Gaye LeBaron: Old Courthouse Square has divided Santa Rosa for 160 years

Old Courthouse Square, known as a plaza before the mall usurped the name, has long been a contentious place.|

I well remember the day that Sam the Shark, our snarky observer of hometown politics, hustled into my office, waving a roll of blueprints that contained his latest plan for Old Courthouse Square.

This was in 1997. And Sam was excited. He had just read the results of the latest poll on whether to reunite the two sides of the square into one pure plaza. Public opinion was mixed. But Sam, as always, had a solution to offer. And now I offer it to you. For old times’ sake.

“Instead of closing the street through the square,” he said, “we build another street, east to west, right through the center. Four squares. This will work.”

“Don’t you see the beauty of it?’’ he said. “There will be not one, but four squares - Old Courthouse Squares!”

Wow, something for everyone!

So now we can add Sam’s screwball idea to the stacks of “new” plans, irate letters to the editor and minutes of acrimonious council discussions that have been brought to the public in the ensuing 18 years.

And this brings us to another of those infernal “How did we get into this mess?” columns.

This one will chronicle the raggedy history of the center of our town since the pioneers dragged the Baptist Church downstream from the ramshackle village known as Franklin in 1854 and set about building a proper town - around a central open space.


Old Courthouse Square, known as a plaza before the mall usurped the name, has long been a contentious place. It is still the object of not only disagreement but also widespread misunderstanding. You’d be surprised how many people believe 1) that the 1969 earthquake shook the courthouse down. (It had been gone for three years). And 2) that the Empire Building, facing the square on the west, is the onetime courthouse. (It’s a 110-year-old bank building that now shelters law offices.)

A run through 160 years of town history tells us it all began with Julio Carrillo.

Julio was a son of Maria Carrillo, owner of the land grant rancho that predated the town, the county and the state. In 1849, he inherited land downstream from Dona Maria’s adobe at the crossroads of two major Indian trails. Five years later, an enterprising merchant named Barney Hoen, who had a trading post in the adobe, saw opportunity not only for a new town but for a new county seat, an honor bestowed on the old pueblo of Sonoma, which was the only town in the county when California became a state.

The change necessitated some maneuvering in the state Legislature and a promise from Hoen of donated land for a courthouse. The land was part of a parcel purchased from Julio, who agreed to join in the donation. There would be a plaza. Hoen would give the west side, Julio the east, and everything would happen from there. Julio knew that Spanish and Mexican towns, and even his native San Diego, had plazas in the center. He visualized landscaping and fountains and a bandstand for concerts. Given the promise of such things, he joined Hoen in the land offer and filed the first official map of Santa Rosa, which shows clearly a capital-letter “PLAZA” in the center of the “one square mile” town.

Hoen’s promised county courthouse was built on the corner of Fourth and Mendocino.


Julio’s plaza went according to plan for the first 15 years or so. It was the site for gatherings, social and political. The stage stopped on the southeast corner. The first county fairs were held there. Business addresses and directions started from the plaza.

General Otho Hinton, an attorney who came from Maryland and a military career, took a paternalistic interest in the space, garnering donations and work parties for landscaping, trees, ornamental wrought-iron fences and benches, a pavilion, and a cannon to be fired at appropriate occasions. The street on the east side of the plaza would be named for the general.

The Civil War brought serious politics to the plaza, where the many Confederate sympathizers often met to mourn the news of Union victories. In a skirmish between the Washington Guard, the town’s official state (Union) militia, and a fire brigade composed entirely of Southerners, a stray bullet struck and wounded a young man in the nearby Masonic Hall.

Meanwhile, things were not going well for Julio.

He was a good-natured man who enjoyed the town’s social life and relished being its “first citizen.” He loved his wife, Teodosia, mother of his dozen or more children, but he also loved gambling. The card games in the lodge halls and the betting at the several racetracks - where he often entered his mare that “couldn’t be beaten” but too often was - made it hard for his family.

By the late 1860s, Julio was reduced to selling tamales, made by Teodosia, from a pushcart in the plaza he had given “to the people of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County forever.”

As the story is told, in 1868, the same year that Santa Rosa became an official state-chartered city, Julio was refused credit for a sack of flour for Teodosia’s tortillas.

In a fit of shame and rage, he decided to sell his half of the plaza.

Claiming that neither the town nor the county had ever officially accepted his donation, he found ready buyers in a trio of settlers, led by Wesley Woods, who promptly built a board shack and promised more substantial “improvements.”

The town reacted angrily. A proactive citizen dismantled the shanty with an ax, and Woods and his carpenters were arrested. The “squatters” filed suit, lost in the county courts, and asked for and received a transfer to a Marin County judge.

It took two years for the sale to be declared invalid, and Woods immediately filed an appeal. He also rebuilt his shack. The town - now a city - sent officers to knock it down, which the newspaper reported was accomplished “in a vigorous and summary way.” Woods and his partners ultimately lost all claim, a decision he always attributed to the fact that he was loyal to the Union and the judges were “Copperheads.”


Fast-forward to the 1880s, when a succession of grand juries found that the 1850s courthouse was no longer adequate - in fact, was unsafe - and demanded a new building.

Haste seemed necessary because Petaluma, making a second attempt to wrest the seat of government from Santa Rosa, was passing petitions to that effect. The county supervisors decided to build a splendid new courthouse - right in the middle of Santa Rosa’s plaza.

The newspaper was opposed, writing that the plaza was given to the city for public purpose and “the city could not authorize its use for a courthouse nor could the county appropriate it.”

But the county did. In 1883, the City Council, fearing removal of the political hub to Petaluma, capitulated and agreed to surrender all rights to the plaza to the county.

Barney Hoen, who had donated his half to make Julio’s plaza, was vehemently opposed; and Tom Geary, the district attorney, soon to be congressman, wondered aloud, “Who has title?”

Nobody answered, and construction began, using prisoners as chain gang labor while judges deliberated on Petaluma’s petition to take the government south, finally determining there were not enough signatures.

With Gen. Hinton’s benches and trees and good work cleared away, a cornerstone was put down in May of 1884.

With the courthouse smack-dab in the middle, the plaza was still where young people met on Saturday evenings when Professor Park’s band played on a courthouse balcony and young men and women performed the traditional “promenade.”

And the county, bowing to history, appointed Julio to a sinecure as the caretaker in the new building on his plaza.


The 1906 earthquake knocked the courthouse down, and a new one was built on the same spot, opening for business in 1910.

It became not only the symbol of reconstruction but, once again, the heart of the city and the surrounding towns. Crowds gathered regularly. Sometimes it was business, like bidding on property being sold for back taxes. Sometimes it was a political rally, or protests like the gathering in 1933 that brought farmers from all over the West to the courthouse steps to protest foreclosure laws in general and a bank seizure of a Forestville rancher’s apple orchard specifically.

Existing photographs show the scope of the plaza’s importance to the community - Maypole dances in the 1930s; war bond rallies in the ’40s; the Civil Defense “spotters’?” shack on the roof in World War II, which followed not so far behind the big decision to take the cannon off the lawn and sell it for scrap metal (to Japan!).

There are photos of the impromptu parade led by the city’s fire trucks, around and around the plaza, when word came that the war in Europe was over.

And somewhere there must be pictures of the old men who gathered to sit in the sun on the benches that lined the terrace along Fourth Street and of the two decades of young people, high school and junior college students, who “cruised” around the plaza just as their grandparents had joined the “promenade.”


By the 1960s, county government had outgrown the courthouse. There was talk of adding another story for offices, but inspectors deemed that unsafe. In fact, the whole structure came into question and the decision was made to - as the old song says - “move to the outskirts of town.” It was now the “county center” because by no stretch of imagination could that 1960s cluster of unimaginative architecture be called a “courthouse.”

The removal of the courthouse was one of the major issues of the ’60s. Old-timers felt that their life was changing before their eyes in 1966, when they watched the wrecker’s ball bounce off the structural steel, doubting that it really had to go.

But those who remember the offices in the basement, with two floors of marble above, where you could punch a hole in the plaster and pull out handfuls of sand, were convinced that it would not have fared well in the earthquake that came three years later.


Meanwhile, Santa Rosa, which had once considered the open plaza its playground, was in the throes, if that’s the right word, of a new government program called Urban Renewal, designed by a federal entity called Housing and Urban Development, which was funding the “renewal” of tired, old downtowns threatened by new commerce on their outer edges - like Montgomery Village and Coddingtown.

The city, which already had spoken for the county garage and corporation yard on Third Street, now went for a retrieval of the plaza. Only the plan was for half a plaza, selling the east side for a multistory office building. To this end, a long-talked-of link between Mendocino and Santa Rosa avenues was achieved, and presto! Two squares where there had been one.

While negotiations were underway with a financial institution called Eureka Federal Savings, the city planted lawn on the east side of the square. That, according to those who favored selling, was a great mistake. A “movement” to keep both sides of the plaza was born, and Eureka Federal ultimately moved to the corner of Third Street, in a building that is now 50 Old Courthouse Square. Money from the Rosenberg trust that would become the Community Foundation paid for the fountain and the trees and the landscaping on the east side, and attention turned to what would become of the west.

It wasn’t until 1988, when Fourth Street decided to “meander,” between bollards, that the City Council commissioned a fountain by the noted San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa and “upgraded” the west side, which included, for reasons that are hard to understand, a stretch of cobblestone street pavement through the center that rattled our teeth and still does.

Before a decade had passed, plans were being drawn to close the street and restore the plaza. That was 20 years ago, and we’re still talking. It has gone from simple to complex and now is back to, well, basic again.

Some of us think that it might be a very good thing, given that we so seldom get an opportunity to undo past mistakes. Can we take the freeway out to Fulton Road? No. But we might be able to pull off the reunification of the plaza.

What does the public want? Does it matter? In the 1880s, Santa Rosans just wanted to keep their plaza. In the 1960s, they wanted to keep their courthouse. You see how well that worked.

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