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WHEN JAPAN BOMBED SONOMA COUNTY

It crashed through the treetops on the Vine Hill farm, and the only reason the bomb didn’t kill the farmer milking a goat was because it got snagged in the branches. Had it exploded, he would have been the first war casualty on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It was January 4, 1945.

The farmer called the sheriff and soon deputies, FBI agents and Army ballistics experts from Hamilton Field were speeding to that West County goat farm. None of them knew what they were handling – they didn’t even realize it was a live bomb, so they took it to the sheriff’s office and put it on display in the lobby.

All they knew was that it probably had been dropped from a balloon. “Hundreds of residents of western Sonoma county had seen the mysterious balloon sweeping inland from the vicinity of Jenner, highlighted by rays of the setting sun,” the Press Democrat later reported.

A couple of days earlier the PD had a front page story about the “mystery spheres” which had been found in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They were believed to be of Japanese origin, but the Army hadn’t confirmed that; all that was known for sure was that they carried incendiary devices. That story repeated speculation that the balloons were carrying enemy soldiers, which was the working theory for a couple of weeks: “There was no actual evidence that the balloon had carried enemy saboteurs but that seemed the only logical explanation for its arrival. It trailed an elastic cable that had been cut, possibly indicating that it once was equipped with a cage capable of carrying a crew of perhaps four or five who, on arriving over the United States, cut themselves free and parachuted to earth in a small-sized ‘invasion.'”

bombs(RIGHT: Balloon bomb exhibit at Canadian War Museum in Ottowa)

The same day the Vine Hill bomb landed, the Office of Censorship ordered a complete blackout of any balloon stories in newspapers and on radio. The curtain of silence remained in place until the war ended in August.

Pity Press Democrat editor Herbert Waters; this was the biggest local war story during WWII and he couldn’t write a word. He must have been gnashing his teeth when another balloon was spotted over Santa Rosa on February 23 and the crew of a Lockheed P-38 from the Santa Rosa Army Air Field (now the Sonoma County Airport) scrambled to shoot it down midair as it neared Calistoga – the first time one of the balloons was brought down by gunners.

Editor Herb surely was hopping mad that the PD couldn’t tell readers that three balloons came down in March – west of Cloverdale, near Guerneville, and close to the Mount Jackson quicksilver mine overlooking the Russian River Valley. Another turned up May 15 near Geyserville. There were probably frustrated screams in the newsroom as Waters learned one of the bombs blew a swimming pool-sized crater in a field near Santa Rosa (with people watching!) and another apparently started a fire close to Cotati. Sonoma Valley subscribers probably were irked because the paper didn’t mention some incident (a fire?) that occurred near the Heins ranch in Glen Ellen, or how El Verano schoolkids were all wound up about seeing that big balloon drifting overhead.

All in all, it’s believed at least ten balloons fell to earth in Sonoma county – more than anywhere else in the state.

Although authorities weren’t exactly sure what was going on, the Vine Hill bomb convinced the government that the U.S. was under some sort of air attack from Japan, and to say that the military in early 1945 was unprepared to handle it was an understatement.

The West Coast had never faced an active threat from Imperial Japan and slipped into a lack of readiness. The Navy and Army air bases in Santa Rosa were just used for general training, as was Hamilton Field; no combat planes were kept on ground alert anywhere on the coast; the long-range radar system wasn’t turned on most of the time; the civilian Ground Observer Corps was disbanded; most anti-aircraft artillery had been mothballed. Had Japan mounted a Pearl Harbor-like attack we would have been defenseless for hours.

The Fourth Air Force at Hamilton Field was suddenly thrust very much back into the war, with the critical mission to figure out what the hell the enemy was doing with those balloons. The very first one landed near San Pedro a couple of months before the Vine Hill bomb and was found to be carrying radio and meteorological equipment. Was it just a weather balloon which had blown off course all the way across the Pacific? A few other balloon fragments were found around the West and they thought they might be coming from Japanese relocation camps in the U.S. (remember, they were also wondering if the balloons were intended to carry a few men). Only when parts of a balloon were found at a bomb crater near Thermopolis, Wyoming did our best military minds realize that yep, this was a weapon.

A War Department memo listed six ways they feared the balloons might be used:

  1. Bacteriological/chemical warfare
  2. Incendiary and anti-personnel bombs
  3. Experiments for unknown purposes
  4. Psychological efforts to inspire terror and diversion of forces
  5. Transportation of agents
  6. Anti-aircraft devices

The immediate and overwhelming concern was not that the devices would blow up Americans but that they might set the great forests of the Northwest ablaze. There wasn’t an issue at the moment because it was still winter with its snow+rain, but if the balloons continued floating over through the spring and summer, it might divert thousands of soldiers from the warfront to fighting fires back home. To prepare, the Western Defense Command launched the “Firefly Project” which stationed 2,700 troops (including paratroopers) along with transport planes at strategic points.

examine(RIGHT: U.S. Navy personnel examine an unexploded bomb)

The other top worry was the balloons could deliver some sort of bioweapon. Although the War Department’s specific fears weren’t listed, a payload of anthrax or plague could kill animals and people while grain smut (fungus) might wipe out America’s breadbasket – and Japan’s military was indeed thinking along these lines, as discussed in the next section.

To counter that threat the “Lightning Project” was launched to create an early-warning system for signs of unusual diseases in livestock or crops. Without explaining why this was so important, the Department of Agriculture quietly asked regional offices to stay in touch with veterinarians and ag workers down to 4-H clubs and report anything amiss. Remedies (presumably fungicides and sulfa drugs) were stockpiled throughout the West.

As weeks passed, an ever-increasing number of balloons were observed high over Sonoma County headed eastward (they were almost impossible to track via radar, as it turned out). They were now being found – usually in fragments after exploding, although also sometimes intact – from Alaska to Baja California. The farthest east a balloon travelled was Michigan, with the most active month being March. After censorship was lifted it was revealed that a group of the balloons were seen heading for San Francisco during the historic United Nations Conference, with one of them eerily hanging over the city for hours before drifting on. (The proper name for a group is a “festival of balloons,” but I applaud the wag who tweeted, “the collective noun for a collection of slow moving things filled with hot air is a ‘government.'”)

The only fatalities caused by the bombs happened on May 5 in Oregon, as the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife were leading five children on a fishing trip. An 11 year-old girl found the balloon in the woods and called for the others to come see. It exploded when one of the kids tugged on it, killing all of the children and the minister’s wife, four of them dying immediately. (The site is now memorialized by the Mitchell Monument.)

The government kept a lid on the news until rumors about the incident spread fear among southern Oregon loggers and campers; finally on May 22 the War Department and Navy issued a joint statement admitting the balloon bombs existed, but they weren’t a serious threat because the attacks were “so scattered and aimless.” They also initiated an educational campaign to warn against tampering with strange objects found in the woods. If that saved even one American life, the statement read, “…it would more than offset any military gain occurring to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

Had the Mitchell tragedy occurred a month earlier, it’s possible WWII might have gone on longer – with the United States suffering many civilian casualties, particularly in places like Sonoma county. But Japan had ended the balloon bomb program in mid-April, convinced that it had been a complete failure, mistakenly assuming almost none of the devices actually reached America. In truth, about 10% of the 9,300+ balloons are believed to have reached North America – exactly as the Japanese engineers predicted.

fu go(RIGHT: A Fu-Go balloon inflated by the U.S.)

It turned out that the War Department’s censorship was a brilliant move. The Japanese high command indeed had been scanning media reports from Russia, China and the U.S. looking for any news, but all they found was a single report about that explosion in Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The Japanese military had been tinkering with the idea of a balloon weapon since 1933, considering designs which would drop bombs or shower propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines after flying a fixed distance, as well as a balloon large enough to carry a soldier. Nothing apparently went past the drawing board until the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, which made Japan hungry to inflict damage on the American mainland. The best they could do was starting a minor forest fire near Mt. Emily, Oregon five months later, using a small bomb-carrying airplane launched from a submarine. That morphed into the 1943 plan of using subs off the coastline to inflate and launch balloons with a timer-release bomb. That plan was dropped later in the year as all submarines were pressed into service delivering weapons and food to soldiers fighting on Pacific islands.

The only option left was to launch balloons from Japan itself, 6,200 miles away from North America. Problem was, the jet stream winds were still poorly understood; the estimated time for a balloon to reach the West Coast ranged from 1-4 days, making any sort of timer useless. For more than a year they experimented with a couple of hundred balloons carrying radio transponders, none of them intended to reach the U.S.

The result of their multi-agency research project was the “Fu-Go” balloon bomb (a code name which roughly translates as something like, “Weapon Model B”). It was designed to fly between 30,000-38,000 feet, cutting loose ballast when it dropped too low and releasing hydrogen when it ascended too high. When all the ballast sandbags were gone it released the incendiary and TNT bombs, then blew up the balloon. All of this was done without electronics, of course; Wikipedia has a clear explanation of the balloon’s ingenious control system.

Wikipedia also cites a couple of non-translated documents which apparently state there were plans to use the Fu-Go to release anthrax and plague (Yersinia pestis), although the definitive Mikesh report (see sources) says, “though possible, the Japanese did not consider this aspect.” But as they were preparing to cancel the Fu-Go project thinking it a failure, a plan called “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night” was finalized; this called for kamikaze attacks on the Naval base at San Diego with the planes carrying ceramic jars of plague-infested fleas. The war ended before the operation could be carried out.

While all mention of the balloon bombs was suppressed in America, Japanese propaganda news agencies were telling their domestic audience that the balloons were causing havoc in the U.S. and starting numerous fires plus killing 10,000 casualties. After the Mitchell tragedy was revealed (which happened after the last Fu-Go was launched, remember) they made English-language broadcasts claiming the balloons had been only used on an experimental scale and were the “prelude to something big.”

Finally, Gentle Reader may be surprised to learn there’s even a few Believe-it-or-Not! items to our story because so many found the balloons and/or the ordinance and didn’t know what it was. Authorities in Elko, Nevada, were startled to find an old prospector come into town with a still-inflated balloon tied to his burro – he thought the government “had lost something.” In Yakima, Washington a boy had an anti-personnel bomb which he had been carrying around for several days. Ranch hands at Yerington, Nevada came across a balloon with its attachment; they tied it to the bumper of a car and towed it to a garage. The guys wrote a letter to authorities about it but heard nothing back, so they deflated the balloon and used it to cover a haystack. When the state police finally came calling they found there were still two live bombs.

TOP: Snapshot of a balloon bomb snagged on a tree in Kansas, February 1945

 
sources
 

Details about the Vine Hill bomb and other Sonoma county incidents were released when censorship was lifted and appeared in the Press Democrat on August 16, 1945 and a UP wire service story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier August 17. Details of the Mitchell incident are from the Associated Press datelined May 31. The definitive document on the Fu-Go balloon bombs is Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America by Robert C. Mikesh, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973, and all other details in this article are summarized from his report except as noted.

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CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS

Breaking news: People tend to have very strong opinions about parking meters. Also, this surprise: Those opinions are never favorable.

Yet Santa Rosa still has them, making it among the very few places in Sonoma county where the elusive meters can be spotted in the wild along with their related species, parking garages that charge money. And the reason we have them is because this is the city that time forgot – in Santa Rosa, it is always 1946.

This is the second in a series exploring the missed opportunities and regrettable decisions that have shaped Santa Rosa since World War II. Part one (“THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN“) saw voters narrowly reject a chance to develop part of the downtown core into a Civic Center, which would have kept it the county’s hub during the postwar boom years and after.

Looking back on all the other times the city took a wrong turn, one name keeps popping up: Hugh Bishop Codding. When first planning this series I even considered naming it “How Hugh Codding Destroyed Downtown,” but that’s unfair – our city government and elected officials did the job on their own, advised by a parade of out-of-town “experts.” Yes, old Hugh monkeywrenched the town with lawsuits and sometimes jujitsued the city or county into doing something stupid, but mostly he took strategic advantage of their missteps. And sometimes he didn’t win; for example, there was his odd and long-running quest to convince the city of Santa Rosa to move out of the city.*

No, Codding’s not to blame alone; with remarkable consistency, when challenged to make a momentous decision our trusted civic leaders boldly rose to the occasion and (in my humble opinion) made the worst possible choices. The courthouse was torn down and a street plowed through courthouse square; Santa Rosa Creek was buried in a culvert; prime downtown acreage was bulldozed with most of it turned over to private developers; a shopping mall was constructed which immediately became the Great Wall of B street.

That record of stumbling mistakes began in July, 1944, while Codding was still a Seabee building quonset huts in the Pacific. That month the Chamber of Commerce held a luncheon to discuss the “parking bugbear” with a public meeting following a few weeks later. There the city manager announced he had contacted 200 colleagues in other cities; almost all said parking meters were swell. The Press Democrat thought the general attitude by the end of the meeting was that “they are at least worth a trial.”

Letters began pouring into the PD disagreeing with that. While there were a couple of correspondents who made somewhat reasoned arguments, most teetered on the edge of crackpottery. A few samples:

“Where is our freedom? What are our men fighting for? Now comes it the parking meter…” (Mrs. A. K. Larson). “Parking meters have to be placed on the sidewalks. Our sidewalks are already too narrow. You put a row of posts on the walks in addition to the present stacks of bicycles and there won’t be much room for pedestrians” (“A Taxpayer”). “If parking meters are installed here, we would have buildings going up outside the city limits after the war and the city assessor would have to reduce the taxes on the buildings downtown as there will be many vacancies” (Alfred E. Poulsen). “I believe this to be illegal. Property owners own and pay taxes to the middle of the street” (E.J.F.). “Why charge the motorist all the time? Look up all the hidden taxes he pays. Why not charge pedestrians for standing on the sidewalks? It is just as fair” (Sgt. A. R. Milligan). Bonus crankdom: The letter following Sergeant Milligan’s in that edition advocated that once WWII was over, we should sterilize all German males for the next twenty years to ensure “any children born in Germany would have to be at least half civilized.”

The city installed 510 parking meters in early 1945 and although the city printed  helpful directions on how to use them, on the first day of operation “numerous persons inserted coins ‘just to watch them work’ but in many cases failed to turn the handle far enough to set the ticking device in operation.” When the first monies were collected three days later, the take included four slugs even though the graphic in the PD showed a little window on the meter claiming “SLUGS will show here.” Yeah, no.

Press Democrat, February 11, 1945

 

A nasty squabble immediately arose between the county and city over parking spaces. Santa Rosa had installed a row of meters on the east and west of the courthouse and the county was threatening legal action unless there was free parking for designated vehicles. As neither side was blinking, the county proposed it would turn the south lawn of the courthouse into a government parking lot, requiring chopping down two mature Peruvian pine trees – which were the last survivors from the pre-1906 earthquake courthouse plaza. The PD reported on the backlash: “The number and vehemence of telephone calls coming to this office since announcement of the parking plan indicate that the removal of those trees for the purpose set forth will meet with a storm of protest, like which our county officials have never before heard.” The city caved, but it was a stupid fight to pick; what did they expect? Jurors and judges would dash outside every two hours to move their cars?

Then as Mrs. Larson poetically wrote, now comes it the crisis: the year 1946.

Thousands of soldiers and sailors were returning home to Santa Rosa where they were promised free education and cheap mortgages by the GI Bill – but found jobs scarce and nowhere to live. The housing situation was probably worse than it’s been since the 2017 fires; a special census taken that February found only 74 vacant houses or apartments in all of Santa Rosa, including places leased/sold but not yet occupied and units where residents happened to be out of town. The Press Democrat’s “Wanted to Rent” classifieds were always long, packed with veterans pleading for somewhere with a roof. Sometimes a finder’s fee was offered, including nylons.

With all those additional people on the downtown streets, the traffic situation became nigh impossible. The meters and rigorous enforcement of time limits became essential to avoid gridlock. Yet at a city council meeting the outgoing mayor conceded something had to be done besides writing lots of parking tickets (“I don’t like these wholesale citations”) and that the parking meters “have not accomplished everything wanted.” From the March 6th PD:

The mayor explained that it is “not the fault of the meters” that the parking meters have not completely solved the parking problem, but is due to the “great influx of people into Santa Rosa.” He explained that traffic has become so great that “there just isn’t room for them” in parking space now provided.

Besides sounding a bit like a Stockholm syndrome hostage to the Miller Meter Company, the mayor urged the council to acquire empty lots close to downtown for off-street parking – which would mean buying more meters, of course. (There was at least one all-day parking lot at B street and Healdsburg ave, and it was never mentioned whether the 10¢ required to park there was fed into a meter, handed to an attendant or was a purchased tag.)

To pay for the lots and other civic improvements (including “electric stop-and-go signal equipment for key intersections”), the city council used bond money and authorized Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, to predictable taxpayer howls. Although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of “Boston Tea Party” protest.

The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the sales tax and the parking meters, to wit: “I (Someone I know) will never shop again in Santa Rosa because I’m mad about a parking ticket (I already pay too many taxes).” But where else were they to go? Spend all that time and gas – now up to 21¢ a gallon! – driving to Petaluma for groceries or all the way to San Francisco for a fashionable hat?

Hello, Hugh Codding.

The very first real article in the Press Democrat about Montgomery Village appeared on April 30, 1950 and included this quote from Codding: “People do not like the inconvenience of looking for parking space, priming the parking meter and then walking several blocks between stores. Montgomery Village abolishes that inconvenience – all within one block of 750-car parking.” It had been a long time since Santa Rosa had heard such sweet and sensible words.

That appeared before the shopping center fully opened, and later ads would feature its other major draws: Montgomery Village was just outside city limits so there was no municipal sales tax and it had diagonal parking.

To understand why diagonal parking was such a Very Big Deal, slip into a Dacron jacket and travel with me back to 1950. Cars and pickups are classy but clunky – as large as boats and heavy as little tanks. And because they don’t have power steering (not available on any car until 1951) they require the muscles of Popeye to turn the steering wheel if the tires aren’t in motion.

Santa Rosa insisted upon parallel parking only, even though downtown merchants had been protesting it for many years. A petition for diagonal parking was presented to city council in 1940, headed by some of the top storekeepers: Lee Hardisty, Leonard Deffner, Donald Carithers and Irving Klein. Deffner, owner of the big Pershing Market between 4th and 5th streets, told the council that customers of nearby businesses were using his grocery store parking lot rather than parallel park on the street (and this is before the meters, remember). Nothing doing, said Santa Rosa – our streets are so narrow that anyone double parked would cause a traffic jam if diagonal was used. Apparently stiff fines for double parking weren’t a consideration. The city clung so hard to parallelism that in 1964 they made every third space no-parking so it would be faster to nose or back in to a spot, thus making the parking shortage 33 percent worse. Dumb decisions like that made Codding look like a genius by comparison.

Montgomery Village ad, February 6, 1955

 

While Montgomery Village was thriving, Santa Rosa seemed to go out of its way to make downtown parking ever more annoying.

In 1951 (840 meters now installed) they made a deal with a company to put frames on the meter poles which could display printed ads. Local merchants hated it, didn’t advertise and the company damaged many of the meters somehow. Two years later the city incurred more public wrath by switching parking lot meters to take dimes only, thus forcing drivers to overpay if their errands took less than two hours. Overtime parking fines doubled, then doubled again.

Other Sonoma county towns followed Santa Rosa’s lead in the 1950s and installed parking meters, then later removed them under pressure from the business community. Healdsburg uprooted its meters in 1964 and the sales tax increase more than replaced lost meter income. Twenty years later Petaluma stopped meter enforcement and their Downtown Merchants Association saw business improve.

Yet Santa Rosa’s confidence in the meters remained unshakable, even while the city continues to tinker with them; a decade ago they tore the meters off most posts because consultants insisted ticket kiosks were ever more efficient and the public really wouldn’t mind hiking from a parking spot to a kiosk and then back again. This year (2018) the city extended metered parking to 8PM while also implementing a zone system, which is able to increase the cost of parking in busy areas during the busiest times – which was done because experts told the city that trick works really well in tourist towns like San Diego.

But still the ungrateful public keeps complaining and today the resentment over paid parking in Santa Rosa is louder and more frequent than ever before – although that may be because the forum has shifted from newsprint to social media, where everything is amplified and unedited.

What’s interesting is how attitudes have not budged a whit between 1946 and now. People still say they no longer go downtown because they (or someone they know) was unfairly dinged with an expensive parking ticket. Businesses still say they don’t have enough customers because of the hassle of parking. And Santa Rosa still says there’s nothing wrong with the status quo – whatever that happens to mean right then.


* There are no shortages of Hugh Codding anecdotes, but here’s a story I’ve not read elsewhere: While Santa Rosa was mulling over where to build the new city hall in 1950, Codding offered space at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. According to the Press Democrat: “‘I thought myself it was fantastic until I got to thinking about it,’ he told the astounded [planning] commissioners.” Then as the city still hadn’t decided in 1963, he offered free land near Coddingtown in the unincorporated area. The city council didn’t snap up the deal so a week later he came back with an offer of another place, also on county land near his shopping center. And when they still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal to make city hall part of the new county administration center. Did he really believe he could get Santa Rosa to move the city buildings out of the city?

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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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