firebug1

SANTA ROSA, WE HAVE A FIREBUG

The fourth time someone tried to burn down Robert Ross’s building he became agitated and said some things he shouldn’t. He was taken to jail and charged for “using language too strenuous to suit the occasion,” making him the only person who was arrested in connection with a string of arson attempts which plagued Santa Rosa for 28 months.

Between 1902 and 1904 there were eighteen suspicious fires, all but four of which were declared to be positively caused by “incendiarism,” which was our ancestor’s word at the time for arson. Among the incidents was the 1903 Railroad Square fire which burned for two days, making it the worst blaze Santa Rosa firemen had yet faced.

In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the Press Democrat there was a firebug at work here, but a broader analysis shows a pattern which probably began in early 1902. With one exception, all 18 were on the south side of downtown, mostly within a block from Santa Rosa Creek. Most happened during the months of April, May or July and were discovered around midnight, with Saturday being by far the favorite night.

(UPDATE: There were 19 suspicious fires, not 18. I neglected to count one of the Ross fires blamed on arson.)

Those familiar with this journal know I often end with a Believe-it-or-Not! oddity or twist to a story, but this time the surprise has to be revealed at the top: Incidents of serial arson were shockingly common out here at the turn of the century – and authorities didn’t seem too concerned about finding the culprits. When the firebugs were caught it was usually by accident.

Thankfully rare today, a search of turn-of-the-century era newspapers found arson sprees in rural towns like Santa Rosa all over the Bay Area. Almost always the pyromaniacs were teenage boys (MORE on the psychology of fire setting). The only known adult was Carlos Benedetto, a Petaluma firebug 1897-1898 who destroyed the town’s largest warehouses, part of a lumber yard and tried to burn a bridge. He was described as “a demented Italian laborer” (SF Examiner) and as “vicious looking, has a wild eye and is no doubt insane” (Petaluma Courier).

(RIGHT: Illustration of the San Rafael firebugs, San Francisco Call, Sept. 25 1902)

A 14 year-old was caught in Martinez for fires at the school, town hall and coal yard in 1904; a couple of years later a 15 year-old boy in Santa Cruz burned several barns, a school house and two bridges. There were also serial arsonists in Hopland (caught) and Ukiah (not caught). In 1901-1902 San Rafael, two boys aged 9 and 14 set as many as 16 fires; the younger boy was the ringleader and said he did it because he “liked to see firemen run.”

What made the Santa Rosa arsonist unique, however, was that he repeatedly went after the same buildings. Robert Ross’s blacksmith shop at First and Main was torched six times. A few doors down at Second and Main he tried to burn a barn/horse stable twice. Three times he hit the Star Feed Mill building at Fourth and A streets and two fires were set in vacant houses in the tenderloin district along First street.

While Fire Chief Lynchberg Adams apparently listed the Railroad Square conflagration as cause unknown, circumstances suggest it was our arsonist. It was the fourth suspicious fire in six weeks, and Adams had said the others were definitely incendiary. The fire began BENEATH the freight loading platform, and in the northwest corner – the only point which could not be seen from the train depot. There were rumors that boys were seen throwing firecrackers under the platform, although a policeman told the Press Democrat he was certain there was no truth in it.

Two days afterward the City Marshal offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” After another rash of fires the next year Board of Fire Commissioners discussed raising it to $100, but nothing came of it. (The money would have been better spent by just paying a guard to sit in Robert Ross’s place.) But other than adding a streetlight at First and Main, no further preventative measures were mentioned in the papers.

The pattern of arson fires ended May 28, 1904, with the final attempt to torch the building with the mill. As the PD reported about the last of the Ross fires, “the identity of the miscreant remains a mystery.”

There were suspects but they were never named. Fire Chief Adams said two boys were seen playing in one of the red light district vacant houses before flames were spotted. And on July 2, 1903 – three days before the Railroad Square blaze – there was an incident at the high school on Humboldt street. A janitor was cleaning up the grounds when “a lad named Gardner” asked if he could help. The janitor said yes, but told the boy not to burn the rubbish. He did anyway, and the resulting fire destroyed a neighbor’s barn, two sheds and tons of hay. Nothing more was mentioned about that lad who couldn’t resist lighting a match.

 

APPLIED A TORCH
Attempt to Burn the Cnopius Barn on Second Street
Fire Discovered Before it Had Gained Much Headway and Was Extinguished

Some miscreant made an attempt Thursday night about 7 o’clock to burn the barn and stable of Cnopius & Co. on Second street near Main street. A piece of rag or matting, presumably soaked with oil, was thrust through a hole in the front of the barn and was snugly tucked in against a bale of hay. The torch was then applied and the would-be incendiary doubtless hurried away. Luckily Frank Cootes happened to pass along the street and noticed the flame. He gave an alarm at once and several men were quickly on the scene. Dr. Summerfield, the veterinary, and others forced open the barn doors and water was thrown on the fire and it was extinguished before any damage to speak of was done. Had the fire gained headway serious damage would have resulted. There were six horses in the barn Thursday night. What prompted the Incendiary to act in the manner described is unknown.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1902

 

HOP BARN BURNED
Destruction of a Building on the Burgess Place
Origin of the Fire Unknown — Building Reduced to Ashes In a Short Time

Shortly after midnight the large hop barn nearest the city pumping station alongside the road on the Burgess hop ranch on Sonoma avenue, was burned to the ground.

The building was reduced to ashes, together with the fence around it. From Chief Engineer Will Yandel at the pumping station it was learned by phone that the barn was empty at the time, according to a statement made by Mr. Burgess, who was awakened and told of the fire.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly incendiary. At first it was stated that many bales of hops were stored in the barn. It was afterward learned that the hops were in another barn. The fire caused a big reflection in the sky, which attracted considerable attention among those who were abroad on the streets awaiting the election returns.

– Press Democrat, April 3 1902

 

WORK OF INCENDIARY
Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Establishment on Sunday Night

About 11:30 o’clock on Sunday night what appears to have been an attempt to burn down Robert Ross’ blacksmith shop at First and Main streets was discovered. Some people who were driving by happened to notice the flames on the First-street side and gave the alarm.

The fire was burning against one of the posts of the doors leading into the blacksmith shop and had it once gained headway a serious conflagration would have resulted as the room in which the dry wood is stored and the paint and oil room are in close proximity. The fire was started from the outside. A big wagon was drawn up alongside the doors. There is a probability that a lighted cigar stump might have been thrown against the woodwork which is old and would burn easily. No damage was done. The fire department responded with commendable promptitude.

Dr. Summerfield pulled the wagon out of the way and Fireman Len Colgan, assisted by Gus Donovan, who hurried to the scene, accompanied by Mr. Bertolani, put the fire out with a tub of water, which Mr. Ross keeps standing near the door for use in case of an outbreak of fire. Mr. Ross was home in bed at the time the alarm was rung in and in a few minutes Dr. Summerfield telephoned to him that everything was safe and the fire out. The damage was slight.

The authorities are investigating. They believe that they have their eye on the guilty party. It is believed to be the same person who set fire to another building some time ago. Mr. Rosa will repair the damage to his building immediately.

– Press Democrat, July 15 1902

 

ROOF WAS ON FIRE
EARLY MORNING BLAZE DISCOVERED AT PETERSON BROS. WAREHOUSE LAST NIGHT
Fire Department Called Out to Extinguish Another Mysterious Fire — Flames Were Making Headway When Discovered

A disastrous fire was narrowly averted at an early hour this morning.

At 1:10 an alarm was rung in from box 26 at Second and Wilson streets aod the fire department hurried to the large fruit packing warehouse of Peterson Brothers on Third street near the railroad crossing, whore a fire in the center of the roof was gaining headway.

The flames were quickly extinguished by the use of the chemical engine. Firemen got on the roof and chopped away the burning embers with axes and a small quantity of water was used to thoroughly prevent any danger of a further blaze.

Thanks to Mike McNulty, who was on his way home, a more serious fire was prevented. McNulty chanced to look through the warehouse windows as he passed and noticed showers of sparks falling from the roof onto the floor of the warehouse. He at once ran around the brewery premises to where the fire alarm box is located me gave the alarm.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It may have been caused by a spark or may be the work of the incendiary who has apparently plied his work on other buildings in Santa Rosa lately. The damage to the roof was nominal.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1902

 

Fire Still a Mystery

The fire at the Peterson warehouse early Saturday morning is still a mystery. It may have been caused by boys climbing on the roof and playing with matches although it is not very likely. The more general opinion is that it may be work of the incendiary who fired the Robert Ross building on First street a few nights ago and also the Cnopius warehouse.

– Press Democrat, July 27 1902

 

DISASTROUS FIRE
Barn Destroyed and Horse Burned to Death Early Monday Morning

The barn back of E. H. Hollenbeck’s residence on Sonoma avenue was destroyed by fire at 1 o’clock Monday morning. The flames wiped out everything in the barn. A horse was burned to death. The conflagration was noticed by the crew of the night freight on the C. N. W. R. and the locomotive whistle was blown for sometime before the fire alarm was rung in. Before the fire department was called the barn was in ruins. The property was owned by Mr. Hollenbeck. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary. The barn was recently built.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1902

 

HORSES IN DANGER
A BARN AND CONTENTS DESTROYED AND 18 EQUINES RESCUED
Conflagration at 10:30 O’Clock Wednesday Night in the Rear of the Bizzini Place on Tupper Street

A large barn in the rear of the Bizzini place on Tupper street, between Henley and Brown streets, was destroyed by fire Wednesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 o’clock Jack Barrickio, who noticed the blaze, phoned into the fire station and the department responded quickly. An alarm was also rung in.

The barn contained sixteen head of horses, the property of Ross Garrison, the horse-trader, and a large quantity of hay and straw. The horses were all rescued by Mr. Garrison, Edward Campbell and Mr. Whitcomb. A few minutes later and three at least of the horses would have been burned. The burning straw and hay made a fierce fire, which was soon dampened by the streams of water poured on.

Despite the stormy weather a large crowd ot men, women and children hurried to the scene. The Bizzini residence is occupied by a family by the name of Brown. For a time the Browns feared some of their property in a barn on the place would be destroyed. The barn, however, being some distance from the burning structure, was not harmed.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. In response to a number of inquiries made at the scene no one could explain how it originated, other than it was incendiary.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1902

 

THE TORCH APPLIED
FIRE DOES DAMAGE AT ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE WORKS ON MAIN STREET
Third Attempt Made by Incendiary to Burn the Building Was Discovered Late Last Night

At 11:05 o’clock last night a fire was discovered in Robert Ross’ carriage works on Main street. Flames were burning in the top end of the building on the corner of Second street, on the roof and side of the structure. The fire department were soon on the scene and the fire was extinguished before much damage was done, except by water. How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly of incendiary origin. Mr. Ross inclines to the belief that the same party, who on two previous occasions has fired the building. is responsible for last night’s conflagration. The fire apparently caught from the outside as investigation last night failed to show where it had originated on the inside. From the corner the flames ran along the rafters for some distance. Lumber and tools in a portion of the building will suffer by reason of the water.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1903

 

Investigating the Recent Fire

The cause of the fire of Tuesday night, when for the third time an attempt was made to destroy the blacksmith shop and carriage manufactory of Robert Ross, is carefully investigated. A survey of the building on Wednesday showed that, as stated in these columns, the fire was started outside near the corner of First and Main streets. From there the flames traveled to the roof, finally burning through and working along and under the shingles towards the rear of the structure. It was thought by some that the flames might have originated in the paint shop, but this theory is incorrect. There was no fire inside the building except where it burned through the side wall and roof. Mr Ross says that a number of tools marked with his name have disappeared.

– Press Democrat, January 8 1903

 


INCENDIARY AT WORK
Another Attempt to Burn the Barn of Cnopius & Co.

At half past four o’clock yesterday morning the fire department were called to Second and Main streets where a conflagration was in progress in Cnopius & Co.’s barn and storehouse. The flames were burning among the bales of hay. The fire was soon subdued, and what would have been a bad fire but for the promptitude of the response to the alarm was averted. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1903

 

Want Light In Darkness

Residents and property owners of the vicinity of First and Main streets in view of the recent incendiary fires, petitioned the Council for a street light at the intersection of those streets for the protection of their property. The petition was referred to the Street Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 3 1903

 

APPLIED THE TORCH
AN INCENDIARY SETS FIRE TO A HOUSE ON D STREET ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Fire Was Discovered Shortly Before Midnight and Promptly Extinguished—Wanted to Drive Over Hose

About twelve o’clock the fire department was called to D street to extinguished a fire at No. 5, an unoccupied house. While the house is not a very valuable one the fire was a deliberate attempt to destroy the property.

The incendiary had placed a pile of blankets on the floor of a room in the corner and applied the torch. When discovered the fire was gaining headway. The flames were extinguished before much damage was done.

At the scene of the fire a youth from the country essayed to drive over the hose and was ordered to desist by Fireman Ed Hyde. He was abusive and Hyde without much ceremony jerked him from the vehicle. The youth afterward deemed it discretion to leave the hose and Hyde unmolested and went his way.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1903

 

PRETTY WARM BLAZE
Fire Department Busy On Thursday Afternoon

An alarm from box 52 called the fire department to Humboldt street on Thursday afternoon where a lively blaze was in progress, and before it was extinguished a barn and several tons of hay and two sheds and a summer kitchen went up in smoke and flame. The flames had gained considerable headway before the department were called. After the firemen arrived on the scene the conflagration was soon under control.

The fire originated on the grounds of the High School which adjoins the residence of G. W. Wallace of the Wallace Brokerage Company, who was the loser by the spreading flames through the fence. From Janitor Jones it was learned that the fire was started in some rubbish by a lad named Gardner, who had wanted to assist him in cleaning up the grounds. Jones says he cautioned Gardner not to start the fire.

Despite the warmth of the temperature there was the usual large crowd of spectators at the fire. They came in ail directions in vehicles, on horseback, in automobiles and a foot.

– Press Democrat, July 3 1903

 

HOUSE SET ON FIRE
DEPARTMENT CALLED SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT FOR FIRE ON FIRST STREET
Another Incendiary Fire Nearly Destroys an Unoccupied House — The Fire Had a Good Start

Last night shortly before midnight there was another alarm of fire and the department hurried to First street, near D street, where a fierce fire was in progress in an unoccupied house. The fire occurred just around the corner from the scene of the fire the other night, and like that one was the work of an incendiary. The building was damaged considerably and would have been entirely destroyed but for the exertions of the department. Two boys were noticed in the house in the morning, but no one was seen there later in the day. Fire Chief Adams had no hesitancy in saying that the fire was of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, July 4 1903

 

DISASTROUS BLAZE
RESIDENCE OF THE HON. J. T. CAMPBELL BADLY GUTTED BY FIRE LAST EVENING
Willing Hands Assist in Removing the Valuable Bric-a-brac — Fire Fighters Included a Number of Ladies

The pretty residence of the Hon. and Mrs. J. T. Campbell was practically gutted by fire last evening soon after six o’clock. Thanks to the energies of many willing hands much of the very valuable bric-a-brac and curios, which have been their great pride, were saved. Much of the furniture was rescued but of course many of the articles, including some of the curios and other furnishings were badly damaged or burned. From top to bottom the house was drenched with water and plastering and ceiling fell everywhere. The roof and the rear end of the residence was a prey of the flames to a greater extent than the front. What was a delightfully furnished house up to last night is now pretty much of a wreck.

How the fire originated is something of a mystery. There had been no fire in the house for some time, as a gas stove is used principally. The fire started in the upper story, and the burning roof was the first intimation to outsiders that a fire was in progress. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were enjoying a chat after supper totally unaware that overhead a fire threatened to destroy their home was in progress. Two theories as to the cause of the fire were advanced. It was suggested that probably the conflagration might have been caused by electric wires, or might have been caused by combustion in the storeroom which is under the roof in the rear of the house upstairs. In this storeroom a great many things were stored. The blaze was a stubborn one to get under control, but the firemen succeeded well.

Among those assisting in the removal of the curios and works of art so highly prized by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, were a number of the fair sex. They worked like Trojans and did not mind getting deluged by the water pouring through the roof. The fair fire fighters were indefatigable in their efforts and a number of men also assisted. The articles saved from destruction were carried into the residence of E. Morris Cox, which adjoins the Campbell home. The conflagration caused some little excitement while it lasted. It was very fortunate it did not prove worse.

 

  WILL PAY REWARD
Information as to Incendiary Wanted by the Marshal

City Marshal George Severson has offered a reward of fifty dollars for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, who has fired several buildings in this city of late. The Marshal is determined, if possible, to locate the guilty person and citizens should assist in the endeavor.

– Press Democrat, July 8 1903

 

THE FIRE RECORD
LAST MONTH WAS RECORD BREAKER FOR FIRE ALARMS AND FIRES HERE
Fire Chief Thanks Citizens for Help at Depot Fires — Urges Purchase of New Engine and More Hose

Last month was a record breaker for fire alarms and damage done by fires in Santa Rosa. There were nine alarms of fire during the month. The most serious of the fires were those that destroyed the depots and other buildings on Sunday. July 5, and the one that destroyed $2,400 of the property at the residence of the Hon. J. T. Campbell. Fire Chief Adams made his report at the monthly meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night at the city hall. In making his report Chief Adams urged the purchase of another fire engine and 1,500 feet of new hose. He called attention to the destruction of fire hose at the time of the depot fire. A new engine and more hose are necessities, he said. Chief Adams thanked the citizens for the assistance rendered the regular firemen on the occasion of the depot fire. Acting President L. L. Veirs was in the chair and Commissioners Fred King, C. D. Johnson and G. S. Brown were present. At the other fires outside of the two mentioned considerable damage was done. The Council at its meeting subsequently ordered the purchase of 1,000 feet of new hose.

– Press Democrat, July 22 1903

 

NEW RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE
CONTRACTOR BUSH’S HOME ON SOUTH E STREET RUINED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Residence Had Just Been Completed and Family Were About to Occupy the Same

At a few minutes to ten o’clock on Wednesday night fire was discovered in Contractor H. N. Bush’s new residence on South E, street and before the flames were extinguished the house was completely gutted.

The residence had just been completed and Mr. and Mr. Bush and family were ready to move into the place. In fact they thought something of moving in the beds Wednesday night and occupying it for the first time, but later derided to give the paint more time to dry. The family had been occupying the barn in the rear of the house which was completed first. Some articles were moved into the new house on Wednesday, principally canned fruits and preserves.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It started first near the roof and when the flames were noticed first they had gained considerable headway. The fire department were summoned by a still alarm and had a long run to the fire. There was a copious supply of water but the new lumber made the fire a stubborn one to fight.

The gutted residence was one of the neatest and best in the neighborhood and was built by Mr. Bush himself, and the loss is considerable for him. The house cost about $2,600 and was insured for $2000 in a company represented by B. M Spencer.

As usual there was a very large crowd of spectators at the fire, many of whom walked to the scene, while others went in automobiles and vehicles and on bicycles. It is thought by some that the fire was deliberately started by an incendiary. Others say that it may have been a case of spontaneous combustion caused by painters’ rags. The residence had bean wired for electricity but had not been connected.

– Press Democrat, September 17 1903

 

May Be an Incendiary Here

There is an impression around that there may be an incendiary in Santa Rosa at tho present time, judging from the several suspicious fires that have occurred here lately. Fire Chief Adams says beyond doubt in his opinion the conflagration that gutted the Bush residence on E street on Wednesday night was the work of an incendiary.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1903

 

INCENDIARY AGAIN AT WORK
Fourth Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Carriage Repository

Shortly before one o’clock on Monday morning fire was discovered in the rear of Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets. The fire was of incendiary origin making the fourth attempt to burn the building. Little damage was done by the fire. Had the flames once gained headway the result might have been very serious.

The identity of the miscreant remains a mystery and not only Mr. Ross but other property owners in the block and in the neighborhood would like to have the matter solved. This fire like the preceding ones was started with the aid of kerosene, the odor being plainly detected by those early at the scene of the conflagration.

After the fire was about over, Mr. Ross who was naturally somewhat excited got into a controversy with the Fire Department officials over the taking of a hose through the store room used as a carriage repository, with the result that he was temporarily placed under arrest upon a charge of using language too strenuous to suit the occasion. Later he appeared and paid a small fine, which ended the matter.

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1904

 

FIRE DAMAGES THE TOSCANO HOTEL
CONFLAGRATION ORIGINATED IN ROOM IN THE UPPER STORY OF THE BUILDING
Exact Cause of the Fire Not Known— Building Drenched With Copious Supply of Water Thrown

Considerable damage was done by a fire at the Toscano hotel at Seventh and Adams streets yesterday evening about half past five o’clock, for which the fire department was called by an alarm rung in from Box 25. The fire started in room 3 on the upper story of the hotel building. The room was gutted and its contents were destroyed. In addition other parts of the building were charred, but owing to the prompt work of the department the damage was not nearly as serious as it otherwise would have been, as the flames had considerable headway at the time of the alarm and it seemed as if the entire upper portion of the place was on fire. The smoke was so dense that the firemen had considerable difficulty in at first locating the seat of the conflagration. The room in which the fire started was like a blazing furnace when the department arrived and the fire was spreading.

Two streams of water were quickly poured on the flames and the fire was soon extinguished. The building was drenched with water and this and the smoke will necessitate the complete renovation of a part of the interior of the building. Many willing hands removed most of the furniture and effects from the building, and these articles were piled up here and there, some distance from the scene of the conflagration.

 The hotel is owned and occupied by Mrs. T. Guidotti. The fire was discovered by A. Guidotti. The origin of the fire at present is somewhat of a mystery. There was no stove in the room and the flue from the stove below runs up in another room The fire seemed to have started in the corner of the apartment. The occupants of the hotel could not account for the fire, and there were suggestions that the origin might have been of an incendiary nature. Chief Adams picked up a piece of newspaper in the room most damaged by the fire and it smelt strongly of coal oil. Strange enough this piece of paper was not singed and everything else in the room was charred. Another report at the fire was that a man had laid his lighted pipe on the bed in the room, but this story was not confirmed. A defective flue was also suggested. The building was insured. The water was played on the flames with so much effect that the roof overhead was not damaged. The fire occasioned some excitement among those living in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel and some of them were prepared to remove their belongings and did do so until assured that the danger of the fire spreading was past.

– Press Democrat, April 16, 1904

 

FIREBUG AT WORK SATURDAY NIGHT
ATTEMPT TO BURN THE “STAR FEED MILLS” AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Fire Started in a Bale of Hay in the Rear of the Building — Flame Seen By Passerby on the Street

On Saturday night shortly after eleven o’clock Loren Jenkins, Will Carter and Val Calhoun while walking along Fourth street, chanced to notice a flame shoot up into the air in the rear of the Star Feed Mills at Fourth and A streets where the hay is stored. They gave the alarm at once and Mr. Jenkins ran to Fourth and Washington streets and turned in an alarm from the box there.

He then rushed back to the place and by this time Police Officer Boyes had arrived on the scene. Jenkins was assisted through the window and unfastened the door on A street. Police Officer Boyes made his way as quickly as possible to the fire and chanced to see a small hose attached to a faucet kept for supplying the boiler in the mill. He quickly turned on the water and extinguished the blaze, which had been kindled on a bale of hay.

The department were quickly on the scene and Police Officers Boyes and McIntosh and Fire Chief Adams made an investigation of the premises. At first it was thought that an electric wire had caused the fire. Investigation proved, however, that this was not the case and that it was a deliberate case of incendiarism. The fire had been started on top of the bale. Had the flames gained headway the old frame building would have gone up in smoke. The prompt action of the youths after they had noticed the flame through the windows on Fourth street and the prompt application of the hose undoubtedly saved a worse conflagration and damage to the contents of the mill and building.

– Press Democrat, May 1 1904

 

YEARS’ FIRE RECORD IN SANTA ROSA
ANNUAL REPORT OF FIRE CHIEF ADAMS PRESENTS INTERESTING STATISTICS
The Loss by Fire and the Insurance on the Property—The Causes of Conflagrations of Past Year

Fire Chief Adams has filed his annual report at the City Hall, which gives statistics regarding the fire record in Santa Rosa for the past year. The Chief states that there were thirty-eight alarms of fire in the city during the year. At thirteen of these fires the engine was used. At twenty-fie the chemical extinguishers were brought into play. The loss by fire in Santa Rosa during the twelve months was $57,017.05. The insurance on the property was $25,217.90, and the net loss was $31,799.15. Of the total number of fires seven were of incendiary origin; three were caused by children playing with matches, thirteen were chimney fires and nine fires resulted from unknown causes.

– Press Democrat, May 4, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT MADE TO BURN ROSS’ BUILDING
TORCH IS APPLIED FOR SIXTH TIME
FLAMES DISCOVERED IN ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE REPOSITORY SATURDAY NIGHT
Identity of the Incendiary Still a Mystery — Prompt Work of Firemen Prevent a Serious Fire

For the sixth time the firebug who seems bent on destroying Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets, applied the torch on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about eleven o’clock and an alarm brought the department in quick time to the place.

The fire was burning in the paint shop which occupies the second floor facing on First street near the end of the building. A hose was attached in a few seconds and the flames were extinguished before much damage was done to the building. The glow of the fire could be plainly seen through the windows and the smoke poured through the roof. Like the five other previous attempts, it was a deliberate plan on the part of the firebug to destroy the premises. Mr. Walsh ahs [sic] the paint shop, and a buggy in the shop was pulled out of the way of the flame by one of the firemen. Like all the previous fires, the work of the incendiary was discovered before the flames had made much headway.

The fire had probably been smoldering some time before the flames shot up. The odor of something burning was noticed some time before the alarm was turned in summoning the fire department. The fire was in among the paints and had it gained much headway the inflammable material would have kindled a fierce blaze. A large crowd was attracted to the scene of the fire in a very few minutes and some little excitement was caused.

The identity of the firebug is apparently as much of a mystery as it has been at the fires that have preceded the one of Saturday night. It has also been noticeable that the incendiary chooses either a Saturday night or Sunday night for his work. While at a loss as to the identity of the guilty person, Chief of Police Severson intends to make a rigid investigation and will probably offer a reward for the necessary information that will lead to the arrest of the guilty party. Once before Mr. Severson offered a reward but without result.

Why this place should be singled out by the incendiary is also mysterious. Mr. Ross has been in business here for many years and so far as is known there is no reason for the dastardly attempts made to destroy his premises on six occasions. This was talked of very generally among the crowd gathered at the fire Saturday night, but no solution could be arrived at. One thing is sure, everybody in the neighborhood would like to have the guilty one brought to justice, as a fire once started in that section, if it got headway, would be very disastrous.

– Press Democrat, May 16, 1904

 

MAY OFFER REWARD TO CATCH FIREBUG
WORK OF INCENDIARIES DISCUSSED AT FIRE COMMISSIONERS’ MEETING
Fire Chief’s Report Discussed—Rigid Investigation Ordered of Main Street Fires

The Board of Fire Commissioners met last night…Commissioner Reynolds called attention to the frequent attempts to burn the Ross building on Main street and asked if some steps should not be taken to locate the incendiary.

Fire Chief Adams said in view of the investigation he had made he was confident that all the fires had been of an incendiary nature.

It was suggested that possibly the last fire in Walsh’s paint shop in the Ross building, might have been caused by spontaneous combustion as it occurred among the paints.

The matter was discussed at some length. It was remarked that three of the fires reported for the month by the Fire Chief had been of incendiary origin…Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that the city should offer a standing reward of one hundred dollars for the information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

– Press Democrat, May 18, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO BURN BUILDING
FIERCE FIRE IN THE CHARTRAND BUILDING AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Conflagration on Saturday Night Looked Threatening for Some Time and Was Stubborn One to Handle

Another determined effort was made to burn down the Chartrand building at the corner of Fourth and A streets about half past eleven o’clock on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about the same time at night as one the occasion of the first application of the torch a few weeks ago. That attempt was also on a Saturday night.

The fire on Saturday night was in the rear end of the room occupied by A. Sander’s second hand store. The flames broke out and spread with great rapidity, as a few minutes before the alarm was given Police Officer Mclntosh had passed by the premises and could not detect anything wrong.

When the department arrived the fire had gained considerable headway in the rear of the building and the flames shot up for a fierce conflagration. A line of hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of the streets named and water was thrown on the flames. The fire engine ran back to Fourth and A streets and another line of hose was attached to the hydrant there and the engine was soon pumping away with remarkable promptitude. The engine was moved to this hydrant so as not to be too close to the heat of the burning building in the event of the fire getting beyond the control of the firemen.

The fire did considerable damage to the stock in Sanders’ store and water and smoke assisted. The fire was a stubborn one and it was some time before the flames were subdued. Then Chief Adams detailed Fireman Doc Cozad to watch the premises and a section of hose was left attached to the hydrant.

The first attempt to burn the building was in that portion of it occupied by the Star Feed Mill. The building is owned by A. E. Chartrand and alongside the part where the fire was started he is erecting a new brick building. A large crowd of people gathered at the scene of the fire, coming from all parts of the city. The accepted theory is that the fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, May 29, 1904

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LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE

Hours before dawn, the boys were gathering at the depot waiting for the circus train. They would be playing hooky that day but wouldn’t get into much trouble for it; after all, their fathers did the same thing (and maybe grandfathers, too) and they had heard their elders speak wistfully about the pleasure of it, waiting in the dark with a swarm of kids and grown men for the trainload of marvels speeding their way on the rails.

From the 1916 Argus-Courier: “A monster train of red cars, loaded to the guards with circus paraphernalia and equipment of the John Robinson ten big combined shows, the oldest circus in the world, reached Petaluma Thursday morning, a little late but all safe and sound. There was a good sized reception committee on hand to welcome the showmen. Some were there who declared they had not missed seeing a circus ‘come in’ in twenty years. A few even remembered the last time the John Robinson circus visited California 35 years ago. Some small boys were at the depot as early as 3 a. m. although the circus did not arrive until 8:30.”

Setup in Santa Rosa was easier than many towns, where the fairgrounds were usually outside city limits and far from the depot. Here the show lot was nearly in the center of town – the former grounds of the old Pacific Methodist College (now the location of Santa Rosa Middle School, between E street and Brookwood Ave). Once the college buildings were removed around 1892, the nine acre vacant lot became the temporary home of every show rolling through.

This is the second item about the circuses that came to Santa Rosa and Petaluma as viewed through our local newspapers. Part one, “WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN,” looked at the shows before the railroads arrived in the 1870s. With trains available the bigger and more famous circus companies began to come here and by the early 1900s, Santa Rosa could expect a visit from a world-class circus every year. The shows discussed below are only a small sample.

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge, or see the complete collection on Pinterest)

A big attraction for the 1883 John Robinson’s Circus was the electric light “as bright as the noon-day sun.” For advance PR they sent newspapers a humor column about “Uncle Jerry Peckum” complaining the “sarkis” tent being too close to his chicken farm: “It’s lit up so brite thet every last one o’ them tarnal fool chickins thinks it’s daylite again’, an’ got up an’ gone to layin.'” The column ended with Jerry deciding to go to the circus because “I’ve heern so much about this ‘lectricity light–an’ we may never hev a chance to see one agin.” The promo piece ran in the Petaluma Argus, naturally, because chicken.

1883 John Robinson’s Circus

The 1886 Sells Brothers Circus was the first mega-show to visit Sonoma County. While both Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers raved about its quality, the Petaluma Argus was outraged admission at the gate was $1.10 instead of the traditional buck.

Speaking of ripoffs: Earlier the Santa Rosa Daily Democrat ran an amusing reprint from a New York paper describing the predator/prey relationship between a circus “candy butcher” (food vendor) and the locals: “…The candy butchers in a circus never work the bottom row of seats. Country bumpkins who easily become their prey always get up on the top benches. They do this because they are afraid of the ‘butchers’ and want to hide from them. The latter move around on the top seats, and when they find a verdant fellow they fill his girl’s lap with oranges, candy, popcorn and fans. If the girl says she doesn’t want them they ask her why she took them, and make the young man pay thirteen or fourteen prices for the rubbish…” The piece continued by describing the pink in a circus’ trademark pink lemonade was a red dye added to conceal how little lemon actually was in the drink: “Strawberry lemonade men make two barrels of the delicious beverage which they sell of ten cents worth of tartaric acid and five cents worth of aniline and two lemons. They make fifty dollars a day each…”

1886 Sells Brothers Circus

I’m sure it lived up to its claim of being the “greatest show on earth,” but when the Ringling Brothers Circus made four visits during the 1900s we were flooded each time with the greatest hype on earth, as the Press Democrat seemingly printed every scrap of PR flackery the advance promoters churned out as “news” articles. “The aerial features of Ringling Brothers shows by far surpass anything of a similar nature ever exhibited in the United States. The civilized countries of the world have been thoroughly searched for the newest and most thrilling acts.” (1903) “Their Acts in Ringling Brothers’ Circus Almost Surpasses the Possible.” (1904) The low point was probably the 1907 article, “Interesting Facts Regarding the Expense of Advertising and Maintaining a Great Circus,” which was neither very interesting nor very factual: “An elephant without plenty of feed is as dangerous as a healthy stick of dynamite.” Yowp!

1900 Ringling Brothers Circus

Santa Rosa schools were dismissed at 11AM on the Thursday morning when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to town, which was a pragmatic surrender of any hope for keeping the kids at their desks once the parade started marching down Fourth street.

There was no Big Top for this show, just a horseshoe-shaped grandstand that could seat 16,000. The audience was apparently immense; the PD reported, “afternoon and evening the vast seating accommodations was occupied with a sea of humanity.”

These 1902 performances were not Buffalo Bill’s “last and only” shows in Santa Rosa. He was back again in 1910 for his “farewell tour,” and also in 1914, after he lost the legal use of the “Buffalo Bill” name and had to perform with the Sells-Floto Circus. For more, see “BUFFALO BILL STOPS BY TO SAY GOODBYE.”

1902 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

“Early in the day farmers from far and near came driving to town with their entire families while special trains brought crowds from points as far away as Ukiah,” reported the Press Democrat in 1904 about the third appearance here by the Ringling Brothers Circus. “By 11 o’clock the streets were thronged with a good natured perspiring crowd prepared to be amused at any thing.”

Unfortunately, Santa Rosa was suffering through a heat wave that September morning: “The Court House proved a very attractive place as it was so cool and refreshing within its walls while outside the thermometer ranged from 100 upward from 10 o’clock. Many of the windows were filled with the families and friends of the county officials, while the steps and shady portions of the grounds were packed with outside visitors. All along the line of march all available windows and other points of vantage were packed, while great throngs moved restlessly up and down the principal streets, and crowded the stores.”

The description of the circus parade was probably rewrite of PR copy, but it’s still fun to imagine a sight like this coming down Fourth street: “Never before in the history of Santa Rosa has there been such a parade as Ringling Bros, gave Thursday. Floats and chariots, half a dozen bands, numerous companies of horseback riders representing various nationalities, both men and women, a drove of thirteen camels, twenty-six elephants and many open cages of wild animals. Altogether there were over 375 horses in the parade. They were ridden, driven two and three tandem, in teams of two,. four, six, eight and twenty-four horses each. One of the most pleasing sights to the younger people were the twenty-four horse team on the band wagon and the twenty-four Shetland pony team on a float.”

1905 Press Democrat cartoon: “In Town for the Circus”

Norris & Rowe’s Circus was a Santa Rosa favorite in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and not just because they reliably showed up every April. “On account of the fact that it is a California show,” explained the Press Democrat in 1905, “the people of this state are naturally interested in its success from year to year, and the enterprise of Norris & Rowe in having advanced in a few years from a small dog and pony show to the growing circus that they now possess, has been highly commended.”

Alas, the show had no end of problems, well symbolized by the photo below showing their 1905 “Grand Gold Glittering Street Parade” in Santa Rosa taking place during a downpour. Their last appearance here in 1909 shocked some by offering “several gambling schemes” and a racy sideshow “for men only.” The circus went bankrupt and closed in 1910. For more see: “BROKE DOWN CIRCUS.”

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The Barnum and Bailey Circus made its second stop here in 1908, and the show was the biggest, best, blah, blah, blah. This trip was notable for an acrobatic act which sounds genuinely risky; the odd-but-colorful description that appeared in the Press Democrat is transcribed below (and was undoubtedly circus PR) but from other papers we can piece together what really went on.

The main performer was 20 year-old Yvone La Raque, who was seated in an “automobile” at the top of a narrow ramp near the top of the tent, about 65 feet in the air. (I can find no claim the little vehicle actually had an engine.) When her cart was released it dropped down the ramp and flew off with enough speed to somehow execute a somersault. She and the little car landed on a separate spring-cushioned ramp several feet away. The entire business took only 4-5 seconds.

Now, Gentle Reader might not think this such a great challenge; all she had to do was keep the wheels absolutely straight and do whatever weight-shifting physics needed to perform the loop-de-loop. But that was in 1907-1908, an age when steering wheels regularly fell off because gearboxes were still an experimental thing and even the best new tires sometimes burst under stress. And, of course, success depended upon workers quickly setting up the landing ramp with absolute precision while circus craziness was underway.

That was 1907 when Yvone was a solo act with a different circus; when she joined Barnum and Bailey her sister (name unknown) was added to the act, following her immediately down the ramp in an identical car and flying across to the landing ramp while Yvone looped above her. By all accounts the crowds went nuts.

I researched them with dread, certain I would discover one or both were killed or horribly mangled, but apparently they retired uninjured at the close of the 1908 season.

The start of this awful act is made from the dome of the tent. The cars ride on the same platform, one behind the other, being released simultaneously. One car is red and the other blue that their separate flights may be followed by the eye that dares to look. The leading auto arches gracefully across a wide gap, being encircled as it does so by the rear car. They land at the same instant. From the time the cars are released at the top of the incline to the landing below on the platform, Just four seconds elapse. Those who have seen the act say it amounts to four years when you figure the suspense, the worry and the awful jolting of the nerves. “You feel like a murderer waiting for the verdict,” says some one who saw the act while the circus was it New York City. “The suspense is awful. You look back over your past life. You regret as many of your sins as you can it four seconds. You want to close your eyes, but you can’t. My, what a relief when they land safely! That’s the jury bringing in a verdict of not guilty. Then you rise with a yell of joy as the young women alight without a scratch. Everybody else yells. Oh, it’s great!”

1908 Barnum and Bailey Circus

And finally we come to the Al G. Barnes Circus. The ad below is from 1921, but his show first appeared in Santa Rosa ten years earlier. I deeply regret having not found much about him beyond a few anecdotes – he clearly was gifted with a rare magnetic personality and both people and animals were drawn to him instinctively. His friend and attorney Wallace Ware tells the story of seeing Barnes throw meat to a fox in a forest, then approaching the wild animal and petting it as if it were tamed. He trained performing animals with food rewards but also by talking to them with genuine sincerity as if they could understand everything he said. Ware’s memoir, “The Unforgettables,” has a section on Al worth reading if you’d like to know more.

(RIGHT: Chevrolet and bear at the Al G. Barnes Zoo, Culver City, 1926. Courtesy of the USC Digital Library)

Barnes also had a private zoo near Los Angeles where he kept animals too old or too wild to be in the circus. It must have been enormously expensive to maintain – supposedly it numbered around 4,000 animals – but kudos to him for not destroying the unprofitable animals or selling them off to carnivals where they likely would suffer great abuses. That was the 1920s, remember; there were no animal sanctuaries for former circus animals, tame or no, and trade newspapers like Billboard and the New York Clipper regularly had want ads of circus animals for sale.

The Press Democrat treated him like a hometown boy although he was from Canada and lived in Southern California when he wasn’t touring. The PD reprinted news items about his circus, his illnesses and reported his marriage on the front page. When he died in 1931 the PD wrote its own obit: “When Al G. Barnes rode into the ring, swept off his hat, bowed and welcomed the crowd, you knew who was running the show…his death will be generally regretted, not only in a personal way but because it marks the passing of a picturesque character, one well known in the west–one of the last of the kind.”

1921 Al G. Barnes Circus

 

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THE GRAND MANSION SANTA ROSA THREW AWAY

It was the grandest, most beautiful house ever built in Santa Rosa, and a century ago this was a town with no shortage of grand and beautiful homes. Its design was bold in a controversial new style; there were few buildings anywhere on the West Coast that looked like this.

And the parties! Hundreds attended one swank affair in 1903, with an orchestra on the balcony and San Francisco chefs in the kitchen. Elaborate evening gowns and diamonds glimmering in myriad electric lights, the rooms perfumed from honeysuckle, azaleas, carnations and roses – overall an ostentatious show of wealth by the scion of an old Sonoma County family with enough money to act like aristocrats.

Then years passed and other families moved in. There were no more orchestras at famous parties. The style of the house was no longer so remarkable and the reasons it was once considered so revolutionary were forgotten. Then in 1969, when the building was only three score and seven, it disappeared.

Why it came down will make you want to scream.

Before diving into all things architectural, this is also the second and final part of the story about Blitz Paxton, the man who commissioned this grand home for his family. His past is dredged over at length in part I, “The Wars of the Paxtons,” but in brief: His parents were among the wealthiest in Sonoma County, building a Healdsburg mansion known today as Madrona Manor. Blitz had a brief first marriage that gave birth to two children. After their divorce, Blitz and his ex-wife would battle over alimony and child support, even after the children became adults. All told they were in court for eighteen years – probably the longest running legal fight in county history. It would be easy to damn Blitz for not aiding his kids – especially as he was claiming to be broke even while hosting a party with three hundred guests – but it’s not as simple as that. Read the story.

Six years after that divorce, Blitz hit the reset button and married again in 1900. His bride was the former Jane Marshall, part of a large well-to-do family involved in many kinds of agriculture in western Marin and Sonoma – the little community of Marshall on Tomales Bay is named for them.

Jane had a five year-old boy from her first marriage, aptly named, “Marshall.” It’s unknown whether Blitz formally adopted his stepson, but Marshall’s last name was officially changed to Paxton and he always identified Blitz as his father on legal documents. (As a little Believe-it-or-not! factoid, the Paxton males had the worst luck with their eyes. Blitz had some unspecified but apparently serious “poor eyesight” issue, his son from the first marriage became totally blind in a childhood accident and Marshall was blind in his left eye.)

Son Blitz Jr. was born a year after they married and by all accounts the four of them made a happy family. Junior and Marshall grew up to be seemingly well-adjusted people (Blitz Jr. was a popular Santa Rosa policeman in the 1930s), so apparently Blitz wasn’t fighting child support for his older kids because he was unwilling or incapable of being a parent.

Jane and Blitz seemed to be best friends with Mattie and James Wyatt Oates; rarely was Jane mentioned at a social event without Mattie being named as well, and the party with 300 guests was in honor of the young woman who was something of a godchild to the Oates. Wyatt was Blitz’ attorney throughout the prolonged court fight, and the only time either of the boys can be spotted on a vacation away from their wives was when the pair of them took off on a week-long fishing trip.

Santa Rosa had some gala weddings in the 1890s but never, ever, had the town seen anything like the Paxton house parties before the Great 1906 Earthquake – it was as if we had our very own branch of the Astor family determined to relaunch the Gilded Age. “Elegance Never Surpassed in this City,” gushed the headline in the Santa Rosa Republican after the 1903 housewarming. “One of the most brilliant social functions ever given in the ‘City of Roses’” swooned the Press Democrat.

The papers also praised the “artistic beauty” of the home with its huge reception hall and a balcony on the broad staircase large enough to fit a small orchestra. “The magnificent home is ideal, as the spacious apartments and halls being well adapted for receiving so many guests. Then, again, the handsome and costly furnishings add much to the effect of everything.”

Two words kept popping up whenever either Santa Rosa newspaper mentioned the Paxton’s house: “Elegant” and “costly.” It was never mentioned how much was required to build and outfit the enormous place but it must have been a fortune – and mostly it must have been Jane’s fortune through inheritance.

Through newspaper coverage of the many child support lawsuits we know Blitz owned some stocks of iffy value, and in the 1890s his main source of income was an allowance from his mother. Prior to his 1900 marriage he was named president of the Santa Rosa Bank co-founded by his father (despite having no apparent experience in banking) where his salary was $175/mo – a good executive salary for the day, but hardly enough to underwrite a mansion.

And soon after they were married, Blitz was spending like never before. He purchased four lots on the corner of Carrillo street and Healdsburg avenue (later renamed Mendocino ave.) and bought a sideboard of carved Flemish oak imported from Italy. It cost $750, which was worth nearly two years’ income for the average American household.

Now all he needed was a house for his Italian sideboard and young family. “Plans are being prepared for the residence by a San Francisco architect,” the PD mentioned a few months later, in March 1901. The paper had it half-right; the home was being designed by a former San Francisco architect who had lately returned to his childhood hometown of Petaluma. His name was Brainerd Jones.

“Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity,” 1909

If you were looking for someone to design your showy, damn-the-cost mansion in 1901, Brainerd Jones would probably be your last choice; the 30 year-old architect had a thin résumé and non-existent portfolio.

Jones had no formal training aside from basic drafting classes; his experience consisted of some carpentry work and apprenticeship with the McDougall & Son firm, which mostly churned out undistinguished designs for banks, municipal buildings and such around Bakersfield and Fresno. At the time Blitz hired him apparently the only work produced out of his Petaluma home-office were blueprints for two cottages and a modest house, none of which were yet completed. But he had one great advantage: He came of age as an architect in San Francisco during the 1890s, which was possibly the most exciting time and place in the history of American architecture.

Up to then West Coast architecture imitated what was popular in the East and Midwest, usually with a lag of several years. We built “Colonial Revival” homes of various kinds although our part of the country had no past as a British colony; we copied the mansard roofs of the “Second Empire” style even though France was nearly on the opposite side of the globe. But mainly in Victorian America, we all shared the notion that fine architecture had to be “picturesque” in some way. That often meant some kinds of ornamentation and led to the great popularity of the “Queen Anne” style, with elaborate finish work, faux details, witch-hat turrets and the like.

A few high-end architects in the Northeast were headed in the opposite direction, however, designing mansion-sized homes in a style devoid of most decoration and meant to look naturalistic. Later dubbed “Shingle Style,” these houses were broader than tall, with strong horizontal lines. There was more window space than ever used before and there were open interiors, which transformed hallways and vestibules from places you pass through into spaces where you live. It was absolutely radical architecture in the 1870s-1880s (and some of it looks pretty modernistic even today) but it quickly faded in the wake of a renewed interest in classicism. It left a mark, however, as elements began to show up in Queen Anne designs, and it led directly to the “Craftsman Style” and “Prairie Style” of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. (For more background, see my history of the East Coast Shingle Style, “Behind the Design” with illustrations and footnotes.)

As the scene was fading on the East Coast, a few mavericks who had worked for the firms most associated with Shingle Style moved to San Francisco (in Richard Longstreth’s excellent “On the Edge of the World” there’s a fun picture of many of them getting drunk together in 1890). They had been thoroughly radicalized by their exposure to those new artistic ideas and were not shy about expressing their opinions on the sorry state of architecture. Classicism was boring and designing something in that style was little more than an exercise in draftsmanship; the ultra-popular Queen Anne houses were “architectural monstrosities.” As San Francisco was then jammed with Queen Annes – each of them competing to be more adorable and whimsical than the Queen Anne next door – these guys were in no danger of being overwhelmed with work from the city’s hoi polloi.

Whenever they had a pliable client they designed buildings based on the principles of the East Coast Shingle Style but took it even further. Because the San Francisco Bay Area weather was so much milder than the Northeast, a house could be more harmonious with its setting by incorporating the outdoors into living areas. Local materials – particularly western cedar shingles and old growth redwood – were abundant and of such quality they didn’t have to be painted or varnished for protection. And they placed high value on craftsmanship, insisting it should be on display and not hidden away – after all, a building should be constructed as carefully as if it were a piece of fine furniture. Much later, their kind of architecture was named the “First Bay Tradition.”

(Begin opinion rant: I hate this term because it’s used to lend credibility to claims a “Second Bay Tradition” grew from it around the 1930s. In my view there’s hardly any connection either architecturally or philosophically; the latter was just early California Modernism and not even that closely linked to the region, except for its continued use of redwood.)

For an apprentice architect like twenty-something Brainerd Jones, 1890s San Francisco was a heady clime. We don’t know if he actually bumped elbows with any of the rebel architects but it really doesn’t matter; their new kind of architecture one of the hottest topics to discuss (read: argue about) in local magazines dedicated to the arts. Jones obviously knew what they were building and liked it, as he used his big commission to make a bold statement in their style.

The Paxton House was a deconstruction of a well-known example of the new West Coast Shingle Style: The Anna Head School for Girls in Berkeley. A few years later, Jones would again fold other elements into the design of Comstock House.

“Anna Head” was a famous day/boarding school for young women and this building was completed in 1892, one of the earliest major projects in the style. It was designed by Soule Edgar Fisher, a local architect who fell in with the East Coast firebrands (he’s in the drinking photo mentioned above). Amazingly, the building still exists – albeit in poor condition; it’s on Channing Way and now part of UC/Berkeley. A modern photo shows it has been altered somewhat and is partially concealed by ivy.

The first thing to notice is they have the same massing – a wider than usual building with a heavy roof. This view of the Paxton House clips off the southern end, but in other images below it can be seen there was a significant gabled extension projecting out from the main building. Although the face of both buildings is anything but flat, they share deep eaves and a second floor slight overhang which creates a shadow to emphasize the horizontal lines. Both used decorative corbels to lend an illusion of support for projecting walls.

Even if all the similarities were coincidental, they shared an unusual design for the entrances, with the front door recessed several feet and steps coming up sideways, from the left. The porch landing is concealed by a parapet, and we know from the family photos the Paxtons used this as part of their main outdoor living area.

Both buildings harkened back more to the original Eastern Shingle Style of the 1880s than the newer, anti-Queen Anne designs. The front face (and possibly the original sides and back) of the school was shingled with white cedar so it would age to gray, just like the mansions in the Northeast. We don’t know if the Paxton House had those shipped in or used the cheap, easily-available brown cedar from the Pacific Northwest, but Jones did specify that Comstock House was to be shingled with the white variety. (It wasn’t originally, but when we reshingled in 2010 we used white cedar for the walls and brown cedar for the roof.) Both also had decorative Queen Anne touches; look closely at the modern photo of Anna Head and note there are diamond-shaped shingle medallions on the walls. Jones reinterpreted the cross gable next to the massive chimney as a Queen Anne turret.

Brainerd Jones’ interpretation added two features that would have been met with high approval by the new wave architects. He extended the landing into a porch room enclosed on three sides, which another family photo shows the Paxtons enjoying. Jones also changed the cross gable to the right of the door into a gable with a massive bank of windows. Presumably this was the reception room that dropped the jaws of visitors.

For Jones his design was an artistic statement but not a manifesto. For the rest of his life he worked within whatever style pleased his client; the same time Paxton House was under construction they were also building his design for the Lumsden House (now the Belvedere) next door, and that is a cookie-cutter Queen Anne.

Two years later Jones revisited his ideas with the contract to design (the home that would become known as) Comstock House. Mattie and Wyatt Oates might even have suggested he mirror the home of their best friends, two doors down; they certainly must have made a striking pair, even with the unremarkable Davis House sandwiched between.

With Comstock House Jones again borrowed from the Anna Head School, this time adapting its gambrel roof and true cross gable. He also copied exactly the Tudor-style row of lead glass casement windows with diamond panes, all under a prominent second floor overhang. He borrowed the use of small dormer windows popping out of the roof and reinterpreted the oriel and bay windows on a larger scale – Comstock House has four bays, each over ten feet wide. What Jones’ design for the Oates did not have was a speck of Queen Anne influence, even lacking the herringbone shingle work used as trim on the school and Paxton House.

So now we come to the painful part of the story: What happened to Brainerd Jones’ masterpiece?

“There used to be a house just like yours on the corner,” a long-time resident of our neighborhood told us shortly after we moved into Comstock House. “Except it was bigger.”

Larger it was. Although the building is gone, its footprint can be seen on the old fire maps. Guesstimating from the irregular shape, Paxton House was between 6,500 and 7,000 square feet – and that’s not even counting whatever was above the second floor.

But what happened to it? Strangely, nobody recalled. There was no memory of it being torn down or catching fire, although many people remembered it well: “I used to bicycle around the U-shaped driveway in the ’60s,” a woman told me. “I walked past it every day when I was going to school,” someone else remembered. “It was such a pretty house.” Some thought it might have been destroyed by the 1969 earthquake(s) and that seemed to be as good an answer as anything else. The mystery deepened after I visited the Building Department and found there was no demolition permit issued for 747 Mendocino avenue; it was as if the place really had been spirited away overnight.

From the newspapers it was known the Paxtons sold the house in 1920 to the Slusser family, who passed it on to their daughter. (Blitz and Jane stayed in the area for about a dozen years before retiring in Los Angeles.) I could have traced ownership beyond that through a title search but there didn’t seem to be any point as long as there was no record of demolition.

The only remaining lead was that the address used to be 739 Mendocino avenue instead of 747. I had asked about this on my visit to the city office, but was told the records should be linked as long as the property was not subdivided since. This time I returned  and asked directly for #739. After a bit the clerk returned with a single sheet of microfiche – and there was the whole sad story. The house was demolished in 1969 alright, but not because of damage from the October 1 quake.

In January, the city building inspector posted a notice of hazardous conditions and ordered PG&E to shut off power, stating “the building was in very poor condition…making it unsafe for occupancy.” Santa Rosa sent the owner a letter declaring the home a public nuisance, listing four reasons:

1. Abandonment and lack of maintenance
2. Obsolescence, dilapidated condition, deterioration, damage and decay
3. Faulty wiring
4. Unsafe venting of gas appliances

The following month it was an item on the City Council agenda and the owner given thirty days for abatement. In June, the city sent a notice that since no abatement work was done, demolition was ordered. The building was torn down on June 30 with the owner billed $1,600.

So the magnificent building was just left to fall to ruin – there was nothing in the records showing the man who owned it corresponded with the city about making efforts at repair or even attended the times it came before the Council. He just walked away from it.

That owner was Ted Snyder. He was among the county’s movers ‘n’ shakers in those days, living near the Santa Rosa Country Club and president in the 1960s of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, the county chambers of commerce association, the Healdsburg Republican Club, head of the Knights of Columbus and probably active in even more clubs and civic groups the newspapers didn’t mention. For awhile in the early part of the decade he was co-owner of an important sawmill near Healdsburg but that was liquidated; later he identified himself as a real estate broker, but it’s not clear he was ever associated with an established realty office or even had a license.

It would be easy to blame Snyder alone for the destruction of this gem because he apparently did nothing at all to save it. But the real burden of shame lies on the city of Santa Rosa, who gave this grand structure no more consideration that it would a dilapidated backyard shack.

The City Council considered no other options. No architect or historian was sought to report upon such a major building’s significance; it was enough that Senior Inspector G. R. Martin deemed it obsolete. From today’s perspective, that might well be deemed irresponsible.

In a better world the Council could have required Snyder to simply provide an abatement plan (“unsafe venting of gas appliances,” really?) or with his continued failure to respond, even used powers of eminent domain for the city to take it over and restore it to code for use as municipal offices or something. Aside from “faulty wiring” it does not appear the building was in irreparable shape – and it’s safe to bet that just meant it still had knob-and-tube wiring, which remains perfectly safe as long as it isn’t tampered with.

But that was the late 1960s – early 1970s, which for historic architecture preservation was the darkest of the Dark Ages. That Snyder did nothing and the city did nothing and the grand house which was laid to waste is merely part of an indictment of that era, which witnessed so much of America’s heritage demolished in the name of redevelopment and urban renewal. It was a modern age and time to clear out the old and make way for the new, which was always better because. In this case, however, it wasn’t just any nondescript house – it was something uniquely historical and still beautiful. It could have long remained our city’s jewel, had anyone in the city cared.

 

All photos from the Paxton family albums, except as noted. Much thanks to David Sox for sharing the images and family stories

 

Detail of front view of Paxton House 1910

 

Rear view of Paxton House, 1910

 

Southern view of Paxton House, 1910

 

Blitz Paxton and Blitz Jr. 1902

 

Jane, Blitz Jr. and Marshall Paxton, 1904

 

Blitz Paxton and two unidentified women, 1910

Blitz W. Paxton has leased the residence of Mr. and Mrs. D. B. Hart on Mendocino street and will soon occupy the same. Mr. and Mrs. Hart expect to travel extensively during the present summer.

– Press Democrat, June 2 1900

 

Quiet Wedding Saturday

A wedding of considerable interest to Santa Rosans and to Sonoma county people occurred on Saturday in San Francisco at the bride’s residence on Washington street. The contracting parties were Mrs. Jennie Bates and Blitz W. Paxton, the well known president of the Santa Rosa Bank. The hour of the ceremony was half past 12 o’clock. Relatives and friends witnessed the ceremony, which was a pretty one. The Rev. William Martin, pastor of the First Presbyterian church of this city, was the officiating clergyman. An elaborate wedding breakfast was served. When Mr. and Mrs. Paxton return to this city they will reside for the present at the Hart residence on Mendocino street which Mr. Paxton has leased. Their wide circle of friends extend congratulations. Mrs. Paxton is a member of a prominent Sonoma county pioneer family and was formerly Miss Jennie Marshall of Petaluma. Mr. Paxton is the son of Mrs. Paxton of Healdsburg and for years has been prominently identified in banking and commercial circles in this state. Their friends here are glad that they have decided to make the City of Roses their future home and will accord them a welcome when they arrive.

– Press Democrat, June  6 1900

Blitz Paxton’s home in Santa Rosa will shortly be adorned with a magnificent
sideboard of carved Flemish oak. The sideboard is one of the handsomest that has ever been seen on this coast, and comes direct from Italy. It cost Paxton $750.

– San Francisco Call, November 5, 1900

 

To Build a Handsome Home

In the near future another handsome residence will adorn the pretty suburbs of Santa Rosa. President Blitz W. Paxton of the Santa Rosa Bank has purchased a large lot adjoining that occupied by the Walter E. Davis residence on Healdsburg avenue, located on the corner of the avenue and Carrillo street. Plans are being prepared for the residence by a San Francisco architect.

– Press Democrat, March 14 1901

W. H. Lumsden has purchased a lot from Frank P. Doyle on the southwest corner of Mendocino and Carrillo streets upon which he will shortly erect a neat residence. The sale was made through the real estate agency of Davis & Crane.

– Press Democrat, March 22 1901

The palatial residences being built on Healdsburg avenue and Carrillo streets by Blitz Paxton and William H. Lumsden are nearing completion. Both houses are fine ornaments to the residence portion of the City of Roses.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1901

The plasterers have very nearly completed their work upon the handsome new residence of W. H. Lumsden on Carrillo street. Bagley & Bagley were the sub-contractors for this part of the work

– Press Democrat, December 13 1901

Blitz W. Paxton has just finished his costly and elegant home on Healdsburg avenue with the help of Contractor Kuykendall. This is an elegant mansion and a big improvement to the city. Just across Carrillo street from the Paxton mansion is the large ten thousand dollar home of W. H. Lumsden. which with the Paxton home are the handsomest dwellings built in Sonoma county this year. Simpson & Roberts has the contract for Mr. Lumsden’s house.

– Press Democrat, February 2 1902

 

A BRILLIANT EVENT MANY GUESTS AT THE MAGNIFICENT PAXTON RESIDENCE WEDNESDAY NIGHT
Reception Held by Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall Waa Amid a Scene of Radiant Beauty

One of the most brilliant social functions ever given in the “City of Roses” was the reception at the Paxton mansion on Healdsburg avenue on Wednesday night for which several hundred invitations were sent out by Mrs. Blitz Wright Paxton and her mother. Mrs. Marshall.

The hours of the reception were from eight to eleven. During the hours there was a constant stream of guests passing through the handsomely decorated hails and reception rooms to greet the hostesses and to mingle socially. From the balcony on the broad staircase the strains of sweet music mingled with the sweetest perfume from the honeysuckle, the carnations and the roses, which burdened the air delightfully.
For the giving of a function like the one that charmed everybody on Wednesday night the magnificent home is ideal, as the spacious apartments and halls being well adapted for receiving so many guests. Then, again, the handsome and costly furnishings add much to the effect of everything.

During the reception the scene was one of much brilliancy. Many elaborate evening gowns were worn by the ladies. The light from a myriad of electric globes through silken shades shone softly on the gay throng. Exquisite taste was displayed in the adornment of the house from top to bottom. Pink and green were predominant colors. The always graceful bamboo radiated from the arches and nooks in halls and reception rooms, while here and there beautiful rose clusters and banks of pink honeysuckle were arranged in perfect keeping with the decoration scheme. The great showy blossoms displayed their magnificence of color to perfection. The festoons were entwined in soft greenery and the decorations were greatly admired.

The entertainment provided by the hostesses could not have been more lavish or more graciously extended. In fact nothing could possibly have added to the pleasure of the evening. In one room, transformed into a radiant bower, delicious punch’ was served by a bevy of charming girls.

Master Marshall Paxton, wearing a neat suit of white, received the cards of the guests on a silver tray. Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall were assisted in receiving by Mrs. James W. Oates, Mrs. Samuel K. Dougherty. Mrs. William Finlaw and Mrs. William Martin. The young ladies who assisted in serving were the Misses Martha Hahman, Bess Riley, Bess Goodwin, Marie Farmer, Jimmie Robertson, Mab McDonald, Jessie Robertson, Edith McDonald, Zana Taylor, Ella Holmes, Bessie Porter and Miss Edith Lewis of Petaluma.

The elaborate supper, in which the art of the competent chefs from the metropolis was exemplified, was served in the dining room. The room was adorned in pink and green. The dellicates were served at daintily arranged tables. Herbert Vanderhoof’s orchestra supplied the music during the reception. The guests were delighted with everything and the event will long remain memorable in Santa Rosa’s social world. In addition to the people present from this city a number of invitations were sent to other cities and the out of town guests were present.

– Press Democrat, June 11 1903

 

BRILLIANT AT HOME
Elaborate Social Function at the B. W. Paxton Residence
Mrs. Paxton and her Mother, Mrs. Mary E. Marshall, Held a Reception Wednesday Evening — Elegance Never Surpassed in this City.

Never was there a more brilliant social function given in this city than the reception at the handsome Blitz Wright Paxton home on Healdsburg avenue Wednesday evening. The hostesses were Mrs. Paxton and her mother, Mrs. Mary E. Marshall, and the hours for the reception were between 8 and 11 o’clock. The guests, several hundred in number, passed and repassed in a constant and brilliant stream through the spacious reception rooms during this period.

Combined with the elegance and varied beauty of the costumes worn by the feminine portion of the company and the soft brilliancy of the electrical effects, was the beauty of the home furnishings, the whole enhanced by floral decorations, the most perfect that nature could produce and art devise. Pink and green were the dominant shades, both in the floral adornment and in the electrical tints. Fragrant azaleas and honeysuckle, carnation and roses entered into the decorations with exquisite effect and the graceful bamboo formed an artistic background, its drooping ends bending from doorway and arch. From fern and floral bower of marvelous beauty on the balcony above the reception hall, the softest music floated. Thus were all the senses charmed music, fragrance and artistic beauty being combined. The music was furnished by Vanderhoof’s orchestra.

The entertainment provided was most elaborate. In one room a company of daintily gowned young girls presided over the punch bowl. The supper room was magnificently appointed and the repast was a triumph of the caterer’s art. Chefs and caterers from the metropolis had the affair in charge and the refreshments were served at dainty tables.

Assisting Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall in the reception of the guests were Mrs. Samuel K. Dougherty, Mrs. James Wyatt Oates…

…Mrs. Paxton’s costume was of white brocade satin covered with an overdress of most exquisite hand lace. The corsage was low and to the skirt was attached a court train. Her hair was dressed becomingly high and adorned with an aigette [a feathered headdress]. Her ornaments were diamonds, many and brilliant. Mrs. Marshall was costumed in black satin, with an overdress of gauze. A train also finished her gown and her corsage was slightly low at the neck [and] like her daughter her ornaments were diamonds.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 11 1903

 

Real Estate Transfers

Blitz W Paxton to Jane M Paxton: Oct 4, ’01, Lots 4, 5, 6, S 30 ft Lot 3, Walter S Davis’ Add to Santa Rosa; $3500

– Press Democrat, December 31, 1904

 

THE PAXTON TEA A BRILLIANT AFFAIR
NEARLY THREE HUNDRED GUESTS CALL TO MEET MISS ANNA MAY BELL OF VISALIA
Elegant Paxton Home on Healdsburg Avenue Transformed Into a Veritable Bower of Beauty

The elegant Paxton home on Healdsburg Avenue was the scene of a brilliant reception Thursday afternoon in honor of Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia. Almost three hundred guests called between three and six o’clock to meet the popular girl in whose honor the affair was given.

Miss Bell is a relative of Col. and Mrs. James W. Oates of this city. She has spent much of the present summer here, where she has many friends. She is a charming girl with friendly, cordial manners that make her a great favorite wherever she goes and the reception of Thursday afternoon was one of the most successful of a large number of functions that have been planned in her honor this summer.

The house was a veritable bower of beauty. The decorations were entirely pink. The reception hall and parlors were decorated with La France and Duchesse roses and amaryllis blossoms. The dining room was fragrant with great clusters of beautiful pink carnations attractively arranged and placed where they showed to advantage. Master Marshall Paxton stood in the doorway and ushered the guests into the reception hall, where they were received by Mrs. Blitz Wright Paxton, the hostess, assisted by Mrs. J. W. Oates, Mrs. T. J. Geary, Mrs. M. H. Dignan, Mrs. Wm Martin, Mrs. Mark McDonald, Mrs. Frank Doyle, and Mrs. James Edwards. Mrs. Paxton looked charming in a handsome silk gown trimmed with heavy pearl lace. Miss Bess Riley, Miss Jessie Robertson, Miss Zana Taylor, and Miss Bessie Porter served ices and cakes in the beautifully decorated dining room. Music was furnished during the afternoon by C. Mortimer Chapin and Mrs. Berry.

– Press Democrat, September 15, 1905

 

 

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