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So, Old Courthouse Square is back in business. It is whole again after more than a century of, shall we say, “indecision.” Now, it seems ready to reclaim its rightful place as Santa Rosa’s historic center.

It was in 1849 that Julio Carrillo, Santa Rosa’s “first citizen,” inherited the western portion of the Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa, granted to his mother, Dona Maria Carrillo, by Julio’s sister’s husband, General Mariano Vallejo, who just happened to be the military governor of California’s Northern Frontier.

Five years later, doing business with an early entrepreneur, Barney Hoen, Julio recorded his official plat map of the new town — First through Fifth street going east and west, A through E street, north and south.

Dead center in the rectangular map is the open area, marked in large letters as the “PLAZA.”

Julio owned the land on the west side. Hoen had purchased parcels on the east side. Together, this enterprising German immigrant and agreeable young Californio donated the proposed plaza land “to the people of Sonoma County forever.”

You all know the story — how it was landscaped by a rascal named Otho Hinton with some trees, shrubs and an iron fence with hitching posts on each side, and benches. It was almost a Spanish-style plaza, the type that Julio talked about when the deals were made.

But the town and the county grew. The courthouse on Fourth Street (the Exchange Bank corner today) was deemed unsafe and the county built a new courthouse, with a handsome dome, smack in the center of Julio’s plaza. While not exactly as he had envisioned, it became even more of a gathering place than before. It was central to pretty much everything important.

That first plaza courthouse went down in the 1906 quake. The next courthouse, bigger and busier, was there until 1966, long enough to loom large in the memories of citizens of a certain age.


Old photographs tell the tale of those 56 years at the building that was the heart of the community — girls with flowers in their hair dancing around a maypole on the lawn in a celebration of a 1920s spring; a plane spotters’ watchtower on the roof during World War II; a rally of farmers from western states come to protest the Depression-era foreclosure on a Forestville apple ranch. They show a banner with the blue eagle of FDR’s National Recovery Act hanging over the entrance; a war bond rally on the terrace in the ’40s; a ’30s political rally with the governor and our own blind Sen. Herbert Slater standing front and center on a bunting-draped platform, surrounded by a crowd of men, all wearing hats.

There are no photos (that have surfaced) of the mob that gathered on the back steps of the courthouse in preparation for the tar-and-feathering of union organizers in 1935; nor of the Healdsburg “vigilantes” circling the building on their way to the jail to lynch “the men who killed Sheriff Petray” in 1920.

But the courthouse was in the midst of it all.


Those of us who knew that courthouse well are getting too old to dance around the maypole anymore.

But the visuals remain fixed in our memory banks. Some of us will reel off the names of the Superior Court judges who ruled with proper pomp and circumstance in the courtrooms at the top of the marble stairs: Donald Geary, Charles McGoldrick, Lincoln Mahan, Leslie Manker and the undisputed leader, Hilliard Comstock, who walked from his stately home on Mendocino Avenue every morning, nodding to people with a regal air.

Or we will talk, joyfully, about which dignified attorneys slid down the marble banister in the waning hours of the Lawyers’ Wives’ “Farewell to the Courthouse” in 1966. This is still regarded by many as the best party ever in the city’s history. Others of us, perhaps with a tear in our eye, will remember going to the window in the county clerk’s office, second floor right, to get our marriage licenses.

Some of us have friends who remember walking from their St. Rose School classroom to sing in the lobby at Christmas. Or, if we happened to be young reporters, how we descended to the basement to the coroner’s office, writing some sad story or another. Or clustered with other reporters on election night, in that same basement, to look over the shoulders of the ballot-counters, with pencil, paper and tally marks.

Some may recall the mid-morning parade of prisoners from the jail on the corner of Third and Hinton being escorted to the courts, in cuffs and perhaps chains, accompanied by armed bailiffs.

Or the parade that went the other way at 5 p.m., when the building emptied of employees and some — not all, mind you, but some — headed across Hinton to the Topaz Room.

We wonder if any eyewitnesses are still around to tell of the day the egg truck overturned on the courthouse lawn, fueling the pleas for a highway bypass. Or have memories of when the cannon on the northwest corner of the lawn was removed. Or the water fountain installed on another corner in memory of Dr. Annabel Stuart, a pioneer woman physician known to patients as “Dr. Dear.” It was presumably taken to storage, but has disappeared, defying attempts to locate it.

The courthouse and its square were where high school and JC students accepted dares to drive the wrong way around, right past the police station on Hinton, in the early morning hours. We never heard of anyone being pulled over, let alone ticketed. Was it possible the police just watched to be certain we were safe?

Out in front, at the crosswalk on Fourth and Mendo, Officer Watt Maxwell — who had been police chief in his younger years — kept us safe, minding the crosswalk all the busy hours (sometimes with a little help from Pepper).

Across the street on the wide, paved terrace that led to the granite steps, we joked, but very fondly, about the old men who sat on the benches there on sunny days. We called them the “Spit and Whittle Society,” but reporters were known to stop and chat and gain more insight into what went on in and around the courthouse.

And the marble — ahhh, the marble in that building! Not only the staircase and the floors, but the walls. The look of it fairly shrieked of importance, of substance, of permanence. But it wasn’t a safe place to be come earthquake time. Around the steel bracings, the plaster walls were frighteningly thin. A fist through one might yield a handful of sand. So the decision was made to bring it down, three years before the ’69 quake. Call it foresight. Or just dumb luck.

The Spit ’n’ Whittlers moved to the side streets to watch the demolition. But many of us got our souvenirs at the closing auction on the steps. The terrace overflowed onto the lawn and across Fourth Street as then-supervisor Ignacio Vella (representing Sonoma, the town we stole the courthouse from 112 years before) auctioned off the furniture. Some of us got rolltop desks, some got light fixtures, some got benches, some spittoons (seriously!).

And the marble — that marble is still all over town. People prowled the interior at the wreckers’ sale, choosing panels that would become everything from hall floors and bathroom counters to pastry boards and just chunks on a shelf to remember by.

That’s how important it was.

Now we see it only in our mind’s eye — or in old black and white photos (made with cameras!) or in Hitchcock’s lens in the 1943 film, “Shadow of Doubt,” as the evil Uncle Charlie’s funeral procession comes around the circling streets.


It’s a metaphor for change, isn’t it? It’s how a community grows, in starts and stops and, once in a while, a start-over.

We’ll never have a courthouse again — government is so big and complex it requires a multi-acre “center.”

But we have Julio’s plaza back. Consider it a start-over.