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ONCE WE HAD AN ATTIC OF TREASURES

When did we lose “old Santa Rosa”? When did we first glance into the rearview mirror and suddenly realize we could no longer see anything on the road behind us? Some of it happened in the mid 1960s, when the Carnegie library was torn down and Courthouse Square lost its actual courthouse. More was lost in the late 1970s, when the Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozers plowed about 40 acres of old buildings – some beautiful and more than a few historic – to make way for that damned mall. But I’d argue a large part disappeared precisely on Saturday, May 4 1985, starting at 10 o’clock in the morning. That was when we sold off artifacts and treasures, some dating back before the Gold Rush. Or rather, the Freemasons sold it off for their own profit – all without the county or city’s knowledge or permission.

This is the story of Santa Rosa’s lost attic. All of those things were kept for a half-century in an actual attic – the top floor of the Masonic Scottish Rite Temple at 441 B street, which is where Macy’s parking garage is now.

To the untutored eye it appeared to be the sort of junky space you might have found at a grandparent’s house: There were boxes of faded photographs, souvenirs only recognizable to old-timers, objects which were precious to people very long dead but useless to anyone now. It was both a mausoleum and a loving shrine in remembrance of all things past, and there was no contradiction in that.

The keeper of these treasures was Sid Kurlander. By trade he was a tobacconist like his father before him. He was born above the family tobacco shop/cigar factory on Fourth street in 1879, and by all accounts began collecting interesting things before he could shave. Sometime during the 1930s the collection became too big for his garage (or wherever he had been keeping it) so everything was moved to the roomy Masonic attic. It’s no surprise that his collection was welcomed there; Sid was about as tangled up with everything Masonic as anyone could.1

Sid was also a Reserve Deputy, which gave him a badge with his name engraved on the back. As such he had no real duties; it was a nod to him being considered an honorary member of the law enforcement fraternity. Which brings us to the guns.

There were lots and lots and lots of guns up there in the attic and many were given to him by the sheriff or local police. There was Al Chamberlain’s gun that killed Police Chief Charlie O’Neal in 1935 and a revolver supposedly used by Black Bart. There were weapons collected by Sid or donated from people who didn’t want to have to have dangerous antiques around. There was an elephant gun, muzzle loaders, a tiny .41 caliber Spanish single-shot with a pearl handle as well as swords and machetes. All were tagged as to where they came from and their part in history.

Among other police-related artifacts: The cabinet displaying nooses from the 1920 lynchings along with the photo of the dangling gangsters. A thick book of wanted posters given to Sid by the SRPD in 1938. A pair of the county sheriff’s handcuffs from 1900. There was “beautifully made oriental opium smoking equipment” taken from a raid of Santa Rosa’s Chinese quarter and donated by Sheriff Mike Flohr. There was an engraved invitation from Sheriff Dinwiddie to the hanging of H. E. Brown on May 4, 1882. (The Governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.)

Sid Kurlander displaying the 1920 nooses and handguns in his collection. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander
Sid Kurlander displaying the 1920 nooses and handguns in his collection. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander

Nearly all of what we know about the contents of Sid’s collection comes from just two 1949 and 1976 feature stories in the Press Democrat – and those were mainly photo spreads, with little space for the writer to describe those “mementos of times that were luxurious for some and hard for others,” as Susan Swartz lyrically wrote in the latter piece.

And there were thousands and thousands of stories there begging to be told. Why did the Straub family hang on to a pair of lacy white hand-knitted hosiery from the Civil War era? On the shelves were police arrest books next to hotel registers from the Occidental and Grand hotels; Swartz was told “you’d be surprised at the names that turn up in one or the other of these.” Aaargh, so tell us!

One wonderful story which did thankfully survive concerned a little silver spoon given to Jennie Shattuck on her twelfth birthday in 1852. She and her family had sailed around the Horn and were now headed to California on a steamer, so the ship’s captain thought it would be nice to hold a party for her. It must have been a pretty swell birthday shindig, because the ship ran aground off the coast of Mexico during it.

Sometimes the PD referred to the Masonic attic as the “Kurlander Museum,” which made Sid none too happy. He was adamant he was only preserving artifacts until the city or county created a proper history museum. In the 1949 interview he said he had turned down offers from a Los Angeles museum and the San Francisco chapter of the Native Sons (NSGW) because he wanted to make sure everything stayed locally.

Also in 1949 the Sonoma County Historical Society was formed.2 That fall there were many meetings planning for an “all-out campaign” to build a history/art museum across from the fairgrounds on Bennett Valley Road. Breaking news: It ain’t there and never was.

Sid died in 1958. His Press Democrat obit mentioned he “maintained an extensive collection of historical photographs, documents, and momentoes of Santa Rosa’s early days.” But since he had never opened it to the public, people walking past the building next to the Sears & Roebuck had no idea what all was in that attic.

The collection was in limbo. A man named Spencer had the keys for awhile before Raford Leggett took over. Leggett had a very successful real estate office in Santa Rosa during the 1940s-1950s and was now in his seventies. Naming him curator seemed a perfect fit; not only did he have an interest in local history, but he was entwined with the Masonic world as much as Sid had been – perhaps more so. For better and worse, the fate of the Kurlander Collection would be in the hands of Raford Leggett for the next 25 years.

There is much to be admired in what he did during his time. He created an inventory of the collection (now lost) and gave private tours to interested clubs and school groups.

His weakness was a failure to grasp that a museum was not just an indiscriminate bunch of old stuff. Leggett donated the license plate from his family’s 1912 Rambler, an elaborate toy his father made, his mother’s wedding dress and household items such as a hand pump vacuum cleaner. There was a toolbox from a Model T (“You didn’t really need any tools, just baling wire and a pair of pliers,” Raford told the Press Democrat).

People cleaning out their attics gave him similar “heirlooms,” which he dutifully added to the Kurlander Collection. He did not see a difference in importance between Sid’s shelf of old bibles – which may contain the only surviving vital data on otherwise forgotten branches of a local family tree – with that row of butter churns he now had lining a wall.

Sid Kurlander amid his collection stored at the Scottish Rite Temple. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection
Sid Kurlander amid his collection stored at the Scottish Rite Temple.
Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection

Despite his advancing age, Leggett was an indefatigable advocate for the creation of our current history museum. Yet a museum of sorts had existed since 1963, operated by the Sonoma County Historical Society at 557 Summerfield Road (current location of the East West Restaurant). They leased a portion of the building from Hugh Codding for $1/year; the rest being the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History.”

Nothing from the Kurlander Collection was exhibited there and the Society was even more eager than Leggett to accept whatnot, even soliciting donations via the PD. The paper mentioned their collection included a small ceremonial cannon, multiple shaving kits, “a photo of a Crow Indian chief by some famous photographer,” a Singer sewing machine, a lemon squeezer and, of course, old guns.

By the late 1960s the history room at the Codding museum was drawing about three thousand visitors a year and there was talk of expanding it should a new fireproof wing be added to the building. Interest in partnering with Codding to sanction it as the permanent county historical museum waxed and waned, however, depending on the current status of negotiations over the vacant sheriff’s office on Courthouse Square.


SLICING UP THE SQUARE

In 1966, Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of central Santa Rosa, bought all property the county owned in the downtown area. This included Courthouse Square, the sheriff’s office/jail and the county garage. On paper the URA paid $400k for it all, but the county agreed to settle for half of that.

Courthouse Square was split by the new street through the center with the western sliver turned into a (pathetically small) plaza, while the URA planned to sell the rest of the former county land to developers in order to pay back the $200k that was owed. There was broad public support for making it a park – possibly with a Luther Burbank statue – but downtown business interests, led by the Press Democrat, demanded the Agency go ahead with the planned sale. When the URA failed to find a buyer for the east side of the square the county sued and threatened to take back the land to sell it themselves. The lawsuit was settled in 1970 with the county accepting $50 thousand along with some undeveloped property (MORE).

Those were also the peak years of the urban renewal squabbles over the future of Courthouse Square (see sidebar if Gentle Reader’s memory needs refreshing). The unused sheriff’s building, with its stately classical façade, was seen as a perfect fit for a museum which would combine the Kurlander Collection along with Burbank memorabilia and whatever the Historical Society had to contribute. Leggett and William McConnell formed the “Santa Rosa and Sonoma County Museum Board” to raise money for preserving and remodeling the old jail.

Our Redevelopment Overlords were not amused by the peasantry bucking their plans. Besides needing to sell the property to pay off the debt to the county, it was feared a museum might create “a dead spot” in the heart of Santa Rosa’s soon-to-be-bustling (!) business district. Finally killing the dream was an engineering estimate it would cost up to $200k to bring the building up to code and retrofit it for a museum – which would actually have been a bargain, as it cost 3x more to just relocate the former Post Office building.

In the following years Juilliard Park was mentioned as somewhere a museum could be built, but there was little energy in trying. Then came the 1976 Bicentennial and with it a surge of interest in all things historic. The Historical Museum Foundation of Sonoma County was formed with Leggett named as its first president. The Foundation was given $1,500 by a county commission and there was much ado about a fund-raiser at the Occidental Hotel which exhibited items – presumably from the Kurlander Collection – which would appear in some future museum.

The historical crowd had their eyes set on (somehow) obtaining the post office building the URA had slated for demolition, but there was no clear path forward. Hugh Codding proposed to buy it for a museum and leave it where it was, with the mall developer building a three-story parking garage around it.

Having been disappointed so often before, the Foundation said in 1978 they would settle for a downsized museum in the stonework Railway Express building at Railroad Square (now A’Roma Roasters) and the City Council pledged $250k towards that. But in a burst of hometown verve worthy of a three-hanky Hallmark Channel movie, in the spring of 1979 donations poured in and there was suddenly enough money for the Foundation to acquire and move the old post office.

Come “Museum Day” (Jan 12, 1985) Sonoma County finally had a real history museum when the thoroughly revamped building, now moved 850 feet northwards, had its gala opening. It was a cause for celebration, but the joy for historians was short-lived – within four months the celebrated Kurlander Collection, which Sid had started before the turn of the century with the dream it would be the foundation of just such a museum – would be scattered to the winds.

Sid Kurlander with unidentified rifles. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection
Sid Kurlander with unidentified rifles. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection

That the old post office would stay around long enough to become our history museum was never a sure thing until the end of 1978; the mall developer and the Redevelopment Agency were itching to see it demolished. Agency member George Sutherland said he considered the post office an “abomination” that the misguided public had turned into a “sacred cow.” The Agency grudgingly voted to preserve it only because it was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There was also public interest in saving the Scottish Rite Temple but it was a less noteworthy building and not on the Register, so it was torn down the same year. Had it been similarly preserved and moved elsewhere the Kurlander Collection might have survived intact.

At some point inbetween the vague plans to create a museum at Juilliard Park or A’Roma Roasters, Sid’s grandson, Dennis, recalls he and his father Herb approached the Freemasons. They asked for the neglected collection to be returned to their family with the notion of themselves creating a Kurlander Museum of some sort. Sorry, it all belonged to the Masons, they were told, but should Scottish Rite have to move they were promised it would be kept together at their new place and placed on display. So when the building was slated for demolition all that Sid had collected over his lifetime was crated up and placed in storage.

Fast forward to Monday, May 6, 1985. Dennis Kurlander picks up his phone and the caller is a friend who tells Dennis he bought old photos and other items at a big antique auction over the weekend, later noticing some were labeled with the name “Sidney Kurlander.”

The Freemasons had sold the Kurlander Collection as part of a fundraiser to help pay off the mortgage on their new Highway 12 Masonic Center.

“If I had known this on Friday,” Dennis angrily told Gaye LeBaron, “I would have had my lawyer stop them.”

masonicauction_(RIGHT: Auction announcement from the Press Democrat, May 3, 1985)

Gaye wrote four columns about these doings yet no reporter from the Press Democrat was assigned to investigate, even though the Kurlanders were seeking counsel about suing the Masons – had they simply filed such a complaint it would have been a major news story with an impact far beyond county lines.

What follows is drawn from her columns May 10-16 [my additions are enclosed in brackets].

Although Sid had bequeathed the collection to the Scottish Rite, the Kurlanders said it was given with the express intent it should be kept intact and made available to the public. Walter Eagan, chairman of the Masonic board of trustees, told Gaye LeBaron they “didn’t know there were strings attached…we never realized we had a obligation.”

The auctioneer told Gaye he was likewise unaware they were selling off an important collection, but made a defense that the Kurlander items were only about twenty percent of the things sold that day; the Masons had put out a call for all lodge members to donate their antiques and collectibles for the mortgage sale. [The auctioneer did not say how much of the proceeds came from the Kurlander Collection, but given the rarity of the items – particularly the firearms – it certainly would have brought in a helluva lot more than the other contributions, which were likely garage sale quality.]

LeBaron spoke to Raford Leggett and wrote he did not seem concerned the collection had been sold piecemeal, and told her it was done because there was simply no room in the new building to house the collection. [At the time Leggett was 91 and nominally involved as a director emeritus of the Foundation, which operated the new museum. He did seem to still have focus; just a few days before the auction he gave a well-received talk about his memories of the 1906 earthquake.]

What peeved Gaye LeBaron and others most was the collection hadn’t been given to the museum, as Sid had clearly wanted. “We understood the museum got some stuff,” Eagan told her. “We assumed they got the things they wanted.” The Masons had contacted museum curator Dayton Lummis in advance of the auction and allowed him first dibs, but the museum – newly opened and with a shoestring budget – paid the Masons $1,800 to claw back just a tiny bit of the collection. After Gaye’s first column appeared, a few locals who bought items at the auction without knowing the backstory came forward and donated their purchases to the museum. [A portion of what the Museum was able to save can be seen cataloged under “Kurlander Collection” and “Scottish Rite Society.”]

Also galling was the Masons had offered the entire collection to the county library. Director David Sabsay told them they would “take the historical things, but that we wouldn’t have a place for the moose heads and stuffed birds.” The Masons’ response was that it was all or nothing. [Their proposal was probably to sell the collection, but LeBaron didn’t specify. It also appears Sabsay was mistakenly thinking the Masons were offering him the Codding Museum, which besides the Historical Society exhibit did indeed have stuffed big game animals and birds in another section. Dennis Kurlander doesn’t recall taxidermy items from his grandfather’s collection.]

The whole episode filled the historically-minded community with anguish and anger. Gaye LeBaron wrote some felt the Freemasons should unring the bell and track down all the Kurlander items and buy them back. She commented they should at least refund the $1,800 which was obscenely paid by the museum.

As for the Kurlanders, Dennis spent weeks afterward prowling antique stores and contacting dealers, spending thousands trying to rescue what portions of the collection he could. He told Gaye the issue was never about trying to claim the auction sale proceeds. “It isn’t the money,” Dennis said in 1985. “It’s that this is an insult to our family.”

 

1 Aside from being a member of the Santa Rosa Masonic Lodge as a Knight Commander of the Court of Honor, Sid Kurlander was a 33rd degree member of Scottish Rite, in the local Order of the Eastern Star, belonged to the Shriners Temple in Oakland and was president of the Shrine Club here. According to his Press Democrat obituary, “he devoted much of his time to fundraising activities in behalf of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in San Francisco.”
2 There were earlier “Sonoma County Historical Society” groups which came and went as early as the 1870s. While well-intended, each appears to have fizzled out quickly. The 1949 incarnation went dormant after a couple of years and the current society was formed in 1962.

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WILL WE EVER GET TO SEE TV?

Santa Rosa waited twenty years for it to happen. Twenty years! Yet when the big day arrived almost no one was able to enjoy it.

The date was December 22, 1948; the event was the first TV broadcast in the Bay Area (except for test patterns and other experiments). In Santa Rosa, the lucky folks who had a television got to watch an episode of Howdy Doody, a travelogue about Santa Clara county and a hockey match between the San Francisco Shamrocks and Oakland.

During the game Santa Rosa received a shout-out from the station for getting calls from local viewers. The Press Democrat remarked the KPIX broadcast came in “surprisingly well” while the Argus-Courier noted reception was “first class…[with] a number of excellent clearcut, contrasty pictures on the screen. Such deficiencies as loss of the sound component and flickering were still noticeable.” So aside from no audio and a lousy picture, everything went just swell.

1949consoleFew were watching that night because there was no reason to have a TV unless something was being broadcast – and it was difficult to justify the enormous cost of building a station without a large audience to watch commercials. Chicken, egg, repeat. Television sets were also extremely expensive; the Admiral console shown at right with its massive 10″ screen cost the modern (2021) equivalent of over $6,000.

Over the prior two decades, however, Santa Rosa was told that television would transform us. Speculating about this brave new world was a frequent topic at Rotary lunches and other club meetings; the Press Democrat used barrels of ink printing editorials and columns on What It Would All Mean – despite, of course, probably no one around here having actually seen a television.

PD editor Ernest Finley seemed determine to wish it into existence. “Television radio” (as many called it in the early 1930s) “will come into common household use, just as the telephone and radio are today. And it will not be long,” he wrote in 1931. Later that year he speculated it was “about three years away” and said it was still “at least three years away” in 1938 and “still far away” the following year.

Finley, who founded KSRO in 1937, had muddled ideas TV would operate like radio with specialized bands, such as used by police: “Crime detection would be greatly facilitated if officers could send a row of suspects across a television screen…’Is the man you are looking for among these suspects?'”

Or maybe it would be more like today’s live webcams, where we could dial in the frequency of places around the world: “…we can view St. Peter’s, Rome, visit Niagara Falls, see the pyramids of Egypt by moonlight without subjecting ourselves to the annoyance and expense of making a long journey…We may be doing a lot of things differently a hundred years from now than we do them today.” Well, he got that much right.

But pundits in the 1930s said it was certain: Television broadcasts would destroy the motion picture industry, wipe out newspapers and empty the sports stadiums. Or maybe television broadcasts would be completely controlled by Hollywood, daily papers would thrive and ballgames would attract far more viewers than could possibly fit in a stadium. It was definitely going to be the best and/or worst of times.

1937tvperm(RIGHT: 1937 ad for “Celovision,” a hair treatment which used cellophane. The name became simplified as the “television permanent wave” when it was still available at the Uptown Beauty Salon on Exchange Avenue in 1948)

Oddly, “television” became a buzzword slapped on things which had nothing to do with, you know, television. There was the women’s hair wave shown at right and also in 1937 the White House toy dept. sold the $1.98 battery-operated “Irwin Television Rifle” which flashed a sharp beam of light when the trigger was pulled. And then there was chiropractor W. T. Abell and his “television radionic instrument” hokum, discussed below.

1939rca(LEFT: Bruner’s ad in Oct. 15, 1939 Press Democrat)

Come the late 1930s, all the talk of TV being right around the corner was badly hurting the sale of radios, particularly after it became clear the FCC was about to approve TV stations on the East Coast (commercial broadcasting began in New York City and Philadelphia in September 1941).

To their discredit, manufacturers suckered in consumers by promising their radios were “television ready,” “built to receive television sound” or had a “television audio key.” Pedersen’s sold a radio/phono console advertising “Magnavox television can be added to your Magnavox at any time.”

Most (all?) of these c. 1940 radios were probably just providing an input jack so the television’s audio could play through the radio speaker – assuming the TV came with a matching output jack, of course. But by the time KPIX and other stations began broadcasting here, terms like “television attachment” nearly disappeared from newspapers, except in For Sale ads of people wanting to unload their ten year old radios for which they paid a premium price.

Sonoma county was certainly TV-curious; the Ward’s ad shown here was in the Press Democrat August 5, 1948 and invited customers to see an actual television set, although nothing would be onscreen since nothing was being aired yet. Until that first KPIX broadcast in December, the PD continued to write about television as if it were some exotic curiosity, even though stations on the East Coast had been broadcasting for seven years. As a result, the paper still sometimes spouted hyperbolic nonsense.

1948wardsAfter a 1946 news item appeared about a BBC experiment to see if subjects could be hypnotized remotely, a PD editorial called for legislation against “hypnotic commercials,” writing “it will no doubt be necessary to set up a new set of regulations to govern practices in presentation of television programs when that science reaches out generally into the homes of America.” PD sports columnist Bill Claus in 1948 called for laws against watching TV while driving – although such a rig would’ve filled up the passenger side; the smallest set available weighed 26 pounds, was the size of today’s microwave ovens and would have required its own auto battery plus DC-AC inverter.

After New Year’s 1949 the paper began writing about television more realistically, including a little item on the Brandeburg family of Santa Rosa visiting relatives in Los Angeles where they watched the Rose Bowl game and Rose Parade on TV. A front page box titled “Television Tonight” announced where the public could stop by and see it for themselves: Berger’s Cigar Store, the Tack Room on Redwood Highway South, The Office on Third street.

Even after KGO began broadcasting in May, only thin gruel was offered for viewing. The broadcast day was typically just from 6:45PM until signoff around 10 o’clock, although there would sometimes be a Saturday afternoon ballgame.

In the early part of 1949 there would be a kid’s show at 7, usually film of an episode of Howdy Doody or Kukla, Fran & Ollie. There were many open slots in the schedule “to be announced” or filled by newsreels or promo material (“Washington State: Appleland”). Some shows were seemingly about as interesting as watching paint dry (Clem’s Barbershop, Tele-Tales). There was 10-15 minutes of news on KPIX and a weekly five minute program called Wanted Persons (oh, the late Ernest Finley would have been so tickled).

But later in the year the programming on KPIX, KGO, and newcomer KRON was much improved and the same as seen on the East Coast, albeit a week or so later: Milton Berle, The Goldbergs, Ed Wynn, Arthur Godfrey, Lone Ranger, Studio One. It was a mix of filmed studio productions and poor quality kinescopes of live shows, as there was no coast-to-coast broadcast until 1952 (although a speech by President Truman aired a year before).

By the end of the year likely the entire town had seen sports or a program at someone’s home “television party,” in a tavern or club or in a store window. The most talked about demonstration happened in November, when Armand Saare, who had a radio and TV dealership, rented a hall which was large enough to seat 300 people to watch the Big Game between Cal and Stanford. At either end of the NSGW lodge on Mendocino Ave. (this lovely building from 1909 is still there, but often overlooked) he set up two televisions with 19½ inch screens, which would have seemed huge at the time.

Every family in Santa Rosa didn’t rush to buy televisions in 1949, of course, but enough did to spawn a new little industry: TV installation and repair. Newspaper ads from the dealerships increasingly emphasized their service departments, particularly skill in antenna installation. Anyone paying (the modern equivalent of) thousands of dollars for a set was not going to scrimp on adding an antenna, which was no simple thing. Besides properly mounting it to the house or mast and aligning it for best reception, Santa Rosa then required payment of a $9 building permit per antenna, plus inspection.

Looking backward, it seems we didn’t notice that a kind of earthquake was rippling through the Bay Area in 1949. A new technology had arrived which began disrupting the pattern of our daily lives; it demanded more of our attention than radio ever had and we wasted time watching it even when there was nothing of particular interest to see. TV crept into our lives because we thought of it as just a simple entertainment upgrade, “radio with pictures.”

Everyone of a certain age can recall the year their family got that first television. I certainly do, as well as some of my favorite shows from the time (what I can’t remember is how many countless hours were spent watching dreck). Having a TV gave kids important things to talk about the next day at school – funny things heard on a cartoon show, new toy commercials, who could do the best Klem Kadiddlehopper imitation and whether TV wrestling was phony or not.

 

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In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a "scientific television radionist." His ads claimed "each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it" which his "Electro-Metabograph" could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added "television" to his pitch - before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was "Abell's artificial ear drums" which he claimed could cure deafness.
In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a “scientific television radionist.” His ads claimed “each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it” which his “Electro-Metabograph” could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added “television” to his pitch – before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was “Abell’s artificial ear drums” which he claimed could cure deafness.

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YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (Series Index)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.


THE REDEVELOPMENT SERIES

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE

 

This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.

This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.

There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.

THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN   Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.

Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the 40 acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.

Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.

Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.

Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad, topics covered in “POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET.”

Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”

THE PRICE OF PARKING   Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”

For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.

Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)

Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.

Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.

The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”

OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY   City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.

As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.

prop2In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”

A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).

Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.

“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”

Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”

I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.

There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.

The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.

Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.

By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.

The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”

Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.

Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.

There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.

Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.

The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.

Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.

The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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