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IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

If a time machine is ever invented, lord help Santa Rosa’s 1960s decision-makers; there will be mobs of howling Facebookers chasing them through the streets for what they did to this town.

Those who hang out in local history and nostalgia social media often write about downtown Santa Rosa in that era as if it were a crime scene; a vintage photo of a picturesque building now demolished, a scene of streets crowded with shoppers will draw tearful emojis and bitter comments. How did all this come to disappear? We know the answer: It was the outcome of the town’s gung-ho embrace of urban renewal schemes, which are the subject of this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”

(This article covers only “Phase I” of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment in the 1960s, when the urban renewal area was limited to the 40 acres between Sonoma ave. and Third street, and from Santa Rosa/Mendocino avenues and E street. Events leading to construction of the Santa Rosa Mall were Phase II and III during the 1970s and will be covered later.)

Other cities and towns climbed aboard the redevelopment gravy train – it was free federal money after all, and the government wasn’t too picky about how it was spent. But few communities were willing to go as far as Santa Rosa and gut so much of their downtown core.

One reason this is so crazy-making for us today is because there was no compelling reason to declare most of the downtown “blighted,” which was their excuse for wiping out entire blocks and more than a hundred historic buildings. The movers ‘n’ shakers of Santa Rosa saw the opposite – downtown was economically blighted because their projections estimated the taxable value of the area after redevelopment would be at least three times greater.*

They were also true believers that anything new was better than old. In a 1961 editorial the Press Democrat dismissed all the old buildings as “substandard” and said tearing them down would “…serve the Santa Rosa of today and the future instead of continuing to be a deteriorating hodge-podge that ‘just growed’ over the past 75 years or so.”

Steering the redevelopment ship was the five-member Urban Renewal Agency (URA), which was created by the City Council in 1958. Its executive director and the appointed members wielded enormous power (including the ability to condemn land using eminent domain without a public hearing) yet faced little criticism except from one persistent fellow named Hugh Codding – more about him in a minute. What the public heard instead was enthusiastic approval from the Council and city staff and particularly the PD, which was the URA’s most ardent cheerleader. The paper leaned hard on the notion that the blighted area really was studded with eyesores, and good riddance; there was a photo they liked to use showing a ramshackle house badly in disrepair with a sagging porch – while neglecting to mention one of the first places to be demolished would be Luther Burbank’s house.

Redevelopment programs became infamous for graft and corruption but I don’t find a whiff of that happening here. While the URA was biased toward particular developers and clearly treated Codding unfairly, I fully believe everyone’s motives were well-intentioned – that they expected the result of their labors would truly create a city beautiful. Of course, very little worked out as well as they expected and they ended up creating a city regrettable. To paraphrase the great disclaimer at the start of the movie, Fargo:

This is a true story. The events described here took place in Santa Rosa, California. Out of respect for the survivors of those times and their families, keep in mind the decision-makers back then were not fools, dunderheads or venal crooks, though some of their choices seem glaringly stupid today. But hey, it was the 1960s, when everybody was a little nuts.

Santa Rosa’s Big Urban Renewal Adventure kicked off in 1960, when the city tapped some of the URA’s government money to hire New Jersey urban planning experts to come up with ideas on what they should do with the six blocks to be redeveloped. They developed a model that everyone here loved like a warm puppy – it was so popular they had to schedule showings of it in bank lobbies and store windows.

Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below
Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below

 

Their model shows a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek greenway with the city hall and state building on its southern bank (an earlier drawing shows the courthouse and jail there, before it was decided in mid-1960 to rebuild at the county administration center). There was plenty of parking spaces, a big department store and several mixed retail/office buildings.

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

No, strike that – they kept the parking lot next to the library and the parking garage at Third and D.

Without a master plan the URA couldn’t provide a rudder for what should be built and where, aside from vague expectations there should be a new city hall, a major department store (or two) and a “shopping center.” Read that again, slowly: The only planning provided by the city was what to condemn and demolish, leaving it to the developers to shape how downtown would look and function. The Press Democrat had welcomed urban renewal as an opportunity to rid Santa Rosa of its “hodge-podge” appearance, but we were preparing to hodge-podge it up again, only now with plenty of very undistinguished office buildings.

Megapolitan(RIGHT: The 500,000 sq. ft. proposal for downtown Santa Rosa from Megapolitan Corp. The street glimpsed at the top is presumably Sonoma ave.)

In place of the master plan there were four proposals made to the URA in 1963. (A reminder again that this was for the six blocks directly south of Courthouse Square, not the current location of the mall.) Two developers pitched conventional shopping centers with no big anchor stores – one used the top floor for professional offices. An ambitious bid from the Megapolitan Corp. of Los Angeles called for a massive shopping center which was virtually an indoor, self-sufficient town, sans housing. The bizarre plan called for a “European opera house” with seating for 1,500 that “could accommodate full broadway, concert, opera, and ballet productions” a nightclub, two “theater bars,” dance and health studios, laundry and dry cleaning shops, a supermarket, drug store, billiard hall and a “host of specialty tenants.” (Whew!)

The winning proposal in 1964 came from the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (called here “SRBCRC” to avoid confusion with all other things Burbank). This was a financing consortium put together by Henry Trione and his friends, not planners or architects – they hired top-notch Bay Area designers to come up with actual plans. Their original presentation included two department stores plus a “Civic Tower” on Courthouse Square straddling a sunken roadway, as discussed in the article on the development of the city hall complex.

That the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for ownership of the entire 40 acres irked Hugh Codding no end, mostly because the agreement was made with the price yet to be negotiated at some future date. Once he became a City Councilman, Codding would needle the URA directors by sarcastically asking if SRBCRC had made a downpayment yet.

But despite the URA’s founding promise that redevelopment would draw big-name stores to downtown Santa Rosa, it seemed no companies were willing to take a chance. It was rumored that Macy’s was interested; nope. J.C. Penny? Pass. Emporium? Sorry. SRBCRC hired another set of architects to draw up new layouts. “The success of any of the plans was highly speculative,” Trione wrote in his autobiography. “Potential buyers were very cautious.”

It wasn’t that those companies were cautious about building new stores – it was that they were leery about Santa Rosa’s downtown; their location scouts couldn’t help but notice parking was a headache (and not free). The uncertain status of the redevelopment area meant their future neighbors could range from an upscale jewelry store to a smelly fast food joint, and ongoing construction would keep the area dusty and noisy for years to come. No, a smarter bet would be to build a department store in a spanking new shopping mall with none of those drawbacks. Coddingtown, for example. And so they did.

Looking ahead, Trione and his company built offices, banks and government buildings (which, I imagine, few of us have ever had reason to visit). The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base.

But in the autumn of 1965, the Press Democrat’s editor Art Volkerts imagined it was the start of a glorious transformation. In a puff-piece “URA Holds Promise in Heart of Santa Rosa” he wrote,

…What will this mean to Santa Rosa? Well, it will mean more tax revenues to help pay for the city’s expanding services. It will mean bright, new buildings rising in an area which was fast becoming a civic blight…it now seems certain that the URA project will indeed be a flower worthy of maturing next to Santa Rosa’s beloved Burbank Gardens.

Others more clear-eyed saw it meant 37 businesses had been displaced and 44 families plus 43 single individuals had lost their homes. For the next few years there would be forty acres of vacant lots scraped down to the dirt waiting for all that greatness which would not come.

NEXT: THE TWO COURTHOUSE SQUARES

* “In its present run-down condition, the Santa Rosa urban renewal area is assessed at $859,000. The least favorable of the several forms which redevelopment could take will result in real and personal values assessed at $2,413,700.” Press Democrat editorial, July 17, 1961. By 1965, the PD was claiming the current value was about $3 million and should be worth over $12M.
1965 model of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC
1965 drawing of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC

 

 

Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates
Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates

 

 

Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency
Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency

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THE 1964 HANLY FIRE

You the boys from Rincon?” The man asked the three teenagers. They said yes.

“You better get your butts back home,” the Fire Captain told them. “The Calistoga Fire is heading to Santa Rosa fast.”

Edd Vinci and his friends were stunned. They were there in the Glen Ellen Forestry Station because they were waiting for a truck to give them a ride to the fire line in the nearby hills, where a blaze had everyone worried because it was headed for the town of Sonoma. What would be more important than fighting that danger? And what could a fire over in Napa have to do with his neighborhood in Rincon Valley?

Edd and the Fisher brothers did as they were told, hopping on the firetruck heading back to Santa Rosa. It was around 4PM on Monday, September 21, 1964.

Before that day was over, the 16 year-old Edd Vinci would face a wall of flames rushing towards him faster than he could possibly run, and in that moment felt certain he was about to die.1

This is the story of Santa Rosa’s 1964 Hanly fire. There were other major fires burning at the same time; the Rincon Valley boys were originally headed to the one which was called the Nunns Canyon/Kenwood/Sonoma Valley fire, which threatened Sonoma City and would nearly wipe out the Springs villages. There was the Mt. George fire burning through the canyons east of Napa City, headed for Fairfield. All told, there were 94 wildfires in the North Bay during the ten days between September 18-28. There are many interesting and exciting stories to tell of those days, but this is not the place. This is just the story of the 1964 Hanly fire and how it descended upon Santa Rosa.

Of particular interest is that the 1964 Hanly fire almost exactly matches the path of the 2017 Tubbs fire. As far as can be determined, this was also the path of the Great Fire of 1870. As mentioned in that article, once can be an accident; twice could be a coincidence but three times is a pattern.

Comparison of Hanly and Tubbs fires. Map courtesy city of Santa Rosa
Comparison of Hanly and Tubbs fires. Map courtesy city of Santa Rosa

 

The Hanly fire was first spotted at 10:15AM on Saturday, September 19. It was the end of a fairly typical Wine Country autumn week; days in the upper 80s, cool nights with a marine layer hugging the coast. The Press Democrat weather forecast called it “picnic weather.” The forecast also mentioned “very high fire danger” and the State Forestry Dept. told the PD the fuel moisture index was at 3, which is “about as low as it gets.”

The earliest record of the Hanly fire came from the Napa Register. Most of the short article concerned two Napa homes endangered by grass fires elsewhere, but mentioned there was a fire on top of Mt. St Helena which was “…reported spreading rapidly because of high winds on the peak.” An eyewitness told the newspaper the fire “seems to be swirling around on itself” and watched as a stand of trees at the top of the mountain went up in flames.

Harriett Madsen, who wrote the occasional “Napa Valleyhoo” society and gossip column for the Press Democrat, later gave a fuller account of Day One:


[It] started on Mt. St. Helena in the high rocks and timber…to the right of the Lake County Highway, north of Hanly’s on the Mountain about 3/4 of a mile. It was not thought to be too serious at the time. Calistoga Fire Department responded and held the situation until the Forestry units began arriving. The fire, during that day, was contained in about 40 acres of timber and rocks. As time went on, the fire refused to be contained…it kept creeping and popping up where one would least expect it.

How the fire started will be forever unknown, unless someone spits out a deathbed confession. It was a wild, incredibly steep area only familiar to deer hunters, who instantly became the prime suspects. In a wrapup story that went over the AP wire it was speculated a “carelessly tossed cigarette butt would have been enough” to start the blaze. In the years since, the “careless hunter” theory has become baked into the Hanly fire story as established fact.

hanlyad(RIGHT: Weekly Calistogan ad from August, 1958)

But in the Press Democrat’s first edition on the day after the fire began, another possibility was mentioned: Some deer hunters burn grass on the last day of hunting season, both to promote new growth to feed the deer in the spring and for clearing tall grass at favorite hunting spots to give the hunter better sight lines. The Hanly fire indeed began on the closing day of deer hunting season – a season which hunters had found disappointing, with the number of deer killed down 20 percent.

And while fires are commonly named after some landmark near their origin, calling it Hanly was particularly apropos. Hanly’s-on-the-Mountain was a roadhouse off of Highway 29 that catered to deer hunters; shooters brought their kill there to be weighed and measured for the deer pool to see who bagged the largest buck that season, with several dozen being carted in some weeks. The place rented cabins to hunters from outside the area and hosted an annual venison BBQ that drew tourists. Whether the fire began with a dropped cigarette or as a deliberate act to improve next year’s hunting, you can bet the man responsible was a regular at Hanly’s place.

It was that later AP story which first called it the Hanly fire, likely getting the name from the same person in the Forestry Dept. who thought it might have been caused by a cigarette. That first day it was just called the “Mount St. Helena fire.” On day two it became known as the “Calistoga fire.”

Conditions were bad again that Sunday with only 15 percent humidity, but it looked as if the danger was minimal from this fire. It was considered to be contained at least once, having burned only about 40 acres. All of the serious action was in Sonoma county fighting the blaze around Kenwood.

Then around sunset came the Diablo Winds, gusting over 70MPH.

Before firefighters could be brought into position, the front was bearing down on Calistoga from the north and east sides. Burned to the ground was the Tubbs Mansion, near where the 2017 fire would later originate. Forty other houses disappeared.

An emergency evacuation of all 2,500 residents was called, with Calistoga police driving through town with bullhorns announcing there were school buses waiting to take everyone to St. Helena. Ranchers opened gates for their animals to run free and hopefully not burn to death. Several owners of resorts around the geysers uncapped the vents to allow the hot water to shoot 75 feet into the air and douse their buildings. Later it was agreed the only thing that saved the town was a sudden shift of wind direction.

Day three. When the sun came up Monday morning the winds were still over 50MPH at higher elevations, and the Sonoma Valley situation was now a firestorm, creating its own winds. Air tankers could no longer fly over it to do water drops; the only way the fire chiefs could get a good view of the battlefield was by borrowing a giant helicopter from PG&E.

The Hanly-Calistoga fire kept burning eastward, while some late morning winds were also starting to blow the other side of the fire west toward Knights Valley. That western front grew. It kept growing. “By late afternoon the astonishing fact was clear: The fire was uncontrollable in the rich, dry fuels of the timber country and if it was to be stopped it would be at Santa Rosa,” the Press Democrat wrote the next day.

By 6PM there were flames on both side of Franz Valley School Road and when the sun finally surrendered to the fire-lit darkness, again came the Diablo Winds. The monster was now in Mark West Canyon. “From Calistoga Road the fire could be seen racing over the ridges, sweeping down on Santa Rosa,” the PD reported.

While this crisis was swiftly building, paving contractors working on Mark West Springs Road kept to their schedule for oiling the road in the late afternoon and early evening. Because of the closed lane bottleneck, there were backups in both directions as evacuees sought to flee and trucks tried to reach the firelines. County resident engineer Carroll Campbell discovered the situation and argued with the company superintendent, who blithely insisted they weren’t causing a problem. Campbell later fumed over their stupidity to the PD: “They went ahead blindly…it was inexcusable.” There are some stories no fiction writer can make up.

Now began the trying time. Some that night were calm, some were frantic; some were on the street mesmerized by the sight of burning ridgelines, some were urgently pushing children and pets into the family station wagon, some were standing on their roofs with a garden hose while leaning into the powerful and horrible wind which carried the charcoal and chemical smells of homes already lost.

In the hours around midnight the fires touched or threatened everything around Santa Rosa north and east. There were an estimated 500-600 firefighters and volunteers defending the city, including teenagers like Edd Vinci and his pals.

The Montgomery High junior had skipped school that day along with about a quarter of the other students, same as Santa Rosa High. As a Rincon Valley volunteer, Edd had strapped on a five-gallon water tank and backed up the fire dept. by spraying down hotspots when there were neighborhood grass fires. This was far, far different, as the proverbial flames of hell came rushing at breakneck speed down the Rincon Grade.

Vinci and a tiny crew were near the corner of Wallace and Riebli Roads where there was no protection, no place to hide. He wore no firefighter gear nor mask, just his t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He was fuel. “Wow, this is it, we were all going to die,” he remembers thinking more than a couple of times.

“It was a wall of fire coming right at us, coming so fast,” he recalls, and it was as if time stopped – he has no precise memory of how long it took for the firestorm to reach him, seconds or minutes.

There was a roaring sound, he can recall, but not the moment when jets of flames flashed over their heads. “It was on us, and then past us just as fast.” Today he still speaks about it in awe, as if he had been invited onstage by a great magician to participate in one amazing damn trick.

chronheadline19640922

 

The terrible night crawled on into Tuesday, day four of the Hanly fire. There was a full moon, orange and almost hidden by smoke and raining ash. The fire kept the air in Santa Rosa from cooling off, with the low that night being 84°. You can be sure no one was sleeping.

The mood was grim. About 5,000 homes had been evacuated on the north end of town, from Chanate to Ribeli Roads. Dick Torkelson, the PD news editor was at city hall command center, where the “…gloom is as stifling as the atmosphere. There are no smiles, no jokes; the situation is too serious. Just quiet talk, black coffee and chains of cigarette smoking even by men who quit months ago.”

The immediate concern was the County Hospital on Chanate – unless there was a sudden and drastic shift in the winds the fire would soon reach the campus, where hundreds of patients were still inside.2

In June, Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Michael Turnick had warned the Board of Supervisors that the hospital was a “definite fire hazard…a greater than normal hazard to life” because there was no sprinkler system in the main section. Supervisor “Nin” Guidotti said he objected to Turnick’s “scare approach” and thought the county should punt on a decision until the next year. The matter was tabled.

A small army of firefighters were gathering to defend the hospital including 85 fire units from as far away as Redding. On the line were experienced firemen, National Guardsmen and many teenage students – as many as 600 were there to make a last stand to save Santa Rosa. “Old timers in the fire fighting business and the law enforcement business said they never saw so many policemen and firemen in action in Northern California,” wrote Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes.3


With flames as high as a three or four story building licking up the trees and brush, the orders were given to stand by to evacuate the patients…the doctors and hospital attendants held a meeting as the fire approached and made plans for the evacuation. Despite the nerve shattering situation no one panicked, not even the patients, some of whom were very old, bedridden and in wheelchairs. – Bill Soberanes

Nurses from all three shifts and the entire staff of eleven doctors awaited orders; there were buses and Army Reserve trucks waiting to carry patients to the National Guard Armory and hospitals. “At one point some 30 patients were loaded on buses for evacuation,” the PD reported, “but they were ordered back.” Turnick had made a bold decision not to evacuate patients unless the hospital actually caught on fire.

The Hanly fire announced itself when a bush in the middle of the parking lot burst into flames along with two eucalyptus trees on the edge of the lot.

The Press Democrat: “…The fire raged closer and closer, encircling the hospital on three sides and coming as close as 100 yards.4 Sparks showered the building’s walls but fire fighters bulldozed the area to the West and North and soaked nearby trees.”

Bill Soberanes: “The massive flames continued to literally leap towards the hospital, and we joined the volunteers who climbed on top of it and with wet towels beat out the large cinders that were landing all over the roof.”

The fight to save the county hospital went on for hours while the doctors and nurses comforted the patients who were undoubtedly anxious and fearful. “Inside, the air was stifling hot and smoky. The staff was acting as nonchalant as possible so no panic would arise,” wrote PD reporter Don Engdahl.

The hospital was declared safe around three in the morning, but Hanly would not let go of Santa Rosa so easily. It reached as far west as the modern-day crossing of Mendocino Ave and Fountaingrove Parkway, and on the other side of town it was stopped just north of Badger Road. By 4:30AM authorities said they were starting to get it all under control. By the end of the day it was said to be about 60% controlled.

pdheadline19640922

 

No story of the Hanly fire has been retold as often as the hospital fight, which has become the stuff of myth. Since then it’s been said Turnick virtually saved the place himself by jumping on a bulldozer to cut a fire break, while others credit Frank Rackerby, the hospital’s building operating engineer for doing same with a tractor. There was nothing in the newspapers at the time supporting either claim, but there were about twelve bulldozers on the line fighting fires here that day.

The takeaway from the 1964 Hanly fire should be how it demonstrated personal courage of so many and not just a few. Assistant Chief George Elliott: “We just had to make a wall to save the city. And that’s what we did. We put everything we had, hands, tools, fingers and sacks. We had wonderful assistance from all the people,” he told the PD, adding without all that help the fire would have burned deep into Santa Rosa.

One of those uncelebrated heroes was Edd Vinci, who worked all night and made it back to the main Rincon Valley firehouse around dawn. He had something to eat and then walked home. The streets were quiet and deserted. Lawn sprinklers splashing water on the roofs of empty homes only added to the surreal quality of that morning, with the City of Roses bathed in dim, red shadowless light.

 

nasamapMap courtesy NASA, “A Partnership Forged by Fire.” Their website has a moveable curtain to compare the 1964 fires with 2017, but the effect will not work on all web browsers.

There are two videos related to the Hanly fire. Roger Halverson made a home movie from the Redwood Village Mobile Home Park on Airport Blvd. which mainly shows air tankers, but there are two views of the fire, probably taken in the late afternoon and evening of Sept. 21. The other short was apparently filmed by the Highway Patrol and mostly shows fire trucks and crews, but there is aerial footage of the fires burning in the timberland.


1 All Edd Vinci quotes from interview, Sept. 6, 2019

2Newspapers reported the patient count from 230 to “over 300.” About ten pediatric patients had already been taken to Memorial as a precaution.

3All Bill Soberanes quotes from Redwood Rancher magazine, October, 1964.

4Other accounts say the flames came within 200 yards and even 20 feet of the buildings.

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