1969porch

THE QUAKE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Imagine (or remember): It was near the end of that day in 1969 and you were winding down, watching TV and planning to stay up late – a Johnny Carson anniversary show was coming up and everybody would be talking about it the next day. You were deciding between the 10 o’clock news on channel two, Hawaii Five-O or that new NBC series by the former Press Democrat reporter.

Then too much happened all at once.

“And then came the jolt and the furious shake, lasting for seconds but seeming like minutes. Everyone could feel it but many couldn’t see it: the lights were the first to go,” said Dick Torkelson’s article in the Press Democrat the next day.

Earthquake! A bad one. Sharp flashes of light from outside flooded the dark room as if the house was struck by lightning, only there was no sound at all. Omygod, had Santa Rosa been hit by an atomic bomb?

“Books and dishes cascaded down,” Torkelson continued. “Shouts filled households as parents groped in darkness for their children. Residential streets filled instantly, everyone wondering if there would be more.”

Such were the first few terrifying moments of the Santa Rosa Earthquake of October 1, 1969. Earthquakes, actually, as another one followed about eighty minutes later and was just about as violent (see sidebar).

No one was killed and while many buildings were damaged, none fell down. Now more than a half-century later, it’s only remembered for the unusual double shake. But that event changed Santa Rosa’s future dramatically, as it became the driving justification for the city to later bulldoze 30 acres of downtown in order to build the shopping mall – the worst mistake in the long list of planning mistakes made by the City of Roses. How this tragedy unfolded will be told in upcoming parts of this ongoing series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”


1969 QUAKE FACT SHEET

The October 1, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake had a mainshock at 9:56 PM (Richter magnitude 5.6) followed by a large aftershock at 11:20 PM (M 5.5), each lasting about twenty seconds. The following day there were two aftershocks, the worst at 5:27 AM (M 4.2). There were two aftershocks on October 6, the worst being M 3.75.

The epicenter was in the Fulton/Mark West area, which is on the Rodgers Creek Fault Zone. There was no damage in Petaluma or Napa County.


Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (Larger image)

There were no deaths, but the Press Democrat reported there were six related injuries and eight were treated for heart attacks.

The Bay Area Television Archive offers a ten minute news report from KPIX which includes a portion of a press conference by Police Chief Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, images of downtown and residential damage and the cleanup at the Fourth street Safeway (currently Grocery Outlet). There is also another short segment from KPIX filmed the following day showing further views of repairs and cleanup efforts.

Dick Torkelson felt the quake at his home near Hearn Avenue and jumped into his car. “Traffic along Santa Rosa Ave. became wild, up to 70 miles per hour wild.” He saw the light flashes in the sky over downtown and expected to find a massive gas explosion had set the city aflame.

Instead he found the downtown lit by only a half moon and men with flashlights. “The streets on Fourth and Fifth and Mendocino were black, almost eerie. And broken glass covered the sidewalk; you crackled as you walked.” When the big plate glass display windows in the clothing stores shattered their mannequins tumbled into street; practically every newspaper that covered the story would feature a photo of their disturbingly dismembered torsos.

Electricity was restored within 15 minutes but already there were a hundred cops pouring into the area, setting up barricades as merchants arrived to board up windows. There were fears of looting, but it was later determined that the only theft was $500 worth of cameras which were in the window of a shop on Fourth and some clothes from the Montgomery Ward’s on Mendocino.

By midnight, Bay Area newspaper reporters and TV crews were swarming over the town (supposedly it was rumored in New York City that Santa Rosa had been completely destroyed). Columnist Gaye LeBaron was contacted at home by a broadcaster at the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles who wanted to know about conditions in town. She looked out her window and told them her street was wet because a water pipe had broken and a crew was working on repairs. She later learned it was reported “water was gushing high in the air from broken water mains.” LeBaron also wrote later that some of the local papers weren’t much better: “The main story in one of the San Francisco papers on the quake sounded as though the news team got as far as the Miramar [a cocktail lounge at Third and Exchange] collapsed wall, found the bar open, bellied up to the plank, and never looked farther.”

(Let me interrupt with a word of appreciation for Press Democrat News Editor Dick Torkelson and Managing Editor Art Volkerts. As the quakes struck late at night, readers would have understood if there were only cursory details in the next morning’s paper. Instead, the staff managed to publish five pages of photos and solid reporting. Although the PD of that era infamously allowed editorial bias to slant its news coverage of city and county issues, this was heroic journalism and showed that in its bones the Press Democrat was actually a fine – even great – newspaper.)

There were only two fires that night, which was incredibly lucky because there were wind gusts. Don’s Park Auto Super across from the Junior College was partially burned and there was a chemical fire in a Memorial Hospital laboratory after the second quake. Let’s take a moment to remember that the hospital sits directly on the Rodgers Creek Fault, which is overdue for a quake that is expected to cause a major disaster.

And, of course, there were the oddball stories:

*
  The Village Exchange Club was at The Hilltopper restaurant watching a film about nuclear attack when the quake struck. A member told Gaye LeBaron they ought to show it again, “only this time we’ll listen instead of drinking.”
*
  The hit movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was making its Santa Rosa debut that night, and the Coddingtown theater cleared out “in about three seconds flat” when the power went off and the shaking began. The showing resumed at 10:30 (seriously?) with about twenty hardcore cinephiles in the audience. The PD did not report what everyone did when the second quake struck about an hour later.
*
  89 year old George Van Buskirk was trapped between floors in the elevator at the Occidental hotel. Asked what he did in there all night, he replied, “What could I do? I slept.” Firemen were able to rescue him about 10 o’clock the next morning. “There was a regular army of TV boys here when I got out – all pretty nice boys, too. I was sure ready for breakfast by then.”

As midnight approached on that cool autumn night, many Santa Rosa families were found camped out on their lawns and not because their house was damaged. Many were likely fearful that those earlier shakes were only the prelude to a catastrophic earthquake as severe as magnitude 9, which would either flatten much of the state or dunk it into the Pacific.* They feared that because the press had spent much of March and April scaring the willies out of everyone with doomsday talk.

zumwalt(RIGHT: The Zumwalt used car dealership got into the act with April, 1969 ads: “Before we slip into the ocean…buy your get-away car!”)

That spring, newspapers and magazines were competing to run the scariest what-if stories about California’s imminent destruction, usually repeating warnings from psychics and fundamentalist clergy that we were on schedule to sink into the briny deep, probably around mid-April. Experts, including Dr. Charles Richter (I was deeply disappointed that his first name wasn’t “Magnitude”), predictably debunked the predictions but it didn’t stop the flood of such nonsense. SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was contacted by papers in New York and London to ask if we were prepping to meet our makers. “They don’t seem to believe me when I say we’re not doing anything about it.” Still, local media joined the party; channel 4 offered a special “The Next Great Shake” (“with the aid of special effects”) and the PD printed fear mongering UPI summaries of what others were saying, along with many letters to the editor from stressed-out subscribers.

When the sun came up the next morning everyone had a chance to walk around for look-see. It was bad, but it wasn’t bad bad.

Downtown store windows were mostly boarded up, although workers were already replacing some of the plate glass. The Rosenberg office building at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino had some collapsed ceilings and much fallen plaster. The Miramar at the corner of Exchange and Third was a mess, with the parapet fallen off and the fire escapes dangling precariously from the three-story building. The Roxy theater at Fifth and B also had broken fire escapes, and parts of the ceiling had fallen on the audience of the adult-only movie house (“Escorted Ladies Free”).

The residential disaster tour centered on looking for crumbled chimneys, of which there were many (Comstock House lost its southern one). Beaver street, which is very close to/directly over the fault line, was hard hit, with the foundation crumbling on an older house at the corner of College Ave. The plantation style “Beaver House” at #610, which was first built way back in 1850 by James A. Cockrill, Jr. was considered damaged beyond repair. (Photos below.)

Beyond that, much of the damage was to public spaces and repairable, though expensive. The JCPenny at Coddingtown flooded when their sprinkler system broke. Cracks were found in the support columns for the two year-old county social services building. The Veteran’s Memorial needed $40k in repairs and fixing the fairground grandstand cost $15k. The onramp to highway 12 overpass dropped a few inches, which can be seen in the videos.

And here is where our story shifts from being the tale of a forgettable earthquake into a tragedy about destroying a town’s core. In the critical week following, the City Council set Santa Rosa on a course that would end with the demolition of nearly half of downtown in order to build the shopping mall.

It began as the city building inspector condemned 14 buildings as completely unsafe. Besides five homes, there was the Fremont Elementary School, Roxy Theatre, the Miramar, the Red Derby and Til-2 cocktail lounges, Court Market, the Orthopedic Brace Shop, Western Union office and Santa Rosa Hotel. As far as I can tell, none of these structures were in the west of B street area which would be soon slated for destruction.

Far more significant was a mod to the building code passed in a special session of the City Council on October 9. There would be relaxed enforcement for a year as property owners decided whether damaged buildings could be brought up to modern code standards. After that, it “required closing any building open to the public which is not capable of safely supporting all loads caused by the forces of gravity as defined in the building code and which is hazardous to use,” as reported in the PD.

In a followup meeting Oct. 28 to decide an “interim emergency policy,” city leaders were told a committee of civil and structural engineers thought 21 downtown buildings should go. The city’s chief building official said 48 were damaged. But the issue really wasn’t which buildings should be repaired – it was whether the city would allow owners to make repairs at all instead of demolishing the place. Under the proposed guidelines, structural engineer Richard Keith pointed out, “If we use the code as it is today, we’d probably destroy most of downtown.”

His words proved prophetic.


* The details of the doomsday prophecy came from the (unfortunately) popular 1968 apocalyptic novel, “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California” by Curt Gentry, which predicted the M 9 earthquake would happen sometime the following year. Gentry was in turn following the “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce, who made a sort-of prediction in 1936 that southern California and Nevada might fall into the sea. Long after his death, Cayce’s adherents supposedly narrowed the date to April 4 1969 at 3:13 PM. One of the wire service stories appearing in the PD added, “Some feel April 8 or April 15 will be the day of doom.”
Damage to the Beaver House at 610 Beaver street after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. (See photo of pre-earthquake house.) Image: Sonoma County Library
Damage to the Beaver House at 610 Beaver street after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. (See photo of pre-earthquake house.) Image: Sonoma County Library
The Roxy Theater after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Image: Sonoma County Library
The Roxy Theater after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Image: Sonoma County Library

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1868deedFB

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).

1868deed


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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santachernobyl

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

“This is why we can’t have nice things” was a popular quip a few years ago; it’s something to say after discovering something cherished has been trashed. Every time I step into the courtyard of Santa Rosa’s city hall complex that’s the phrase I mumble (okay, whimper) because underneath this reinforced concrete monstrosity is the filled-in bed of Santa Rosa Creek.

(This article is the back half of the story which began in “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…” and should be read first, as it explains why the creek was covered and traces the origins of the Urban Renewal Agency.)

Even in the URA’s early days – while they were still pondering how much of Santa Rosa’s historic downtown deserved to be wiped out – there was agreement there should be a “civic center” built somewhere within that area. The contrary voice in 1960 was developer Hugh Codding, who volunteered to donate “as much as you need” on Steele Lane, near where he was building his new shopping center.

Codding’s quest to sell, lease, or give away land for a civic center is one of those epic tales about our town’s wild and irrepressible developer. He first offered the city space in 1950 at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. In the mid-1950s he offered another spot near his shopping center, this time at the corner of Fourth St. and Farmers Lane. Once Coddingtown was up and running he offered either of two Steele Lane sites in 1963 and when the City Council still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal for city hall to become part of the new county administration center (which would have put Santa Rosa’s city offices on unincorporated county land). After this the Press Democrat editor wrote, “a city hall is not some toy on wheels, to be moved around from one outer boundary of a city to another where property developments happen to be going on.” Undeterred, Codding once more pushed the Steele Lane location in 1964. The next year Hugh was back again, this time with site plans. But he was now a member of the Council, and the city attorney pronounced Santa Rosa could never consider any of his properties because it would be a conflict of interest. True to form, Hugh offered to resign on the spot – as long as they would accept his deal.

Although Codding remained the key player in the overall tragedy of Santa Rosa’s urban renewal scheme, that’s the extent of his involvement in this chapter on the city hall and what was to be built over the entombed creek. This time center stage belongs to one of his main adversaries: The Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company, which was formed in 1963 to “compete” for properties under the URA’s control. (“Compete” is in ironic quotes because their bids won even though they paid nothing until the price was negotiated at a later date – a sweetheart deal that never failed to raise Codding’s ire.) The locally-owned investment company was headed by five general partners, including Henry Trione as CEO/President. In the newspapers it was commonly called “the Burbank Center” or “the Burbank group,” but since those names have other uses today they are referred to as simply SRBCRC here.

The SRBCRC hired a team of top-notch architects and redevelopment experts, launching with an ambitious $12 million proposal to redevelop the entire downtown area including Courthouse Square. It was already presumed that the courthouse would be demolished and the square would be split in half by the new Santa Rosa Ave/Mendocino Ave connector.

Foremost among their celebrity consultants was architect John Savage Bolles who designed Candlestick Park, the spiky Birkenstock building in Novato beside Hwy 101 and most NorCal Macy’s. Straddling the divided Courthouse Square he envisioned a 6-8 story “Civic Tower,” later expanded to fifteen floors. The attorney for SRBCRC boasted it would be a “landmark…people will be able to see the tower from as far away as seven miles.” The description in the PD said there would be parks on either side, including two lakes (!) and a constant-flow artificial creek.

John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a "Civic Tower" in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square
John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a “Civic Tower” in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square

 

 

For the lost creek area, SRBCRC proposed to build a retail complex which would cover eight acres including a major department store with three floors, a junior department store and numerous specialty shops, according to the PD. There was to be some sort of 800-foot covered walkway from downtown. Also, “an attractive artificial creek would replace the natural Santa Rosa Creek, which has been placed underground.”

The Agency gave SRBCRC the nod in 1964 to develop the creek site, followed by tentative approval to build the retail complex there. (You just know they would have added insult to injury by naming it “Creekside Mall” or similar.) The 15-story skyscraper on Courthouse Square was less of a sure thing, although one of the SRBCRC principals said experts had assured them that the “best way” to guarantee Santa Rosa’s commercial development would be for the civic center to be on the Square. A 22-member civic center site selection committee was appointed – with Judge Hilliard Comstock, chairman – and Henry Trione quickly asked the City Council for them to delay picking a location for up to 12 months.

There were legit reasons to postpone the decision. While a large citizen’s group had earlier voted for the redevelopment area to include a “civic center,” there was no agreement on what that meant. Some were thinking it would be an art gallery, museum and cultural center with an auditorium; others interpreted it to mean a new city hall/municipal center, or a combination of both. Complicating the situation was that Santa Rosa already had a perfectly serviceable city hall next to Courthouse Square, and that building was not scheduled for demolition (yet).

oldcityhallRIGHT: Santa Rosa City Hall and county jail (California Historical Society)

Plus there were sticky legal questions of whether SRBCRC could build their civic tower at all. The deal SRBCRC wanted was to buy Courthouse Square, build the tower and lease it back to the city. But the Square wasn’t for sale – it was not deemed a “blighted” part of downtown by the URA and Washington apparently didn’t allow redevelopment projects to be amended once they were approved. Nor was it clear whether the Square was city or county property – a debate readers might recall also came up in 1883, as told in “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.” Site committee chair Judge Comstock looked into the issue and reported that although the county feels it owns the Square because of its long use, ownership remains unclear because it was originally the city plaza; the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property to SRBCRC.

Hilliard’s report was apparently the death sentence for Courthouse Square tower. Two months later, in April 1965, the site committee announced it had chosen the “Luther Burbank site,” meaning the current city hall location. A bond was placed on the ballot to buy it which passed with a whopping 92 percent voter approval. Curiously, this same bond deal – a city hall over the creek – had been offered two years earlier and failed badly.

Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco
Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco

 

An architectural competition followed, and out of 73 entries the winner was Richard L. Heglund of Marin County. The Press Democrat only published a drawing of the first runner-up (see below), so one has to recoil at the thought of how awful the rest of the pack must have been.

On the day it opened on June 7, 1969, the PD editor had written: “Efficiency does not have to be ugly, and the new home of incorporated Santa Rosa has not sacrificed attractiveness.” Mayor Jack Ryersen swooned that the design met “the challenge of excellence.” How things change: Recently former Mayor Chris Coursey told the paper “I’ve always thought it was one of the ugliest buildings in town…a complete waste of space.” You would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with Chris; I’ll add only this is how I imagine Chernobyl looks.

In defense of the architects, “brutalism” was much in vogue at the time for public buildings, and this is far from the worst example – take a gander at Boston City Hall which was built at the same time, likewise the spawn of a urban renewal project. And while I personally couldn’t imagine approving this design in 1966, the courtyard drawing is more appealing than real life, making the space appear light and airy instead of being overshadowed by those meaningless obelisks and oppressive, top-heavy buildings.

But is there an “attractive artificial creek” as officials had been promising ever so often? Funny you should ask.

1963siteplanGentle Reader might recall this faux creek was first mentioned while decisions were being made to enclose the real thing inside the box culvert. At the same time in early 1963, the city was preparing for the bond (the one that failed to pass) which was to pay for a city hall complex on top the lost creek location. The PD published an unattributed, back-of-the-envelope site plan seen here at right; those big squiggly areas in the middle are the fake creeks – or more likely a single fake creek with a bridge over the middle, as the accompanying article mentioned landscaping “somewhat like that in Juilliard Park.” And as noted earlier, SRBCRC said there would be an artificial creek on the site when they were planning to make it a retail complex.

Instead of any of that, we got a splash fountain in the courtyard (see photo below) and only because the Saturday Afternoon Club was willing to chip in half of the $15 thousand cost. It’s now been filled in and used as a planter.

The only upside to this dismal tale is that Santa Rosa Creek had its revenge, of sorts. The box culvert swings towards the south end of the property and the buildings are built directly above the original creek. When the contractor began pouring the foundation pilings 1967-1968, they ran into serious problems because they encountered uncompacted soil – rubble that had been dumped on the banks of the creek following the 1906 earthquake. Construction work came to a halt until it was removed.

We knew that hundreds of loads of bricks and debris were used near the E street bridge to specifically fill in the approaches for a new bridge, but apparently the whole length of the creek near downtown was used for refuse disposal.

That stretch of Santa Rosa Creek also had received quite a bit of misuse in earlier years, being an open sewer in the late 19th century and then in the early 20th, being used for the discharge of toxic waste by factories and PG&E. Despite all of that the creek always bounced back, with kids hooking trout in it through the 1950s.

The Press Democrat tried to put an inspirational spin on the delays caused by the earthquake debris, writing it was “fitting because the new would rise phoenix-like from the buried ruins of part of old Santa Rosa.” Here’s a better metaphor: Abuse Mother Nature at your own peril – because the bill always comes due, often in ways no one expects.

 

 

Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019
The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019

 

Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.
Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.

 

An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

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