The Superior Court's recently rescinded ruling that prohibited — ever so briefly — gatherings around the county courthouse has offered up yet another lesson on how the times do alter.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