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