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Santa Rosa's classic, Roman-columned 1910 post office faced demolition 40 years ago when architect Dan Peterson advocated saving it by picking it up and sliding it out of the path of urban renewal.

Some locals mocked the notion of moving the two-story, 1,700-ton stone edifice. Conservationist Peterson beamed in 1979 as it completed its snail-paced, two-block journey — and some spectators sported T-shirts that exclaimed, "They said it couldn't be done!"

Peterson, a pioneering historical architect who played a major role also in the restoration of Railroad Square, died Monday evening at age 76.

The co-author, with his wife and business partner, Geraldine "Gerrie Mann" Peterson, of two often-referenced books on Santa Rosa's and Petaluma's architectural heritage lived with cancer the past four years.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s, Peterson worked at Santa Rosa's Fruiht-Tomasi Architects as a staff architect and then partner. Igniting his interest in historical architecture was his leadership of an effort to save Mableton/the McDonald Mansion by dividing its valuable plot of land and constructing around it five beautifully designed homes.

Peterson and his wife had lived in Santa Rosa for 22 years when they relocated to Point Richmond in 1985. He took on restoration projects and historical-building studies throughout the state.

For most of the past dozen years, he worked part-time with his son, Santa Rosa architect Chuck Peterson. Dan and Geraldine Peterson returned to Santa Rosa last year.

Chuck Peterson said his father "was surprisingly very quiet until he spoke about his passion."

The elder Peterson certainly spoke with passion in defense of the old Santa Rosa post office when, following the 1969 earthquake that ravaged much of downtown Santa Rosa, it was slated to be razed.

Press Democrat columnist and Santa Rosa history author Gaye LeBaron wrote in 1999 that a few years after the quake the area right around the post office building at Fifth and A streets was a scene of war-like destruction.

"Here and there were the concrete copings marking the foundations of hotels and business blocks, gas stations, fraternal lodges and two-story Victorian homes — all of them gone, cleared away after the damaging 1969 earthquake to make way for a mall.

"One building stood alone on the northern edge of this wasteland, a majestic building with four stone columns..."

Fresh from the successful effort to save the McDonald Mansion, Peterson buoyed the campaign to save the post office by proposing that it needn't be preserved in place, where it would conflict with plans for the Santa Rosa Plaza.

"It was his idea to move it," LeBaron said. "Everybody thought it was crazy."

Peterson bolstered his argument that it was possible with tales and statistics from Egypt's successful moving of pyramids from the path of the Aswan Dam.

It made for an indelible spectacle when, starting in April 1979, workmen raised the great structure and lay before it a bed of rails and a network of pulleys and cables. The building moved, but almost imperceptibly — an average of 36 feet a day.

When the post office reached its new home on Seventh near B Street, it had covered only about 800 feet over the course of 75 days. Peterson then led the project to remodel, beautify and expand the building, and in 1985 it opened as the Sonoma County Museum.

"Literally," said his son, "that was his baby."

The saving, moving and rebirth of the post office brought Dan Peterson widespread recognition as a specialist in the rehabilitation and restoration of historic buildings. After his move to Point Richmond 28 years ago, he became chief historical architect for one firm, then moved to a second, and he took on projects throughout California.

He oversaw the restoration of South Pasadena's Oaklawn Bridge, the oldest cast-in-place concrete bridge west of the Mississippi, and the construction of a new pavilion at Oakland's Dunsmuir House and Gardens Historic Estate.

In his free time, Peterson relished sailing San Francisco Bay, driving and tinkering with his vintage Porsche coupe and making fine wooden furniture.

His son said he had no plans to retire from historical architecture when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. "He was thinking he was just going to keep working," Chuck Peterson said.

In addition to his wife and son in Santa Rosa, Dan Peterson is survived by daughter Cindy Platko of San Diego, sister Muriel McCormick of Santa Ana and four grandchildren.

No services are planned.