cityhallturton

OUR FORGOTTEN CITY HALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

SANTA ROSA’S NEW CITY HALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 13, 1913
WANT NEW SITE FOR CITY HALL
Citizens Confer With Council at the Special Meeting on Monday Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Press Democrat, November 26, 1912

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1947hintonavenue

MOMMY, WHY DO WE CALL IT HINTON AVE?

When General Otho Hinton died in 1865, all of Santa Rosa mourned. Flags were lowered, courts adjourned and a “large concourse of people” attended his funeral, including the fire department in uniform. His obituary in the Sonoma Democrat cataloged the achievements of this civic leader:

…our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained…

Some years later a street was named after him – the only person so honored in the downtown core – and soon Hinton Avenue will spring back to life as part of the Courthouse Square reunification project.

THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON

Part I: CALL ME THE GENERAL
Part II: ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT
Part III: THE LONG ROAD TO SANTA ROSA
Endnotes for entire series at bottom of this article

Earlier parts of this series traced Hinton’s life of infamy in the 1850s: Robbing the U.S. mail, bail jumping, living as a fugitive while becoming a bigamist. Not a word about any of that ever appeared in Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat – although when he ran for county judge in 1859, papers in San Francisco and Sacramento pointed out that his background as a well-known crook was no qualification to wear a judge’s robe. Losing that election was a rare setback for him; Hinton otherwise glided over every bump he encountered and not because of luck. Otho Hinton seemingly possessed both brains and a hypnotic charm, qualities which made for a perfect con artist – which indeed he was.

But Santa Rosa didn’t bestow a street name because the City Council decided it would be jolly to honor a celebrity criminal; it was presumably because of all the good deeds listed in the obituary – the cemetery, the plaza, the fire department. Yet in the newspapers of the time there is not a speck of evidence that Hinton had a significant role in any of those accomplishments. Never before being someone who hid his light under a bushel, he surely wasn’t stricken with modesty once he actually began doing selfless acts. No, more likely he was given undue credit because he did what he always did: He looked you in the eye, oozed with sincerity and graciously allowed you to think the better of him.

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 Santa Rosa map, showing the Plaza bordered by two unnamed streets. Hinton’s office was on the northeast corner, shown here in a red star)

Evidence of Hinton’s great good deeds should be easiest to find in regards to Courthouse Square, but before getting in to that, a quick tour of Civil War-era Santa Rosa is needed.

It wasn’t called Courthouse Square at the time because the county courthouse was across the street at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino, where Exchange Bank is now. The Plaza was simply a small park criss-crossed by footpaths and surrounded by a fence. The landscaping was haphazard; descriptions mention heritage oaks and evergreens, pampas grass and century plants plus a hedge just inside the fencing. (The complaints today about all the trees lost for the Square reunification project are nothing compared to the howls of outrage when everything was clearcut in 1884 to make way for building the courthouse in the center. “A tree and a bit of grass is worth more than a Court-house,” wrote an out-of-town attorney, “I hope every ___ _____ who has a law suit in the new Court-house will lose it.”)

Sonoma Democrat editor Thomas L. Thompson was forever boasting it was the most beautiful plaza in the state – even while lamenting it was a godawful mess. The year 1881 was particularly fun; in January a stray pig was rooting up the grass and by summer Thompson was moaning the soil was so sun-baked that grass wouldn’t grow, suggesting it would be best to plow it over in hopes that the place wouldn’t look so terrible next year. In between those items he wrote about the “beautiful lawns of blue grass” and compared it to Golden Gate Park. Another time the paper cheered the nice new benches, along with commenting the City Council was now determined to keep the Plaza “free from all objectionable persons.”

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa looking north, showing the Plaza)

The modern-day Press Democrat gives Hinton credit for all work in beautifying the original Plaza, from planting trees to installing the fencing. But is any of that true? In March of 1859 there was a big public meeting to discuss landscaping, fences and how to pay for it all; Hinton was not on any of the committees formed that night, even though his law office was directly across from the Plaza. Later that year work commenced on the fencing. Was Hinton mentioned? Nope.

All Hinton actually did, according to the 1861 -1863 newspapers, was to pay some guys to do spring cleanups. If there was anything specifically done, editor Thompson – the #1 booster of the Plaza – somehow overlooked it.

A 1876 view of Fourth street looking west from the vacant lot which was the location of Otho Hinton’s office. The Plaza fence and shrubbery can be seen to the left and the cupola on the right was the top of the county courthouse, at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Hinton’s obituary also credits him for “the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery” which is surprising, as Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery did not really exist in 1865. It would be a couple of years before the Cemetery Association was organized to legally sell deeds to burial plots; when Hinton died it was presumably still just an ad hoc graveyard on a hill. (Since there were no deeds prior to the Association we can’t be completely sure he’s buried where his newly-added tombstone stands, although that’s the same place where a family friend and Otho’s wife were later buried.)

In Hinton’s lifetime the Sonoma Democrat reported there was interest in “buying a lot where the present burying ground is, and having it properly surveyed and laid off in lots, fenced, and otherwise improved” but apparently nothing was done for lack of leadership. In 1861 another small item appeared: “Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.”

That terse “please call at Gen. Hinton’s office” is the only thread linking him to the cemetery at all. We don’t know what what he was doing: Forming a committee, signing up volunteer labor, or, lord help them, collecting donations – remember, there is no certainty that folks in Santa Rosa knew his history of stealing money.

There is a traditional story that Hinton did the road layout while August Kohle, a well digger, did the actual work of grading the paths. It’s possible; someone had to mark the trails out around that time, and hammering markers into the ground isn’t exactly heavy lifting. Peg this claim as a maybe.

Finally we come to the fire department, where there’s a chance that the old scoundrel actually did a little something to redeem himself. A side benefit of all this Otho Hinton research is that I’ve accumulated enough information on the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department to tell that story, which will appear in the following article. Covered here are only the details related to Hinton’s involvement.

Per usual, Hinton was given undue credit for good deeds. The obituary thanked him “…[for] the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained.” More recently it’s been written he bought the town’s first fire engine, which absolutely is not true.

The Fire Department dates back to 1861, three years after Hinton arrived in Santa Rosa. He was not a charter member of the Association and later that year a handful of leading citizens arranged to buy a used fire engine. Hinton was not among them. Shift forward two years and $600 is still owed for the engine; the volunteer firemen were paying interest on the debt out of pocket, as well as rent for the firehouse. There were plans to sell the engine and return to being a hook & ladder company only.

“But at least we see a glimmer of light,” the Sonoma Democrat gushed in 1863. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue…Gen. Hinton, we are pleased to see, has taken the matter in hand, and we hope soon to hear of a response on the part of our ‘substantial’ citizens to the proposition of the ladies.” Then on the Fourth of July, 1864, the paper announced:

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department…The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who have contributed so liberally to the enterprise. On behalf of the ladies, Gen. O Hinton in appropriate and pleasing remarks passed over the property to the Trustees of the Department…after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens…

Other accounts at the time and over the next few years tells the same story: It was “the ladies” who paid off the debt and financed the firehouse by hosting dances; the first county history in 1880 mentions also “a fair and a festival” and as above, it was broadly hinted they were strong-arming their loving husbands into making contributions. Meanwhile, General Hinton did…something. Everyone just plumb forgot to mention what.

“He took a lively interest in the matter,” it was claimed in an 1877 account of the Department’s beginnings. “On account of his efforts in their behalf his memory is today highly revered by all the old members of the company, and they still keep his portrait hanging in their hall as a mark of the esteem in which he was held.”

Along with Exchange Avenue, Hinton Avenue was born on July 3, 1872 by order of the City Council. Not that anyone noticed; for many years to come the street was unnamed on maps or sometimes called “9th Ave”, which makes no sense in the town’s street layout. Exchange and Hinton appeared in the newspapers very rarely – ads described businesses as being “east of the Plaza” or “in the Ridgway Block” or “across from the Courthouse,” or similar. It’s as if the town were populated by Missouri hayseeds who thought street names were uppity.

Santa Rosa made quite a show of his funeral in 1865 but aside from the street, Hinton’s memory faded quickly; he was not mentioned in any local history until Gaye LeBaron’s “Santa Rosa: a 19th century town.” When his widow, Rebecca, died here in 1882, the Sonoma Democrat didn’t report it and the Daily Republican ran only a one-liner when she was buried. His only lasting presence in Santa Rosa was his portrait, which was apparently destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

But now Exchange and Hinton Avenues are being resurrected – although for some reason, the one-way traffic directions around the Square have been flipped – as part of our new Old Courthouse Square. And soon people will be looking at that prominent street name and be asking: Who was Hinton? Anyone who’s read this series knows that will be an uncomfortable question to answer truthfully: “Well, he was an infamous criminal who apparently bamboozled the town’s founders.”

At the risk of being completely ahistorical, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Should we consider dropping the Hinton from Hinton Avenue?

Maybe we could name it Schulz Ave. or Doyle Avenue (although the other side is already named for his bank). The powers-that-be are itching to name something after recently deceased Santa Rosa nabob Henry Trione, so give him the honor. Or if they are willing to nod towards more appropriate history, call it Muther Avenue, after Santa Rosa Fire Chief Frank Muther who deserves it for saving the town from burning to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, yet currently lies in an unmarked grave. But for the gods’ sake, do we really need to still commemorate a con man who died more than 150 years ago?

1947 street view from the same location as the photograph above. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

THE PLAZA.–Gen. Hinton, as is his custom at this season of the year, has had a number of men at work of late, beautifying and improving our town plaza.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22, 1862

CLEANING UP.– General O. Hinton, to whom our citizens are much indebted for the very pretty plaza of Santa Rosa, has had several workmen engaged repairing the railing of the sidewalk enclosure, and cleaning and otherwise improving the grounds on the inside. The plaza will be much improved this spring.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 17, 1863

SUDDEN DEATH OF GEN O. HINTON — General Otho Hinton departed this life at his residence, in Santa Rosa, last Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. Our citizens were somewhat startled by the announcement of his sudden demise, as he had been seen upon the streets the day preceding. General Hinton was a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, and was 65 years of age. He had resided a long time at Santa Rosa, and to him it may be said, our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained. His death cast a deep gloom over the community, flags were lowered at half mast and the County Court on Monday adjourned in respect to his memory. His funeral took place on Monday, from the M. E. Church, Rev. T. Frazier officiating, and was attended by a large concourse of people. Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, whom the deceased had so often befriended, attended in uniform, and by them his remains were consigned to their last resting place.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11, 1865

A GOOD PICTURE. — A life size Paintograph of Gen. O. Hinton, deceased, may be seen at the Engine House of Santa Rosa No. 1. It was drawn by Mr. W. H. Wilson, from a photograph likeness. The picture has been pronounced by all who have seen it an excellent likeness. Mr. Wilson has taken a number of pictures at this place which have given very general satisfaction. His art is a very simple one, being a drawing in indelible ink, the entire work being executed with a common pen and very small brush. He is now at Healdsburg.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18, 1865

RURAL CEMETERY

Santa Rosa has a beautiful graveyard, and it has been properly named “Rural Cemetery”…We took a walk through its avenues last Sunday. It was in the fall of the dying day, because of its symbolic character. We were alone. There was no one to cheer us “save the low hum of vegetation,” and the music of the wind as it played Aeolean cadences in the branches above and the rens beneath. We paused before a neglected grave. A familiar name was graven on an ordinary slab. It carried us back to the days when Santa Rosa was yet in her infancy. Moss had grown upon the stone, and the name had become dim. Brambles of every description covered the spot, in which lay the body whose name we were then contemplating, and–we felt sad. The name was that of Gen. Otho Hinton. It is as familiar to the old settlers of this valley “as household words.” His very countenance and benevolent expression is, at this writing, as plainly before us as if we had seen him but yesterday. But why is his grave thus neglected? Have the people forgotten the generous and noble hearted man, who in his life, took such an active interest in the welfare of “our future little city,” (as he was wont to call it,) and who sacrificed all health, money and time, during his declining years, for our benefit? His magnanimity and public spiritedness for the public good, should never be forgotten, and his grave should, at least, be kept green as an evidence that we appreciated his many kindness which he did for our future good…

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, November 10, 1882

ENDNOTES

(available at non-mobile version of blog)

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1913downtown1

WHEN SANTA ROSA ROLLED UP THE SIDEWALKS

Hey, remember when we looked forward all week to having fun in downtown Santa Rosa on Saturday night? Me neither.

There’s plenty of elbow room for anyone on downtown sidewalks after dark and Saturday nights are no different. Sure, if you like pub grub ‘n’ suds while watching sports there are at least a half dozen joints where you can park your carcass for a few hours. There are also very good restaurants, a first-run cineplex and live entertainment, but there’s a catch – those places are at the outer reaches of the downtown core or in Railroad Square. Plan on a five block hike between destinations, walking past all those downtown banks which after hours are just featureless walls with an attached ATM. And if you plan trekking the circuitous route to and from Railroad Square after the Fortress Shopping Mall is closed, thou hast more stamina and courage than I. What once was boasted to be “the city designed for living” is now “the city designed for daytime banking” and not much else.

It wasn’t always thus. A little over a hundred years ago, downtown was packed on Saturday nights. Stores were open late; a band toodled popular tunes from the old courthouse balcony. As the Press Democrat described the scene in 1905, it was a weekly celebration of community which seems impossible to imagine happening today:

Saturday evenings in Santa Rosa are bright and lively throughout the summer and the early autumn months. Five evenings each week the stores and markets close at 6 o’clock; but on Saturdays, the doors are open until midnight or thereabouts, and the town does its belated shopping…working clothes are laid aside, and “Sunday best” is donned without waiting for Sunday to come. After the evening meal, it is the custom for all the family to go “down town” together. No matter if there is no need of shopping (although generally there is), the head of the household, “and the missus and the kids,” all want to go and listen to the band.

Alas, 1905 was probably the last year of the Saturday night shopping musicales; by 1913 the merchants wanted to close up by 6 o’clock because there wasn’t enough business to pay for the lights and the workers. That came as no surprise; a few months earlier, most downtown stores closed early on a Saturday night so store clerks could attend a dog show.

What happened? The 1906 earthquake, for starters, which turned all of downtown into a construction zone for more than a year. Saturday was traditionally the day farmers came in to town for shopping, and post-earthquake downtown was less inviting to horse-drawn wagons and buggies, with fewer hitching posts (in 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets with posts as a kind of horse parking lot). When parcel post was launched in 1913 the need for farmers to venture downtown and shop in person was nearly eliminated, as same or next day mailing of packages from local stores was nearly free.

Another change after the earthquake was that downtown began developing a theatrical district, with a new movie or vaudeville house opening nearly every year in the 1910s. Entertainment was a reason to be downtown apart from shopping and the two might not mix. It’s one thing to sit on the courthouse lawn with your groceries while listening to the band play a dance tune in 1905, and another to carry a bag of fresh onions into a theater in 1912 showing a Bronco Billy double feature.

There was no ordinance passed demanding retail stores lock their doors every night at six, nor one requiring them to stay open. And there’s no direct link between today’s situation  and their 1913 decision to not stay open on Saturday night (although all those the darkened store windows would look mighty familiar to us).

Yet the early closing and not resuming the Saturday night concerts were capitulations that the downtown was not the heart of the community binding us together, but instead merely an assortment of independent businesses. That attitude led to the downtown withering away after WWII, starting with Hugh Codding poaching the retail district for Montgomery Village in 1952 and Coddingtown ten years later. After that came terrible planning decisions favoring bankers and bureaucrats. The entire south side of downtown was wasted on low-use federal, state and city administration buildings. City Hall was also unforgivably built on the site of a major Pomo village and destroyed access to Santa Rosa Creek, which was always the town’s crown jewel.

Reunification of Courthouse Square may be an appealing notion (it certainly has my approval) but it’s going to do nothing to mend a downtown which has been systematically dismantled for over a half century. The day when the old streets of Hinton and Exchange are reopened might be reason to celebrate, but nothing will really change. The Plaza will still remain an obstacle splitting downtown from Railroad Square as well as the transit hub from the SMART train station. There still will be no place downtown where anyone can buy an apple or an aspirin because there are no grocery or drug stores. The place will still be a ghost town after six.

Which brings us to “Smile.”

A few months ago Gaye Lebaron wrote a column on the 1975 movie of that name which was filmed here. A brilliant satire about America’s tacky culture (the plot centers on teenage girls competing in the “Young American Miss” beauty pageant) the film reserves its real jabs for the Jaycees and other Chamber of Commerce types who promoted the contest. Santa Rosa itself had a starring role although it was somewhat misrepresented – the title credits left the impression the town was mainly a series of trailer parks – and locals were apparently enthusiastic during the filming, with many of them having bit parts. When the movie debuted however, many angrily felt it made mockery of them. The director defended himself, saying “I was trying to show the people as they really are,” and called Santa Rosa “the all-time happy place…[an] American kind of town that could be anywhere in the country.” Small consolation after a major review said the town “appears to be blighted by a kind of inbred cultural smog.”

But the movie “Smile” is a love letter to Santa Rosa compared to the musical “Smile.” In 1983 composer Marvin Hamlisch announced the work-in-progress, telling the New York Times, “We want people to feel they’re right there at Santa Rosa, Calif., watching 16 teen-age girls compete for the title Young American Miss.”

A revised version of the musical made it to Broadway in 1986 (it ran only for six weeks) but the original had a different lyricist: Carolyn Leigh – best known for “Peter Pan” – who wrote the song, “Nightlife in Santa Rosa” to set the scene. It’s pretty obvious all she knew about Santa Rosa was what she gleaned from the movie, but it’s still a good sendup of the town that really did roll up its sidewalks on Saturday night, and had for a long time.

Excerpts transcribed from the CD “Witch Craft: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh” by Sara Zahn:

Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Talk about your all-time thrill
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Never gonna get my fill
I got myself a 90-dollar organdy dress
but nothing but the iron steams
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Is goin’ to bed
‘Cause everything’s dead but your dreams

Nightlife in nowhere city
Talk about your madcap town
No sooner than the pretty
Santa Rosa sun goes down
There’s nothing but the flushing of the chemical johns
From seven thousand mobile homes
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
You sit in the tub
And applaud as the bubble bath foams

Oh, God, what are we doing here
Oh, God, sittin’ and stewin’ here…

One bar, a bar-b-que stand
A counter man who don’t wear shoes
They closed the all night newstand
Maybe because they don’t got news
They lit a roman candle on the Fourth of July
I hear it made the L.A. Times
Midnight, Santa Rosa
I’ll trade you two of this town
For South Potawatomi and a lobotomy…

What’s hot in Santa Rosa
Nothin’ in the goddam place
Nothing but a hotshot in Santa Rosa
Bettin’ on a bedbug race
[spoken: Hello, operator? Get me Dave Shapiro at the William Morris Agency-what time did you say it was?]
Nightlife in Santa Rosa
Is going to bed
Because everything’s dead
Except me and a head full of dreams

It’s the stars growin’ pale
And your hopes gettin’ stale
It’s like being in jail with your dreams

Looking northeast at the corner of Fourth and Hinton, ca. 1913, verified by James Whittingham’s realty office at 626 Fourth street only appearing in that year’s city directory. Photo courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
CLOSE STORES SATURDAY EVE.
Merchants May Lock Doors at 6 O’Clock

A petition is being circulated among the merchants of this city calling for the closing of stores on Saturday evenings at 6 o’clock. It is contended by the merchants that they do not transact sufficient business after 6 o’clock on Saturday evenings to pay for the illumination of their stores and the incidental expenses of operation.

When this is taken into consideration, the merchants and their clerks would prefer to remain at home with their families instead of standing about their respective places of business.

On Thursday and Friday the petition was signed by a number of the prominent merchants, and it is believed that it will be so generally signed that in the near future all the stores may be closed on Saturday evening.

– Santa Rosa Republican May 16, 1913

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