Only luck and a lack of wind kept all Santa Rosa from burning down in the 1906 earthquake, so it’s a bit of a surprise that just eight months later, downtown property owners told the Fire Chief to shut his yap about fire safety.
On the agenda at that January, 1907 City Council meeting was yet another debate on the “back porch” problem, which had become one of those issues that the Council slogged through at every session with no end in sight.
In one corner of the ring was respected Fire Chief Frank Muther, who had witnessed fires spreading through the alley behind Fourth Street on the morning of April 18, 1906, and wanted the new buildings at those locations to have porches made of fireproof materials instead of the rough wood construction that might be found on a back porch. The Builders’ Exchange supported him by endorsing a solid concrete porch floor. In the opposite corner were some of the wealthiest property owners in town, who said that would be too expensive – and that the Fire Chief had too much influence in the matter.
The Council clearly took the fire danger seriously; at the same meeting, they gave Muther powers to order any rubbish removed and impose a fine if he was ignored. But money talks loudly, and once again, they listened to the sound of rich men pinching pennies. One of them suggested that the problem could be solved if they could just line porches with asbestos.
The City Council was in an awful pickle. There was no building code in Santa Rosa before the earthquake, and since then, the Council had created new rules and regs on an ad hoc basis. Since there was not yet an ordinance prohibiting the use of wood in the rear of the same properties that had earlier spread the fires, the landlords were well within their rights to build their porches out of rice paper, if so desired. And so much for the authority of the Fire Chief to make the town safe.
To break the stalemate, Mayor Overton called on architect Victor Dunkerly (also spelled, “Dunkerley”), who had designed the newly-built Overton Hotel. His solution showed political skill; use less of the expensive concrete, but build the porch out of iron, which cost about the same as wood. After a little more chew-over the following week, peace was finally declared in the back porch war.
MATTER OF PORCHES PRECIPITATES DISCUSSION
The mooted question of back porches to business blocks on Fourth street and other business streets bobbed up serenely at the meeting of the city council Tuesday evening. After considerable discussion, in which there were some lively call down for various speakers. Architect Dunkerly hit the matter a solar plexus blow in a few words, practically settled the question to the satisfaction of all and gave the council the best advice that they had received on the subject.
The Builders’ Exchange prepared an ordinance for the council for a fire proof back porch and specified that it should have a concrete floor five inches thick. This was objected to by property owners as being too expensive and they wanted something more moderate and at the same time fire proof. They did not desire to take any chances on having their structures burned through inflammable rear porches.
John F. Kinslow addressed the council, advocating a floor dressed with asphaltum, while Albert Jacobs, another property owner, was wedded to the theory of asbestos, which experience has shown cannot be burned. Contractor Kobes was worried to know why the council insisted on having a fire proof porch and still permitted the use of wooden stairways leading to the porch and said the stairs would require more lumber than the remainder of the porch. Fire Chief Muther injected a few remarks into the discussion at intervals, and to this there was strenuous objection on the part of Kinslow, ably seconded by Jacobs, when Kinslow declared the chief “tried to be the whole thing.” Contractor Rushing spoke in favor of asbestos lining for porches.
Matters were waxing exceedingly warm when Mayor Overton thrust himself into the breach in the sake of peace and harmony and asked belligerents to confine themselves to the question before the council and to refrain from indulging in personalities.
Briefly stated, Architect Dunkerly suggested that the proposed ordinance was severe on the property owners. He said that a porch could be constructed of two inch galvanized iron pipe, thoroughly put together, with slabs of concrete two or three inches in thickness, and that it would sustain almost any weight which would be put upon it. He also suggested iron stairways and in comparison with ngures [sic] for wooden stairs submitted by Mr. Kobes, it was found the iron stairs would be no more expensive than the wooden ones. The features of the mayor and council relaxed when the suggestion was made, for they saw a method of construction that would be superior to the one under consideration and they felt relieved. The matter went over one week to give the ordinance committee time to prepare an ordinance covering the architect’s suggestions. Chairman Johnston voted against postponing the matter further, saying it had been before the council for months and he believed it should be disposed of at once that builders might erect porches for their tenants.
– Santa Rosa Republican, January 16, 1907