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WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER

It happened without any warning: “Santa Rosa’s Public Library will close at 6PM today and suspend services until another building can be found,” the Press Democrat article announced on November 17, 1960.

What town closes down its library? And can they even do that? Oh, sure, the old building had its faults, everybody knew. The building could be overcrowded after school or on weekends and the shelves were so full that books were also piled on the floor, which had something of a slant.

Behind those ivy-covered walls the place was thick with sentiment. Three generations of Santa Rosans had warm memories starting with children’s story hours, of later reference desk help with homework, of taking home lightweight books to pass the time or stronger reading to sharpen one’s wits. Out-of-town newspapers had classified ads to help find a new job or place to live that wasn’t here; magazines presented stories and pictures of places to dream they could someday see.

soad(RIGHT: Scene from Shadow of a Doubt, 1943)

And not to overlook that the building was a landmark – the library had been a centerpiece in two major motion pictures, with the Chamber of Commerce touting it as a tourist attraction.

Whatever was wrong with the old place, couldn’t the damage be fixed?

No, authorities said. Or maybe yes – with the caveat that everyone would hate how it looked afterwards. But it wasn’t really that simple a question because the real, unspoken answer was this: “Don’t ask the question because we’ve already made a decision.” And what the city and Library Board of Trustees had decided to do was tear the building completely down and replace it with something they had already committed to build. Landmark, public will, and everything else be damned.

The given reason for padlocking the doors was that the building wasn’t up to fire codes and was structurally unsound. A letter to the Trustees from City Manager Sam Hood told them to immediately “move out of the building or close it” (i.e. shut down all town library services).

1961library(RIGHT: Find the temporary Santa Rosa Library. Photo: Sonoma County Library)

After a mad scramble to find space downtown, a shrunken version of the Santa Rosa Free Public Library opened just three weeks later on Exchange Avenue across from the courthouse. It was now in a former dance hall, on the second floor above the “Uptown Beauty Salon” and the “Bambi Room” cocktail lounge. The new digs were probably not rated to carry that much of a weight load and were just as much a firetrap (or more) than the old library, as the only access was via a narrow set of stairs. And so the world turned for over six years, until the new library finally opened on February 19, 1967.

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The topic of the old library still comes up surprisingly often on social media; in FaceBook nostalgia groups some can still recall being there and lament that it’s gone. It also often comes up in regards of the 1906 earthquake, as photos of its partial collapse seem to be second in popularity only to those of the courthouse with its toppled dome.

In those forums two reasons are usually given for why it was torn down. Its unreinforced masonry was a huge danger (a topic discussed below) and/or it was another victim of Santa Rosa’s maniac efforts in the 1960s to destroy much of its own history, when the downtown area was declared chock-full of urban blight that must be bulldozed ASAP. Those dark years are handled in the ongoing series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”

But neither of those arguments were made at the time – when the push for a new library began in 1959, the only issue was that Santa Rosa had outgrown its 6,000 sq. ft. building. As the Library Board hired an architect and bickered with the City Council about their proposed construction budget that year and over much of the next, not once did any article in the Press Democrat mention there were safety concerns about the building. It was just the library was very crowded and had to limit purchases of new books because there wasn’t enough shelf space.

bookstacked(RIGHT: Books stored on the floor in Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, 1960. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The budget debate had two angles. The Library Board said they needed $1,250,000 while the Council argued they could cut back by eliminating frivolities, such as an elevator and air conditioning. The Board insisted the new library stay at the same location, while some on the Council wanted its prime real estate sold to help pay for the new place.

Jumping into this conflict came Hugh Codding, who in that era kept relentlessly popping up in the news like an Alfred Hitchcock cameo. Codding was his usual obnoxious – yet charming! – self in trying to sweet-talk both sides to instead remodel the old shoe factory, on the west side of modern Brookwood Ave between 2nd and 3rd. Sure, it had less than half the space the library needed, but so what? There was plenty of parking. Even when librarian David Sabsay pointed out that 4 in 5 patrons walked to the library while doing other downtown errands, old Hugh was undeterred and followed with a pitch for a lease-back deal. The word “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary (nor was “rebar” apparently).

Through 1959 and early 1960 talks slogged on. Did the library really need to buy so many new books? Why can’t it be moved out to the sticks so we can sell the property? Hey, Codding is back with a new proposal for his old factory! And while we should never cast all of our elected officials as bonafide idiots, at one City Council meet an apparently exasperated Sabsay even had to explain that a library was a hallmark of, you know, civilization.

Finally, in May 1960 – fifteen months into the process – the city sent the chief building inspector over to evaluate the old library’s condition. From the PD article on the report, it seemed like he was still giving the City Council the option to kick the can further down the road, although his conclusion was that “the structural safety and stability of the building are questionable.”

But the details found in the report should have caused the building to be immediately red tagged. Floors were overloaded with twice the weight they were designed for and not fastened to the foundation, which was settling unevenly. Efforts to brace the building after the 1906 earthquake included two steel cross beams connecting the opposite walls – but that rigidity only made matters worse as the library’s foundation settled, resulting in severe vertical cracks and the walls bulging outward.

librarybracing(RIGHT: Bookshelf bracing in Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, 1960. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Ironically, the report appeared exactly a week after the PD printed a promo section with the claim, “The Santa Rosa library facilities are good, although not large enough at present for the growing city, but plans call for new and larger library facilities soon.”

The Library Trustees hired a San Francisco engineer to produce another report. His conclusion was that the only way the building could be made structurally sound was by encasing the whole shebang in a steel exoskeleton, then covering that with four inches of high density concrete. Less City of Roses, more City of Chernobyl.

A senior state Fire Marshal surveyed the 57 year-old building and said that unless two more exits were added there was no “reasonable degree of safety from fire and panic to occupants.” An electrician’s report stated the wiring was “very inadequate” and a fire danger. They immediately took the space heaters away from library staff.

The City Council had already approved putting a library construction bond on a Jan. 1961 special bond election along with several million$ for city infrastructure improvements. But after those alarming reports came the tense meetings with the city where it was decided to lock the doors; the city library’s future now rested on spinning the election roulette wheel in hopes the public would agree to build a new library.

Things began moving fast. Until the new library was built, the city library would have to immediately find an interim location for the two years that was expected for construction. Before they settled on upper Bambi, Codding had offered a spot in Montgomery Village that used to be the Big Boy Market (2400 Magowan Drive, currently Dano’s Liquors). Everybody ignored him.

Voters who read the Press Democrat now found a steady stream of alarming articles casting the library story as a crisis. “I’m amazed to find some people who still think the building is usable,” said City Manager Sam Hood. A library Board member called it an “acute and desperate situation.” Councilman Karl Stolting pointed to the part from engineer’s report about the unbolted floor joists and remarked that an earthquake jolt might knock them off the masonry, causing the floors to pancake. “At least don’t have so many kids in there,” he remarked.

But the hair-on-fire award goes to the editor who wrote a PD op-ed, “Library Closing Overdue” just a few months after that promo piece assuring that “the Santa Rosa library facilities are good”:

If you want, you can take along a plumb-bob to confirm that your eyes are not playing tricks on you when they see that the stone walls are bowing outward. You can bring along a spirit-level to confirm that one of your legs is not shorter than the other, but that the floor actually sags downward. Take a look at the leaning walls and the sagging floor of the main library floor. Then go down to the basement and look at the children’s library that is directly underneath. Figure out for yourself whether you would want your own children in there.

Let’s hit the pause button for a moment to consider what someone living in Santa Rosa at the time might have thought of all this. Part of it would have felt very familiar – because it was almost an exact replay of the ongoing courthouse drama.

The story of events leading to the demolition of the downtown courthouse are told in “HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE,” but to recap: By the early 1950s it was recognized that a larger courthouse was needed. Someday a new one would be built on the site northwest of town which would also be the new home for all county offices but there was no great hurry, just as the City Council would later dawdle over the question of whether a new library was really needed.

The came the 1957 earthquake. The courthouse damage was cosmetic, not structural; repairs could be made and while they wouldn’t be cheap, repair costs and other needed upgrades would still be a fraction of the price to build a new whole place. But out-of-town consultants told the Board of Supervisors the best thing was to tear it down and sell off Courthouse Square. Similarly, the city didn’t take the library’s problems seriously until a San Francisco engineer in 1960 said that building could be fixed at a reasonable cost with the exoskeleton, but it wasn’t worth doing it.

The Press Democrat – firmly behind any flavor of redevelopment – never missed a chance to make the quake-damaged courthouse seem a deathtrap, like it would later paint the library as a ticking time bomb. In 1957 the PD falsely told readers the courthouse may be in structurally “poor condition,” just as in 1960 the paper would exaggerate claims of library danger via collapsing floors (a scenario not mentioned in the engineer’s report).

In both cases, the way forward required voters to approve construction bonds. The courthouse bond measure was on the ballot in November 1960. It failed to pass.

The library bond came up two months later and the PD tried hard to make it seem appealing to voters, with big front page stories. The old library had reached max efficiency back in 1930, when the population was just 11 thousand; there were now over 30k residents. The new library was projected to fill the city’s needs all the way up to 1980 and would have a modern design including a “glassed-in smoking court.” It also failed to pass – badly, getting only 36 percent approval of voters.

Bonds for the courthouse and the library continued to march lockstep in defeat. In 1961 courthouse funding was again turned down. In 1962 it was voted against twice, and once more in 1963. They tried again to pass a library bond in 1963 and it likewise failed.

It’s almost easy to understand why the courthouse bonds couldn’t pass. They were asking for lots of money (about $34 million in today’s dollars) and was strongly fought by the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association. Opposition to the library bond seemed to come from people who apparently never actually used the library. A sample of letters that appeared in the PD:

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  “The engineers say the building shouldn’t have been repaired after the 1906 earthquake, but it’s still standing after 54 years, so it must be pretty sound. When will our public officials get it into their heads that we want economy.”
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  The library could be expanded by building a two story annex on the west side of the property, suggested Harry B. Fetch, with a parking garage underneath it. He added he would not vote to construct a new building.
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  A voter wrote he would approve a bond for $500k but not a penny more, since the library was mostly just used by high school students.

The Friends of the Santa Rosa Public Library created a short film, “The Library Story” to shame the town into supporting a bond and finally, in 1964 voters approved the $1.25M bond to tear down the Carnegie Library and build a new one at the same location. This time the vote wasn’t even close – it won with almost 84 points.

Construction didn’t begin for almost a full year. Shortly before demolition started in March 1965 the public was invited to take one last look inside the building – if any readers remember taking this final tour, please contact me. A PD photo by John LeBaron, taken through the old glass entrance door, showed the book checkout desk, now littered with junk. Leaning against it on the floor was the original portrait of Andrew Carnegie that had welcomed patrons to his library for so long.

Dedication of cornerstone for Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, April 13, 1903. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Dedication of cornerstone for Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, April 13, 1903. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

There’s no question that the Carnegie Library was structurally unsound and there was no realistic hope of saving it. But claiming its fatal flaw was just “unreinforced masonry” is simplistic hand waving.

There were other buildings in Santa Rosa with unreinforced masonry that weathered the 1906 earthquake without serious problems; St. Rose church, two years older than the library, came through with trivial damage – its Nave would have been one of the safest places in town during the shake. Likewise the Western Hotel in Railroad Square – now home to Flying Goat Coffee – only needed minor repair. There was apparently no harm done to the train depot, which was even built by the same contractor who constructed the library: William Peacock of San Francisco.*

Yes, the stone walls were badly cracked and slowly collapsing, but that wasn’t the underlying problem – it was the foundation. The building was doomed before a patron checked out the first book.

The structure was unstable, Santa Rosa’s chief building inspector wrote in his May, 1960 report, not because of earthquake shakes but because its foundation had been settling and shifting for a long time. His report continued:

…The very mass and weight that were designed into the building are contributing to its deterioration by causing excessive settlement of exterior walls to take place, thus overstressing the walls…it is evident that the foundation of the building is inadequate for the loads imposed and will continue to settle in an uneven manner.

Details about the construction work are unknown, except that the basalt came from the Titania Quarry between Highway 12 and Montgomery Drive. The building inspector’s report said “the building was well constructed, of good materials and workmanship.” We don’t know how much time and effort contractor Peacock put into site preparation or if there were any earthworks beyond simple grading. What we do know is that Peacock’s bid for the job was significantly lower than the competing seven other builders.

emhoenThe architect for the library was Ernest Martin Hoen (1872 – 1914), who was 29 years old when he was awarded the contract. He was the son of Barney Hoen, one of Santa Rosa’s founders.

He had graduated from Washington University in 1889 (the Manual Training School, not the School of Architecture) and worked for a few years at the McDougall family construction firm, as Brainerd Jones also did when he was starting out. (His background info, BTW, comes from one of the Lewis Publishing Company “mug books” where people paid to have their biographies included as part of a local history book – there’s no entry for him in any of the historical architect databases.)

He lived in Sacramento where he worked for the school district, teaching mechanical drawing at the high school and night school for $100/mo. Prior to getting the contract for the Santa Rosa Library, the only architectural credits I can find are the Shasta County high school in Redding – which wasn’t built until after our library – and the wood frame Union Primary School in Sacramento. (There was a legal issue when he submitted his bill for the latter, as he was also a salaried employee of the district. That building was repurposed as a warehouse in 1932.)

With such a tissue-thin résumé, it’s surprising that he won out over “six prominent architects of the state” as the Press Democrat claimed – except for the fact that he was “an old Santa Rosa boy” as the PD reminded readers at every opportunity.

Besides being the library’s architect, he was paid additionally to be its supervising architect. And since he was indeed “an old Santa Rosa boy,” the Personal Mention column of the PD paid special attention every time he came to town. For 1903 it showed he visited seven times – but only once prior the dedication of cornerstone when the foundation work was already completed, as seen in the photo above.

When the doors of the Santa Rosa Free Public Library opened on March 10, 1904, a PD editorial promised “it should and doubtless will prove a source of both pleasure and profit to the residents of this city and vicinity for the next hundred years.” Spoiler alert: It didn’t.

Contractor Peacock can’t be held blameless, of course, but the final responsibility lay with Hoen. Through his lack of supervision on the construction project or lack of experience in designing masonry buildings – or both – he fashioned a building that would not long stand.

ABOVE: Santa Rosa Carnegie Library during 1965 demolition. TOP: Library following 1960 closure. Both photos courtesy Sonoma County Library
ABOVE: Santa Rosa Carnegie Library during 1965 demolition. TOP: Library following 1960 closure. Both photos courtesy Sonoma County Library

* William Peacock and his wife were killed here during the 1906 earthquake and in one of the more bizarre Believe-it-or-Not! episodes of the disaster, there were years of court hearings to determine which one of them died first because they left very different wills.

 

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SELECTED PRESS DEMOCRAT ARTICLES

February 12, 1959; SR Library Program May Total $1 Million
May 15, 1960: City Library Structural Safety Questioned in Report
November 10, 1960: Fire Marshal Hits Safety of Library
November 16, 1960: Council Backs Library Trustees on Abandonment
November 17, 1960: Santa Rosa’s Library Closing Doors Tonight
November 20, 1960: Library Danger Signs Couldn’t Be Ignored
November 22, 1960: Library Closing Overdue (editorial)
January 1, 1961: Why Does Santa Rosa Need a New Library

 

PLANS ACCEPTED
Architect Ernest Hoen Will Supervise Building of Library

At a special meeting of the Library Trustees held on Wednesday afternoon the plans of Ernest M. Hoen of Sacramento, an old Santa Rosa boy, were accepted and he will supervise the construction of the new Carnegie library building, or as it will be known the Santa Rosa Free Public Library. Mr. Hoen’s plans provide for a handsome structure which will contain ample room for the carrying out of the scheme to give the city a modern library building. He was the successful competitor out of six prominent architects of the state. For his plans and specifications and the supervision of the erection of the building he will receive $1,000. Mr. Hoen stands high in his profession and has designed many important buildings in different sections of this state. A colored drawing of the new building prepared by him can be seen at the library room. The main entrance of the new building will be on Fourth street and the basement entrance on E street. Interested citizens may inspect the plans selected. They are at the office of the president of the board of Trustees, W. D. Reynolds, on Hinton avenue.

– Press Democrat, September 11 1902

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ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR BURBANK

Dear Luther Burbank: Will you please allow us to honor you by putting your name on our new elementary school? Sincerely, The Board of Education.

That was the gist of their February 1906 request, according to the Press Democrat, and a few days later an article followed about Burbank granting permission, “…but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution. My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.”

Sure, old Luther poured on the faux humility a bit too thick, but he really did have a genuine affection for children, although he was never a parent. He wrote and spoke often about education and the importance of nurturing children (including some quirky ideas, such as they shouldn’t begin schooling until age ten). Burbank was famously impatient with adults who dropped by his Santa Rosa garden seeking an audience, but he always gave children his full attention, hoping to spark a lifelong love of nature. And for some reason he oddly felt compelled to entertain them by performing headstands and somersaults.

Why they wanted to name school after Burbank was obvious: In the same Press Democrat article he was called a “great scientist” and “Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen.” The year before, Burbank had been awarded an annual grant of $10,000 by the Carnegie Institution. As the prestigious Institution was known for funding only the pursuit of pure scientific research, Burbank suddenly was cast as a celebrity and a genius of world-class importance instead of merely a nursery man who produced novelty flower and vegetable seeds. (The deal ended bitterly for Burbank in 1909 amid a growing number of scientists calling him a charlatan – see the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series for more.)

But naming a school to tribute a person was a new thing around Santa Rosa. Previously schools were called after the school district – the Lewis district school, Llano district school, Monroe district school, and so on. In town grammar schools were named for the location: Davis street, South Park, Third street. A PD article in 1905 (transcribed below) pointed out that cities were now naming schools after presidents and other prominent men, so besides naming the new school after Burbank, the Fourth street school was renamed Fremont school at about the same time.

Luther Burbank performing somersaults for children at age 70 or 71, circa 1920. Image: Sonoma County Library
Luther Burbank performing somersaults for children at age 70 or 71, circa 1920. Image: Sonoma County Library

Burbank name aside, the school ran into a number of serious problems before its doors opened.

Santa Rosa schools were in poor condition and badly overcrowded; a 1904 muckraking series in the Republican newspaper reported that the 62 sixth graders at the Fourth street school were wedged into a classroom with a capacity for 46. Desks were so tightly packed that kids brushed against the arms of classmates when walking between the aisles of desks, and some didn’t have desks at all, but sat on stools. There was no electricity so the only light came from westside windows; heating was a coal stove in the middle of the room. Not a thing had been upgraded since the school was built in the 1870s.

It was generally recognized that any new school should be south of Santa Rosa Creek, as that area was being developed and growing quickly. A special election for a school bond failed just before Christmas 1904 – likely because the Press Democrat called the reports of overcrowding “gross exaggeration” – but passed the following March.

Nearly a year went by before the Burbank naming and construction started on the eight room schoolhouse. (All grammar schools covered grades 1-8. and this would also have an assembly hall, library, teacher’s lounge and separate boy/girl playrooms in the basement.) But work had barely begun before the project halted amid controversy and threats of violence.

Santa Rosa’s Labor Council called for a general strike in January 1906 and as the school was to be a stone and brick building, union bricklayers walked off the job. The local contractor then brought in scab workers from Los Angeles – without telling them they were coming here to break a strike. Complicating matters greatly was that the non-union, out-of-town bricklayers were African-American.

Instead of directing their anger towards the contractor, white union workers targeted Black men and one of them picked a fight with an African-American named Paul Anderson, unaware that he wasn’t part of the group from LA and actually lived here. According to the Republican paper, a white mob stalked him along Fourth street with Anderson carrying a length of pipe for self-defense in case they attacked. In spite of Anderson filing an assault charge against one of the men, the PD story on the incident cast Anderson as someone who was “looking for trouble” and who “ran amuck.” (The man he accused of assault, BTW, was a popular union leader and elected to City Council two years later.)

Work resumed in late March, but not for long – the great Santa Rosa Earthquake struck April 18, 1906. Suddenly constructing buildings of stone and brick didn’t seem like such a swell idea.

With much of downtown flattened, everyone in town had more pressing concerns than what to do with a barely-started schoolhouse. When the school board finally met with the contractor months later, the building was completely redesigned – it would now be wood frame and only one story, with the top floor to be determined. Apparently the only serious damage to what already had been built was part of the basement wall collapsing.

Plans changed again and the upper story was back; work was supposed to completed by October, then by Christmas, then by February. The doors finally opened on March 7, 1907 – Luther Burbank’s birthday. He gave an earnest address on kindness and happiness.

Luther Burbank School (1907-1940) Postcard image: Sonoma County Library
Luther Burbank School (1907-1940) Postcard image: Sonoma County Library

Years passed and two generations of Santa Rosa’s children were schooled there. All manner of poignant stories about the place can be found in the old newspapers. In 1928, 12 year-old Alta Waters wrote to the Press Democrat about Penny, a collie who lived at the school after being hit by a car; on Saturdays the kids took the dog to the movies with them. At the end of summer vacation “Penny would almost die of joy to see us all again.” There were shows performed for parents nearly every year, and the children ran a “student city” complete with a chamber of commerce, post office, clothing store, bank – and likely because this was Burbank school, there was also a garden club. In the 1930s they had Mrs. Gregg, a beloved principal who taught them puppetry while they made up plays together. I could go on for pages more about all that happened during those wonderful days.

Then in September 1938, a Republican headline read: “Fire Menace at Burbank Emphasized.” The problems were real but not particularly dire – the stairways were somewhat narrow and the fire escapes were rickety. The real incentive to rebuild the school, however, was that a federal grant would pay for 45 percent of new construction. The Republican article continued:

Burbank school erected in 1906, damaged by the earthquake and rebuilt on a substitute plan, is in bad state of repair requiring almost constant remodeling and costly replacement to keep it in usable condition, school officials said yesterday. Eventually because of fire hazard the 32-year-old structure must be torn down and replaced. Sponsors of the bond issue believe that the cheapest and best way to solve the problem is to take advantage of the federal funds now offered as an outright gift…

1938burbank school(RIGHT: The 1938 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect)

The school bond passed easily (six to one). Before the vote both city newspapers featured the preliminary drawing seen here. The designer for that and the school which was built was William Herbert, a local architect who was never accused of originality. Almost everything he produced was in this Spanish Colonial style; the final design was in the Streamline/PWA Moderne style introduced in Santa Rosa years before by Herbert’s former partner, Cal Caulkins.

The original schoolhouse was demolished in June, 1940. On that occasion the Republican offered something of an obituary: “Walls that for more than 33 years have echoed the laughter of happy children, the sing-song chant of students reading aloud their daily lessons, the quick steps of young Americans as they marched to and from their classes, started crumbling away yesterday…”

The article written by V. C. Silvershield ended: “Luther Burbank has passed on but his works will never die. Today Luther Burbank grammar school also will die — but the wreckers’ hammers cannot kill the spirit of Burbank — and like the Phoenix a new Luther Burbank grammar school will spring forth to carry on the traditions of “south of the creek.”

The 1940 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect
The 1940 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect

 

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It will soon be in order for Santa Rosa to follow the lead of Oakland and build some schoolhouses worthy of the city. A school building should be erected south of Santa Rosa creek the coming summer.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 27 1904

 

SCHOOL CHILDREN MUST HAVE ROOM
Trustees Unanimous For a Bond Issue and Want a Durable Building

The members of the Board of Education of Court House School District will hold a special meeting tomorrow evening at the office of Secretary Fred G. Nagle to discuss the matter of providing Santa Rosa with adequate school facilities. At the present time there are practically three hundred children attending the schools for whom there is no provision for seats and desks. It is up to the Board of Education to provide additional room. This can only be done through a bond issue as the revenue of the schools at present is only adequate for the ordinary needs of the district.

At the present time there are one hundred more pupils in the Fourth street grammar school than ever before, and two hundred more than any previous record for this month. January and February are recognized as the heaviest school months and when this influx of pupils arrives the principal and teachers of the schools will be completely swamped…

…[Board Trustee] Albert O. Erwin— “We have pupils enough at the present time to fill five additional rooms and there is a great overflow of pupils from the Fourth-street and Davis-street schools. I believe there should be some arrangement for handling the pupils on the south side of Santa Rosa creek. There is a large and growing population in the south and southwest sections of the city which needs our attention. I should like to see a brick or stone building constructed of about eight rooms…

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1904

 

Resolved, That in the event of the voting and sale of the proposed bonds, it is hereby declared to be the intention of this board to build two new school buildings of brick or stone, and that it is their intention to locate one of them south of Santa Rosa creek upon such a convenient and central lot as it is possible to secure at a reasonable price…

– Board of Trustees of Court House School District, December 6, 1904

 

NAMES FOR SCHOOLS
Suggestion Made Which Will Receive Consideration

Several times of late reference has been made at the meetings of the Board of Education to the inconvenience of the present method of designating the various schools in the district and suggestions have been made that the schools should each be given a distinctive name as in other cities. With the building of the new school south of the creek has come the suggestion that it shall be known as the “Burbank” school. As to the other schools it has been suggested that names of prominent men might be assigned. Oakland has its Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield and Swett schools, while all other cities have similar names for the schools.

– Press Democrat, November 3 1905

 

NEW SCHOOL HOUSE TO BE NAMED FOR LUTHER BURBANK
Meeting of Board of Education

The Board of Education of Court House School District, at an adjourned meeting last night, decided to honor Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen, Luther Burbank, by naming her best and latest school building in his honor, providing he would consent to the action. The Board decided that the new ten-room stone and brick building at the corner of A and Ellis street, south of the creek should be called the “Luther Burbank School” in honor of the great scientist, and the secretary was directed to write and request Mr. Burbank to allow the use of his name by the school department in this manner.

– Press Democrat, February 14 1906

 

BURBANK WILL ACCEPT HONOR
His Love for Children and Interest in Santa Rosa Excuse for So Doing

The request of the Board of Education for permission to use the name of Santa Rosa’s eminent scientist for its new eight room brick and stone school building being erected near his home, on A street at the corner of Ellis, has been accepted with the following characteristic reply from Mr. Burbank:

“Mr. Hugh C. Coltrln, Secretary Board of Education, Santa Rosa, California.

“My Dear Sir: I cannot be otherwise than highly pleased with the proposition of the Board of Education to name the beautiful new school building, at the corner of A and Ellis streets, the Luther Burbank school.

“I can only say that I feel wholly unworthy of such a compliment, but if this action is pleasing to the Board I shall accept the compliment, but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution.

“My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.

“Heartily yours. Luther Burbank.”

– Press Democrat, February 21 1906

 

SCHOOL BOARD IN SESSION

…A considerable portion of the evening was spent in a discussion of the Burbank school reconstruction. Contractor Kuykendall and Sub-Contractor Nagle were present to confer with the board. At a late hour an adjournment was taken to Friday night…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1906

 

BOARD OF EDUCATION ADJUSTS THE LOSS

The Board of Education of Court House School District met Friday evening and adjusted the loss on the Burbank school building. The gross loss is estimated at $10,000 which will be reduced to one-half that amount by the salvage allowance of Contractor J. O. Kuykendall. On April 18 when the building was damaged there was due and had been paid the contractor the sum of $10,876.45 out of a contract price of $27,496.

The board decided to change the material of the building and instead of brick it will be constructed of wood. It will be a frame building from the basement up and the basement which was damaged will be rebuilt in the weak portions. At the present time only the lower floor will be completed and the building of the second story will be held in abeyance.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 30, 1906

 

WORK IS PROGRESSING ON BURBANK SCHOOL

When driving go by the Burbank school building and note the progress now in evidence there. The frame for both stories is up and the diagonal sheeting is being put on. Contractor Kuykendall is pushing the work as rapidly as possible and he will endeavor to have the structure completed in October.

The frame of the building stands on the inner half of the foundation. This will admit of a curve at the base extending to the outside of the foundation wall and will give the structure pleasing effect.

As soon as the building is completed Colonel Juilliard will extend A street through to Lemmon & Barnett’s addition and the entire street will then be improved and will become a popular drive. This will make that section even more desirable for homes.

The Burbank will be the best ward school building in the city. It will be of handsome design and properly lighted, heated and ventilated. The south side of the town has made splendid progress the past two years and even better things are expected in the future.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 8, 1906

 

SCHOOLS OPEN SEPTEMBER 4

…It is expected that the new Burbank school house will also be open by October if nothing to hinder the progress of the work occurs…

– Press Democrat, August 11 1906

 

TO COMPLETE SCHOOLHOUSE
Upper Story of the New Burbank School Will Be Fitted Up — Meeting of School Board

At the meeting of the Board of Education last night it was decided to finish the upper story of the new Burbank school house on Ellis street. This will provide four extra rooms.

The decision was reached after an extended conference between the members of the board and Contractor Kuykendall. The rooms will be furnished as soon as completed.

– Press Democrat, September 12 1906

 

THE SCHOOLS TO REOPEN MONDAY

…The new Burbank school house will be ready for occupancy, it is hoped, not later than the first of February…

– Press Democrat, January 6 1907

 

THE NEW LUTHER BURBANK SCHOOL IS DEDICATED
Address Is Delivered By Distinguished Scientist
Petite Ruby Randall Raises Flag for the First Time on School Grounds on Thursday Afternoon

If the weather had been made to order for the celebration of the birthday of Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen, Mr. Luther Burbank, or for the dedication of Santa Rosa’s handsome new schoolhouse named for him — the Burbank school — it could not have been more delightful.

The day broke with radiant sunshine end all Nature looked its best on this occasion. The buds on trees and shrubs burst forth into life and the blossoms unfolded their rich tints on the day marking the birth of the man whose care and genius has done so much to improve plant and flowers, making them give of their best for the use and pleasure of mankind.

For the first time in Thursday afternoon’s sunshine “Old Glory,” the emblem of patriotism, was flung to the breeze from the mast in the schoolhouse grounds, and from it lessons will be drawn by the instructors who labor and will labor in the school in pointing the young idea to the paths that will lead to the after good citizenship of their lives if they heed the lessons given them.

Another special feature of Thursday, aside from the dedication of the schoolhouse occurring on the birthday of the man for whom it was named, was his presence at the dedication and his delivery of an address in which the kindliest of thoughts had place.

Another inspiring thing about those dedication exercises was the blending of child voices In song and chorus. Then is something uplifting in the melody of the child voice when raised on such songs as formed a feature of the dedication. The songs indicated clever rehearsal and response to instruction.

All in all the program was a pleasing one and there was no need for excuse because it was a simple one, robbed of some more pretentious numbers on account of necessary postponements on account of previous bad weather.

At the dedication of the schoolhouse there were some four hundred school children and as many more grown people. They were grouped about the main entrance above which is the gold lettering “Luther Burbank School.” At the outset of the program Principal Leander Good spoke brief words of welcome and spoke of the significance of the occasion. Then a score of school girls, led by Miss Hattie Johnson, sang, “California.” In a few well chosen words Principal Good introduced Mr. Burbank, who spoke as follows:

“My dear young friends — little neighbors — boys and girls:

“I am glad to meet you in this beautiful new house which has been built by your parents and neighbors for you. Do you know why they build school houses for you? My little neighbors did you know that your precious lives hold wonders of wealth, beauty strength, usefulness, your own happiness and the happiness of every one you meet, or sorrow, pain and misery for yourselves and all your friends? This is so.

“This building, these kind teachers and your parents and friends are all to help you to successful and happy lives but you all know that there are two kinds of boys and girls, those who build and those who destroy. Who do you love among your schoolmates? — not those who throw stones at innocent, helpless animals, not those who break and destroy fences, trees and windows, not those who wish to quarrel and fight; but you do all love and respect those who are kind, gentle, unselfish, the peacemakers. Weakling cowards boast, swagger and brag; the brave ones, the good ones, are gentle and kind.

“Now I wish to tell you a secret. I think every one of you, my young friends and neighbors of Santa Rosa, wish to make the best of your precious lives, to have plenty of friends, to be happy and to win success. I will tell you how, just how. Cultivate kind gentle loving thoughts toward every person, animal and even the plants, stars, oceans, rivers and hills. You will find yourself growing more happy each day and with happiness comes health and everything you want.

“I came to speak these words to you because I wish to help you and to prove this I will say that when these grounds about the building are ready, call on Luther Burbank and he will give you all the beautiful young trees and plants you need for ornament and shade.”

At the conclusion of Mr. Burbank’s words he heartily applauded. There was another song and then City Superintendent E. Morris Cox addressed the audience. Mr, Cox dwelt upon the significance of the occasion and paid a glowing tribute to Mr. Burbank and his interest in education. He then explained something about the construction and symmetry of the structure and invited all present to inspect the new schoolhouse named by the Board of Education to perpetuate the name snd work of Santa Rosa’s very distinguished man.

While two or three score of children sang an ode to the Star and Stripes little Miss Ruby Randall commenced to pull the rope and in a short time the flag was floating from the top of the pole and the crowd below shouted their applause and clapped their hands…Several hundred people inspected the building and were well pleased.

– Press Democrat, March 8 1907

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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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