Communities are delicate things; once they start to crumble, it can be difficult to make them whole again. So in a spirit of optimism the first annual “Congress for Community Progress” was held at the Flamingo Hotel in March 1963. Formed by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, its avowed mission was to “unify community thought and action” around ways to improve the city, according to general chairman Judge Hilliard Comstock, while avoiding “rehashing mistakes of the past.”

The 268 participants – drawn from downtown business interests, social clubs, churches, unions and the City Hall bureaucracy – were split into seven panels. Some of their recommendations had little or no chance: An arts festival intended to draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands, a volunteer-run “central service club” for all elderly and handicapped residents, donations of large plots of land for new parks and baseball fields, and a “United Crusade” to collect donations for all local charities.

In contrast, the streets and traffic panel did not indulge in daydreams. They pushed to lobby for a bill in the state legislature for higher gas and road taxes, plus an upcoming municipal bond vote that would fund over $1 million in streetwork. “There’s nothing wrong with Sonoma County and Santa Rosa’s road, street and parking problems that money won’t cure,” promised Press Democrat editor Art Volkerts.

Much has been written here about Santa Rosa’s urban renewal misadventures during the 1960s and 1970s, which culminated with the city bulldozing a third of downtown so a private developer could build the mall. Should you be unfamiliar with that sad story, here’s a short recap or Gentle Reader can plunge into the extensive series about it all, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”

But before we began tearing those buildings down, there was another civic program that set the stage for Santa Rosa destroying its Shadow of a Doubt character in the name of progress. That was the city’s embrace of a street improvement plan to supersize many of our streets, both commercial and residential. Because of it, Santa Rosa gradually turned from “The City Designed for Living” into “The City Designed for Cars.”


To be sure, Santa Rosa had downtown traffic problems in the 1950s. Browse the PD from those years and you’ll find frequent mention of traffic snarls, traffic jams and it otherwise being a general traffic mess. Some of those woes were of the city’s making – for example, the main bus stops were at the corner of Mendocino and Fourth Streets. In 1953 they took away a second parking spot on each side of Mendocino to make it easier for the buses to pull in and out, but that did little or nothing to ease congestion caused by them stopping at the busiest intersection downtown.

Jaywalking was also a persistent problem. (O Pepper, where for art thou?) The 1954 solution was to install “scramble” traffic light systems on Fourth Street at the B St. and D St. intersections. Now part of the timing cycle stopped traffic from all directions so pedestrians could cross in any direction, even diagonally. Some might recall Santa Rosa revived the concept at the Fourth and D intersection in 2007-2008 to mixed reviews; so it was in the mid 1950s. Then the police department liked it but drivers didn’t. The PD wrote, “Now almost any evening from 5 o’clock to 5:30 you will find a maddening, blaring, stalling, stop-and-go traffic jam.”

The scramble SNAFU was just another example of Santa Rosa’s stumbling management of the street situation, according to the city’s Planning Director. At a 1955 meeting he complained there were no studies being done as to what was the best course of action, with changes being made piecemeal based on “someone’s opinion” about what would improve matters. This led directly to the hiring of Jackson Faustman.

As so often happened with the later urban renewal projects, trouble can be traced to the city hiring an expensive out-of-town consultant who likely had never set foot in Santa Rosa.

The 1957 decision was to hire Jackson Faustman, a traffic engineer in Sacramento, to write an analysis of Santa Rosa’s traffic situation with “specific and detailed recommendations for the solution of both existing problems and those that will occur in the immediate future.” The report alone would cost the modern equivalent of $33,000.

Dr. Faustman would additionally make about half that much every year going forward for being available, with the odd proviso that he teach “a young man with the capacity and desire to be trained as a traffic engineer…and train him to the point where he can take over the traffic problems of the city and eliminate the need for consultation service.” (I’m sure it’s just sloppy writing in the Press Democrat, but raise your hand if you also think that reads like the city was seeking to force some kid into indentured servitude.) The job went to 36 year-old “Woody” Hamilton, who was already a city assistant engineer of some sort.1

Faustman delivered his first report to a city commission a few months later (Hamilton was credited as co-author). His primary recommendation was to make Mendocino Ave. three lanes of one way northbound traffic between Fourth St. and College Ave, with B St. being a matching three lanes headed south. City officials batted the idea around for more than a year while Faustman kept hauling in charts and warning that otherwise there would be such gridlock by 1970 no one would be able to reach downtown.

The city gave him a hard NO on the one way streets, but Faustman said from the beginning that was just the means to achieve his real goal: Increasing traffic capacity of major streets “by 50 per cent or better.” And to that end, in late 1958 he revealed his new Master Street Plan to widen 33 streets.

The Jackson Faustman proposal for widening Santa Rosa streets. The numbers are his recommended priorities for the projects. Press Democrat, November 27 1958
The Jackson Faustman proposal for widening Santa Rosa streets. The numbers are his recommended priorities for the projects. Press Democrat, November 27 1958

He helpfully offered a map showing which projects he thought should take priority, given his belief it would cost about $8 million. In today’s dollars, that worked out to about $87M – and that was before Woody Hamilton pointed out a few weeks later that Faustman was wrong and the true estimate was a million over that (figure $98M total today).

Even for the Press Democrat, where the editors never saw a construction project they didn’t like, this as a staggering amount of money for a non-emergency public works program. There was no chance the newspaper, Chamber of Commerce, and their other cronies could twist arms of voters into passing a $9M bond measure expected to require about twenty years to complete. It was also more than the city could legally put on the ballot.

The traffic commission approved a slightly modified version of the plan and estimated the cost of just the top ten projects would be about $2.8M.2 Our Grand Poobahs began musing about a bond that might cover at least that much if it were sweetened with promise of a new library, a new park and maybe a new city hall.

But spending all that money on even a scaled-back widening campaign was an affront to Santa Rosans who had been waiting years, even decades, for the city to perform basic street work, as the PD acknowledged:

There would be no money for work on mile after mile of local streets which now lace the city without sidewalks, curbs, or gutters, and without adequate base to serve the needs of heavy, modern traffic. These streets will have to be brought up to standard – if they ever are – by assessment against property owners…

Homeowners paying for their own sidewalks and whatnot? Well, yeah, the city had a long history of doing exactly that. A half century earlier there was quite a fuss about Santa Rosa forcing people to hire cement contractors to lay sidewalks in their front yards. Failure to do so meant the city would hire someone to do the work and put a lien on your house for the expense.

The city was still doing that in the mid-1950s, only now it was forcing residents to pay by means of assessments. And as that newspaper article continued, City Hall was considering using assessments to help fund street widening:

…Along major streets, where widening and resurfacing projects are to be scheduled, owners will also pay some small share, but city officials have not yet completed studies to show how much of the projects could be paid for by assessment.


In California, local governments can designate a particular area as an “Assessment District” for infrastructure work done within its borders. Usually most of the cost is billed to property owners within the District and paid off over many years via property tax surcharges.

District projects are supposed to provide specific improvements to the area which can only be provided by the government. Examples include bringing in sewer and water lines or constructing streets for a new subdivision. The money is not supposed to be spent on anything that benefits the overall community, such as parks, swimming pools, public schools, libraries or city/county offices.

An Assessment District can blanket all/most of a city or be limited to a few buildings on a certain street. There are usually public hearings before the District is approved but there will probably not be a public vote required.

It’s likely the suggestion “owners will also pay some small share” gave more than a few folks the nervous jimmies. Most of the widening projects were expected to cost over a hundred thousand dollars, with some past a half million – even a “small share” could be more than the value of someone’s house (theoretically).

There was already an ongoing 1957 lawsuit against the city for abuse of assessments. Sixteen residents on Pacific Avenue between Bryden Lane and King St. found they were expected to pay the full cost of sidewalks, curbs, gutters and most of the street paving – plus the loss of a slice of their front yards because the city also made their street about 25 percent wider. They charged the city with fraud because it was the general public, not they, who would benefit from the work, and thus was against state law (see sidebar). The case would not be resolved for twelve years.3

Despite all the hype around the Faustman report and the silly prediction of a 1970 gridlock apocalypse, nothing really happened over the next four years. Santa Rosa tried to pass a bond in 1961 that included $5.5M for streets and storm drains but it failed badly, drawing a pathetic 30 percent approval.

By the time they tried a bond proposal again in 1963, however, the ground had shifted. The city’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA) was no longer treating redevelopment as if it were a contest between architectural firms to see who could come up with the most fanciful and impractical models for Santa Rosa v. 2.0. The Agency was now deciding which actual buildings would be demolished and awarding construction contracts worth big bucks to build something else. Federal and state grant money was also starting to flow in that would pay for redevelopment.

Just before the bond vote, the state road tax bill discussed by the traffic panel at the Congress for Community Progress had passed, with Santa Rosa expecting to get over $128k annually for street work. So the pitch for the new muni bond was combining that road money with half of the city’s sales tax and…presto! The street widening would be paid for without any new taxes.

The Press Democrat gushed, “…[it] may sound like the city has found out how to print its own money without going to jail. Actually, it is so simple that one wonders why nobody worked it out before. Essentially, what the City Council has done is to make positive that existing city revenues at present tax rates will be used to buy worthwhile and needed things instead of being frittered away.” (Memo to self: Search pre-1963 editions of the Press Democrat for ANY suggestion of city frittering.)

Unable to resist a free lunch, voters approved the bond by a whopping 80 percent. But there was apparently enough pushback for the PD to feel its passage was threatened. On the eve of the vote an editorial read, in part:

The campaign has also seen the ugly banner of sectionalism waved by the opponents. They would pit the older sections of our city against the new, east Santa Rosa against west, and north against south. This has happened in other cities, and progress has passed them by while the divided sections voted down bond issue after bond issue because of jealous fear. Now the moment of truth faces the Santa Rosa voter. We trust in his common sense and judgment to see through the smokescreen.

Who were these fear-mongering jealous sectionalists? Alas, the villains were never named in the paper and nor were their positions described, which makes me wonder if the editor was denouncing straw men, particularly since so much ink was spent in promoting the bond as if passage was a civic duty. Subscribers were encouraged to send pledges to vote for it; reporters and photographers covered doings of a pro-bond group calling itself “Forward Santa Rosa;” so many wrote in support that the letters section sometimes spilled over to the next page. One example from Santa Rosan Al Ridste:4

…It is a radiant, joyful thing to realize that we can build a new front for the city. In this lovely community “designed for living” there are rare potentialities. It is a move in which everyone can win eventually. It will, of course, cause some growing pains for some and some of the usual disturbances that always comes with change, but after what will not be too long a time, there will be gladness and pride in the new look and the new usefulness of whole locality…

The bond specified ten street improvements to be completed during the first tranche of work but curiously, only two of the projects resembled anything found on Faustman’s famous priority list. Presumably traffic engineer Hamilton, the URA and others decided an update was needed because the city’s needs had changed over the four years hence, which is quite reasonable. But after the bond passed the city continued tinkering with the work plans. This was when they resurrected a developer’s 1960 proposal to connect Sonoma Ave. to Ellis Street, which culminated in the demolition of Luther Burbank’s home for no good reason.

As the city finalized street plans in early 1964, it became clear assessments were going to be more than a “small share” of the funding. As with the Pacific Ave. situation, property owners were being expected to pay for a huge share of it.

A few years earlier the City Council wrote guidelines for street improvements in assessment districts; adjoining properties would usually pay about 55 percent overall. There were tweaks for residential vs. commercial zoning and public buildings were to be billed for the full price.5

The roar of outrage began when two churches – the First Methodist Church and St. Eugene’s – learned the city was requiring them to pay for all the street work in front. Later the Junior College received a similar notice.

There were other grumblings. Protests and petitions led to a steady stream of Council assessment hearings that year: Santa Rosa Ave. Montgomery Drive. Chanate Road. Sonoma Ave. The Council had considerable leeway to negotiate costs; some districts ended up owing considerably less than others because the city or URA contributed more than usual.

Othertimes the Council showed little or no willingness to compromise. Councilman Hugh Codding commented other councilmen were “railroading” particular projects thru. His lone Council ally was Charles DeMeo, who said city staff wasn’t presenting facts which might convince residents they should agree with the assessments. Quote the PD, “…why don’t you gentlemen who prefer to overrule the protests come forth with some definite proposals[?]” DeMeo also remarked he “didn’t question the fairness of the staff… but sometimes did question their judgement.”

Codding was taken aback by strong neighborhood pushback from one district:

“It seems obvious to me that the majority of those in the area don’t wish to see the improvements made,” councilman Codding said. “It seems rather foolish to see the proceedings go ahead. I move we abandon action…” Mayor Robert Tuttle quickly gaveled Mr. Codding’s motion “…out of order,” saying “…we’ll see.”

That happened at the big fight over widening Mendocino Ave. north of College Ave. Not only would the district pay a larger percentage (65 percent) but at 84 feet the street would be wider than any of the other projects at the time.6

At a three hour public hearing, it was made clear 9 out of 10 property owners in the district were opposed. “Codding made another motion that the project be ‘permanently abandoned’ until at least 75 percent of the abutting property owners sign a petition favoring the street widening,” the PD reported. Among those speaking against the assessment was Judge Comstock, the chairman for that Congress for Community Progress the previous year where he urged the city to “unify community thought and action.” Now here was the Council saying they didn’t care a neighborhood was united in protest.

Just as the public was caught unawares the city would use assessment districts to fund streetwork, people seemed genuinely surprised when they started chopping down trees growing next to the streets being widened.

A row of catalpa trees in the curb strip fronting Juilliard Park “had to come out there was no choice” according to a city engineer, who told the PD in 1965 catalpas were also “not street trees” and prone to untidiness. Although the paper was told decorative trees would be planted in their place, today there are no trees there at all except for some unlovely arborvitae set back in the park lawn several feet away from the street.

Hundreds of other street trees must have been taken out, but only the loss of those catalpas earned a brief notice in the Press Democrat, perhaps because someone recalled they had been planted by Juilliard himself in 1916 to acclaim.

More research is needed, but something needs to be written about Santa Rosa’s great tree purge from those years. A 1967 report called for a new master tree plan where there were to be no mature trees next to streets at all. By then nearly half of the street trees that had been planted in the previous twenty years were gone or about to be removed, many replaced by shrubs in planters.

1966trafficAnd lo, the city of Santa Rosa cut the trees, widened major streets, and charged neighbors for the pleasure of taking away some of their property. As the statistics show, daily traffic on most of the remodeled streets went up dramatically. Those who had planned this gazed upon their works and called it good because Santa Rosa was now more efficient.

(RIGHT: Traffic increases on Santa Rosa arterial routes 1961-1966. Press Democrat, September 25, 1966)

Our resident experts believed better efficiency was critical because they thought Santa Rosa was about to grow big, fast. The U.S. Commerce Dept. predicted in 1962 the greater San Francisco Bay Area population would be the size of Chicago’s by 1980. Santa Rosa’s planners took those estimates and declared over that timespan the number of people living here would more than triple.7 Our local Chamber of Commerce even produced a film on the topic – in color, boasted the Press Democrat – shown at the Congress for Community Progress. (For the record, our city planners guesstimated too high by over 50,000 people. We didn’t hit their projections until 1999.)

Dr. Faustman and city staff produced reams of studies concerning street loads, peak hour traffic volumes, circulation plans and such, all with the aim of relieving those expected 1980 traffic jams. The rallying cry was “Get the through traffic off local streets,” as a city engineer put it, turning the widened major streets into arteries that would move cars between different parts of the city as fast as possible.

But in practice those arterial streets were really connectors between shopping centers. Sonoma Ave. would make it easy to drive from downtown to Montgomery Village (there was no highway 12 expressway yet). A wider Mendocino Ave. made it an easy trip for downtown shoppers to check out sales at Coddingtown. And directly southward of Courthouse Square there was Santa Rosa Ave. with its miles of flashy neon signs.


Urban planning critic Jane Jacobs mainly wrote about the road problems in New York City c. 1960, but if she had taken a peek at the Santa Rosa situation five years later she might have used us as the poster child for street planning gone wrong. To expand on her points about arterial streets:

* CROSSTOWN BARRIERS   They act as barriers, making it difficult and dangerous to cross against traffic.

* JAMS OR SPEEDWAYS   They only work as smoothly as promised under optimal traffic loads – too many rush hour cars and they choke up and when traffic is light some drivers treat them like expressways, speeding far faster than is legal.

* BIKE AT YOUR OWN RISK   Even when there are bike lanes – a hit-or-miss situation all over Santa Rosa – both speeding vehicles and traffic jams make arterial streets hazardous for bicyclists and electric scooter riders, often leading them to shift to sidewalks where they feel safer but creates a set of risks for pedestrians.

All in all it was a great traffic plan for moving shoppers around town as well as a great demonstration of confirmation bias. Faustman and the others did not consider whether that plan would ultimately be a good thing to do in Santa Rosa, even if the population did balloon in the future – the point of their studies was only to show how their predetermined objectives could be achieved.

It was also an example of backward thinking. Going pavement crazy might have seemed like a swell idea during the heyday of 1950s Car Culture, but it was now the mid-1960s and there was growing consensus that overbuilding streets made cities less livable.

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 widely read book on the failures of contemporary city design, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” has a damning chapter on the topic. “Traffic arteries…are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction,” she began. Now more than sixty years later it’s even more apparent her views were prophetic.

Were Faustman and Santa Rosa’s decision makers not reading the trade journals and popular magazines where the old views on urban planning had been challenged for years? Residents here certainly weren’t informed there might be a downside to turning some streets into virtual freeways.

Much of the streetwork took place amid the flush of major projects around town, among them knocking down the Carnegie library and the courthouse, the entombment of Santa Rosa Creek into a culvert and starting construction for the elevated portion of highway 101. Widening a few streets and cutting down a bunch of old trees was hardly worth a moment of thought.

But for those today who nostalgically yearn for “old Santa Rosa,” the decision to completely surrender our main streets to automobiles stands as a milestone. The damage it did to the town is unrepairable: The uglification, increased noise and pollution, the splitting apart of established neighborhoods. It may not have been the dumbest thing we ever did – but then again, maybe it was.


1 His father, Woodman Hamilton Sr. was a pottery maker, and the work from his Glen Ellen Pottery studio was so highly regarded in the 1930s that it was exhibited at fairs to represent craftsmanship in Sonoma County.

2 A breakdown of costs for all projects can be found in the January 20, 1959 Press Democrat.
3 The Pacific Ave. Assessment was for $53,000. The lawsuit was won by the city, then overturned by the state Supreme Court. In 1969 it went again before the City Council to reassess the properties, although most of the original plaintiffs had moved or were now dead. See: December 25, 1969 Press Democrat.
4 Alfred Ridste was the father of movie star Carole Landis who died in 1948. He and other members of the family alleged she was murdered by actor Rex Harrison, with whom she was having an affair.
5 No copies of the 1958 version of the city policy manual can be found at the library or in the city archives, as far as I can tell, and I did not consult the 1957/1958 minutes of the City Council when the policies were written. My observations are drawn completely from information given in the 1964 Press Democrat.
6 The usual widening for major streets in those Santa Rosa projects was 64′ on 86′ right of way, with secondary streets 40′ on 60′ right of way. The original traffic plan called for 6 foot median on the widened major streets. See: Press Democrat, August 28 1962
7 “Between 1960 and 1980 it is estimated that the population of the Santa Rosa planning area will increase from 36 per cent to 43 per cent of the total county population. Assuming a county population of 295,000 in 1980, we can estimate a population increase to about 135,000 in the Santa Rosa planning area.” Press Democrat, August 28 1962


TOP: Section from “Traffic Jam” by Earl Mayan, Saturday Evening Post cover, April 28, 1956

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Let’s play a game: Try to name a city more self-destructive than Santa Rosa.

We split the town in half (twice!) and hid the downtown creek from sight, although it was the natural feature beloved by all. We encouraged demolishing historic neighborhoods, plowing ahead with urban renewal even after that kind of planning was widely discredited. And if you wanna see someone’s blood actually boil, take an older person down to Courthouse Square and ask them to point out the courthouse.

There’s lots more. We needlessly widened many streets to better accommodate cars during the 1960s. One of those street projects was so outrageous it demands special attention because it involved the demolition of Luther Burbank’s home. That happened just a few days before the annual Rose Festival – technically the Luther Burbank Rose Festival, of course – and where that year’s theme was “Our American Heritage.” Oh, the irony. Ironies.

The history of Burbank’s lost house was told here earlier, so there’s no need to rehash all the details. But briefly, it was built to his specifications in 1906 and remained his home until he died there twenty years later. The ground floor was almost entirely used as his office and on its front steps he was photographed with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other luminaries. Once the home was built, he referred to the place we now call Luther Burbank Home & Gardens as the “Old Homestead,” or the “Experimental Farm.”

The seeds for its destruction were planted in 1960 when a New Jersey consulting firm hired by the city proposed connecting Sonoma Ave. to Ellis St. As with so many of Santa Rosa’s urban renewal plans, there was no good reason given why this should be done.

Their design – which can be seen in a previous article – would have diverted Metanzas Creek into Santa Rosa Creek around E Street.1 The city could then reclaim the filled in lower part of Metanzas to create a new park or maybe “a civic center perhaps to include a new City Hall, Chamber of Commerce building, and state offices.” Although there was a later squabble over the route of the Sonoma/Ellis connection, it was always going to cut through the property with Burbank’s home.

Comparison of 1920 and modern maps highlighting the approximate location of Luther Burbank's home. Some street misalignments are apparently errors by the 1920 cartographer. (Image:
Comparison of 1920 and modern maps highlighting the approximate location of Luther Burbank’s home. Some street misalignments are apparently errors by the 1920 cartographer. (Image:

Years passed and the city’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an appointed group of mostly downtown businessmen who had no background in policy or planning, was at the helm of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment efforts. Funded by federal grants, they bought 27 properties between Santa Rosa Ave. and E Street including the Burbank home, which had changed hands several times since his death. When the Agency took it over, the place was the Salvation Army office along with its nursery/kindergarten.

In early 1963 the URA started the gears in motion to demolish those buildings – but then a monkey wrench brought everything to a halt when the Press Democrat printed a letter from Dr. Gertrude Van Steyn.2 It read, in part:

…I believe that voices should be raised loud and clear against the destruction of this monument. As the readers well know, this home with Mr. Burbank and his little white terrier are very familiar. They have made Santa Rosa quite famous and the mention of Santa Rosa, Calif., most always brings to the mind of strangers as the home of Luther Burbank. I for one am very much in favor of preserving historical monuments such as this for the generations to follow. I staunchly believe that all the citizens of this city should firmly voice their disapproval of Urban Renewal Plans destruction. I believe our city slogan should be The Home of Luther Burbank, and let’s make it so.

Amazingly, not a soul involved had an inkling they were about to destroy Luther Burbank’s world-famous house.

“This is dynamite,” said Cal Caulkins, Santa Rosa’s leading architect at the time and then a member of the URA. “We’d better not do anything with this until we find out what the city plans.”

While awaiting the City Council’s opinion, the Press Democrat and URA scrambled to downplay Burbank’s connection to the home. Why, it barely had any significance at all: “Luther Burbank did not live but a short time in this building, Trent Harrington, URA executive director, said. Instead, Mr. Burbank lived for many years in a home just across the street, on Tupper st.”

Another PD article seemingly tried to claim Burbank lived such a long time ago and was such an obscure figure his relationship with the house might never be determined:

…questions were not so simple to answer. They sent city officials, authorities on the life of Mr. Burbank, and other interested citizens scurrying to history books and records in an effort to find the answers. It’s understandable why time might blur the records, for there are really two Burbank homes, one right across the street from the other… History on the Burbank Gardens structure is quite clear. But the picture becomes muddled when it comes to finding out something about the property across the street…

Yet aside from all those photos of Burbank posing with famous people on its porch, despite a slew of postcards portraying just the house and even a 1948 beer ad (only fifteen years earlier!) which ID it as “his California home,” it was unknown “how much history is involved in the old house” per the PD. Too bad the newspaper and URA also ignored that Luther’s widow, Elizabeth, was still alive and living at the Old Homestead. Apparently knocking on her door to ask about the place was just too much work.

budweiserburbank(RIGHT: Perhaps Santa Rosa should have asked Budweiser which residence was Luther Burbank’s home)

The PD did print a few remarks from J. B. Keil, the nurseryman who was caretaker of the Burbank Garden for over two decades. He deftly recited the history of the home and said there were rare trees there including South American Maytens, a Caucasian Wingnut (hold the jokes, please) and a “weeping” walnut which was not identified by the reporter. His opinions on preserving the house were not given.

Additional letters appeared. A realtor commented, “When the new home was built across the street on Tupper, which is now occupied by the Salvation Army, it never seemed to have the feeling of warmth and welcome to it, and it never held the appeal that the old home and the old gardens did. Now, progress is making its way very rapidly…I don’t think the public should get at all alarmed about the possibility of the new Burbank home being torn down. Should it remain, with all of the development which is to go on, someday it may sit there and it might have the appearance of a monstrosity.”

A man who grew up on Tupper Street and was among the throngs who witnessed famous people paying homage was horrified Santa Rosa planned to destroy the house: “…I cannot understand why the people of Santa Rosa can permit this defilement of a place that should be a national shrine. This place should be preserved as part of our national heritage; lesser landmarks have been so preserved. I implore some person or some group in Santa Rosa to give some serious consideration to what will be lost forever if this plan of destruction takes place, then do something to stop it.”

Meanwhile, the City Council asked the Civic Art Commission to weigh in along with the Burbank Commission, a Chamber of Commerce committee formed about ten years earlier to oversee the transition of turning the Burbank Gardens into a public park.

The Civic Art Commission voted unanimously for demolition because the URA chairman told them the Old Homestead had more historical significance. Any significant trees should be moved to a new location – never mind that moving mature trees about a half century old would be a daunting and expensive task, if possible at all.

The Burbank Commission – which included Elizabeth Burbank – agreed, though the wording in the PD story suggested she actually hoped the URA or someone would move it elsewhere to be saved: “Mrs. Burbank did not object to having the house removed by the Urban Renewal Agency or by any worthwhile organization who wished to move it to another site and restore it.” After all, back in 1933 she had initially leased the home with the understanding “Luther Burbank’s office and the room in which he died will be preserved for all time.”

But the Press Democrat dismissed any notion the home was worth keeping: “Another solution is for some private interest to buy the building and move it to another location. But the old home is now run down, and action such as this would incur the extra expense of remodeling.” An editorial that appeared after the Council’s vote for demolition doubled-down on the URA’s determination that getting rid of the building was the best option: “The Salvation Army building has little or no historic significance, and would represent an unjustified maintenance burden to the taxpayers of the city if it, in addition to the Luther Burbank home, was moved to the grounds of the Burbank Memorial Gardens.”

And so it came to pass. On April 2, 1964, Santa Rosa bulldozed the home of Luther Burbank.

There’s quite a Believe-It-Or-Not! coda to this story, and you may want to make sure the windows are closed as to not frighten the neighbors when you scream: The house could have been left alone, had Sonoma Ave. connected to Santa Rosa Ave. just ten feet further north.

An option for saving the home was hinted just as the URA was first coming to terms with the discovery of it being famously connected to Burbank. In the April 16, 1963 PD, their Executive Director Trent Harrington “mentioned the possibility of moving the house 10 feet or so from its present position, thereby saving it from destruction.” Unfortunately, everyone focused on the difficult job of moving the building and as far as I can tell, no one suggested the easier choice of shifting the planned street route instead.

And that was a reasonable design change. Later in 1964, after Burbank’s house was already gone, some members of the URA griped the street plan was “inadequate” because both sides of Sonoma Ave. were supposed to have “a park like appearance.” On that occasion Harrington “suggested moving the proposed street northward ’10 feet or so’ and therefore creating a ‘wider park-like appearance on both sides of the street,'” according to the PD. Of course, that meant Sonoma Ave. wouldn’t be perfectly aligned with (what was) Ellis St. and the URA seemed to have something of a mania about that.

So here we are today. Burbank’s beloved home is gone forever and in its former backyard there’s a City Hall parking lot and a nondescript tiny plaza. The building stood approximately where Sonoma Ave. has a northbound turn lane. About where the much-photographed porch steps used to be there’s a sign warning motorists there is to be no stopping at any time. And next to it is a parking meter. How very Santa Rosa.

The Luther Burbank memorial parking meter
The Luther Burbank memorial parking meter


1 In 1963 the URA decided both Metanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks would be entombed in concrete culverts

2 Dr. Gertrude Van Steyn was a well-loved and admired family physician in Santa Rosa from 1939 to 1981. The medical office she built at 651 Cherry St. still exists and has a notably large porch, which was needed because she saw patients on a walk-in basis, never scheduling appointments. Her family had a Sebastopol ranch but she attended Santa Rosa schools so she likely had many opportunities as a child to see Burbank and hear him speak. She died at her Santa Rosa home in 2010 at the age of 95.


Title photo courtesy the Sonoma County Library Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Collection

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There were 49 prisoners awaiting execution but only one was a woman. That woman was Iva Kroeger.

On May 1, 1963 she was sentenced to death for the murders of Mildred and Jay Arneson and sent to the California Institution for Women at Frontera (AKA Corona State Prison) to await a decision on her appeal to the California Supreme Court. And to the surprise of many, the justices ordered her sentence be reconsidered on a technicality.

The court agreed her trial was fair and did not dispute her first degree murder conviction. But when giving instructions to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial, the judge erred by telling them a sentence to life imprisonment would make Iva eligible for parole, so there was a chance – however microscopic – she could be back on the streets in as little as seven years. Iva soon found herself headed back to San Francisco for a new (partial) trial.

But first: More medical reports – and guess what? The new experts contradicted all the previous experts!

Doctors at the state prison declared Iva had “chronic brain syndrome and central nervous system syphilis.” Her history of syphilis came up during the trial. A quarter-century earlier she was treated at a hospital and the medic at the San Francisco jail infirmary thought she had signs of paresis, which is a kind of chronic brain inflammation often found in late neurosyphilis. A doctor at the trial testified he didn’t believe it because she didn’t display the typical symptoms: “I won’t mention them unless you make me,” he said, “because she might have them tomorrow if I do.”

Iva was also seen by two new court-ordered psychiatrists. The three who had examined her before the trial said in court she was a “pathological liar” and a criminal sociopath putting on a show in hopes of avoiding punishment. The new crop of experts diagnosed her as fully psychotic.

Now certifiably physically and psychologically impaired, Iva was once again before Judge Neubarth, who had sentenced her to death almost exactly a year prior. This time she had two lawyers, one of them being famed litigator Melvin Belli whose law firm had also represented her in the damage suit over the injury that caused her incurable limp, which seemed to come and go.

Neubarth and the prosecutor had already agreed it would be a bench trial, as she was such a “mental defect” it would be inhumane to risk a new jury condemning her to death because such a verdict would be easily overturned on appeal. With no objections from her lawyers, Judge Neubarth reduced her sentence to life without parole. “When I say life, I mean life,” Neubarth stated. “She should never be returned to society. I am going to file a special report in which I will urge that she never be released.”

The hearing was over in 25 minutes and the shortened proceedings deprived Iva of a stage where she could perform for her fan club in the gallery. Still, she “…trundled into court in a wheelchair with her left leg bandaged heavily (apparently her own idea and not that of Corona physicians),” according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Afterwards she spoke with reporters in the hallway. “I never had a trial…I don’t believe the judge knowed the truth. I have 108 witnesses to prove my innocence.”

(Curiously, the Press Democrat didn’t have Bony Saludes or any other reporter at the hearing, choosing to print only a 150-word wire service brief which appeared in many other papers.)


Iva and Ralph Kroeger were tried together for the Arneson murders, shared the same lawyer and both received a death penalty, but their trial judge rejected the jury’s decision and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The couple also filed their appeals to the California Supreme Court together – although the reasons asking for a mistrial were quite different.

Iva’s appeal had eight arguments that a white shoe lawyer might call desperatis precibus – let’s throw everything against the wall and see if anything sticks. Some of them were that she was forced to testify against herself, she didn’t have her own attorney, Ralph testified although he was her spouse and she deserved a sanity hearing even though the experts said she was not crazy. Most of these pleas were rejected because she had not brought them up as objections during the trial.

Ralph’s appeal had a single point: He should have had a separate trial. As summed up by the Supreme Court, he argued “…it is reasonable to believe he would have received a different verdict had the case been tried in the usual tranquil atmosphere of the courtroom, but that Iva’s misconduct during the trial so inflamed the jury that it returned its verdict against him out of passion and bias.” Again the high court tossed the argument because there weren’t earlier objections.

No one considered Ralph had any role in planning or committing the murders, and two of the newspaper reporters who covered the entire trial expected him to be acquitted. But he did tell deliberate lies in court and during questioning. Some of his statements and actions were likely to appease his volatile wife (see “The Hapless Husband” section in chapter two) but others point to him covering up crimes or suggest he knew more than he was willing to admit. Some examples:

*   In the summer of 1962 he claimed not to know the whereabouts of Iva, which he told authorities probably meant she was dead. In truth she was apparently hiding at the San Francisco house until she left on her cross-country bus trip in late June. Similarly Ralph said he never knew about or saw her two grandsons, even though a neighbor viewed Iva and Ralph with the kids through a window in August.

*   He said he believed Iva when she told him she was managing the Santa Rosa motel for a physician who bought it from Mildred Arneson in February, 1962. The prosecutor confronted Ralph for having said the mysterious doctor was paying for motel equipment two months before his supposed involvement.

*   Ralph denied cosigning bank loans from the Santa Rosa branch of Bank of America and the Exchange Bank. Handwriting experts testified it was indeed his signature under the name “Ralph Long,” the alias he and Iva used in Santa Rosa.

*   He never noticed the two crude concrete patches in his garage/basement, he insisted. Yet when the cement contractor came to pour a new floor and “picked up a sledgehammer and began to break some of the old cement,” stated the Supreme Court case overview, “The Kroegers angrily stopped him and said they did not want the concrete broken.”

So Iva went back to prison where she was supposed to stay until she died. Not that she minded it much; also in her hallway interview she said, “…I’ll be happy when I go back [to Corona] because they treat people like human beings down there.” In that era it was described as being like a college campus and the cell blocks like dormitories. It’s not hard to find interviews with prisoners insisting that no, it wasn’t all lollipops and puppies and yes, taxpayers should be assured they were being adequately punished.

A 1966 profile quoted the superintendent as saying she “looks very well.” Iva was being her usual sociable self according to the Oakland Tribune, “acting as a runner for the other sixty inmates in her cottage, carrying notes or going on errands.” Ralph wrote to her weekly and tapped his small pension to send her pin money to get cosmetics and such at the prison canteen. Later that year Ralph died of cancer at Folsom State Prison; he is buried at the Lakeside Memorial Lawn Cemetery in Folsom.

The article didn’t mention Iva’s trademark limp, but the superintendent said she was using crutches. She also told the paper that Iva was going blind. “She can’t see from one eye at all. We’re getting her started learning Braille.”

Gentle Reader may recall Iva had a permanently blown out left pupil (a condition known as anisocoria) but neither eye reacted to light. There are several possible causes of the condition; most often it’s from some sort of traumatic brain injury. During her months in Santa Rosa Iva incessantly complained she had to have an operation to fix her gimpy leg, but immediately after being apprehended by the FBI she switched gears – now some sort of expensive eye surgery was needed to save her vision. Anisocoria does not cause blindness.

Time passed. Iva and her horrible deeds were still rehashed in tabloid crime magazines. When reporters and cops who worked on the case retired or died, new details or observations emerged from interviews and obits: “She had 97 different personae. She could be anything she wanted to be.” “Every day was something new. She turned out to be a class A psychopath.” “She even admitted in court, when her husband was sentenced with her, that she had done it all by herself. ‘I lowered them into the hole with wires,’ she screamed.” Were all of those things true? Yeah, maybe. Sure.

The San Francisco Examiner kept track of her for awhile, with little items noting her first parole hearing in 1972 and how she always sent a Christmas poem to Judge Neubarth and birthday greetings to prosecutor Frank Shaw. When Governor Pat Brown made an inspection tour she told him “I was convicted by the newspapers,” and he muttered something that encouraged her to start boasting she would “have a job in the Brown administration” once she got out of the joint.

But it was the Press Democrat and not the Examiner that turned up the real scoop. Gaye LeBaron made an idle query in 1977 to find out how the state might treat a geriatric psychopathic killer. She was surprised to hear “the strange, stumpy, gabby little woman” was paroled in August, 1975. She had served 12 years and three months.

She’s 56 now [Ed: she was actually 59] and totally blind, perhaps from the same disease that killed her husband. Her parole officer says she uses her middle name, Lucille, makes no trouble, “she’s just a bit of a nuisance.” She rides all over Riverside on the city buses with her white cane and likes to tell people how she “served 13 years for a crime she didn’t commit.” She’s going to college, taking sociology classes at UC Riverside and UCLA both, and writing a book about her life which ought to be some story. She has become an active Scientologist and holds much hope for the future…

LeBaron remarked the terms of Iva’s parole (supposedly) legally enjoined her from returning to Northern California, but news that “Grandma” Kroeger was loose still caused “some sweaty palms in town.” The widow of Herbert Willsmore, the tradesman Iva threatened to shoot, said he believed to his dying day he was going to be her next murder victim. The Forestville couple who held the actual mortgage on the Santa Rosa Ave. motel likewise feared she was going to come after them.

In a subsequent column Gaye explained she tried to find out why the parole board released Iva despite her lack of contrition for the gruesome crimes and Judge Neubarth’s plea to toss away the cell door key after locking her up forever. Alas, LeBaron was told details of those prison records were lost in a fire. All we know is the board’s decision was “based on her behavior while she was incarcerated.”

Yet it’s très facile to picture the scene at the parole hearing – after all, she had rehearsed for this performance all of her adult life. Iva walks in – sorry, LIMPS in – with her white cane, probably leaning on the arm of an officer. She is so darn sweet and lovable and has suffered such a difficult life the most hard-hearted member of the parole board wants to reach out to give her a big hug and promise everything will be better. She is the kindest kind of grandmother and arises each dewy morn with a prayer that she will find new ways to inspire everyone to be their better selves. If such a saint doesn’t deserve clemency, then who?

(RIGHT: Iva Kroeger shortly after her 1962 arrest in San Diego. Photo enhanced using HotPot AI)ivaflutter

The most interesting question to debate is how much her near total blindness weighed in the board’s decision. It surely was impossible for her to offend again (not that she would!) and releasing a severely handicapped prisoner would save the Dept. of Corrections more than a few bucks – Gov. Brown was warning there was a need for “public sacrifice” in 1975 because of a very tight budget, even as the California prison population was growing year over year. On the flip side, she had no close family to help care for her and might require even more support from the state once freed.1

As Gaye LeBaron revealed, it turned out Iva was able to get along just fine. After her column appeared the Examiner followed with more details in its own Iva update. Her parole officer told the paper she lived alone in a small apartment in Riverside with an income of $334/mo. from Social Security and disability. “She has extremely limited vision, but she has gone to the Braille Institute and reads Braille very well.” Nonetheless, she had a B+ average at UC/Riverside and was majoring in sociology. And, of course, “she maintains her innocence to everyone.”

The saga of Iva Kroeger might have ended with her continuing on that path for the remainder of her life – content to be out of jail with no worries of being destitute, which seemed to be her driving fear. Free to pursue her offbeat metaphysical beliefs and pestering strangers for attention by wailing about her unjust fate.

But there’s a final chapter to her story that’s on par with many of the other outrageous stunts she pulled. Only this time there was an underlying question about herself that dwarfed the actual crime: Was Iva actually blind – or even visually impaired at all? Had she fooled prison officials, doctors and even the Braille Institute, she was unquestionably one of the greatest confidence artists of all time.

She disappeared after her parole ended in the early 1980s. Her former parole agent told LeBaron she was then living in Long Beach and a religious group in Hawaii offered a permanent administrative job (clue #1 she might not be totally blind). But she instead reverted to her original scam which was impersonating a nurse. She traveled around the country by bus, picking up convalescent jobs.

On one of those bus rides she met a real nurse from San Diego named Edna Weitzel and claimed to be a wealthy landlord who needed a trustworthy assistant to help manage her extensive real estate portfolio. Edna agreed to work for her and they spent a couple of days together gambling in Las Vegas before Iva disappeared. At the time Edna was unaware Iva had swiped her credentials until months later when she was notified by police looking for Iva.2







By 1983 she was mainly working in Florida, where she had relatives. Gentle Reader might recall when Iva was on the lam in 1962 she visited her son who lived near Fort Meyers, taking his young sons back to California with her, where she promptly abandoned them. Whether by coincidence or no, her brother and his extended family also had a home in a different Ft. Meyers suburb. That two branches of her family happened to be near each other would later confuse investigators and newspapers who assumed they must be the same.3

A crisis began in July 1986 when the 18 month-old daughter of Iva’s nephew drowned in a swimming pool. Her father was co-owner of a grocery in Cape Coral and was at work on the day of the child’s death. The nephew and his family didn’t believe his long hours played a role in the accident but Iva took the notion the toddler wouldn’t have died had he been home. Specifically, she blamed his partner Andy Pitcher for scheduling her nephew to be at the store at the time.

And then the death threats began. Instead of her usual M.O. of using an alias, she started calling the Pitcher home and making sure they knew it was Iva Kroeger on the line. “I’m an old woman and I’ve already served 16 years [sic] and the only thing I haven’t decided is how I’m going to kill you.” She had nothing to lose and “if you don’t believe me, check the records. I’ve killed before,” she reportedly said, before describing exactly how she murdered the Arnesons.

Iva told the family she knew “who took the kids to and from day care” and even “where he sat at church.” Pitcher bought a gun and told the kids not to play outside. Their housekeeper took their youngest children, age four and six, to stay with someone on the other side of the state.

Those harassing calls went on for weeks until there was a knock on the door at 12:30 AM. Andy Pitcher opened the door to see an elderly woman. When she asked if Andy lived there, he knew it was Iva. He noticed she was carrying a plastic bag with what appeared to be the barrel of a handgun sticking out the top.

“Hey, you’ve got the wrong house,” he told her.

Incredibly, the bluff worked. Iva wandered away and began waking up neighbors, claiming to be an aunt trying to find Andy’s house. He immediately called the police.

“This lady’s Iva Kroeger and she’s here to kill me!” Pitcher told the policeman answering the call, just as Iva was returning to his house.

Iva – always the most adroit of liars when cornered – gave the officer a fake name, said she was from out of town and lost, trying to find her nephew. She didn’t know anything about this Andy Pitcher fellow or why he was saying bad things about her.

The rookie cop believed the sweet old lady completely. He didn’t look in her bag and gave her a lift to a downtown Holiday Inn. And true to form, she disappeared. That was the last contact law enforcement would ever have with the infamous Iva Kroeger.

It took several weeks for word to reach California that Iva had resurfaced and was again threatening to kill someone. Both the Examiner and Press Democrat refreshed reader’s memories of the 25 year old Iva murder saga, while Gaye LeBaron tied up a crucial loose end: “Police in Cape Coral, Fla., said yesterday there was nothing to indicate she had difficulty seeing when she went to the home of a man she had declared responsible for the death of her grandnephew [sic] and threatened him with a gun.”


We know about her Florida escapades thanks to Cape Coral police detective David Stadelman. After Pitcher’s complaint reached his desk, Stadelman tumbled down the Iva Kroeger rabbit hole, spending a month looking into the history of the killer grandma before seeking a warrant for felony aggravated assault.

Detective Stadelman was a thorough investigator, although delving into Iva-ology from Florida couldn’t have been easy in 1987, sans internet and the ability to read all the old newspaper coverage of her life and crimes. He presumably contacted the San Francisco police and likely the FBI and Sonoma County sheriff as well. He soaked up all he could from the Pitchers and the family of Iva’s nephew. He studied her diaries and mementos left behind when she fled. And one of the things he found revealed she had been back to Santa Rosa.

She may have been (supposedly) prohibited from returning to Northern California but that was just while on parole. So although there was no legal prohibition from her being here afterward, it raises the question why she would want to do so – it’s a strain to imagine she had any friends in the area dating back to her crime spree a couple of decades earlier. And how was she supporting herself? Was she working here in nursing homes under an alias, as she did elsewhere?

Let’s jump now to 1989, over two years since she was last seen in Florida. Charlie Raudebaugh, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who had covered all of Iva’s 1963 murder trial was now retired and living in Oakmont. One February morning he was at Montgomery Village where “he spotted two women about 10 feet away, obviously killing time waiting for a shop to open,” as he said to Gaye LeBaron. Here’s what else he told her:

… One was tall and white haired, quite well dressed. He said he thought, “There’s a dignified-looking middle-aged lady taking her mother out,” and then he realized the “mother” was Iva Kroeger. “Her gestures were the same. She had the same gimp (Kroeger was lame). She moves her hands in an unmistakable scoop-like fashion.” He is absolutely certain it is the same woman who led police on a nationwide chase and made horrifying headlines so many years ago. She realized she was being watched and looked at Raudebaugh. “There was a light of recognition,” Charlie said. “Her gaze intensified and then she turned away”…The woman Raudebaugh saw Monday had no white cane.

As with the Press Democrat’s Bony Saludes, the trial was arguably the biggest and most memorable story of his career. Counting the court hearings before and after, Raudebaugh spent about three months within a few feet of Iva. Sure, he possibly could have mistaken someone else for her – goddesses know so many people did when she was a fugitive – but there were few who could be considered a more reliable witness to identify her. But again, why in the world would she be comfortable being back in Santa Rosa?

Whether or not he really spotted Iva here in 1989, she was then 71 years old and a woman with few options left. It’s impossible to imagine the family would have anything more to do with her. She probably couldn’t get anyone to hire her; even with a stolen or fake ID stating she was younger (and you just know she would have had one) she was a petite and frail-looking old lady who hardly seemed capable of the long hours and physical rigors of convalescent nursing. Perhaps that “dignified-looking middle-aged lady” was someone she conned into supporting her, at least for the moment.

Hard times were on the horizon. We know that in Oct. 1991 she was in contact with Social Security, probably to update records on where her checks should be sent. She was then living in Boston at the Pine St. Inn. It was a homeless shelter.

The charity had a “Women in Transition” program, funded by HUD and the Massachusetts welfare dept. where indigent women could stay up to two years until permanent housing could be found. Iva had reverted to using her birth name Lucille and had also reverted to using a white cane. A May 20, 1993 article in the Boston Globe mentioned her: “Lucille Kroeger, 69, and a Women in Transition guest, is blind and listens to tapes from the Perkins School for the Blind in her cheerfully-decorated room. She has written 418 poems, many at the inn.”

Shortly after that she was moved to St. Helena’s House, a 73 apartment building for the elderly owned by the Boston Archdiocese. Iva lived there the rest of her life.

Iva Lucille Kroeger died June 26, 2000 at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, which was Harvard’s teaching hospital. She had cervical cancer but her cause of death was a heart attack. Her remains were cremated.

True to form, her death certificate contained multiple lies. She was 81 (not 77). She had taken a couple of years of college classes but had not completed two years towards a specific degree. She wasn’t a homemaker. She didn’t own a house. And her name was never legally Iva. In death as in life, she wrapped herself in fog.


1 A 1974 paper in Stanford Law Review stated paroled inmates in California were required to participate in a work or training furlough program on release. That article, however, was specifically about men and does not say what conditions were imposed on those who were disabled and/or elderly.

2 Curiously, no articles about the 1986 incidents can be found in any Florida newspapers currently online. Besides the Press Democrat items cited below, the main source of information came from the Feb. 15 1987 San Francisco Examiner.

3 “The Florida police say she isn’t a Grandma at all, that the children she traveled with in 1962 and abandoned in Oakland weren’t her grandsons but her nephews. One of them may be the father of the drowned child which set her off on her latest rampage.” Gaye LeBaron, Feb. 18 1987




(Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)




KROEGER RETRIAL TO START (May 13 1964, no byline)

IVA ESCAPES GAS CHAMBER (July 3 1964, no byline)

IVA KROEGER GOING BLIND IN PRISON (February 27 1966, Oakland Tribune reprint)

SR KILLER DIES IN PRISON (August 26 1966, no byline)

GAYE LEBARON (October 16 1977)

GAYE LEBARON (October 28 1977)

GAYE LEBARON (October 14 1984)

GAYE LEBARON (October 24 1984)

KILLER GRANDMA HUNTED IN FLORIDA (February 16 1987, Robert Digitale byline)

GAYE LEBARON (February 18 1987)

‘SWEET’ IVA KROEGER’S GRIM CAREER (February 22 1987, Bony Saludes byline)


GAYE LEBARON (March 2 1987)

GAYE LEBARON (February 15 1989)

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