voguemantitle

ALL OUR FUTURES PAST

Santa Rosa is an optimistic town, and has been since the first trains chugged into Railroad Square in the 1870s. But it’s not truly a virtue; that optimism is rooted in our bigshots having relentless ambitions to make us into an economic powerhouse which would make them rich. Someday, in their fever dreams, Santa Rosa will be a great metropolis anchoring the northern end of the Bay Area. True, such growth or clout might not happen tomorrow, but it’s surely just over the horizon – or so the town’s nabobs have told us, our parents, our grandparents and even our great-grandparents.

That may be why the Press Democrat had a fondness for stories predicting Santa Rosa’s bonny future. Other newspapers also printed those sorts of articles, usually on special anniversaries such as a town’s centennial. But the PD needed no excuse to gaze into a crystal ball and their forecasts would pop up at any time.

I’ve collected a dozen from the first half of the 20th century (likely there are many more to find) and I love these things; usually they’re a mix of whiz-bang gadgets that are nearly magical, loopy ideas culled from science fiction and wild predictions which sometimes actually did come true. Common threads include flying cars, that television will make us smarter and better people and nobody will really have to work hard. Women’s fashions are always going to be very, very strange.

vogueman(RIGHT: “Man of the Future” by Gilbert Rohde had an antenna hat for “snatching radio and Omega waves from the ether” and wore a telephone on his chest. The “solo-suit” is considered the first example of wearable tech. Rohde was best known as a modernist furniture designer. Vogue, Feb. 1939)

The wildest prediction appeared here earlier in its own article, “SANTA ROSA IN THE YEAR 3000.” Author John Tyler Campbell, an attorney who penned the city’s first charter and later became a politician and diplomat, predicted in 1913 that a “great upheaval” in the Pacific Ocean would close the Golden Gate Strait. Fortunately, “around the year 1925 Sonoma county built a canal connecting the Russian river to the Petaluma river, through the Laguna, Mark West and Santa Rosa creeks. It was big enough to handle the largest ocean steamships…” Santa Rosa thus became the major seaport on the coast, and in the year 2905 the nation’s capitol was moved from Washington D.C. and “built on Taylor mountain after it was graded down to an elevated plateau.” Give it a read – it’s pretty wacky stuff.

Here’s a sample of some of the other futuristic visions that appeared in the Press Democrat:

1928 → 1953   Lee W. Nelson was a Press Democrat city reporter in the late 1920s-early 1930s before becoming an editor at the Healdsburg Tribune. His October 28, 1928 semi-humor essay is on par with what many others believed about radio evolving into an internet-like media appliance.

“A telephontophone service” is now available to PD subscribers. “Users of this service will now receive their papers the instant they are off the press, as the telephotophone transmits the copies directly to home radio sets equipped with the special attachment…where they are recorded on photostatic plates. After the paper has been read the plates are cleaned by a special chemical preparation and replaced in the receiver to be used again.”

This week the California Theater will be broadcasting “Primitive Passion” on its private wave length. Anyone with a season key can watch it at home, but “One-week keys, which will bring the theater programs for seven days into the home by attaching the key to the radio, are on sale at the box office.”

He wrote the fictional Mrs. Carrie Waite Leightly was divorcing her husband for lying about “going on a fishing trip to Michigan for the day. But Mrs. Leightly, while sitting in her parlor, casually looking over the world with her radio television, discovered him at the Folies Bergère in Paris with a bold blonde.”

The city and county have enacted new air and motor reform laws, “making it a misdemeanor for private or taxi planes to use Fourth street or Mendocino avenue for landing or taking off between 6AM and 6PM on weekdays.” It is also illegal to operate commercial landing fields on buildings less than 25 stories in height, so apparently we have skyscrapers in 1953.

“Construction of a helicopter-rocket catapult at the Santa Rosa airport was completed today…” This means we have direct flights “to the nearest planets” (Mars and Saturn are mentioned) and no longer need making the “long trip to San Francisco” which takes twelve minutes.

Reporter Nelson seems to have believed Prohibition would never end and finished his satire with a very Roaring Twenties view of the future: “SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 13, 1953 – Mortimer C. de Kay, noted sociologist visiting here today, declared the younger generation is ‘going to the dogs.’ ‘Fast roadster planes, one-armed piloting, petting parties on the planets, jazz music and liquor are doing the evil,’ he asserted.”

1935 → 1985/2010   Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley penned many editorials in the 1930s promising TV was right around the corner, but in this July 17, 1935 op/ed he predicted what life would be like 50-75 years from then. Some of it misses the target (doors will open and close “automatically by invisible rays”) but mostly it’s the usual stuff with everyone flying everywhere and living lives of leisure:

Air-conditioning in summer and automatic heating in winter will be provided everywhere. Our power will probably be drawn from the sun. The automobile of that day, swift, light and sure, will be propelled at small cost with little or no inconvenience. Television will be part of the radio or telephone, in every home.

Another part of the column, however, leaves us wondering what the hell was going on in the Finley household: “The people of that day will look back upon what we are doing now and laugh at our crudeness and simplicity…They will joke about the way grandpa and grandma had to get along with only one bathroom downstairs, and two, perhaps, on the upper floor.”

Finley ends on a weird utopian/apocalyptic note – which is quite a bit of acrobatics: “California will be a veritable empire of itself, unique, offering climatic and cultural advantages to be found no other place on the continent. Or there may be no California. Who can tell?” (July 17, 1935)

1956 → 2056   The houses of tomorrow are all gonna be like double-wides – albeit nice ones.

“Cal” Caulkins was Santa Rosa’s top architect c. 1935-1960 and when he came back from WWII he had a vision to redesign almost all of Santa Rosa’s downtown core from the ground up. His plan was the city’s last hope to remake itself into a model civic center; what happened to that design was told here in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.”

Caulkins thought in the mid-21st century “houses will be built of a wide variety of standard aluminum, insulated sections, colored as desired.” These pre-fabricated parts are completely finished at the factories and the interlocking sections can be easily assembled at the building site without the need of skilled labor.

Because of the many sections and colors the design possibilities will be almost unlimited. Natural climate will have practically no affect on comfort in the future home. The house will be completely sealed. All air will be automatically conditioned, that is washed, adjusted humidity, medically treated, filtered, heated or cooled to any desired temperature and without delay.

Land is still expensive, tho, so these houses are “very compact.” But no need to feel claustrophobic – the whole house is able to rotate, so the view can shift as desired. (Pity the poor mail carriers and delivery people hunting for the front door, sometimes having to thrash through shrubbery – or does the landscaping rotate too?)

Only bedrooms and bathrooms have fixed partitions; the rest of the interior is separated by movable screens. “Much of the furniture including beds and chairs and tables will be out of sight, and will appear at the wave of the hand in a particular area.” There are no lamps or other light fixtures; the whole ceiling glows, its brightness set with dimmers.

In Caulkins’ future there are no utility bills except for water. All power is supplied by a small nuclear plant that came with the house. There’s no sewer because wastewater is “flushed into a container filled with chemicals.” Next time you visit a Porta Potty, think of it as offering a whiff of the future.

Cal Caulkins "House of Tomorrow." Press Democrat, Oct. 21, 1956
Cal Caulkins “House of Tomorrow.” Press Democrat, Oct. 21, 1956

1956 → 2056   Like the Caulkins prediction, this opinion on future fashion comes from the Oct. 21, 1956 centennial edition of the Press Democrat. (The PD was founded in 1897. Why they claimed – and continue to claim – their roots go back to the disreputable, bigoted Sonoma Democrat is beyond me.)

Elizabeth Case, a top-shelf Hollywood fashion designer who resettled here a couple of years earlier, thought the women of 2056 would be “taller and more slender than today” thanks to exercise and improved processed foods. “People will know how to live longer so that the mature body of a sixty-year-old woman will be active, firm and far more beautiful than at the formative age of 16.”

casefashionIt is an “era of comfort and good taste” without corsets (“waistlines will be diminutive naturally”) and the “freedom costume of tomorrow” might be knee breeches with a lingerie blouse – although sans that tacky “TV cleavage display” – or the woman of tomorrow might “go completely feminine in short, full skirts.”

The “ruffled petticoats so popular today should be even more so 100 years hence” and historical styles could also be revived; “hoop skirts may make a simulated comeback, but not of whalebone and crinoline. They will be purely inflationary push button style.” Ladies, guard that remote control from falling into a prankster’s hand.

“The combination of chemistry and agricultural waste will establish a wondrous foundation for a whole new series of ‘Phenomenal Phabrics,'” particularly in swimwear. “Woven of exquisite leaf pattern, the swimsuit is actually made partly of waste wood pulp and sheds water like a duck. It is also sensitive to ultraviolet rays so the wearer receives an even suntan.”

Miss Redwood Empire also has a Phenomenal Phabric flying suit:

The new model is a marvel of light, seamless construction from an indestructible, protective fabric with a system of fins and gliders under push button control at finger tips. The peak of the helmet provides an ideal spot for directional antenna. Clear vision is supplied for the eyes, and the face covering gives the effect of a seductive veil. The boots lock together at the ankles so that the wearer is actually poised on her own private landing gear…
…She need not wait for helicopter taxi at the airport because she is wearing her own short haul transportation. Naturally, she will have to learn to fly just like learning to dance ballet, to ski, to swim and to dive. What a new sport to sail through the air on her own little nuclear power! What a thrill to be tuned in on her destination beam a few hundred feet above ground, over the tree and roof tops. Imagine flying through rain or snow!
So goodbye to topcoat, umbrella and galoshes for the flying suit makes a perfect traveling costume. From luncheon in Paris to shopping in New York, it can be quickly checked in restaurant or department store dressing rooms…under it she wears a new type of garment combining trousers, hosiery and shoes which allows absolute freedom of motion in this nuclear way of living.

But why would she limit her luncheons and shopping to boring old Earth? “When a passenger on a giant ‘Nuclearnautica’ linking the planets, she can relax in her own pressurized atmosphere and arrive in a new world completely refreshed.”

1968 → 2068   In less than fifty years from now, Santa Rosa will disappear.

So sayeth Ken Blackman, who was city manager for three decades starting in 1970. Before that he was city planning director and between the two positions, he deserves a big share of the thanks (or voodoo doll pins) for how downtown Santa Rosa looks today. This makes him a particularly interesting person to predict our future.

Blackman thought the entire West Coast, from San Diego to Canada, would be a single, unbroken megalopolis – although there will be some “small pockets of resistance that will remain remote,” he told the PD. Gentle Reader may wish to take a moment to ponder that a man in his position viewed critics of unfettered development as the “resistance.”

“I think Santa Rosa’s population by 2068 will be in the area of 300,000 to 500,000 depending on the density of development allowed. The predominate method of living will be apartments with most in excess of five stories.” (The 2021 population of Santa Rosa is about 175 thousand.) Packing the place formerly known as Santa Rosa with so many people will lead to big-city problems, Blackman told the paper, which he expected will create demands for some type of sound regional government. He did not address how those pesky pockets of resistance might fit into his utopia.

“Agricultural areas will be clearly defined and off-limits to subdivision development. Separations between cities may well be by agricultural means such as farming and timber.” National forests and reserves are still preserved, and most open space is “government controlled as other areas are utilized for urban purposes.”

Autos are banned because of dwindling petroleum and air pollution, with most streets turned over to foot traffic. “There will have to be some form of above ground travel at low cost and high speed” but it won’t be today’s forms of rapid transit, which are considered as much an antique as the steam engine. There are no major airports because of nearby “sub-airports” large enough to handle vertical takeoff aircraft. Most of our leisure time is spent visiting other places, and “travel time to San Francisco from Santa Rosa will be four or five minutes.”

All utilities are underground because buildings keep getting higher and higher. Following that comment the 1968 article noted, “a step toward this is the State Public Utilities Commission ruling that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. must start converting to underground this year.” Was that memo lost in the mail?

Our water comes from desalination plants and our sewage is probably handled by incineration. As for garbage, “all resources in 100 years will have realized importance and we won’t be throwing them away as we are today. We can’t find places today to get rid of garbage. In 100 years, we’ll be reusing it.” (March 17, 1968)

The Press Democrat didn’t just tap local soothsayers – they ran seemingly every future prediction item that came across the wire. Other papers reprinted some of those stories too, of course, but the PD had an insatiable appetite for them, particularly under the editorship of the town’s über-booster Finley.

Those broader predictions likewise had a mixed record of accuracy. In 1923 E. Fatterini, an “able Italian engineer,” said “the problem of power for flying machines would be solved by wireless transmission of power.” A Dr. Panunzio at UCLA looked at the census data in 1940 and predicted we would be drinking less milk and more whisky, beauty parlors would multiply and people would flee the cities for the country life. Someone could fill a book with all those predictions. Probably several books.

Many were just silly because the “expert” didn’t know what (s)he was talking about, but not all were fools or cranks. One very peculiar example was British “Professor” A. M. Low, whose views of things to come were the subject of a July 21, 1925 wire service article in the PD:

Taking a peep at the average man on an average day in the near future. Low sees him rising at 9:30 o’clock at the call of a radio alarm clock. He will then have to exercise care not to put on his wife’s clothing by mistake, the scientist remarks. During his quickly dispatched breakfast taken while dressing the pleasant-toned loud speaker will keep him informed on the days happenings, while a television machine will give him a glimpse thereof. Food will either come from a communal kitchen by the tube or delivered hot daily from the big store.

Low was undeniably a genius who did pioneering work in many scientific fields and can be called the inventor of the drone airplane. Trouble was, he couldn’t keep his focus on anything long enough to finish it. As his Wikipedia entry states, “if it wasn’t for this inability to see things to a conclusion, Low could well have been remembered as one of the great men of science.”

The article about Low that appeared in the PD was to promote his new work, “The Future.” In the next thousand years, he declared in the book, education of children will begin before birth, men will become bald and our legs will gradually be atrophied from non-use. “Telepathy will be more employed” and war will be conducted by “flying submarines.” Those details weren’t in the Press Democrat version of the article, however; only rosy futures – and preferably those describing great sprawling cities – were welcome here, thanks.

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WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

Santa Rosa has a history of making regrettable decisions, lord knows, and this series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” delves into just the cascading series of failures leading up to construction of the shopping mall, which was the ultimissimo mistake. But in our big book of blunders there’s one small chapter where the town didn’t pick the worst possible option – although it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The project we were trying so hard to screwup was (once again) Courthouse Square, and this attempt started in 1966, the same year we tore down the courthouse. Immediately following that we stabbed a four-lane street through the middle and declared that the western sliver of what remained would now be called “Old Courthouse Square.” That part of the story was explored in the previous article, “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’“.

All of that had been done under the authority of Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of downtown Santa Rosa, as also discussed in that article. As a first step that year the county had sold all of Courthouse Square (plus the county garage and jail) to the URA for $400k, but the county only expected to be paid half of that, considering the new street and west side of the Square as a donation. To raise the remaining $200k, the plan was that the city would sell the east side of the Square to a developer. “For Sale: 26,000 sq. Feet,” read the URA marketing blurb, with an asking price of $305k.

But a year passed with only a single bid: Eureka Federal Savings offered $260k (can’t have enough massive bank buildings squatting on prime downtown locations). Potential buyers found the city’s right to sell the property was…uncertain, to say the least.

This was hardly the first time questions about ownership of the Square were raised; you could say it was Sonoma County’s oldest parlor game, going back to just after the Civil War (see sidebar).

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THAT TROUBLESOME GIFT

The town was founded, as everyone knows, in 1854 by Barney Hoen & Co. and Julio Carrillo. They also donated a couple of acres for a central plaza, with the company providing the eastern half and Julio giving the western side. The notarized Oct. 23, 1854 dedication document stated “the public square…[is] donated to and for the use and benefit of Sonoma County forever…”

At that moment Carrillo was one of the wealthiest men in Sonoma county, but Fortuna did not smile upon him long. Around Christmas of 1867, Julio found himself unable to feed his family (12 kids!) because he didn’t have enough credit left with storekeepers to buy a meager sack of flour. “Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza,” wrote historian Robert Thompson, attempting to sell it to three local men for $300, as told in “COURTHOUSE SQUARE FOR SALE, CHEAP.”

The first news about the “re-deed” appeared in the Santa Rosa paper shortly after New Year’s Day, 1868, when it was also discovered that the 1854 document was never recorded – an oversight which was immediately corrected, albeit 13 years late. Still, the men who claimed to now own some of the most valuable property in town persisted, building a shack on the plaza in the middle of the night (it was torn down the next day). They tried to do it again in 1870, but it was also knocked down immediately as the town council rushed through an ordinance explicitly making it illegal to put up a building in the plaza.

In the 1870s Santa Rosa acted like they owned the place, as the Common Council passed more ordinances about the plaza and made improvements: Gates must be kept closed (“Is it not astonishing that some people will be so careless as to leave the gates of our Plaza open after they have passed through, so that cows and other animals can get in?” – Sonoma Democrat, Feb. 26, 1870), liquor and cussing were banned and new benches were added along with a flagpole.

The next dust-up came in 1883, when county supervisors decided we needed a new courthouse – the one at the current location of Exchange Bank was a leaky, plaster-cracked mess. Santa Rosa insisted it should be built in the middle of the Plaza. Petaluma objected, and offered to built it in their town; Santa Rosa founders Hahman and Hoen objected, saying it had been gifted with the clear intent of it remaining a park; even District Attorney Thomas Geary opined “the county had no more right to put a building there than they had on the county road.” The squabble ended only when Santa Rosa sent the Supervisors a resolution “surrendering the possession of the plaza.” (For more, see “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.”)

But at the time the Petaluma Argus began sewing doubt that the plaza might not be owned by the city OR the county – everything about the title to the plaza land was unclear. What did “use and benefit of Sonoma County” mean legally? Apparently Julio was truthful in saying there was no deed or other paperwork.

After that the issue lay dormant until 1953, when the Planning Commission produced a review of possible new sites for the courthouse. The County Taxpayers’ Association shot back with a 25-page critique which included this point: “It is reliably reported…should it be used for other than a Courthouse or a park, the title will revert to the heir of the donor”. In his writeup on the group’s response, PD reporter Fred Fletcher commented, “this has been rumored in the Courthouse for years.”

The URA certainly knew about the problems. A few years earlier while they were hashing out ideas about where to put the new city hall/civic center, a site selection committee was appointed with Judge Hilliard Comstock as chairman. When they were considering the Square he looked into the title issue and reported that although the county felt it owned the Square because of its long use, the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property.

“Help us clear the title,” URA member O. E. Christensen asked mayor Hugh Codding in a June, 1967 meeting. “We can go from there. We can advertise the property, but not consummate the title. Untie our hands then we can move.” Codding offered to help. In the meantime they seeded the east side with grass, since development was a year or two away. Later Skylark Nursery loaned sixteen magnolia and cedar trees in containers to dress up the place a bit. The very next day they were blown over by high winds and rolled out into the street.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the new four-lane road our new, dinky, “Old Courthouse Square” was dedicated with fanfare. Mayor Codding predicted the citizenry would become “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa” as a result. Supervisor Robert Rath commented they were “revering back to perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. Carrillo when the property was dedicated to public use in 1853” (wrong year, and nope). Some descendants of Julio Carrillo were present at the dedication and wrote a letter to the PD that they were “surprised how the actual facts could be so conveniently omitted.”

Around then, talk began about the east side of the square. Maybe it was because the thousand or so people at that September dedication looked across the street at the vacant lot and wondered why that couldn’t be a public park, too. Gaye LeBaron had an item in her social column commenting that people around town were musing about putting a statue of Burbank over there, or bocce ball courts, or something else. “It isn’t so much what the people want, it’s what they don’t want,” she wrote. “And lots of them don’t want a building on that square.”

Battle lines were being drawn. On the side wanting a big honking bank was the URA, the Downtown Development Association and the Press Democrat. The PD probably did not win many converts by reproducing the URA’s site plan shown below. Not only did it show the proposed building’s footprint would dwarf all retail spaces downtown, but the illustration’s caption pointed out there would still be plenty of open space around (shown here in black). In an editorial, the PD went so far as to suggest the town already had too many parks and bits of greenery: “Between Fremont Park, Juilliard Park, the existing park on the westerly side of Old Courthouse Square, and the landscaping scheduled within the urban redevelopment area, Downtown Santa Rosa already may have received more than its fair share of the city funds available for places for people to enjoy, and for children to play.”

URA site plan of downtown Santa Rosa as it appeared in the Press Democrat, December 17, 1967
URA site plan of downtown Santa Rosa as it appeared in the Press Democrat, December 17, 1967

The Press Democrat wandered further into the weeds with an editorial claiming it would cost the city $800,000 to make it a park. (Estimating $450k in lost tax revenue + $350k to buy it from the county and create a concrete-paved plaza like the westerly side of the Square.) Mayor Codding called the guesstimate ridiculous and the editorial “an insult to my intelligence.” Codding, who was the most vocal advocate for preserving it as a park, had also asked the Board of Supervisors to consider donating the land.

By the start of 1968, every civic and service group in or near Santa Rosa was off the fence on the park question – even the Chamber of Commerce opposed development – and only the PD was surprised when the City Council voted to ask the Supervisors to donate it (Codding was absent that day, as ol’ Hugh was taking time off to shoot at bears in Alaska).

In the background during all this, the Quest for Title was slogging into its second year. Initially the county and city/URA were all meeting in efforts to settle it until the County Counsel decided to split off, so now there were two separate efforts to unravel that 115 year old knot.

(Sidenote: While doing this research the news cycle was paying much attention to a NASCAR pileup and playing in slow motion the last seconds before the crash over and over, and I thought, gee, how timely.)

The Supervisors were in a grand pickle. For two fiscal years now, their budget counted on receiving $198k for the east side of the Square. (Why $198k and not an even $200k was never explained, as far as I can tell.) That represented six percent of a year’s county tax revenue – a huge writeoff.

Over the course of that summer the Supes mulled and pondered what to do, relying upon the advice of County Counsel Richard Ramsey, although some of his suggestions – as reported in the PD – seemed unsound and aimed mainly at provoking Santa Rosa. He said the county “certainly is entitled to use the property for whatever it wants” and the Supervisors could take it over and sell it themselves. Or they could sue the city for the $198k and the title, while also assuring them there was “no question” the county could get a “marketable title” to the property. There was a closed session and another speckled with considerable bitter comments.

The Board of Supervisors decided to sue the city of Santa Rosa and its Urban Renewal Agency, demanding $800k + interest (about $6 million today). They arrived at that figure by claiming damages because the market value of the land was “substantially impaired” because the city “refuse[d] to cooperate in transferring title” (!) and had “permanently seized possession” of the Square, which had deprived the county of using its legal property. Oh, lawyers.

Efforts to negotiate a settlement went nowhere. Codding suggested the city deed everything back to the county, which would have mucked up the ownership issue further still (which I think was his intent). A Press Democrat editorial bemoaned that a drawn-out legal fight could leave the east side in limbo for years, neither the city or county maintaining it as the place deteriorated into the “Sonoma County Memorial Weed Patch.”

Our story finally winds up in 1970, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist you probably aren’t expecting. The lawsuit itself was settled fairly amicably; Santa Rosa paid the county $50,000 and gave them some land southwest of town which was outside of city limits. The agreement stated the city would have to pay $48k more if the east portion of the Square ever became something other than public use.

As for the question of title…

While the Supervisors were debating whether or not to sue in 1968, they split into two camps: One side simply wanted that $198k and said the city was in breach of contract. The other Supes’ position was that they would like to donate the land to Santa Rosa, but their hands were tied until the title was resolved. But all of them had apparently forgotten the county had previously quitclaimed the western side and roadway back in 1966 – an inconvenient fact which was brought up in the PD’s coverage. In other words, the county had already declared they were no longer claiming any form of ownership to two-thirds of the original plaza, only the remnant on the eastern side.

In the end, the county wanted money for something they couldn’t prove they legally had. Who knows what County Counsel Ramsey was thinking in promising the Supervisors he could obtain a “marketable title” in court, although at least one of his predecessors had also made the claim. Maybe Ramsey had dreams of prancing before Supreme Courts in Sacramento or Washington, making the case that Julio Carrillo and the others never meant to donate it to the people of Sonoma county but rather the county government (which practically didn’t yet exist in 1854).

Thus the one thing everyone expected to happen, didn’t – the title of the Plaza/Square was still unresolved as the county and city settled their spat in 1970. The troublesome ancient document was left to gather dust in the Recorder’s office as everyone backed away from it slowly.

Was this ever resolved in the fifty years since? Not as far as I can tell – it seems that it’s all just been forgotten, like one of the dangerous treasures buried deep in the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s warehouse.

"Old Courthouse Square" in 1968 looking east. Image: Sonoma County Library
“Old Courthouse Square” in 1968 looking east. Image: Sonoma County Library
East side of Courthouse Square in 1977. Image: Sonoma County Library
East side of Courthouse Square in 1977. Image: Sonoma County Library

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redwoodhighway

YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (Series Index)

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


THE REDEVELOPMENT SERIES

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

* ROAD TO THE MALL *

HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE

MONEY FIRST, PLANS LATER

THAT WHICH WE LOST

THE CHOSEN ONE

MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS

GREATEST EXPECTATIONS

SAVE THE CAL

THE BIG BOOK OF RED FLAGS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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