Santa Rosa City Hall tops list of Sonoma County’s ugliest buildings
We asked Press Democrat readers to name the most unattractive architectural “clunkers” in Sonoma County. Here’s what they said.
Santa Rosa City Hall, the government bastion for Sonoma County’s largest city, is no beauty.
It’s a typical example of a style called brutalism, a post-war architecture that highlights minimalist construction, an absence of decoration, angular geometry and lots of concrete. Its roots are utility, not attractiveness.
Maybe that’s why Press Democrat readers have a lot of opinions about the building’s visual appeal — or lack of it. They voted City Hall the county’s ugliest structure in an online poll by the newspaper.
Mayor Chris Rogers expressed surprise that it wasn’t more of a landslide.
Told that 17 out of 83 voters — about 1 in 5 — gave a thumbs-down to the city government complex that dominates the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue and First Street, the mayor said, “Only 17?”
Taking a cue from Petaluma’s annual homage to unsightly canines, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, the newspaper asked online readers to name the buildings they consider an affront to behold.
The response was a wave of more than 80 terse critiques sprinkled with harsh condemnations such as “monstrosity,” “looks like a prison” and a “gas station bathroom turned inside out.”
Criticism of City Hall, built in 1969, was unsparing.
“The building is so ugly you can’t even tell which side is the front or back. Looks like a wannabe Andy Warhol House,” said Kevan Brown of Santa Rosa, invoking the name of the late pop art master.
“Moved to Sonoma County in 1976 and immediately struck how architecturally ugly S.R. City Hall is,” said Ben Berber of Santa Rosa. “Tear it down. Build better people’s house.”
A critic who asked to be anonymous called it a “Soviet-inspired” structure, which is telling because some descriptions of brutalism use the word totalitarian.
“It definitely stands out,” Rogers said, noting the contrast between City Hall’s raw concrete walls with the adjacent historic Burbank Gardens neighborhood, where he resides with its more decorative homes.
“I assume it’s fairly fire-resistant,” the mayor said.
The city is considering relocating to a new city hall in a government complex including county offices, a step that would open the current location for housing, Rogers said.
A woman who requested anonymity said City Hall should be razed to uncover a stretch of Santa Rosa Creek running through a tunnel beneath it.
“Why did we cement over nature’s beauty?” she asked.
Close by stand four other top voter-getters in the poll: Santa Rosa Plaza, the six-block-long shopping center born of the city’s post-1969 earthquake urban renewal project; the dramatically remodeled but still unloved AT&T building and the twin high-rise apartment buildings protruding from the city skyline and visible from the freeway — Bethlehem Tower and the Silvercrest building.
Other structures scorned by readers ranged countywide, including Sonoma State University’s vintage Stevenson Hall in Rohnert Park; Sebastopol’s Westamerica Bank and CVS Pharmacy in a town noted for environmental consciousness; Healdsburg’s modern city hall and the Cheese Factory, a longtime tourist attraction on the historic Sonoma Plaza.
Sam, a Windsor resident who declined to give his last name, took the broadest approach, condemning the impact of everything built since the arrival of white settlers.
“Santa Rosa is ugly,” he said. “It once was a beautiful valley cared for by Pomos before it was stolen and destroyed.”
Reader voting was focused on commercial and institutional buildings, excluding private homes.
Architectural brutalism isn’t as woeful as it sounds, said Robert Grandmaison, a Santa Rosa Junior College architecture and engineering instructor. City Hall is “probably the most notable example” in Sonoma County of the style that dates back to the 1950s in the United Kingdom, he said.
Rather than an emotional term, brutalism indicates that “the materials used in the making of the building were allowed to be raw and unfinished to some extent as an ‘honest’ expression” of their appearance, he said.