Let’s play a game: Try to name a city more self-destructive than Santa Rosa.
We split the town in half (twice!) and hid the downtown creek from sight, although it was the natural feature beloved by all. We encouraged demolishing historic neighborhoods, plowing ahead with urban renewal even after that kind of planning was widely discredited. And if you wanna see someone’s blood actually boil, take an older person down to Courthouse Square and ask them to point out the courthouse.
There’s lots more. We needlessly widened many streets to better accommodate cars during the 1960s. One of those street projects was so outrageous it demands special attention because it involved the demolition of Luther Burbank’s home. That happened just a few days before the annual Rose Festival – technically the Luther Burbank Rose Festival, of course – and where that year’s theme was “Our American Heritage.” Oh, the irony. Ironies.
The history of Burbank’s lost house was told here earlier, so there’s no need to rehash all the details. But briefly, it was built to his specifications in 1906 and remained his home until he died there twenty years later. The ground floor was almost entirely used as his office and on its front steps he was photographed with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other luminaries. Once the home was built, he referred to the place we now call Luther Burbank Home & Gardens as the “Old Homestead,” or the “Experimental Farm.”
The seeds for its destruction were planted in 1960 when a New Jersey consulting firm hired by the city proposed connecting Sonoma Ave. to Ellis St. As with so many of Santa Rosa’s urban renewal plans, there was no good reason given why this should be done.
Their design – which can be seen in a previous article – would have diverted Metanzas Creek into Santa Rosa Creek around E Street.1 The city could then reclaim the filled in lower part of Metanzas to create a new park or maybe “a civic center perhaps to include a new City Hall, Chamber of Commerce building, and state offices.” Although there was a later squabble over the route of the Sonoma/Ellis connection, it was always going to cut through the property with Burbank’s home.
Years passed and the city’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an appointed group of mostly downtown businessmen who had no background in policy or planning, was at the helm of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment efforts. Funded by federal grants, they bought 27 properties between Santa Rosa Ave. and E Street including the Burbank home, which had changed hands several times since his death. When the Agency took it over, the place was the Salvation Army office along with its nursery/kindergarten.
In early 1963 the URA started the gears in motion to demolish those buildings – but then a monkey wrench brought everything to a halt when the Press Democrat printed a letter from Dr. Gertrude Van Steyn.2 It read, in part:
…I believe that voices should be raised loud and clear against the destruction of this monument. As the readers well know, this home with Mr. Burbank and his little white terrier are very familiar. They have made Santa Rosa quite famous and the mention of Santa Rosa, Calif., most always brings to the mind of strangers as the home of Luther Burbank. I for one am very much in favor of preserving historical monuments such as this for the generations to follow. I staunchly believe that all the citizens of this city should firmly voice their disapproval of Urban Renewal Plans destruction. I believe our city slogan should be The Home of Luther Burbank, and let’s make it so.
Amazingly, not a soul involved had an inkling they were about to destroy Luther Burbank’s world-famous house.
“This is dynamite,” said Cal Caulkins, Santa Rosa’s leading architect at the time and then a member of the URA. “We’d better not do anything with this until we find out what the city plans.”
While awaiting the City Council’s opinion, the Press Democrat and URA scrambled to downplay Burbank’s connection to the home. Why, it barely had any significance at all: “Luther Burbank did not live but a short time in this building, Trent Harrington, URA executive director, said. Instead, Mr. Burbank lived for many years in a home just across the street, on Tupper st.”
Another PD article seemingly tried to claim Burbank lived such a long time ago and was such an obscure figure his relationship with the house might never be determined:
…questions were not so simple to answer. They sent city officials, authorities on the life of Mr. Burbank, and other interested citizens scurrying to history books and records in an effort to find the answers. It’s understandable why time might blur the records, for there are really two Burbank homes, one right across the street from the other… History on the Burbank Gardens structure is quite clear. But the picture becomes muddled when it comes to finding out something about the property across the street…
Yet aside from all those photos of Burbank posing with famous people on its porch, despite a slew of postcards portraying just the house and even a 1948 beer ad (only fifteen years earlier!) which ID it as “his California home,” it was unknown “how much history is involved in the old house” per the PD. Too bad the newspaper and URA also ignored that Luther’s widow, Elizabeth, was still alive and living at the Old Homestead. Apparently knocking on her door to ask about the place was just too much work.
The PD did print a few remarks from J. B. Keil, the nurseryman who was caretaker of the Burbank Garden for over two decades. He deftly recited the history of the home and said there were rare trees there including South American Maytens, a Caucasian Wingnut (hold the jokes, please) and a “weeping” walnut which was not identified by the reporter. His opinions on preserving the house were not given.
Additional letters appeared. A realtor commented, “When the new home was built across the street on Tupper, which is now occupied by the Salvation Army, it never seemed to have the feeling of warmth and welcome to it, and it never held the appeal that the old home and the old gardens did. Now, progress is making its way very rapidly…I don’t think the public should get at all alarmed about the possibility of the new Burbank home being torn down. Should it remain, with all of the development which is to go on, someday it may sit there and it might have the appearance of a monstrosity.”
A man who grew up on Tupper Street and was among the throngs who witnessed famous people paying homage was horrified Santa Rosa planned to destroy the house: “…I cannot understand why the people of Santa Rosa can permit this defilement of a place that should be a national shrine. This place should be preserved as part of our national heritage; lesser landmarks have been so preserved. I implore some person or some group in Santa Rosa to give some serious consideration to what will be lost forever if this plan of destruction takes place, then do something to stop it.”
Meanwhile, the City Council asked the Civic Art Commission to weigh in along with the Burbank Commission, a Chamber of Commerce committee formed about ten years earlier to oversee the transition of turning the Burbank Gardens into a public park.
The Civic Art Commission voted unanimously for demolition because the URA chairman told them the Old Homestead had more historical significance. Any significant trees should be moved to a new location – never mind that moving mature trees about a half century old would be a daunting and expensive task, if possible at all.
The Burbank Commission – which included Elizabeth Burbank – agreed, though the wording in the PD story suggested she actually hoped the URA or someone would move it elsewhere to be saved: “Mrs. Burbank did not object to having the house removed by the Urban Renewal Agency or by any worthwhile organization who wished to move it to another site and restore it.” After all, back in 1933 she had initially leased the home with the understanding “Luther Burbank’s office and the room in which he died will be preserved for all time.”
But the Press Democrat dismissed any notion the home was worth keeping: “Another solution is for some private interest to buy the building and move it to another location. But the old home is now run down, and action such as this would incur the extra expense of remodeling.” An editorial that appeared after the Council’s vote for demolition doubled-down on the URA’s determination that getting rid of the building was the best option: “The Salvation Army building has little or no historic significance, and would represent an unjustified maintenance burden to the taxpayers of the city if it, in addition to the Luther Burbank home, was moved to the grounds of the Burbank Memorial Gardens.”
And so it came to pass. On April 2, 1964, Santa Rosa bulldozed the home of Luther Burbank.
There’s quite a Believe-It-Or-Not! coda to this story, and you may want to make sure the windows are closed as to not frighten the neighbors when you scream: The house could have been left alone, had Sonoma Ave. connected to Santa Rosa Ave. just ten feet further north.
An option for saving the home was hinted just as the URA was first coming to terms with the discovery of it being famously connected to Burbank. In the April 16, 1963 PD, their Executive Director Trent Harrington “mentioned the possibility of moving the house 10 feet or so from its present position, thereby saving it from destruction.” Unfortunately, everyone focused on the difficult job of moving the building and as far as I can tell, no one suggested the easier choice of shifting the planned street route instead.
And that was a reasonable design change. Later in 1964, after Burbank’s house was already gone, some members of the URA griped the street plan was “inadequate” because both sides of Sonoma Ave. were supposed to have “a park like appearance.” On that occasion Harrington “suggested moving the proposed street northward ’10 feet or so’ and therefore creating a ‘wider park-like appearance on both sides of the street,'” according to the PD. Of course, that meant Sonoma Ave. wouldn’t be perfectly aligned with (what was) Ellis St. and the URA seemed to have something of a mania about that.
So here we are today. Burbank’s beloved home is gone forever and in its former backyard there’s a City Hall parking lot and a nondescript tiny plaza. The building stood approximately where Sonoma Ave. has a northbound turn lane. About where the much-photographed porch steps used to be there’s a sign warning motorists there is to be no stopping at any time. And next to it is a parking meter. How very Santa Rosa.
1 In 1963 the URA decided both Metanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks would be entombed in concrete culverts
2 Dr. Gertrude Van Steyn was a well-loved and admired family physician in Santa Rosa from 1939 to 1981. The medical office she built at 651 Cherry St. still exists and has a notably large porch, which was needed because she saw patients on a walk-in basis, never scheduling appointments. Her family had a Sebastopol ranch but she attended Santa Rosa schools so she likely had many opportunities as a child to see Burbank and hear him speak. She died at her Santa Rosa home in 2010 at the age of 95.
Title photo courtesy the Sonoma County Library Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Collection