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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.

 

sources
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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WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

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

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

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

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

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

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THAT TROUBLESOME GIFT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the question of title…

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

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

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

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

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

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IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT: TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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