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.