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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?”

The "Buchephelus" sculpture by artist Bryan Tedrick highlights the grounds at Santa Rosa City Hall, but readers picked the 1969 building as the ugliest in the county. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
The "Buchephelus" sculpture by artist Bryan Tedrick highlights the grounds at Santa Rosa City Hall, but readers picked the 1969 building as the ugliest in the county. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

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.

Mark Jensen flies a remote-controlled airplane around the empty quad, near Stevenson Hall, on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park. One of the two original buildings erected there in the 1960s, it reminded one reader of a “gigantic concrete prison.” (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Mark Jensen flies a remote-controlled airplane around the empty quad, near Stevenson Hall, on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park. One of the two original buildings erected there in the 1960s, it reminded one reader of a “gigantic concrete prison.” (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Brutalism’s critics

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.

It is not an inexpensive alternative, as it requires placement of forms for the concrete and reinforcing steel and is too costly for most homes, Grandmaison said.

Stevenson Hall at SSU, another classic example of brutalism, got a negative vote from Adam Ferdinandson of Santa Rosa.

“It looks like a gigantic concrete prison straight out of 1984,” he said. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Ferdinandson, whose wife graduated from SSU last year, said he was “horrified by the building and it stuck with me.”

Stevenson and its three-story twin, Darwin Hall, were the first two buildings erected on an otherwise largely barren campus in the 1960s. Stevenson is now closed for a nearly $68 million renovation similar to the refreshing of Darwin in 2005.

Santa Rosa Plaza, the regional shopping center built in 1983, describes itself as “nestled between recently reunified Courthouse Square and Railroad Square” on its website, but people with recollections reaching back four decades say it drove a wedge between the two.

“Not only is the design hideous and huge but it runs right through what was once a very cute downtown and ruins it,” said Helena Rummonds of Sebastopol, one of six critical voters.

A voter who asked to remain anonymous called the plaza, known for the huge white hand sculpture at its B Street entrance, “a misplaced fake-brick monolithic city-dividing eyesore.”

The indoor mall, stretching from First to Seventh streets and cutting off all but Third Street, is the culmination of an expanded downtown redevelopment project launched after the twin earthquakes of 1969. It required razing of 101 buildings, including 13 hotels, the California Theater and a row or two of early 19th-century homes.

Built as a bunker

Nearby on Third Street stands another object of lasting scorn, the former AT&T building recently made over into a stylish office building and bank.

But it stood for decades as a solid concrete bunker, built in the 1960s to protect telephone switching gear from an atomic blast.

Chris Wenmoth of Larkfield, one of five disapproving voters, said the massive structure, “despite recent attempts to decorate, renovate and remodel it, is still the ugliest building in Sonoma County.”

Despite a recent remodeling, the AT&T building at Third and B streets in Santa Rosa remains high on the list of readers’ choices for ugly buildings. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2021)
Despite a recent remodeling, the AT&T building at Third and B streets in Santa Rosa remains high on the list of readers’ choices for ugly buildings. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2021)

It now sports a sleek metal facade with floor-to-ceiling windows and a kinetic metal art piece by Sebastopol sculptor Ned Kahn on its west side, visible to patrons of the mall’s food court.

Bethlehem Tower, the city’s tallest building at 14 stories, and the Salvation Army’s 10-story Silvercrest Senior Living Residence were built in the 1970s and provide critically needed housing for low-income seniors.

But that doesn’t mean their presence is appreciated.

“Horrible designs,” Santa Rosa native Renee Milligan said.

“Why is the tallest building in Sonoma County in a residential neighborhood?” an anonymous voter asked. “It is both jarring and out of place.”

The Sonoma County courthouse, officially known as the Hall of Justice, and the adjacent Sonoma County Jail off Administration Drive in northern Santa Rosa are civic necessities but not attractive ones, according to nine voters, including one who makes his living there.

“Most counties/cities have beautiful, stately courthouses with marble and columns,” said Kelly Lopez of Santa Rosa. “SC’s is a ’70s nightmare.”

The two-story courthouse is “a big, top-heavy, largely windowless block that lacks the style required for brutalism,” said Charles Applegate, another Santa Rosan.

Applegate, an attorney, said pandemic restrictions have enabled him to avoid going there, “a real blessing.”

Dan Crowley, who grew up in Petaluma and now lives in Martinez, said the Petaluma Regional Library resembles a prison.

“For a center of learning and light, it sure is a dark and depressing place,” he said.

The Press Democrat printing facility in Rohnert Park, often mistaken for the newspaper’s main office, was faulted for a dead lawn and being in need of paint. The office in downtown Santa Rosa has narrow windows likened to a jail. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
The Press Democrat printing facility in Rohnert Park, often mistaken for the newspaper’s main office, was faulted for a dead lawn and being in need of paint. The office in downtown Santa Rosa has narrow windows likened to a jail. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Like a prison

Speaking of penal facilities, Santa Rosa area resident Yvonne St. Clair said the imposing Press Democrat printing plant on Redwood Drive in Rohnert Park “looks like a prison building. No modern landscape, just dead grass. It needs a paint job.”

St. Clair said she appreciated a sign that was posted when the lawn died noting “water conservation isn’t pretty.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Press Democrat newsroom staffers consider the narrow windows on the second floor of the Mendocino Avenue office akin to those on a jail.

The dull gray paint applied by the building’s owner, Cornerstone, preserved the portraits of county leaders on the south wall but might be the worst shade imaginable.

In Sebastopol, when the Chevrolet dealership closed in 2008 after 76 years on Highway 12 in the heart of town, locals entertained hopes that something new would take over the site. Instead, the CVS Pharmacy relocated there from the Redwood Marketplace, leaving behind a large storefront that remains vacant.

Two voters were chagrined.

“The ‘new’ Sebastopol CVS brick structure looks like a jailhouse — a big box with windows that don’t add any value,” Katy Baumgras said.

Nancy Hair, another Sebastopol resident, simply called it a “monstrosity.”

Two blocks away, the Westamerica Bank, with large mirror-like windows that reflect passing traffic on an otherwise blank exterior, was rated “by far the ugliest building in Sonoma County” by a Sebastopol resident named Ceni.

Annette Cadosi of Healdsburg isn’t impressed with her town’s city hall, although it’s open and airy with lots of glass panels.

“The trendy metal shed material is fine for a herd of cattle, but not a place one can look up to for civic inspiration,” she said.

Healdsburg’s old city hall at the corner of Matheson and Center streets was a bit brutalist until it was transformed into the Oakville Grocery, joining the tourist-serving shops around the historic plaza of the town founded in 1857.

For historic significance, it’s hard to beat the Sonoma Plaza, scene of the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 and home to the Sonoma Cheese Factory since 1945.

But Michal Filipowicz, a Sonoma resident for 36 years who fondly remembers buying lunches at the deli on a 50% discount for locals offered by the former owners, doesn’t care for the building.

“With its horrible tile facade it looks like they turned a gas station bathroom inside out,” he said.

Vacant and closed for two years until it was purchased by a local investment group in 2020, the Cheese Factory sports “an unusual post-deco tile architecture,” according to a description in the Sonoma Index-Tribune last year when it was listed for sale.

Juliana, a Sonoma resident who asked to withhold her last name, said it was “one of the absolute ugliest structures in the county, regardless of historical nature.”

Right next door are the preserved Sonoma Barracks, built in 1835 to house Mexican soldiers transferred from the Presidio of San Francisco.

The poll itself prompted mixed reviews, with one anonymous voter questioning “why on Earth would you want to point out buildings that do meet someone else’s standards?”

“Is this really the hard-hitting news?” the same voter asked.

Another anonymous voter said she “loved this topic” and personally detests “the Sutter (Health) mess of buildings on 101.”

“Thanks for asking! I feel better now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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