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The Superior Court's recently rescinded ruling that prohibited — ever so briefly — gatherings around the county courthouse has offered up yet another lesson on how the times do alter.

This reconsideration, and the discussion around it, call forth an image of the courthouse that stood for more than 50 years in the middle of the square in the middle of downtown Santa Rosa.

You know the square I mean — the one that is also a matter of some current reconsideration and discussion.

That courthouse, which was forcibly removed by wrecking ball in 1966, had four Superior Court courtrooms. But it also housed every other county office, from the coroner in the basement to the county clerk up the marble staircase, where we registered to vote and picked up our marriage licenses.

All of these: the tax collector, the assessor, the recorder, each in his (and I do not use this pronoun indiscriminately) own office with his own staff, fit nicely into one grand structure. The building, which was completed in 1910 and replaced the one that went down in the 1906 earthquake, was truly the Capitol of Sonoma County.

But it isn't what happened inside that building that I want to talk about (although there are stories to be told, believe you me). It's what went on outside.

When Joann Mitchell and I wrote a volume of Santa Rosa history in the 1990s, the courthouse had been gone for a quarter century — well beyond many memories. As we compiled chapter after chapter — on politics and agriculture and wartimes and social life and business — we learned just how important that building and the square around it were to the people of Sonoma County. It was, you might say, an "Aha!" moment for us.

We learned how much time people spent on those steps, the esplanade that led to them and the lawn outside that old courthouse.

Photographs, gleaned from "treasure" boxes and library files and newspaper archives, told us the story.

; We see the crowd that gathered in April of 1908, two years after the quake, to witness the laying of the cornerstone by the Masonic Lodge — with a parade following.

; Here's a May Day celebration with the Queen of the May on her throne on the steps and dancers performing on the esplanade while the little ones dance around the May Pole on the lawn.

; We peer into the crowded platform constructed in front of the steps, draped all around with flags, to see Sen. Herbert Slater surrounded by dozens of politicians poised to address the swarm of men and women — all wearing hats, a sure sign of the 1930s.

; Another, from the same era, devoid of people, shows the banner bearing the eagle symbol of the National Recovery Act — "We Do Our Part" — hanging over the main entrance. It reminds us of FDR's critics who liked to refer to that symbol as "The blue eagle that laid an egg." Government is ever thus.

; World War II and there's a building, designated as a "Victory House," being constructed on the front lawn, each plank and window and shingle representing sales of War Bonds.

; And another, again without people, that shows us the watchtower perched on the west end of the courthouse roof, a structure manned round-the-clock by airplane spotters, Civilian Defense volunteers who were instructed to call Hamilton Field at the sight or sound of any airplane in any direction.

; Here's one that came from Hollywood — the tower for the cameramen and the light stands set up to film crowds lining the street to see the funeral cortege rounding the corner at the conclusion of Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt."

; Finally, the head-on view from the north with Watt Maxwell, who was once the chief of police, waving pedestrians across Mendocino Avenue. The signs behind him say "Highway 101" and "One Way Only," with arrows pointing right.

There are more photographs, not all of them made the book. There's the fellow carrying the sign suggesting we "Repent!" And the "old soldiers" who gathered regularly on the front benches to sit in the sun and exchange worldviews, calling themselves "The Spit 'n Whittle Society."

The courthouse was the backdrop for life in those years. Delegates to every convention held here — and there were many — from the Grange to the Woodmen of the World to the Native Sons of the Golden West gathered on those steps to be photographed.

Farmers from all over the West gathered there, too, in 1933 to stage a mortgage protest that attracted the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt to the plight of a Forestville apple rancher and others like him being driven from their land.

It was definitely a public space. Some people remember that there may have actually been a cr?he at Christmas, although we cannot swear to that. Certainly there was a cannon, a World War I relic, on the northwest (Exchange Avenue) corner. I am told it was there until just before WWII. There was a drinking fountain on the opposite southwest corner (Hinton Avenue).

We cannot forget the age-old tradition of the auction of property lost to unpaid taxes.

If things got so bad that the county seized your property for back taxes it would be sold at an appointed time "on the courthouse steps."

These auctions drew a cluster of "regulars" who took the opportunity to invest. Some people, I suspect, got reasonably rich that way.

These were hardly celebratory occasions, but the setting certainly lent a solemnity — maybe even a kind of sad dignity — to the proceedings.

I checked with the tax collector's office this week to find out how it's done today. The less-than-surprising answer was: "All online."

I am told there are people who find the current county complex hard to maneuver. And, assuredly, there are those who find modern government baffling. At all levels.

In that old courthouse there were no mysteries. Everything happened right before our eyes. If it wasn't a Depression-era farmers' protest or a May Pole dance, it was a parade of prisoners being walked in handcuffs from the jail at the corner of Third Street. Accompanied by a deputy or two, they would cross Hinton Avenue, go in the side door and up the stairs to the courtroom. Then, if things didn't go well, back again.

It was a different town. No. That's not right. It was the same town. At a different time.

In today's world, I understand that the objective of the court ruling was to keep witnesses and jurors safe while passing to and from the courts. This is necessary, no doubt about it. But how to reconcile it with the public's right to assemble in public space is another matter.

In the old time and space, we took such things for granted. Not anymore.