would have been one of the safest places in town during the shake. Likewise the Western Hotel in Railroad Square – now home to Flying Goat Coffee – only needed minor repair. There was apparently no harm done to the train depot, which was even built by the same contractor who constructed the library: William Peacock of San Francisco.*

Yes, the stone walls were badly cracked and slowly collapsing, but that wasn’t the underlying problem – it was the foundation. The building was doomed before a patron checked out the first book.

The structure was unstable, Santa Rosa’s chief building inspector wrote in his May, 1960 report, not because of earthquake shakes but because its foundation had been settling and shifting for a long time. His report continued:

…The very mass and weight that were designed into the building are contributing to its deterioration by causing excessive settlement of exterior walls to take place, thus overstressing the walls…it is evident that the foundation of the building is inadequate for the loads imposed and will continue to settle in an uneven manner.

Details about the construction work are unknown, except that the basalt came from the Titania Quarry between Highway 12 and Montgomery Drive. The building inspector’s report said “the building was well constructed, of good materials and workmanship.” We don’t know how much time and effort contractor Peacock put into site preparation or if there were any earthworks beyond simple grading. What we do know is that Peacock’s bid for the job was significantly lower than the competing seven other builders.

emhoenThe architect for the library was Ernest Martin Hoen (1872 – 1914), who was 29 years old when he was awarded the contract. He was the son of Barney Hoen, one of Santa Rosa’s founders.

He had graduated from Washington University in 1889 (the Manual Training School, not the School of Architecture) and worked for a few years at the McDougall family construction firm, as Brainerd Jones also did when he was starting out. (His background info, BTW, comes from one of the Lewis Publishing Company “mug books” where people paid to have their biographies included as part of a local history book – there’s no entry for him in any of the historical architect databases.)

He lived in Sacramento where he worked for the school district, teaching mechanical drawing at the high school and night school for $100/mo. Prior to getting the contract for the Santa Rosa Library, the only architectural credits I can find are the Shasta County high school in Redding – which wasn’t built until after our library – and the wood frame Union Primary School in Sacramento. (There was a legal issue when he submitted his bill for the latter, as he was also a salaried employee of the district. That building was repurposed as a warehouse in 1932.)

With such a tissue-thin résumé, it’s surprising that he won out over “six prominent architects of the state” as the Press Democrat claimed – except for the fact that he was “an old Santa Rosa boy” as the PD reminded readers at every opportunity.

Besides being the library’s architect, he was paid additionally to be its supervising architect. And since he was indeed “an old Santa Rosa boy,” the Personal Mention column of the PD paid special attention every time he came to town. For 1903 it showed he visited seven times – but only once prior the dedication of cornerstone when the foundation work was already completed, as seen in the photo above.

When the doors of the Santa Rosa Free Public Library opened on March 10, 1904, a PD editorial promised “it should and doubtless will prove a source of both pleasure and profit to the residents of this city and vicinity for the next hundred years.” Spoiler alert: It didn’t.

Contractor Peacock can’t be held blameless, of course, but the final responsibility lay with Hoen. Through his lack of supervision on the construction project or lack of experience in designing masonry buildings – or both – he fashioned a building that would not long stand.

ABOVE: Santa Rosa Carnegie Library during 1965 demolition. TOP: Library following 1960 closure. Both photos courtesy Sonoma County Library
ABOVE: Santa Rosa Carnegie Library during 1965 demolition. TOP: Library following 1960 closure. Both photos courtesy Sonoma County Library

* William Peacock and his wife were killed here during the 1906 earthquake and in one of the more bizarre Believe-it-or-Not! episodes of the disaster, there were years of court hearings to determine which one of them died first because they left very different wills.

 

sources
SELECTED PRESS DEMOCRAT ARTICLES

February 12, 1959; SR Library Program May Total $1 Million
May 15, 1960: City Library Structural Safety Questioned in Report
November 10, 1960: Fire Marshal Hits Safety of Library
November 16, 1960: Council Backs Library Trustees on Abandonment
November 17, 1960: Santa Rosa’s Library Closing Doors Tonight
November 20, 1960: Library Danger Signs Couldn’t Be Ignored
November 22, 1960: Library Closing Overdue (editorial)
January 1, 1961: Why Does Santa Rosa Need a New Library

 

PLANS ACCEPTED
Architect Ernest Hoen Will Supervise Building of Library

At a special meeting of the Library Trustees held on Wednesday afternoon the plans of Ernest M. Hoen of Sacramento, an old Santa Rosa boy, were accepted and he will supervise the construction of the new Carnegie library building, or as it will be known the Santa Rosa Free Public Library. Mr. Hoen’s plans provide for a handsome structure which will contain ample room for the carrying out of the scheme to give the city a modern library building. He was the successful competitor out of six prominent architects of the state. For his plans and specifications and the supervision of the erection of the building he will receive $1,000. Mr. Hoen stands high in his profession and has designed many important buildings in different sections of this state. A colored drawing of the new building prepared by him can be seen at the library room. The main entrance of the new building will be on Fourth street and the basement entrance on E street. Interested citizens may inspect the plans selected. They are at the office of the president of the board of Trustees, W. D. Reynolds, on Hinton avenue.

– Press Democrat, September 11 1902

One thought on “WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER

  1. Thanks for researching and sharing this! I learned many things and appreciate the commentary on related structures.

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