tobeopened2019

1968 CENTENNIAL: “THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE”

After ignoring opportunities to celebrate Santa Rosa’s anniversaries that spanned 64 years, Tom Cox thought, “we should make something of it” in 1968. The real question, however, was whether they would be celebrating one of the events from the town’s early history – or the ongoing obliteration of its past.

(This is part two about Santa Rosa’s 2018 sesquicentennial. Part one covers the town’s 1854 founding and 1868 incorporation, followed by its general indifference to celebrate either event.)

Cox was the long-time head of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and made that suggestion at a 1967 luncheon for the “Congress for Community Progress,” a coalition formed five years earlier by the Chamber, which claimed the Congress represented as many as 445 separate groups. Given that the town’s entire population was then only about 44,000, let us forgive any Gentle Readers who snort skeptically.

Much was made in the 1960s about the Congress, which held occasional all-day assemblies attended by hundreds of “delegates.” While it was touted as an independent citizen’s group, its sheer size made discussion unwieldy and its objectives almost always seemed to mirror Chamber of Commerce and developer’s interests. The 1968 Congress report said Santa Rosa’s highest priorities should be “Payroll and Industrial Needs” and “Downtown Futures and Potential” – way down in the basement was the preservation of parks and historical sites.

During the sixties Santa Rosa was wild about all things modern, and as with many communities, that meant enthusiastic approval of urban renewal projects. We were told it would mostly be paid for by Washington, our property values would skyrocket and we would end up with glorious cities of the future. In 1961 a scale model of a proposed Santa Rosa redesign circulated around several bank lobbies. The model (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) portrayed a downtown designed for pedestrians, with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

It was mostly bait and switch, of course. Prime locations owned by the city were sold to private developers; the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency held sway over forty acres of supposed “civic blight” and much of it was scooped up by investors. Luther Burbank’s old house and gardens survived the bulldozer, but the home he custom-built in 1906 on Tupper street – the one seen in all the pictures of him with Edison, Ford, Helen Keller and other celebs – was deemed worthless, as it was argued that the town had no need for two Luther Burbank landmarks.

By the time Thomas Cox spoke at that 1967 Congress for Community Progress lunch, great swaths of downtown was already scraped down to the topsoil and most of the rest would follow soon. The great courthouse was gone; the Carnegie library already had been replaced by what we have now. The parks were forgotten and their earth was destined to sprout bank buildings and metered parking lots. The lovely, free-flowing creek was entombed in a box culvert. Community Progress!

Cox’s talk came a few days before the dedication of the “plaza on Old Courthouse Square.” The Courthouse Square site had been already split by the street connecting Mendocino Ave with Santa Rosa Ave; what they then called the “plaza” was just the western section between that new street and the Empire Building block. The east side was slated to be sold to private developers for commercial buildings.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Hugh Codding said the tiny plaza would make citizens “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa,” and a supervisor chimed in this “perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. [Julio] Carrillo” when he donated the land to the public. Uh, no, times two.

The sale of the east side of the plaza was successfully fought by a small band of preservationists – despite being told it must be sold in order to pay off the urban renewal bonds. Sadly, they lost another fight to stop the giveaway to developers of the sheriff’s office and city hall, now the location of the U.S. Bank building. They had hoped one (or both) of the post-1906 quake buildings could be saved to create a Santa Rosa museum.

And now we come to the March 16, 1968 centennial, when Santa Rosa celebrated pretty much everything except its origins.

About 1,000 attended the ceremony in that little plaza. The city councilmen dressed in vaguely 19th century costumes and Mayor Codding introduced a man 100 years old. Some rode old bicycles or drove around in old cars and a barbershop quartet warbled, all more appropriate to a party for 1908 than 1868. State appeals court judge Joseph Rattigan told the crowd they would “shape the history of the future,” and won the prize for awful speechifying that day by saying we should “live as Santa Rosans in every dimension of wisdom and skill.”

Two time capsules were dedicated. (They were originally in front of the Empire building but now are facing the intersection of Third street and Santa Rosa ave). One was intended for 2068; the other was supposed to be opened on March 16, 2018. As our sesquicentennial event isn’t scheduled until about six months later, it only makes the choice of a September date seem stranger.

(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon sitting in front of the time capsules, 1974. Photo: Michael Sawyer/findagrave.com; original Santa Rosa News Herald image via Helen Rudee)

That was just the “Centennial Day;” the “Centennial Week” was the Rose Festival in May, and there wasn’t much of a nod to history there, either. There was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle, a tennis match and a little regatta on Lake Ralphine. A rock concert included local bands “Wonderful Mud” and “Bronze Hog.” During the Rose Parade, the Marine Corps Reserve presented a bizarre little scene in front of the reviewing stand where they enacted flushing a Vietcong soldier out of a rice paddy and shooting him dead, right there on Fourth street. As I always say, these kind of events are really for the children.

While 1968 may have been a bust as a centennial year, it was the definitely the year to celebrate Pepper, Santa Rosa’s lovable or maddening downtown character (depending upon whom you asked and when). When she wasn’t heckling hippies and jaywalkers, she was popping in the backseats of cars waiting for the stoplight to change and expecting the driver to take her somewhere – the Pepper stories are legion.

But Pepper also collected quite a bit of money when local groups were having charity drives, badgering each passerby for spare change. That March she was the guest of honor at a Rotary luncheon and in October she was feted by the Lions Club.

In a Gaye LeBaron column – yes, she was writing a gossip column fifty years ago – she quoted a letter from a reader: “I have a suggestion for the Grand Marshall of the 1968 Rose Parade: Pepper! No kidding—when you stop to think of all the hard work she’s done for almost everyone I think you’ll agree that she’s as deserving as any chosen. If we all get on Pepper’s Bandwagon she just might be selected. Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.”

She was not included in the parade (and someone griped about that in a letter to the PD) but she sat in the VIP bleachers alongside Mrs. Luther Burbank. She was also made honorary town marshal for the Centennial Year, a position she undoubtedly abused with relish.

The time capsules are Santa Rosa’s only real historic legacy from 1968 – and note that the one to be opened this year is mistakenly labeled “Bi-Centennial,” showing no one noticed or cared that wasn’t the right word for a fiftieth anniversary.

The March 17 edition of the Press Democrat offered a fat section of all things it deemed centennial-ish, and reflects the attitudes of the time quite well. The actual history section – meaning the 1906 quake and everything before – isn’t very long and just a superficial rehash from the county history books. However there’s some good wonky stuff about the development of city departments and such in the early 20th century, along with some photos I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But then it rockets to the present day, celebrating the wonders of redevelopment and what a bright future awaited Santa Rosa. There’s even a full-page article titled, “Foresight of Hugh Codding Helped Speed City’s Growth.” (Of course, not long afterwards, Mr. Foresight tied the city up in a decade-long lawsuit to forestall construction of the mall and other retail space, thus causing the downtown to further wither and die.)

So as it turns out, the judge who saw the centennial as “[shaping] the history of the future” probably did hit the right notes for 1968. And in kind of a Believe-it-on-Not! coincidence, we’re grappling with very similar issues today, trying to wrestle with how the town will be reshaped in years to come because of the fires.

There’s one more historic year to mention, for the sake of completeness: 2004, the real sesquicentennial of the year the town actually put down roots. A columnist for the PD complained “no one is celebrating,” and that a fund drive to support the reunification of Courthouse Square was going nowhere.

Well, Courthouse Square is now glued back together. That columnist was Chris Coursey, now Santa Rosa’s mayor. And like his predecessors, I’m sure he’ll steer the sesquicentennial to be more of a rosy view of our future than a contemplation on our rougher past. The date will still be wrong on the time capsule, of course, but Chris could fix that – I’d even provide a little bit of duct tape and a magic marker to change the inscription to read September 9.

Time capsules in Courthouse Square

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ed1958

ED MANNION HAS SOMETHING TO TELL YOU

It seems everyone who knew Ed Mannion has a story about him – which is perfectly fine, as he had lots of stories of his own to tell. About a century’s worth, in fact.

Until he died in 1991, Mannion was Petaluma’s unofficial historian and best known for his weekly “Rear-View Mirror” column in the Argus-Courier, although it ran less than four years and didn’t even appear all weeks. He filed his last column the day President Kennedy was killed; why he stopped wasn’t explained.

But Ed Mannion left behind more of a footprint than just “Mirror” (as he called it). He was writing about local history years before the column and years after; he assembled an enormous collection of rare documents and photographs which became the foundation of the library’s Petaluma History Room. And if Ed the Historian isn’t enough to impress, take note he was also a key participant in the uphill fight against PG&E’s scheme to build a nuclear reactor at Bodega Head.

In the golden age of newspapering in the 1950s and 60s, his was likely a household name all over Sonoma county. In the golden age of the Internet today, his name is unknown. Google currently returns a measly 300-odd hits on him – mostly credits given in books for use of photos now in the library collection. Ed’s own voice is nowhere to be found online without access to a paid newspaper archive service (note: available on Sonoma county library computers). I never met Ed, sorry to say; even more, I regret never reading any of his stuff before this summer. To me, his name was just a nod in one of those footnotes.

What follows isn’t a biography of Ed or a critical review of his legacy – it’s  just an appreciation and an introduction for 21st century readers. I’m only covering “Mirror” up through the end of 1961, which was the halfway point of its run. There is plenty left over for another article or three, including the story of how Ed and his co-conspirators were dumpster-diving (literally!) to rescue original historic photos which were then deemed worthless.

So for just a moment, pretend it’s 1954 and you’ve just strolled in to “Nick’s Chat & Chew” for lunch (the building’s even still there, at 600 Petaluma Blvd S.) and at the end of the counter is this funny-looking goofball telling stories. He’s snaggletoothed, his hair appears to have a mind of its own and his oversized black-rim glasses look like a failed effort to pull off a Clark Kent impersonation. But everybody around him is laughing – so let’s eavesdrop for a bit.

Gag photo of the Argus-Courier back room staff shooting craps in 1955, with Ed Mannion drinking from a bottle. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

 

“Yoiks! Another Columnist Enters the Ring” read the headline introducing Ed Mannion to Argus-Courier subscribers on Saturday, Feb. 6, 1954.

“News pickings sometimes tend to be a little slim for the week’s caboose edition, and the city editor has declared it Amateur Day instead of wasting good boiler plate. Or maybe, because I’m a linotype operation, he figures on saving copy paper by having this composed at the machine.”

Ed was indeed a linotype operator for the paper and would remain so for another thirty years, as well as a proud member of the Typographical Union. For those unfamiliar, these were the machines used to setup “hot lead” type via use of a bizarre keyboard. Anyone who was around such a shop (as I was as a child) will tell you the linotype operators were usually some of the most well-informed and erudite people you would ever meet – after all, they had to carefully read every line of the newspaper every day.

The Argus-Courier was a perfect home for Ed; it was a lively small town paper with a stable of must-read columnists including Lura Frati, Bob Wells and Bill Soberanes. By contrast, the Press Democrat at the time was a slog to get through, with pretensions that it was a major metropolitan daily and crammed to the margins with indifferent wire service items (least compelling headline ever: “Senate Debates Wool Bill”).

That incarnation of Ed’s column only lasted for a few issues but he remained familiar to readers through guest columns and mentions by the other writers. One story concerned the birthday of a friend who was an avid fisherman. Ed gave him a large rock with a note attached: “It is plain to see that you have been using the wrong fishing technique.” Also included was a clip from an 1879 paper, where it was reported that steelhead were so plentiful in Petaluma Creek that people were catching them by dropping rocks in the water.

Ed also contributed feature stories on the last ferry between Oakland and San Francisco (service resumed only after the 1989 quake) and the last ferry between San Rafael and Richmond. At home he had a small handpress he used to print up Christmas cards and the like, so for the final trip from San Rafael he handed out cards to fellow passengers: “This is to certify that the bearer is a member of the Anti-Bridge and Prevention of Cruelty fo Ferry Boats Society.” On the back was a vow “…to continue the fight against progress wherever it rears its ugly head.”

His fondness for gags like the rock and the cards (and a few more described below) can make it hard to take him seriously as a historian. Or was he just a “history buff”/collector? Did he want to educate readers by explaining how the pieces of history’s puzzle came together to form a picture – or was he just a guy who liked telling some really good stories?

Mannion called himself “a tramp printer who likes to read old newspapers,” which earns him my respect, revealing he tapped primary sources for information rather than repeating hand-me-down stories. He wrote so much there are probably mistakes which I don’t know enough to spot, but so far I’ve only found one glaring error – and to his credit, he found it himself some years later and corrected it.

It’s true he rarely tried to synthesize what he knew in the way “big H” historians do, but there’s not much room for that sort of thing in newspaper columns of only 600-1,200 words. His only real shot at long-form writing came with the historical portion of the 1955 centennial edition of Argus-Courier, which was edited and mostly written by him and his wife, Chris.

That section of the A-C is over 75 pages long (ignoring the full page ads) and is quite a remarkable work. Ed makes it clear at the beginning that they wanted to make something of interest to the casual reader but also good enough for serious historical research. “The fact remains that the usual way for newspapers to put out an anniversary issue is to use what passes for historical material as window dressing while the main emphasis is on jazzy promotion.” Amen to that, and let’s hope the Press Democrat resists the temptation to turn its sesquicentennial edition over to the Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau.

In short, the August 17, 1955 edition of the Argus-Courier is permanently bookmarked in my browser; I’m certain I’ll keep returning to it as long as I’m writing about local history, as it covers the entire southern portion of Sonoma county. But Ed was still Ed, and there’s a bit of good natured humor in his intro to the section, which is framed as a “letter to mom.” They didn’t have room for everything, he explained, but they always tried to get area names right – even Valley Vista grammar school, which he thought “sounds like a title coined by a housing tract sub-divider’s wife who writes poetry.” Putting it all together was rugged, he wrote, but “I’ll come right out with the puppy-dog hope that a couple of readers will write in to say they liked our efforts.”

Enough credit cannot be given to Chris Mannion for her involvement with that task as well Ed’s other history projects. Besides having six pre-teen children (eventually, seven), she was sometimes his library researcher, cataloger of his archives and bric-a-brac, phone secretary and often accompanied him on interviews (while Ed was starstruck meeting Ida Lupino, she was somewhat less speechless in chatting up husband Howard Duff, showing off pictures of their kids). She was a part-time photographer for the paper and had a side business selling its photo reprints. In 1960 it was her, not Ed, who led the fight to save downtown Hill Plaza Park from being bulldozed for parking spaces. She died in 1971 at age 47.

After the paper’s centennial came Petaluma’s civic 100th birthday in 1958, and that was absolutely the best year for Ed Mannion’s adventures, which were tied in with E Clampus Vitus and fellow buff of history, Ed Fratini. This other Ed was the grounded yin to Mannion’s wilder yang. While Ed F. was diplomatically inviting San Francisco’s mayor to attend the Petaluma festivities, Ed M. was advertising in a San Francisco newspaper for a live, fighting grizzly bear.

Ed Mannion in costume at the 1958 Petaluma centennial celebration. The woman with her face turned away is probably Chris Mannion. Photo: Sonoma County Library

 

 

“Grizzly Bear wanted for bull and bear fight Main Street Petaluma, reply to the judge. McNeil Drive, Petaluma”, read the ad in a San Francisco paper a month before Petaluma centennial celebration in April, 1958.

“The judge” was Ed Mannion’s costumed Clamper persona; members of “The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus” dress up to celebrate historic events. They also mount commemorative plaques and drink. They drink a lot.

As mentioned earlier, 1958 was also the 99th birthday for the Washoe House and the Clampers mounted a plaque at the famous roadhouse. That night they were up to their usual hijinks, including trying to push an old fire engine into the lobby of the Hotel Petaluma (it got wedged in the doorway and remained there for days). The events ended with a group dinner at the hotel – “a whole chicken for each man, and served on pitchforks,” as was promised.

Ed Mannion vowed to recreate an arena fight between a bull and grizzly bear that actually happened in 1861 at Haystack Landing. According to the Argus, the bear tried to escape and charged the ladies’ section of the bleachers. (“Ah, the good, pure days of yore,” Ed commented in a later “Mirror” column.)

The wire services picked up a photo of Ed wearing a sandwich sign promoting the “Bull and Bear Fight” on the back (the front showed a chicken pecking at a dancing Clamper) and interests were aroused. It made the front page of the paper in Virginia City and was widely blurbed in Bay Area papers. An incensed  animal lover from Redwood City threatened to organize a statewide boycott of Petaluma. Ed finally wrote a disclaimer revealing it would really be just a couple of guys in costumes – but it’s not clear if the Clamper from Rough and Ready knew it would be a mock battle when he promised his pet badger, Solomon, would take on the winner.

Thus with costumes custom-made for the occasion, Smokey the Bear fought Ferdinand the Bull at Walnut Park in front of an appreciative crowd. In the third round the bull charged and the costume’s head fell off, after which the bear was declared the winner on account of decapitation.

The year 1958 was also when the Petaluma Fire Department sold its old ambulance. The two Eds came up with the $100 (or so) to buy it, with the view that a 1935 antique would be a “fine thing for parades and so on.” Its first outing was to a Clamper dinner at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, where they arrived with wailing siren and flashing lights. Enroute they were pulled over only once, which is somewhat surprising because they were dressed in their pioneer getups and a cop doesn’t see an ambulance driven by ersatz 49ers every day.

Afterwards, one of the Clampers asked them for a lift into Marysville. Ed and Ed obliged, but when they arrived their passenger refused to leave unless they carried him into his favorite tavern on a stretcher.

“This was done,” wrote Bob Wells, “and it developed that the rider had many friends in the bar. All these had to be formally introduced.”

Finally on their way back to Petaluma through Napa county, the headlights  began to fail. Mannion discovered he could jiggle wires under the dashboard to temporarily get them to flicker back on, but when they flickered off again he had a flashlight at the ready to shine through the windshield and keep Fratini from running them into a ditch.

And so we come to the debut of Rear-View Mirror on March 12, 1960.

While Ed Mannion could write in a concise news style as the subject demanded, most of his offerings are a happy and entertaining tour of whatever had his attention at the moment. Some columns read like a modern blog, as Ed digs through his cluttered desk in the den at their home at 1 Keller street, crowded with the seven kids, two cats and a dog named Scooter.

Reading “Mirror” is like touring Burbank’s garden – there’s lots to see and absorb. With hopes that Gentle Reader is not too weary of reading about all things Ed, here’s a bouquet of items from the first two years that are little-known (at least, to me) and quite interesting:

 

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During the Civil War, Schluckebier’s store listed prices in both Union and Confederate money
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A letter about Petaluma schools in the 1870s recalled Professor Crowell’s tenure ended when he was gassed out by a prankster putting red pepper on a hot stove. Another teacher was attacked with a heavy inkwell (“thrown at his head by a degenerate son of an honorable townsman”) and still another was stabbed in the arm. The school on the corner of Fifth and D was the only place where “white and colored pupils were received and treated as equals.” [A history of the Petaluma schools found in the centennial edition of the A-C states it was originally all African-American and integrated later in the decade]
*
Ed complained often Vallejo’s Old Adobe was never a fort or ever called Casa Grande – until he discovered a man named Bliss bought the place in 1859 and indeed renamed it “Casa Grande.” Oooops!
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“Petaluma looks toward the future, not to the past, and forthwith carted off a great deal of valuable local memorabilia to the city dumps,” Ed griped about the Chamber of Commerce. Several times he complained the city itself had carted away a 5-foot bronze statue of a nude Greek goddess which once was perched atop the fountain at the corner of Washington and Main
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Petaluma made Santa Rosa furious by setting steamboat schedules so “up-country” travelers had to stay overnight at a local hotel
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Someone gave Ed the last surviving copies of very short-lived newspaper called “The Weekly Amateur,” put out by Petaluma youths around 1887. While it mostly reflected their interests in baseball, doings of the volunteer fire department and entertainment, there was also this vignette: “Some Petaluma youths do not seem to appreciate our gas lamps by the way they are perforating them with sling shot missiles. Any way, what a great satisfaction it is to a boy to see a light of glass crackle to pieces by his proud marksmanship. If the proprietor or cop gives chase, he is all the more delighted”
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Petaluma inventor Jacob Price Jr. might have been considered the Edison of farm equipment c. 1860-1880, designing steam tractors, seed sowing machines and the famous “Petaluma Press,” which could bale 3,600 pounds of hay an hour
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His mention of Luther Burbank brought a response from Edgar Waite, the reporter whose controversial interview in 1926 revealed that the much-respected Burbank considered himself an “infidel” and that Christianity had “garbled” Jesus’s teachings. An uproar followed, but it’s never been clear if this caused him stress that led to his heart attack a couple of months later, followed by his death at 77 years. Waite – who personally knew Burbank from his time as a Press Democrat reporter – wrote to Mannion, “I went up to see my friend again, and to make sure that he felt no regrets. He didn’t. On the contrary, he expressed himself as happy that his views had been spread on the record, and bemoaned only the mountain of correspondence that had descended upon him”

 

 

Chris and Ed Mannion, undated photo. Courtesy Petaluma Museum

 

 

May 13, 1961 Argus-Courier caption “…Ed’s arm is around Ida Lupino. He says he’ll never wash it again. She suggested both face the camera but he replied, “I’m looking in the right direction!” Photo: Sonoma County Library

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portfolio-s

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 Brothers firm, which mostly churned out undistinguished designs for banks, municipal buildings and such. 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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