Give Santa Rosa credit: When it decided to destroy the downtown area, it did so thoroughly. In the late 1960s the town demolished all of its legacy public buildings including the Carnegie library (which was replaced only after considerable arm-twisting) and the county courthouse. Supposedly they were completely unsafe and ready to tumble down at the first quiver of a quake although there were little or no concerns before. County archivist Katherine Rinehart just came across blueprints from 1945 showing the county was even considering a third story addition to the courthouse.

Less mentioned is that the city hall building next to Courthouse Square was also torn down after Santa Rosa built the sprawling city complex on Santa Rosa Avenue in 1969. The new complex obliterated the site of Kabetciuwa, the most significant Pomo community in this area, so thus the town managed to score a two-fer in legacy destruction.

The old city hall represented the conclusion of post-1906 earthquake reconstruction. The original idea was for something much grander; in 1908 the city commissioned architect John Galen Howard to design a combined firehouse and city hall. His plans were in the Beaux Arts style much like the Empire Building, which he also created. For reasons never explained the project was abandoned; the firehouse remained at its previous location on Fifth street and the new city hall would be built at 210 Hinton (today part of the large bank building at 50 Old Courthouse Square).

Built in 1913, the place housed the city council chamber, police station, courtroom, jail, offices for the mayor, city clerk, tax collector, recorder, city attorney and street commissioner plus staff for all – it makes one wonder if they were sometimes sitting on each other’s laps. The issue of crowding came up even before construction started, as some of the most prominent men in town met with City Council in a special session. There were more suitable vacant lots around downtown, they insisted, some almost twice as wide as the 40-foot city-owned lot where the building was planned. Sorry, said the mayor; we’ve already explored those options.

At least the lot was deep, and the Santa Rosa Republican provided a detailed description of the interior, transcribed below; a highlight is mention that the jail included “a ‘hobo’ room, furnished principally with cool walls and floor and opportunity for reflection.”

The architect was Luther M. Turton, winning the contract over county courthouse designer J. W. Dolliver. I’ve long planned a thorough writeup of Turton as “Santa Rosa’s other Luther;” he was a prolific architect all over the North Bay and particularly in Napa, where he was based (short bio here). Besides city hall, he also designed several Santa Rosa homes, schools and office buildings. For a number of years he had an office here in (what would become known as) the Empire Building.

Like his contemporary Brainerd Jones, his work was eclectic and personalized for each client – for our city hall, he even provided the office furniture. Fortunately, the Napa County Historical Society has hundreds of Turton architectural drawings including his blueprints for Santa Rosa city hall.


Santa Rosa City Hall in 1967, Photo by Don Meacham and courtesy Sonoma County Library.



One of the best designed, constructed and fitted building in Sonoma county is Santa Rosa’s city hall, now nearing completion. It only remains to complete a small amount of finishing, install the lighting fixtures and put in place the furnishings.

The front facade presents a pleasing appearance, but the idea of utility at moderate cost is the object achieved. Abundance of light, superior ventilation, modern plumbing and heating have been provided and the arrangement of the interior is most excellent in all particulars.

The front rooms on the ground floor will be the office of the chief of police, provided with counter and steel lined vault, the public entrance being from the north corridor which runs the length of the building to the police cell room. A handsome private office is provided for the chief.

In the rear of this is the locker and rest room for the police force, containing seven conveniently appointed coat rooms for members of the patrol, and ample comforts for rest when off duty or on office detail.

Connecting with this room, next east is the City Recorder’s court room, light, ample in size, provided with finely appointed lavatory, hot and cold water, porcelain washbasin. The court room will be handsomely furnished. Direct entrance to the open court at the south is provided as well as entrance from the closed corridor at the north end of room.

In the rear of the court room is a supply land storage room of large capacity.

The entire east end of ground floor is devoted to the cell room; abundantly lighted thoroughly ventilated and containing shower bath and every convenience permissible in a detention room. There are five cells each containing two steel framed cots affixed to the walls, which may be folded against the wall if desired. Each cell contains sanitary plumbing and every provision possible for making confinement less irksome; thoroughly conforming to the most modern prison standard.

Between this room and the storage room are a woman’s cell, furnished as above and a “hobo” room, furnished principally with cool walls and floor and opportunity for reflection.

Throughout the building are convenient clothes closets provided with every convenience and sanitary luxury, all up-to-the-hour is character and style.

The floors throughout are of fibrestone, noiseless to the tread; the baseboards are all “coved” so that no lurking place for dirt or dust is found. The janitor’s duties are lightened and the most sanitary result possible in office flooring is obtained.

The finish is mainly in oak and mahogany, some native woods in finish harmonizing with the remainder. The is [sic] rich and solid in appearance, classic in design and devoid of “gingerbread” ornaments; sensible and durable.

The north corridor and staircase are of oak, the wainscoting being of fibrestone. All walls of the main floor offices are tinted in a manner to soften and tone the light with most pleasing effect.

The main front room on the second floor is for the use of the city clerk and provided with steel lined vault, and all conveniences for both public and the official. A mail chute to the chief’s office below permits the saving of many extra journeys up and down the stairs. An adjoining room for stenographers’ use, etc., and convenient closets are provided.

The rooms at front end of corridor make a private office with ante room for the Mayor.

In rear of clerk’s office are rooms for city attorney and street commissioner.

East of these office rooms is the council chamber, finely designed, handsomely fitted in oak and mahogany, light, airy, and with ample accommodation for the public as well as the city officials. The ceiling is ornamental in design and when the electric lights are turned on at sessions will present an artistic appearance.

On a dais in the southwest corner of the room “his honor” will be enthroned at a handsome mahogany desk, overlooking the scene from an eminence, as it were. Directly in front the city clerk’s desk will be in direct connection with the mayor’s–or within easy reach for the passing of documents. The councilmen will be seated at desks ranging in a quarter circle, the whole space being enclosed by a substantial parapet instead of openwork railing.

Wall seats line both north and east walls, giving ample and comfortable seating for more than fifty people. Flanking the clerk’s desk there are desks for the press representatives.

The acoustic properties are good and it will be easy to hear the ordinary tones of conversation any place within the room. When the handsome furniture is in place it will be a “gem” in its way.

The east rooms are for the city engineer and city assessor, commodious, light, with large storage closets and all conveniences.

The whole building will be heated by the hot water system, the radiators being already in place and the plant ready for operation,

The most modern sanitary plumbing fixtures have been used throughout and there is no concealed work, all being exposed, easy of access for repairs, ornate to look upon and the best that can be found anywhere. Hot and cold water are supplied to all basins and there is no place for germs or filth to accumulate in any part of the building.

The upper corridor is abundantly lighted by three large skylights and vault light frames in the floor admit plenty of light to the lower corridor.

The best of materials and workmanship have been employed throughout and Architect Turton is more than pleased with the manner in which the contractors, Gallagher & Wygant, have carried out their agreement.

The city now possesses a commodious and handsomely equipped building and–it will be paid for in full when the contractors turn it over in a few days.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 13, 1913
Citizens Confer With Council at the Special Meeting on Monday Evening

There was a special session of the City Council Monday night to meet Architect L. M. Turton, whose plans for a new City Hall have been accepted, to go over the working details and specifications of the structure.

Mayor J. L. Mercier and Counclmen Pressley, Skaggs, Spooncer and Wolfe were present, when the meeting was called to order and Councilman Hail came In later.

President John Rinner and a number of the Directors and members of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce called on the Council. The object of the visit of the delegation was to present a protest against the building of a City Hall on the forty-foot lot on Exchange avenue [sic], if any other plan could be devised.

A number of the visitors spoke on the subject, Including President Rinner. Director Rosenberg and Messrs. J. P. Overton, E. L. Finley and C. H. Bane: and the Mayor and Councilmen Joined in the general discussion which followed.

The visitors voiced the opinion that the Hinton avenue lot was too small and confining for a suitable site for a public building; that the structure there would be lowered by the larger and more costly County Court House; that the same building erected in a lot giving ample room for a grass plot would make a far better showing; that an open lot for the building would give air and light, and at the same time remove danger of fire damage; that it might be possible to sell the present lot and purchase another better located and still have sufficient money from the sale to pay the additional expense on the building necessitated by having to furnish all four walls.

It was suggested that the Farmer property on Fourth street, adjoining the Library, 73 by 135 feet, be secured for the building with the possibility of purchase or condemnation of several adjoining lots through to Third street to give a pretty park which would end for the present the talk of bonding the city for park purposes and yet give a breathing place for the general public right In the heart of town.

Mayor Mercier explained that many months had been spent by the Council in studying the situation. An effort was made, he said, to secure a conference with the Board of Supervisors looking towards a trade of the city property for the county lot on the corner of Third street, but the Supervisors even refused to meet in conference to discuss the subject. Other sites had been discussed, but after all the matter came back to the old lot. An effort to get the Farmer property had even failed owing to the refusal of San Francisco heirs to agree to trade even for the present site.

After an informal agreement to sell the property, signed by E. C. Farmer, had been presented and filed with the Council, the subject was taken under advisement and the visitors departed.

The Council spent some time with Architect Tarton going over the proposed plans and specifications. These will shortly be In shape to submit to bidders, but meanwhile the Council will consider the matter presented by the protestants and decide upon some line of action.

– Press Democrat, November 26, 1912

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“That brown shingle house across from the high school? It’s probably a Julia Morgan,” an architect told me shortly after we moved into the neighborhood in 2006, naming the famous designer of Hearst Castle. In a recently updated survey of work by Brainerd Jones – the architect of Comstock House – it is listed as one of his buildings. Somewhere in the years between, I was told that while it was unlikely to be an actual Frank Lloyd Wright design, it must have come from the drafting table of someone who trained in the master’s office.

930 Mendocino Ave. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

For decades, the identity of the architect who designed the lovely home at 930 Mendocino Avenue has been a mystery. Even the late Dan Peterson, who literally wrote the book on Santa Rosa’s architectural heritage, didn’t know who designed it – and he not only had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, he owned it for a number of years, using it as his architectural office. But it’s now known that the building was designed by Mary Rockwell Hook.


She was related to the property owners (more about that in a minute) but this was not nepotism at work. Mary was a capable architect as this building shows, even though it was only the second of her designs to be built. She was also a pioneer several times over, for whom recognition is overdue.

Mary Rockwell Hook (1877-1978) decided to become an architect in 1902, during an era when few professions were open to women and any who wanted a career were suspected of being something between an ardent feminist or political radical. She had qualified support from family; her father approved of the artistic aspects of architectural study and paid her tuitions, yet expected she accept no salary when she found a job. And of all the professions to pursue, architecture was among the least welcoming to women at the time, having evolved from the manly building trade. At the first firm she approached for a job she was told, “We’re sorry but we could not take a woman. You can’t swear at women and they can’t climb all over full sized details.” But the next office was glad to accept her. “They never needed to swear and I could manage full size details,” she wrote in her memoir. So rare was her kind that even by the time she reached middle age, you could have assembled every single American female architect in a small school auditorium that seated 200.

Although she was denied entry to the fraternal system that advanced the careers of her male colleagues, she had a major advantage: Mary was a Rockwell. The wealthy and esteemed family (introduced here) spent much of their time traveling abroad or visiting each other; she and her four sisters were immersed in high culture. After she graduated Wellesley College in 1900, for example, the family spent eight months in Italy and Switzerland. They were barely back home in Kansas when her uncle, General Adna Chaffee, was appointed military governor of the Philippines. So off they went again, this time visiting Japan and China and the Middle East as well. The next year were trips to Venezuela and Sicily. And so life went for the Rockwells.

Her architectural studies began in 1903, when she was the only female student in that department at the Art Institute of Chicago. Reference works state she studied and/or graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but that’s not quite true. According to her autobiography, she was enrolled in an atelier operated by Jacques-Marcel Auburtin, a rising star in French architecture (and who had recently proposed marriage to one of Mary’s sisters). Mary did take an entrance exam – being the first woman since Julia Morgan to get that far – but received a failing grade. In truth, she could not have attended the school for very long, even if she had passed all the exams; although it was no longer off-limits to women, there still was a policy that students couldn’t be older than thirty, and Mary was already 29.

But at the same time, being accepted by an atelier was a not insubstantial achievement. They acted as an adjunct to the Ecole proper; some were even located inside the main building. It was a bit like having workshops training medieval journeymen grafted onto a modern college. You studied Рoften for years Рat an atelier préparatoire to prep for passing all three entrance exams, then once you were admitted your student work was prepared under the guidance of an atelier, possibly the same one. A very good overview of the tradition-bound Beaux-Arts system as it worked around the turn of the century can be found in this book.

Here is exactly what Mary wrote of her Beaux-Arts experience, which biographers consistently misstate:

Through Kitty’s acquaintance with Marcel Auburtin, I arranged to study architecture at his atelier in Paris. He had seven Americans enrolled – all graduated of Yale and Princeton. When these boys heard a girl was coming they didn’t like the idea. They decided to name me “Liz.” It turned out that we all became lifelong friends. These boys worked three years before they passed all the examinations to enter the Beaux Arts.

We all took the first examination. I learned that I was the second woman who had ever taken an examination at Beaux Arts. The other woman was Miss Morgan of San Francisco who later devoted most of her life to the building of the Hearst Palace of great renown in California.

One must pass the first exam to qualify for the second, then must pass the second for the third, and so on for several weeks. None of us passed the first one, but what a memorable day! They put me in a big library with guards and locked the door. Hundreds of French boys begin to take these exams every six months, beginning at 14 or 50 years of age. All day I could hear them yelling and singing.

When the day was over one of the American boys came to rescue me. He said he would take me by the back way because all day the French boys had been planning to throw buckets of water on me as I entered the big courtyard. He had a taxi waiting and we ran, falling into it with our drafting boards, “T” squares and triangles.

Incidents of gender harassment aside, it left fun memories. She and a couple of her sisters lived in the raucous student quarter of the Left Bank and she wrote happily about bicycle sojourns into the countryside. She was still in Paris when the April, 1906 earthquake hit Santa Rosa. Her mother later told her, “On the morning of the earthquake she [mother] appeared fully dressed with hat, veil, and gloves and wondering if she shouldn’t call her sister, Mrs. Finlaw, to cancel their dinner engagement. A call she couldn’t have made. All the phone lines were down.”

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Mary returned to Kansas City later in 1906 intending to join an architectural firm, only to be told by father Bertrand that he would consent to her working in an office only as an unpaid student. It would be easy here to wave off Bertrand as being a paternalistic jerk but he was a loving parent and notably forward-thinking. The Rockwell family has a 1911 newspaper clipping that commented Captain Rockwell had “recently attracted considerable attention by the assertion that the daughter or daughters of a family, no matter what their station in life, should be taught a profession in which they could earn their own living.” It was more likely that he was being protective, knowing she faced discrimination that might be insurmountable and it would be easier for her to walk away from an unpaid internship than bear the professional stigma of quitting a position without expecting references, should she feel a need to leave. And Papa did actively support Mary’s ambitions; he purchased a lot in a Kansas City subdivision for her to build her first house (modern view to right).

She later wrote that house “followed the latest trends of California cottages” and the design, with its asymmetrical saltbox roof with extended eaves and dormer windows, was in keeping with the contemporary Arts & Crafts style. In particular, it resembles Gustav Stickley house design No. 28 (example here) which she could have seen in a 1905 issue of his magazine, “The Craftsman.” After it was completed, she lived it in for a month “to try it out.”

From her autobiography: “Next came a house for my sister Florence Edwards in Santa Rosa, California.” The Edwards’ moved in autumn of 1908, so the home at 930 Mendocino was designed 1907-1908.

She designed a house for a college friend and her father purchased another Kansas City lot, this intended for her to build an 11-bedroom family manse. That home and eight others she designed in the area between 1908 and 1927 are on the National Register of Historic Places (PDF). Together, they describe what might be called a “Mary Rockwell Hook style” that was in step with the progressive craftsman designs coming from leading architects at the same time.

RIGHT: Mary Rockwell c. 1911 PHOTO: Rockwell Family Archives

Her homes were usually asymmetrical, according to the authors of the Register nomination for the Kansas City houses, with a “T” or “L” shaped ground plan instead of a square or rectangular box. Windows were plentiful and also not symmetric, and the floor plan was often multi-level with irregularly shaped rooms. In some, she included an area that could be used as a stage. The home she designed for herself was described as “a rambling aggregation of intersecting wings and extruding gables, dormers, decks and porches.” She incorporated outdoor space into the designs with sleeping porches, upper decks, balconies, patios that were called “outdoor living rooms” and even integrated swimming pools. She gave rooms an Old World touch by often making fireplaces and chimneys out of rough stone and antique tile. “Long before recycling of materials became an economical advantage, Mrs. Hook was rummaging in demolished buildings and salvage yards for useable or picturesque artifacts, which were employed both structurally and decoratively.”

The Santa Rosa house matches her typical style, although in appearance it’s quite different from the Kansas City houses. It fits into the shingle-style “First Bay Region Tradition” that characterizes residential designs from that period by Julia Morgan and others and she may have also been encouraged by character of the neighborhood, where there were new and prominent Brainerd Jones buildings in this style – Comstock House, the Saturday Afternoon Club, and the lost Paxton House – just down the street. Mary would have been very familiar with those shingled places; she was designing the house for sister Florence, who was a past president of the Club, and the Oates family (first owners of Comstock House) threw a party for another of the Rockwell sisters in late 1907, just about when Mary would have been drawing architectural plans.

Mary loved sleeping porches, and wrote in her memoir, “This and That,” of once waking up with snow on her blankets. Her original design for the Rockwell family home had a sleeping porch off of every bedroom, and the Edwards House in Santa Rosa had a screened porch as large as a regular bedroom. Now enclosed with windows, the exterior of the porch can be seen above left, and the door to the porch – shown here opened – has a diamond paned lattice window that lights the second floor hallway.

(As the building has been converted to private offices, only common areas are pictured here. CLICK or TAP on any image to enlarge.)

Similarities to her first home design can be seen above in the dormer windows, strong roof corbels, and square bump out window seat in the living room. The earlier house also had a juliet balcony, although the railing is currently steel and not likely to be original. The balcony on the Edwards House faces south and is now heavily shaded by mature trees, but would have brought considerable natural light into the second floor hallway. Note the decorative balusters that continue the craftsman design of the glass doors, discussed below.

The ground floor plan of the Edwards House is quite novel. From the front door is a large entrance hall with a free standing stairway in the center. Walking directly forward passes under the stairway’s landing and directly into the living room. At the foot of the stairway on the other end of the entrance hall are four matching glass doors partitioned into a Arts & Crafts pattern very similar to Stickley designs of that same period. Above left: The double doors that led to the dining room, and to their immediate right, another door into the living room.

Above: The glass door leading into the panty with the alabaster stained glass illuminated from behind.

The pantry is quite large in proportion to the 3-bedroom house and suggests Mary’s sister, Florence, had quite a dish collection. In a short essay about the 1906 earthquake (transcribed here) she lamented that  “…[We] listened to the crash of our beautiful wedding china and glass as it smashed on the floor. My parents screaming as they both fell down on the floor amid glass and china and cut their knees and hands.”

Although the kitchen is bungalow-sized, the lighting is very good with a pair of east windows and one facing north providing supplemental light. A sunny kitchen was not to be taken for granted; in many home designs of that period the kitchen was an afterthought. In Brainerd Jones’ original 1904 design of Comstock House, for example, the stove was in the least ventilated part of the room with the single source of natural light being a window connected to a porch, several feet behind the cook – it must have been onerous to prepare the simplest meals. Inclusion of a well-designed kitchen shows the architect understood how domestic work functioned, and may demonstrate a significant advantage for architects who grew up in Victorian America as girls instead of boys. Mary wrote in her autobiography that at her first job, the head draftsman asked her, “tell me, what does a butler do in a butler’s pantry?”

Most of the windows in the Edwards House are casements, which were very modern at the time and part of the Mary Rockwell Hook “style.” But the latches on these dual windows above the stairway landing would require a ladder to open, making it impractical to cool the second floor at the end of a hot summer’s day by inviting in the foggy marine layer.

Current owner Trae Seely deserves highest praise for his good taste and judgement in restoration of the house, but the interiors may have been modified by some of the (at least) five previous owners. The complete lack of ornamentation is surprising; except for the alabaster glass doors and picture rail, the house is spartan. There is no wall crown molding, nor basic details such as returns on door or window trim. Missing are typical craftsman style features such as box beams and natural wood paneling, except for the fireplace mantles. As the closeup above right shows, the crown molding above doors, windows and cabinets is not just simple, but minimalist. But while there are examples such as the newel post that do show signs of replacement, why would someone would tear out substantial original woodwork? It would be very interesting to compare these interiors to those in other houses she designed in that period. If original, it would be notable as a pre-modernist take on the general craftsman style.

Mary Rockwell Hook’s career divides neatly into two chapters. The latter part began in 1935 when she purchased 55 acres near Sarasota, Florida for only $10,000 and designed many of the homes there, including an artist’s colony (more about that period here, including another portrait).

But the first part began with the house for her friend and sister Florence, and concluded in 1929 with the final construction of another California house for her sister Katherine in Woodside. That chateau-like manor house, called “Le Soleil,” is as opulent as the Santa Rosa house is humble, with gold leaf ceilings and a 12-car garage. Sister “Kitty” – the same one who was once engaged to the Beaux-Arts atelier master – married Francis Crosby, who was president of the famous Key System streetcar service that linked San Francisco and the East Bay cities (until General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Phillips Petroleum conspired to put them out of business, that is). Like the Edwards House, Le Soleil is mostly unknown as a Mary Rockwell Hook design, and her name wasn’t mentioned in promotional materials when the estate sold in April, 2013 for $8,400,000 (photos here, here and here).

Also in the first part of career she designed most of the campus for the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school and local cultural center in a remote area of the southern Appalachian Mountains. From her memoirs it is clear this work meant much to her and although the site is now a National Historic Landmark, it never brought her great acclaim. But that certainly was okay with her; while she clearly loved architecture, she did not have the ego driving her to want to be The Great Architect. By the age Mary decided that she wanted to pursue a career in the field, Julia Morgan already had a BS from UC/Berkeley in Civil Engineering and had completed an internship with Bernard Maybeck. There were years that Mary did not practice architecture at all; near the end of WWI she worked for the Post Office translating “Spanish trade mail” and later spent a year working for a charity assisting French peasant-farmers trying to reestablish their lives postwar. She often spent hours a day riding horses and sometimes toured in amateur theatrical productions. It seems that she had a well-balanced and happy life right up to her death at age 101.

As for the Edwards House, Florence and her husband did not live there long. It appears that they moved in during the autumn of 1908, judging by the newspaper clipping mentioned below and because the Rockwell family scrapbooks contain an October 12, 1908 receipt from the Fountaingrove Vineyard Co. for five gallons of “Saut (sweetened)” – presumably sauterne, which was quite popular in the day – that cost 75 cents a gallon, plus another buck for the keg. Presumably there were more gallons of the cloying sweet wine on hand when James was elected mayor of Santa Rosa in 1910 and invited the congratulatory crowd that gathered outside their home to come in and have “something to eat and drink.” Hopefully Florence didn’t lose too many pieces of her replenished dishware collection that evening.

The Edwards apparently sold the house in 1913 to Milton Wasserman, one of the larger hops dealers in the area. Florence and James Edwards moved back to McDonald Avenue, where he had lived most of his life, this time taking up residence at number 925, directly next to the Mabelton mansion.

     The James R. Edwards are now comfortably installed in their handsome new residence on Mendocino avenue. They have certainly good reason to be proud of their new home and the friends who have been privileged with an inspection of the interior furnishing and arrangement cannot say too much in compliment of the taste displayed.

    – “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, November 22, 1908

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There’s a plaque at the Sonoma County Museum noting the building was “designed by James Knox Taylor.” Perhaps that line should be taped over, or at least a question mark added. A bright red question mark.

The magnificent old place was once Santa Rosa’s post office. Even before the 1906 earthquake, the town’s Congressman requested funds for a new federal building because the post office had outgrown its 19th century rooms in the old Athenaeum, Santa Rosa’s opera house. When that building collapsed in the quake, the post office temporarily relocated to the tent city on a Mendocino street vacant lot (along with almost every downtown business). After that, postal workers operated a window at a grocery store as they waited for a new home to be built by the government. And waited. 1906 turned into 1907, then 1908, when the Squeedunk parade mocked the endless delays with a float portraying a vacant lot surrounded by a worn fence. Finally, the blueprints arrived from Washington (now available online via the Library of Congress). On each page was stamped the signature and title of “James Knox Taylor Supervising Architect Treasury Department”.

(TOP: Santa Rosa received its first glimpse of its new post office in an unsigned architect’s rendering that appeared in the Republican January 14, 1909. CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge

MIDDLE: Construction progress was delayed by water continually filling the excavated site, probably because of an underground tributary to Santa Rosa creek. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

BOTTOM: Postcard c. 1910. Note the bicycles strewn on the curb and steps. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library/University of California)

James Knox Taylor was in charge of the Office of the Supervising Architect, a Treasury subdepartment that designed and commissioned federal buildings as well as awarding construction contracts. It was a job of tremendous responsibility; he managed an annual budget and inventory worth around $25 million, which would be closer to a billion dollars today. In FY 1909, when work was underway in Santa Rosa, he had 134 new buildings under construction or recently completed, additions or major repairs on dozens of others, and a further 263 projects somewhere in the pipeline, clamoring for attention.

Taylor’s appointment in 1897 to this post surprised many. It was usually a political patronage job and the designs produced by the Office were generally considered lackluster (one critic at the time called the work “excretable”). But Taylor had worked as an architect himself – albeit one who couldn’t make a living at it. Although he wasn’t the Treasury Department’s first choice, he was selected because he had been a draftsman there for three years and knew how the large Office functioned, and also because he wrote a convincing essay that outlined his philosophy: That public buildings shoud have a dignified style, be beautiful, and be pleasant to work in. Taylor quickly transformed the Office into a true architectural studio that turned out designs that might not have been the best of the day, but were certainly nothing to be ashamed of. He also awarded commissions to top architects for prominent buildings in major cities, which earned him high praise from top architects. Alas, that policy proved his undoing, and he resigned in 1912 amid a scandal that he gave one of these valuable contracts to his former partner from their failed architectural firm.

But did James Knox Taylor design the building that’s now the Sonoma County Museum? Unless unpublished correspondence turns up that proves authorship, assume the answer is no. The primary reference book on the Supervising Architect’s Office, “Architects to the Nation” (my source for background on Taylor) explains that during his tenure, “…modest government buildings, usually post offices, located in small communities…were designed by the Office staff.” Architectural database archINFORM similarly notes, “As the head of a sizable government office, Taylor’s direct involvement with any of these projects is open to question.” And then there was Taylor’s own essay that won him the position, where he stated that he believed the Supervising Architect should be a manager and leave designing to others, so “…[the Supervising Architect] could devote his attention to seeing personally that the three general considerations stated in the beginning of this thesis were studied, and that the actual work of construction was honestly done.”

In sum: It can be claimed James Knox Taylor was the designer of hundreds of public buildings in the same sense that hundreds of cartoons were “made by Walt Disney.” The man with his name on the title signed off on the final product, but likely didn’t do much of anything to shape the work; it was his talented employees who were the real creators.

So who does deserve our thanks for that beautiful building? The only full name on the blueprints is Taylor’s Supervising Architect stamp, and the actual draftsman is anonymous draftsman’s name can be read as “Smith” on some pages of the blueprints. The only other name associated with the building’s creation is one William N. Collier, and he was an engineer sent to oversee construction, not an architect.

Perhaps the true architect’s name might be found somewhere in the cavernous National Archives, but it’s useful to compare Santa Rosa’s old post office to other California post office/federal buildings that were in the works at the same time: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Stockton. I was unable to find any image of the historic Stockton building, but photos of the others reveal they share Santa Rosa’s Beaux Arts-Neoclassical-Spanish Colonial mashup. All have a low-pitched hipped roof with red tile; strong cornices under the eaves; masonry walls; a portico with a colonnade; an entryway filled with windows. Each building has slightly different tweaks. Santa Rosa’s Corinthian columns became Doric columns in Santa Cruz, then arches with pilasters in Santa Barbara. The post office in Santa Cruz is a single story, but has a larger footprint than the other two. (Only Santa Rosa is well proportioned, in my opinion, and the steps on the other buildings are not an integral  part  of the design, looking more like afterthoughts.)

Does that mean the same unknown architect designed all of the 1909-1910 California post offices? Possibly, but if they look enough alike to be a set of fraternal triplets, the East Coast federal buildings of the same vintage can be recognized as their first cousins. You’ll spot the same Beaux Arts-Neoclassical look – particularly in the shape of the oversized windows and doorways – at Saratoga Springs, NY, Selma, Alabama and Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, among others. Slap a hipped tile roof and a portico-colonnade on any of these buildings and they’d fit right in with the “California” style of architecture coming from Taylor’s office. (UPDATE: On further study, even the hipped tile roof can be found on post offices in the South and Southwest from this period – one example is Bessemer, Alabama.) I think the best conclusion is that the designer/architects were following the Office pattern book and not their muse.

Our treasure of a federal building was officially completed on March 1, 1910 for a total cost about $60,000. And so everything remained for 55 years, until the current post office was built in 1965 on Second street. The government sold the old building to Sonoma County, which used it as a data processing center. In 1977 it was sold again to the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency, which was itching to get rid of it to make room for a shiny new mall that guaranteed lotsa’ renewing would follow. The building was slowwwwly moved from its original location at 405 Fifth street (on the corner of A street, an address now obliterated by the mall parking structure) about 750 feet to Seventh street. We should be very grateful that Santa Rosa didn’t just rip it down, as it recklessly demolished most of the rest of its history.

The old post office deserves to be better appreciated. If a drama were written about the history of Santa Rosa (R-rated, for sure), the first act would be set in a downtown saloon, sweaty, dank and thick with the grit of the Old West. But the scene for act two would be on the sunshined steps of the post office, because that’s where you bumped into everyone every day during the decades when Santa Rosa bloomed. This was the heart of the charming place that Alfred Hitchcock loved and immortalized. Venerate today that quiet lobby, which remains a perfect time capsule of memories not your own.

Contrast that with our present underwhelming main post office, which is notable for having a complete set of walls, floor and ceiling. Every time I’m in there – waiting at the back of a mile-long line – I think back to my aunt Ethelyn, who in the 1960s had a repulsive “modern” sofa with plastic upholstery. When anyone in the family teased that it was remarkably ugly even for the low standards of the day, she’d huff defensively, “well, it’s very easy to keep clean.”


The new Santa Rosa postoffice building, which is to be erected on the corner of Fifth and A streets in this city, has been admirably designed to harmonize with our history, climate, and natural surroundings. The building will be of Spanish design and will present a pleasing contrast to our other public buildings in the city. The building proper has a frontage on Fifth street of eighty-two feet, and a depth on A street of fifty-two feet. In addition to this main building there is a portico across the front fifty-one feet wide by thirteen feet deep. The general construction of the building is brick masonry, laid in pure cement mortar, no lime whatever. To the height of the first floor the building will be faced with cut stone laid as “coursed ashlar.” This stone will probably be “Indiana Buff Bedford Limestone,” the finest building stone now obtainable in the United States. From the cut stone line to the rafter extensions, the plain brick work will be stuccoed in a rough cast “stipled” surface and nicely paneled and ornamented in mouldings. The roof of the building will be covered with the best grade of Spanish terra cotta tile, including ornamented tile hips and ridges. All of the lintels over the portico and door and window openings will be of cast reinforced concrete, and all sills will be cut stone of same as base course. The portico floor is reached by a set of massive solid granite steps forty-six feet wide. The roof of the portico is also Spanish tile, and is held up by two heavy masonry corners, and four stone columns, twenty inches in diameter, with heavy base and carved caps.

The cornice of the entire building is overhanging with darkened beams and huge rafters. In all, the effect is one of massiveness and solidity. Each buttress on either side of the granite steps is surmounted by a heavy cast iron lamp standard, of highly ornamented design, and with five large opalescent glass globes to each standard. These lamps stand about ten feet high.

The first floor is given over entirely to the use of the postoffice, the public lobby extends across the entire front of the building and is thirteen feet deep, with high ceiling and heavy plastered arches and cornices. At the left end of the lobby is a fine solid oak stairway leading to the internal revenue offices on the second floor. Another passageway at the left leads to the private offices of the postmaster and assistant postmaster.

The workroom occupies all the central portion of the first floor and is practically two stories in height, as is the public lobby. The money order and registry department is at the right of the double entrance, and is separated somewhat from the general workroom. Large roomy vaults of reinforced concrete and steel are provided for all purposes. The floor of the portico and public lobby is of marble terrazzo laid off in panels. All of the base and plinths of the lobby will also be of marble. The second story at the left is arranged into a suite of offices for internal revenue officers with private vaults, toilet, etc. On the right of the second story are arranged a store room, “swing room,” and toilet room.

All of the toilet rooms have terazzo floors and marble wainscoting. The large toilet rooms on the second floor have exceptionally fine facilities, including shower baths for employees of the postoffice. There will be a basement with ten-foot ceiling under the whole building given over to the heating plant and fuel storage, etc. The mechanical equipment of the building, including heating, plumbing, and electric installation, is superb and of the latest types throughout. The heating will have an automatic oil burning plant to operate a hot water heating apparatus.

The plumbing embraces some of the finest fixtures made, most of which will be the John Douglas manufacture. All heating and plumbing pipes and fittings will be jacketed with asbestos pipe coverings. There will be four distinct electric installations, one for lighting, one for power, one for vault protection service and one for telephone service within the building. All electric work will be run in metal conduits.

The inside finish of the building will be almost entirely of quarter sawed whiteoak for all doors, trim, fixtures, counters, desks, etc. All glass will be plate or ornamental opalascent glass. Wood floors will be of white maple. Artistic metal grilles at all screen openings and front doors.

As a whole our new Federal Building compares favorably with other like [illegible microfilm] and while not so large and pretentious as some, it is fully adequate to serve its purpose.

The building was designed by James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the treasury, and its construction will be under the personal supervision of Mr. William N. Collier, superintendent of construction of public buildings, who is now in Santa Rosa. Hoyt Brothers have the contract to erect the building.

– Santa Rosa Republican January 14, 1909

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