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THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

Fresh back from service in WWII, architect “Cal” Caulkins had a vision: He would fix Santa Rosa. He wasn’t the first to try it – nor the last.

The downtown that Caulkins wanted to fix in 1945 was essentially what still exists now, sans our monstrous mall. It was also mostly the same as it was in August, 1853, when a surveyor named Shakely laid out a grid of a few streets centered around a small plaza. And that’s the problem: Once we scrape away all the built-up crust, the layout of Santa Rosa was – and still is – a mid-19th century village. The town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…in 1853.”

Santa Rosa quickly began to outgrow its modest framework. The next year it became the county seat, which led to a courthouse, county jail and county records building packed around the village square – and even that centerpiece was lost in 1884 when the next courthouse was built in the middle of it. Santa Rosa’s plaza hadn’t been much to look at and there were ongoing problems of stray cows and pigs taking up residence, but at least it was a public open space. Now the village town didn’t even have a park, and it would be 1931 before Santa Rosa had a true public-owned place (thanks to the donation of the nine acre Juilliard homestead).

Nor did Sonoma’s county seat have a building where lots of people could assemble. The Athenaeum opera house was used until it fell down in the 1906 earthquake; afterwards  large public meetings were held at the roller skating rink, a movie theater or at the armory. The Burbank auditorium at the junior college opened in 1940 and could seat 700, but that was pitiable compared to cities like San Jose, which had a civic auditorium that could hold 3,500.

Elected officials and town boosters sought piecemeal fixes, apparently never recognizing the problem was the town’s underlying design. Another gripe concerned the narrow streets; immediately after the 1906 earthquake pulverized much of downtown, Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley pushed hard to widen all principal streets in the business district so they could accomodate electric trolley cars (only two blocks of Fourth street were modified).

Same with the park and auditorium issues; they knew a park with some amusements would draw Bay Area tourists and a large hall which could host conventions were both reliable money-makers. They spent nearly fifty years off and on trying to create a park but it always ended the same ways: The town couldn’t afford the land, they feared voters wouldn’t pass a bond or there was too much heavy lifting involved.

The solution to both problems seemed at hand in early 1906 when architect William H. Willcox proposed creating a waterpark via a dam on Santa Rosa Creek, turning it into an urban lake. It would be the centerpiece of the town with a section for swimming and water sports, benches and paths illuminated with strings of light bulbs (très moderne!) on both banks and a kiosk jutting over the water for bands to entertain. He also had designed a convention-style auditorium that could seat 2,500, which made him the darling of Santa Rosa’s business elite; they had pledged almost the full amount to start construction – and then the earthquake hit. For more on both plans, see “SANTA ROSA’S FORGOTTEN FUTURE.”

It would be almost forty years before someone came along and tried again, and that would be Cal Caulkins – who also tackled Santa Rosa’s underlying problems head-on.

Cal Caulkins’ career up to 1945 was introduced in the previous article, which explained some of the architectural styles he used and offered a walking tour of his typical work. If you haven’t read that piece it’s important to know he was Santa Rosa’s top architect at this time and a well-respected civic leader; anything he proposed would be weighed quite seriously.

The public first saw his design in the August 19 edition of the Press Democrat. The accompanying article in the PD was headlined, “Master Plan Urged for City’s Future.” A second banner over the drawing announced, “A Postwar Vision – ‘Face Lifting’ for Santa Rosa.”

Although the plan was entirely his, the germ of the idea came from Press Democrat editor Herbert J. Waters, who had published an unusual above-the-masthead editorial six months earlier. At the time there was much debate concerning the need to expand the county courthouse, with either an annex somewhere else or via adding a third floor “penthouse on stilts” to the existing building, estimated to cost a staggering $325,000 – with most of that going to reinforce the structure.

Waters was also peeved by an American Legion committee which had just asked the city to use Fremont Park as the site for their future war memorial building. Besides the loss of a scarce public park, he decried scattering new public buildings all over town just because there was land already owned by Santa Rosa. He called instead for a long range plan to create a civic center on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. “With beautiful Juilliard Park and the famous Luther Burbank Gardens as approaches, such a civic center could be one of the most attractive in the country” – and remember that was in 1945, when the Redwood Highway went through downtown.

Although Waters’ ideas were quite sketchy, Caulkins took that vision and expanded it greatly. What he designed was simply brilliant.

 

Cal Caulkins watercolor of proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center. PD, June 15, 1953
Key to Caulkins’ proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center

 

Cal Caulkins pen and ink drawing of proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center. PD, August 19, 1945

 

He produced both a pen and ink drawing of the plan that appeared in the PD and a large watercolor that he loaned out for display and used as a backdrop during his frequent speaking engagements that autumn.

What he was calling the “Memorial Civic Center” provided Santa Rosa new open space via a walkway to the point between the confluence of Matanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks. The undersize courthouse square was gone, replaced by a landscaped plaza stretching from Fourth street to First (although its roundabout shape might have tempted jalopy racers to think of the Circus Maximus).

Like Willcox he glorified the Creek, turning First street – long the junky part of downtown with scattered shacks, the grimier auto repair shops and farm equipment resellers – into a scenic drive as well as the main connector to the neglected working class southwest neighborhoods.

No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, and all that was needed to start the wheels moving would be for voters to pass a measly $100,000 bond.

What could possibly go wrong?

Seemingly everyone loved Caulkin’s plan. It was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Supervisors, labor unions, service clubs, veteran’s groups, women’s groups and politicians of all stripes. The Press Democrat ran a banner on the front page reading, “Santa Rosa’s Future is at Stake.” It looked like a done deal.

Some of the enthusiasm was surely part of the prevailing “can do” optimism that lifted the nation from the spring of 1945 onward, once it became clear the end of the war was approaching. Everyone was looking forward to making their own little corner of the world not only whole again, but better; in Sonoma county, a committee was formed to explore creating a “Redwood Peace Temple,” which apparently was to be sort of a Bohemian Grove-ish annual summit for world leaders (albeit hopefully without those notables drunkenly pissing on trees).

Nor did there seem to be concerns about how to pay for everything. It was promised there would be cost efficiencies in clustering the federal, state, county and city buildings so close together, with money coming from all four sources. Santa Rosa was already in queue to get $500k for a new post office, there was property tax money to fund war memorials all over the county (thanks to a temporary change in state law) and besides, everything did not need to be built at once; they could start with the war memorial and build the other stuff when the money came in. Pay as you go, postwar style.

To launch the project, Santa Rosa asked voters for a $100,000 bond to acquire the war memorial site. It was a crowded ballot for a non-election year, with seven bonds worth $845k plus four other items, but nothing was pushed harder for approval than the war memorial. In the weeks before the vote hardly a day went by without an item about it in the Press Democrat; we were told it was a good investment because it would attract conventions and the (expected) matching grants would make construction virtually free. A coalition of veteran’s groups formed a joint committee to get the voters to the polls. And although December 4 ended up being a miserable day with a hard rain, half of all registered voters turned out.

It lost by 96 votes.

The PD was editorially silent about the defeat, but it was the #1 topic in letters to the editor for the rest of the month. A single writer cheered its failure; another person begged for someone to explain what happened – but mostly people pointed accusing fingers at the American Legion.

Simply put, there was distrust about the Legion’s involvement with the War Memorial project. This came up right after Caulkins’ plans were published, when County Supervisor Guidotti remarked, “…only recently a group of Santa Rosa legionnaires appeared before our board and their spokesmen, in effect, admitted that they only wanted a building for themselves and to [hell] with anybody else.” Similarly, when the legionnaires earlier proposed the Fremont Park site to the Santa Rosa city council, they were asking the city to use its share of the tax money to build them a meeting hall along with granting a 99-year lease. They would not commit to allowing other veteran’s groups to use the building and it was an open question whether they would even let the general public use it. Leaders from the VFW and the Disabled American Veterans were at the meeting to complain they were locked out of discussions.

One letter writer was generally incensed by the “apparent attitude of the Legion toward veterans of World War II,” noting that the Legion in San Francisco had recently refused the American Veterans Committee (AVC) use of the war memorial there. (Now defunct, AVC was a progressive group focused on problems facing WWII vets, particularly homelessness.) The Legion claimed they denied access because AVC was not “pure” since merchant marines could join, but one might also wonder if that was a sneer at AVC for being racially integrated, while the American Legion had separate posts for white and black veterans.

Whether the legionnaires should be blamed for killing the Civic Center project is moot. Without that $100,000 there would be no war memorial downtown – and with that, the dream of a Santa Rosa Civic Center was dead. Its failure to pass left a county supervisor questioning if taxpayers wanted those war memorials at all. What happened next was covered here in “THE VETS WAR MEMORIAL WARS:” Soon after the county bought some land in the Ridgway neighborhood for the Santa Rosa auditorium, and when that didn’t work out decided to build it across from the fairgrounds.

But Caulkins’ Civic Center was not forgotten; for years, mentions kept popping up in PD letters-to-the-editor as well as in articles and columns whenever the subject of downtown improvements came up. His watercolor was displayed in a window of Rosenberg’s Department Store in 1951. When in 1953 the county began making plans to build an administration center north of Santa Rosa city limits (at its present location), the Chamber of Commerce and others urged the supervisors to consider a scaled-down version of Caulkins’ downtown design. Caulkins told a reporter he was “besieged” with calls afterwards and the PD ran an illustration of his color drawing alongside an article about it.

There were other attempts to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was to improve traffic circulation so the public could drive as quickly as possible to a parking garage/lot and walk from there. In a nod to Caulkins’ work, they proposed the combined county courthouse/jail in a park-like setting on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.

To their credit, the NJ experts were concerned that Roseland was cut off from the town and wanted a highway 12 exit for Sebastopol avenue/road; to their shame they first proposed eliminating courthouse square, then chose to cut through the center of it. But this is not the time to further discuss the 1960s urban renewal misfires – that will require another lengthy essay or three.

Nothing in the Waters-Caulkins layout survives, except for the removal of part of Second street. (For those like me who have always wondered if that section of the street disappeared in order to wipe out any trace of the old Chinatown, Herb Waters admitted as much in his 1945 editorial: “Our former ‘Chinatown’ in Second street comes as close to slums as anything we have in Santa Rosa, and its removal would certainly occasion little economic loss.”)

But the Santa Rosa that exists today bears little resemblance to what any of those 1960s experts designed, either. Santa Rosa Creek was entombed in a box culvert, although that was the natural feature everyone wanted to highlight; what government buildings that are still downtown are a mishmosh of styles, most already badly dated. While beneath it all, the old grid of village streets from the 19th century still constricts us in the 21st. And no, we can’t blame any of those bad decisions on the American Legion.

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THE VETS WAR MEMORIAL WARS

Today it’s that hulking building off highway 12, best known for its parking lot swap meets and farmer’s markets. There used to be frequent public events held within its fading blue walls, but now not so much – I doubt most people now living in Santa Rosa have ever been inside. But go back seventy years and you’ll find the place was a hot topic in the town, sparking more anger and controversy than probably any other local issue in the years immediately after WWII.

And it all began with such good, good intentions.

To explain what happened we have to reach back to the early 1920s, when Santa Rosa accepted the “Pinehurst Addition” to the city. The developer was Christopher Columbus “C. C.” Donovan, who named the single street through the block Denton Way after the maiden name of his wife. (If you live in the Ridgway Historic District, a much shorter version of this story appeared in the summer, 2018 newsletter.)

The street was unusually wide and without true curbs, allowing cars to park overlapping the sidewalks. Also unusual was that Chris Donovan wanted an arch over the Mendocino Av. entrance and the “Way” in the name probably was a tipoff the broad street would be a gateway to something else.

At or around the same time in 1922, the Catholic diocese purchased the middle of the next block, immediately to the west. There the church intended to build its large grade school. As the Donovans were ardent Catholics, it seems most likely the two deals were coordinated – that Donovan’s new residential street was intended to be a grand boulevard welcoming everyone to the massive three-story Spanish-style school at the other end.

Placing a big building like that in a dense residential neighborhood may seem like an idiotic plan, but it was actually a smart idea at the time. There were then only about a handful of houses surrounding the school site. The “pro” at the Santa Rosa Golf Club, Donald “Mac” MacPherson, lived on Morgan street and was using the mostly vacant block as his private driving range.

At the same time there was considerable buzz that this area of Santa Rosa was about to become the academic hub of all Northern California. In 1921 a deal was made to buy the current Santa Rosa High School site. It was predicted that the property directly to its west would become a two-year junior college, and land to the north – now the SRJC campus – would eventually become a branch of the University of California’s agricultural department. With the addition of this grade school, a youth could spend at least fourteen years in school within less than a square mile.

“It will make of Santa Rosa the educational center for the entire seven North of Bay counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte, bringing here hundreds of students who can conveniently reach this city in two or three hours’ travel, and making it possible for them to return home over the week-ends,” gushed the Press Democrat.

Nothing appeared in the newspapers during the 1920s about this proposed location for the Catholic grade school; we only know about the plan because it was described when the church sold the property in 1931. The diocese was probably motivated by the need for money during the Great Depression, as well as the city finally improving the section of 9th street between Morgan and A streets – it was previously described as being no better than an alley. The school could now be built at its present location, behind St. Rose church on the grounds of the Ursuline Convent. (It was closed as a school in 1983 because of seismic concerns, but has since been restored for office use; the campanario at the top was recreated using foam.)

And so that property sat idle for another fifteen years, undisturbed except for the thwacking of Mac MacPherson’s balls.

Fast forward now to the early months of 1945. The war in Europe was racing to its close and Americans began considering how to memorialize their dead. There was little or no interest in heroic monuments and statues of generals; in magazine articles and newspaper editorials, popular authors and notables pushed for “living memorials” instead. The notion got a big boost with the preservation of 5,000 acres of old-growth redwoods in Del Norte county; the National Tribute Grove was a cause for nationwide celebration. The American Commission for Living War Memorials was formed to promote the idea and California had its own state commission.

But what would a “living memorial” be in an average American town? A public park? A community center? An occasional-use auditorium? Or would it be American Legion halls exclusive to veterans, which the legionnaires here had been demanding since 1944? Who would get to make that decision – the vets or elected officials? And not least of it, who among the living was going to pay for whatever form that memorial would take?

There were public meetings and debates on this throughout 1945, most contentiously at a September Board of Supervisors meeting where about a hundred veterans filled the meeting room. From remarks appearing in the Press Democrat the next day it appears that the vets were about evenly divided as to whether a memorial building should be for the community or themselves alone. But what was said at the meeting united them in anger.

“You fellows are mostly veterans of World War I, and I think we should perhaps wait for the young boys of this war to get back and see what they want,” began Supervisor E. J. “Nin” Guidotti/Fifth District (Guerneville). He continued:

Now I’m not a veteran – no more than many of the rest of you would have been if Uncle Sam hadn’t reached out and grabbed you by the collar. Yet I challenge anybody to deny my patriotism, whether I went to war or stayed home. When I hear veterans ask for things I rather wonder – is the only reason they went to war to come back and get something for themselves? …If the veterans only want buildings restricted to their use, I’m going to question their sincerity. Only recently a group of Santa Rosa legionnaires appeared before our board and their spokesmen, in effect, admitted that they only wanted a building for themselves and to [hell] with anybody else.

“Many of them went home mad as hornets,” observed the PD, which reported the vets didn’t like being “bawled out” by a Supervisor who didn’t serve his country’s military. That evening the Santa Rosa VFW post held an “indignation meeting” and the American Legion issued a resolution denouncing Guidotti’s “un-American” conduct and “nefarious manner.”

Ding! End of round one.

Impolitic as Guidotti’s remarks were, he may have broken the legionnaire/VFW stranglehold over the debate, and committees made up of vets as well as civic leaders were formed in most towns to discuss what they wanted. It would take years before most towns, including Santa Rosa, made a decision.

Neither was there a clear idea how everything would be paid for, with estimated costs north of two million. In 1945 Santa Rosa voters turned down a $100,000 bond. A change in state law allowed counties to temporarily increase property taxes for war memorials, so the Board of Supervisors approved a bump of 25¢ per $100 assessed value – then lowered it to 20¢ after much public squawk. But in truth, that tax would have had to double in order to come close to the target; at best, it would bring in about $1.2 million before it expired in 1951.

And this brings us to round two: The Board of Supervisors meeting of March 8, 1946.

Chairman of the Board was Lloyd Cullen/Santa Rosa and the agenda included a proposal to allocate war memorial funds to each supervisorial district per its assessed valuation. That meant the biggest towns – particularly Santa Rosa and Petaluma – would get a huge pot of money while West County (which then did not include Sebastopol) would be screwed, despite being slated for three war memorials: Guerneville, Occidental, and Monte Rio.

George Kennedy – whose district included Petaluma and Sebastopol – made a motion to vote on the proposal.

“Why do that?” piped up Nin Guidotti. “You’re in a position – you and Mr. Cullen – where you have to vote for it.” Guidotti suggested it was premature to “tie ourselves” to the allocation scheme. Kennedy still made his motion for a vote, but there was no second.

The PD reported Cullen leapt to his feet. “I’m not going to be kidded out of this motion. This veterans’ matter has been kicked around long enough.” Another supervisor suggested putting it off until the next meeting.

“Let’s find out if the veterans want a memorial building or a meeting hall – it looks like that’s what they want,” added Guidotti.

“I won’t be kicked around like this!” said Cullen.

Cullen announced he was going to step aside temporarily as chairman to second the motion himself. Guidotti snapped back that he couldn’t change parliamentary rules like that, and he was just trying to put the rest of the Board on the spot. Cullen shot back that he was “going to get a written opinion” on whether he could step down.

A Supe complained, “I’m going home – I don’t feel like arguing.” A motion was made to postpone action until a later meeting, everyone voting for it except Cullen.

“It’s your steam-rolling tactics that’s stopping this,” Cullen shouted at Guidotti, according to the PD.

“I don’t want to see the veterans hog-tied…we should raise the money before we spend it,” Guidotti shouted back. “If the taxpayers of the county aren’t more favorable toward a war memorial than the people of Santa Rosa were, then we’ll probably never get one.”

Alas, the Press Democrat reporter could not write fast enough to record the whole exchange, but noted Guidotti confronted Cullen with such gems as, “That’s the kind of a dirty rat your are,” “dirty underhanded sneak,” and “yellow-bellied [bastard].”

This brought on the challenge from the Board chairman. Leaping to his feet again, Cullen pulled off his horn-rimmed glasses, threw them on the table and tore off his coat and vest, saying, “All right, if you want to fight, let’s fight it out right now.”

The other supes called for them to “quiet down” as Cullen stormed towards Guidotti, who lit a cigarette with “hands trembling” and refused to stand up. “Hell, Lloyd, I don’t want to fight,” he said. Cullen got dressed again and sat down. The Board rushed through the rest of the agenda and adjourned.

Ding!

A few weeks later, Santa Rosa announced the planned location for its war memorial. Remember the Catholic school site? That was it.

Besides being close to the High School fields and stadium which would be useful for hosting conventions, the chairman of the war memorial committee said it provided adequate parking on uncongested streets. It was also supposed to have some kind of access from Benton street and Ridgway avenue.

Santa Rosa’s top architect, “Cal” Caulkins (subject of the following article) drew up preliminary plans and was paid $6,036. We don’t have a picture of what he proposed (which is odd, as the Press Democrat loved to publish his drawings) but from a later description we know it was essentially the same as what was built across from the fairgrounds. It was 200 x 260 feet, had a 1,500 seat auditorium, meeting halls, lockers, a kitchen and dining hall – along with parking for just 150 cars. Apparently part of the plan was to congest the surrounding neighborhood. It was estimated to cost $580,000, which was around half of the projected tax revenue for the whole county.(UPDATE: A rendering of this building did appear in the PD in 1948 – see below.)

 

“Cal” Caulkins plan presented to the Board of Supervisors, 1948

 

Surprisingly little happened over the next couple of years, given the passions of 1945 and 1946. The county bought property in all of the ten communities (except Healdsburg, which was just improving its memorial beach) and in most cases, paid an architect for preliminary war memorial designs. Editorials and letter writers sometimes bemoaned the expected costs, usually mentioning Santa Rosa’s $580k gorilla in the room.

And then at the start of 1949 when they were ready to break ground in Santa Rosa – everything blew up.

As it turned out, all of those land purchases were illegal – before buying the land, state law required the county Planning Commission to first inspect the properties and make recommendations.

Out tumbled a basketful of dirty secrets regarding the Santa Rosa deal. The Supervisors had paid $30,000 for that spot in the middle of a residential block without even getting an appraisal. “We bought the property on the recommendation of men who ought to know,” Supervisor Kennedy told the Press Democrat. “Somebody told me later we had paid too much for it.”

Supervisor Joseph Cox/Healdsburg: “A bunch of fellows from the Legion picked it out. They said they wanted it and we tried to give them what they wanted. I’m sick and tired of the whole deal. We’ve tried to help people out and this is what we get for it.”

They had bought the land from Wesley “Dutch” Pfister, a politically well-connected beer distributor. Pfister and a partner (who soon sold his interest to Dutch) had paid $12,750 for the parcel just year and a half before flipping it, turning him a neat 135% profit. Once that deal was made, Pfister and a couple of Santa Rosa city councilmen took a cross-country flight (quite a big deal for 1946, costing the equivalent of $3,000+ today) to see the Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn boxing match in Yankee Stadium.

Much handwringing and finger pointing followed. The chairman of Santa Rosa’s memorial committee asked the Supervisors if they could obtain a retroactive resolution of approval from Planning. Uh, no. The Planning Commission said they would be happy to consider the location – but not until the Supervisors got off the fence and wrote a policy statement declaring how the building was going to be used. There was a big difference between a meeting hall occasionally used for veteran meetings and a multipurpose community center.

A public hearing was called, and there arose the topic everyone had been avoiding to mention – namely, that was a lousy site to put an elephantine building of any kind. Yes, Denton Way was still le grande boulevard but much had changed since the Catholic school was being considered a quarter-century earlier. The designated block was now solidly residential and the memorial building would be hemmed in by backyards on both north and south sides.

Kennon Gilbert, secretary of the Planning Commission, made a suggestion – and I’m sure he thought he was being helpful. Should the Supervisors declare it was to be a public building available for rent, that income could be possibly put aside and used to “buy up the surrounding property.”

Gentle Reader, it’s time for round three at a Board of Supervisors meeting: May 31, 1949.

“I don’t think they had any damn right to open this thing up again,” remarked Supervisor Kennedy, now Board Chairman, about the public hearing. “All they were suposed to do was approve the architect’s plans and specifications. What’s Gilbert think he’s doing?” [sic]

Mr. Gilbert was not at that Board meeting, but unhappy citizens were. “All but a few” residents in the Ridgway neighborhood had signed a petition against the war memorial. It was too large, they said. It would hurt property values, they said. And if the county really were to “buy up the surrounding property,” the homeowners on Benton st. and Ridgway ave. did not have to squint too hard to read “eminent domain” between the lines.

This meeting was not so much a brawl as a pile-on – the Board was hammered with bad news about the Santa Rosa war memorial at every turn.

The veteran’s committee from the Sonoma Valley was also there and requesting the county authorize the release of funds so they could start building their war memorial. It would cost $200k, a big chunk of all tax money collected to that point.

Chairman Kennedy protested there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the overall county veteran’s committee that the Santa Rosa project would be built first.

“What are you going to do with Santa Rosa when you’re facing an injunction?” asked the Sonoma spokesman, apparently referring to the citizen’s petition. No action was taken on the Sonoma request.

But the Supervisors did not see the knockout punch coming. There was a surprise appearance from the chairman of the Santa Rosa city planning commission. He announced the county would have to obtain permission from the city planners before building on that site, as the block had residential zoning.

“But we bought the site before it was zoned residential,” Kennedy said.

“That doesn’t matter; you still need a use permit.”

“I didn’t know that,” confessed Kennedy.

Apropos of nothing but keeping with the depressing tone of the session, another supervisor griped that “all the trouble” over the war memorials was coming from anti-tax zealots. “They’re working underground,” he hinted darkly, without explanation.

There was (apparently) no formal resolution, but that meeting was the death of the plan to build a war memorial at the end of Denton Way. There was now a proposal to put it at the western edge of Ridgway avenue, currently the location of Cal Fire headquarters. Since a new armory was going to be built next door, the “President’s Council” – which supposedly represented half of Santa Rosa’s civic groups – argued that together the vets building and armory would form a six-acre community center. They wanted it facing the freeway and presumably with a turnoff from highway 101, “where occupants of 300,000 autos per year could view it and take away a favorable impression of Santa Rosa.” Today 100,000 vehicles pass that section per day and at modern speeds a turnoff into a parking lot would be ridiculously unsafe. Architect Caulkins was called up to report that it would add tens of thousand$ to the cost because the land would have to be graded level with the freeway.

There was also a last minute push for a non-residential site east of the Junior College, directly across from Elliott avenue. What was never explained was why the Supervisors were trying so hard to find some place in the high school/SRJC area for the war memorial.

After nearly a full year of turmoil, in September the Supervisors approved selection of the location across from fairgrounds, which now seems to be the only logical place to build such a thing. It would also be agreed that it would be a multi-use building – a convention center, as well as a bar exclusively for vets and their guests with a full liquor license. (Years later, a Press Democrat columnist remarked that the reason they gave up on the other section of town was because there would be difficulty in getting a license for a location so close to the high school.)

There was a final fight over money; the Supes accepted a lowball bid from a Petaluma contractor, raising more complaints from the veterans that “their” building was not being given due respect. And sure enough, the contractor immediately screwed up, placing the building 150 feet too far south, encroaching on fairgrounds overflow parking space that was funded by the state. The contractor, architect and assorted officials trekked to Sacramento to explain how that happened.

The Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building finally opened ten months late. Total cost: $630,000, including cocktail lounge.

Our obl. Believe-it-or-Not! epilogue concerns the original location at the end of Denton Way. Shortly after that depressing Supervisor’s meeting in May, 1949, the county put the property up for auction. The minimum bid was $30,000, which was their purchase price back in 1946. Three years had passed, and inflation was averaging about 11 percent a year, so surely the county would make a profit of some sort – right? Nope. There was not a single bid. The county would not be able to unload that property until 1955. The only winner in the whole story was “Dutch” Pfister, who probably was laughing about the deal with his pals during their luxe transcontinental flight to see the Louis-Conn rematch. That event was considered a dud; Dutch could have saved a fortune and watched more exciting fights if he had stayed home and attended the Board of Supervisors meetings.

 

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1968 CENTENNIAL: “THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE”

After ignoring opportunities to celebrate Santa Rosa’s anniversaries that spanned 64 years, Tom Cox thought, “we should make something of it” in 1968. The real question, however, was whether they would be celebrating one of the events from the town’s early history – or the ongoing obliteration of its past.

(This is part two about Santa Rosa’s 2018 sesquicentennial. Part one covers the town’s 1854 founding and 1868 incorporation, followed by its general indifference to celebrate either event.)

Cox was the long-time head of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and made that suggestion at a 1967 luncheon for the “Congress for Community Progress,” a coalition formed five years earlier by the Chamber, which claimed the Congress represented as many as 445 separate groups. Given that the town’s entire population was then only about 44,000, let us forgive any Gentle Readers who snort skeptically.

Much was made in the 1960s about the Congress, which held occasional all-day assemblies attended by hundreds of “delegates.” While it was touted as an independent citizen’s group, its sheer size made discussion unwieldy and its objectives almost always seemed to mirror Chamber of Commerce and developer’s interests. The 1968 Congress report said Santa Rosa’s highest priorities should be “Payroll and Industrial Needs” and “Downtown Futures and Potential” – way down in the basement was the preservation of parks and historical sites.

During the sixties Santa Rosa was wild about all things modern, and as with many communities, that meant enthusiastic approval of urban renewal projects. We were told it would mostly be paid for by Washington, our property values would skyrocket and we would end up with glorious cities of the future. In 1961 a scale model of a proposed Santa Rosa redesign circulated around several bank lobbies. The model (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) portrayed a downtown designed for pedestrians, with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

It was mostly bait and switch, of course. Prime locations owned by the city were sold to private developers; the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency held sway over forty acres of supposed “civic blight” and much of it was scooped up by investors. Luther Burbank’s old house and gardens survived the bulldozer, but the home he custom-built in 1906 on Tupper street – the one seen in all the pictures of him with Edison, Ford, Helen Keller and other celebs – was deemed worthless, as it was argued that the town had no need for two Luther Burbank landmarks.

By the time Thomas Cox spoke at that 1967 Congress for Community Progress lunch, great swaths of downtown was already scraped down to the topsoil and most of the rest would follow soon. The great courthouse was gone; the Carnegie library already had been replaced by what we have now. The parks were forgotten and their earth was destined to sprout bank buildings and metered parking lots. The lovely, free-flowing creek was entombed in a box culvert. Community Progress!

Cox’s talk came a few days before the dedication of the “plaza on Old Courthouse Square.” The Courthouse Square site had been already split by the street connecting Mendocino Ave with Santa Rosa Ave; what they then called the “plaza” was just the western section between that new street and the Empire Building block. The east side was slated to be sold to private developers for commercial buildings.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Hugh Codding said the tiny plaza would make citizens “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa,” and a supervisor chimed in this “perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. [Julio] Carrillo” when he donated the land to the public. Uh, no, times two.

The sale of the east side of the plaza was successfully fought by a small band of preservationists – despite being told it must be sold in order to pay off the urban renewal bonds. Sadly, they lost another fight to stop the giveaway to developers of the sheriff’s office and city hall, now the location of the U.S. Bank building. They had hoped one (or both) of the post-1906 quake buildings could be saved to create a Santa Rosa museum.

And now we come to the March 16, 1968 centennial, when Santa Rosa celebrated pretty much everything except its origins.

About 1,000 attended the ceremony in that little plaza. The city councilmen dressed in vaguely 19th century costumes and Mayor Codding introduced a man 100 years old. Some rode old bicycles or drove around in old cars and a barbershop quartet warbled, all more appropriate to a party for 1908 than 1868. State appeals court judge Joseph Rattigan told the crowd they would “shape the history of the future,” and won the prize for awful speechifying that day by saying we should “live as Santa Rosans in every dimension of wisdom and skill.”

Two time capsules were dedicated. (They were originally in front of the Empire building but now are facing the intersection of Third street and Santa Rosa ave). One was intended for 2068; the other was supposed to be opened on March 16, 2018. As our sesquicentennial event isn’t scheduled until about six months later, it only makes the choice of a September date seem stranger.

(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon sitting in front of the time capsules, 1974. Photo: Michael Sawyer/findagrave.com; original Santa Rosa News Herald image via Helen Rudee)

That was just the “Centennial Day;” the “Centennial Week” was the Rose Festival in May, and there wasn’t much of a nod to history there, either. There was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle, a tennis match and a little regatta on Lake Ralphine. A rock concert included local bands “Wonderful Mud” and “Bronze Hog.” During the Rose Parade, the Marine Corps Reserve presented a bizarre little scene in front of the reviewing stand where they enacted flushing a Vietcong soldier out of a rice paddy and shooting him dead, right there on Fourth street. As I always say, these kind of events are really for the children.

While 1968 may have been a bust as a centennial year, it was the definitely the year to celebrate Pepper, Santa Rosa’s lovable or maddening downtown character (depending upon whom you asked and when). When she wasn’t heckling hippies and jaywalkers, she was popping in the backseats of cars waiting for the stoplight to change and expecting the driver to take her somewhere – the Pepper stories are legion.

But Pepper also collected quite a bit of money when local groups were having charity drives, badgering each passerby for spare change. That March she was the guest of honor at a Rotary luncheon and in October she was feted by the Lions Club.

In a Gaye LeBaron column – yes, she was writing a gossip column fifty years ago – she quoted a letter from a reader: “I have a suggestion for the Grand Marshall of the 1968 Rose Parade: Pepper! No kidding—when you stop to think of all the hard work she’s done for almost everyone I think you’ll agree that she’s as deserving as any chosen. If we all get on Pepper’s Bandwagon she just might be selected. Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.”

She was not included in the parade (and someone griped about that in a letter to the PD) but she sat in the VIP bleachers alongside Mrs. Luther Burbank. She was also made honorary town marshal for the Centennial Year, a position she undoubtedly abused with relish.

The time capsules are Santa Rosa’s only real historic legacy from 1968 – and note that the one to be opened this year is mistakenly labeled “Bi-Centennial,” showing no one noticed or cared that wasn’t the right word for a fiftieth anniversary.

The March 17 edition of the Press Democrat offered a fat section of all things it deemed centennial-ish, and reflects the attitudes of the time quite well. The actual history section – meaning the 1906 quake and everything before – isn’t very long and just a superficial rehash from the county history books. However there’s some good wonky stuff about the development of city departments and such in the early 20th century, along with some photos I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But then it rockets to the present day, celebrating the wonders of redevelopment and what a bright future awaited Santa Rosa. There’s even a full-page article titled, “Foresight of Hugh Codding Helped Speed City’s Growth.” (Of course, not long afterwards, Mr. Foresight tied the city up in a decade-long lawsuit to forestall construction of the mall and other retail space, thus causing the downtown to further wither and die.)

So as it turns out, the judge who saw the centennial as “[shaping] the history of the future” probably did hit the right notes for 1968. And in kind of a Believe-it-on-Not! coincidence, we’re grappling with very similar issues today, trying to wrestle with how the town will be reshaped in years to come because of the fires.

There’s one more historic year to mention, for the sake of completeness: 2004, the real sesquicentennial of the year the town actually put down roots. A columnist for the PD complained “no one is celebrating,” and that a fund drive to support the reunification of Courthouse Square was going nowhere.

Well, Courthouse Square is now glued back together. That columnist was Chris Coursey, now Santa Rosa’s mayor. And like his predecessors, I’m sure he’ll steer the sesquicentennial to be more of a rosy view of our future than a contemplation on our rougher past. The date will still be wrong on the time capsule, of course, but Chris could fix that – I’d even provide a little bit of duct tape and a magic marker to change the inscription to read September 9.

Time capsules in Courthouse Square

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