Gaye LeBaron: Recalling contentious history as Santa Rosa, county explore sharing quarters

After World War II, an architect proposed building in the center of Santa Rosa a government plaza for the city and county, but the plan never got off the ground.|

Most readers who caught the January news that Sonoma County and its “capital city” are in need of new quarters probably read it as just another growth-related issue. But those who know about the progress and regress of the relationship of these two government entities through the last 170 years might have been surprised.

Actually, “gobsmacked” might be a more appropriate term for the response engendered by a single sentence in reporter Will Schmitt’s news story about proposed studies and consultants.

That sentence reads: “One option that has been floated is a new joint city-county government center downtown.”

That option has to come as a shock to those precious few among us who remember the end of World War II - or just read old local newspapers as a hobby.

It directs our attention to August 1945. The war was ending. Germany had surrendered in May. Japan’s official surrender was less than two weeks away. More than 7,000 soldiers and sailors had spent time at bases on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, built to bring people north, had been quieted by gas rationing for half of its eight-year existence. But it was over! No wonder civic leaders saw promise of great things to come.

But county officials were complaining that the 1910 courthouse in the middle of the square was not big enough and needed “attention.” And the city - including council meetings - was governed from a rabbit warren of offices above Hinton Avenue businesses ?(east side of the square). These included the swankiest restaurant and bar in town, The Topaz Room, which some suggested was the place where government business was really conducted.

The triumphant energy that spread across the nation at war’s end seemed to demand new and better ways to do things. That’s when C.A. “Cal” Caulkins, the town’s leading architect, proffered an ambitious plan to build city, county and maybe even some state or federal buildings, in a government plaza in the center of Santa Rosa that would serve as the county’s memorial to all the veterans of the nation’s wars.

The “Caulkins Plan” struck a chord with Herb Waters, the old-style editor of The Press Democrat, who splashed across the front pages the architect’s sketches of a creek-side boulevard and park stretching north to Fourth Street where there would be a new courthouse and post office, a true city hall, a civic auditorium and a museum.

It seemed to Waters like a fine idea. Veterans were coming home at an ever-increasing rate. There were still Spanish-?American War veterans here and lots of people who had fought and nursed the wounded and driven ambulances in World War I. This expansive and ambitious plan was intended to honor them all - young and old, the fallen heroes and the survivors. Recent state legislation had created a means of funding war memorials in California counties. Caulkins’ grand design, with the support of the press, would be Sonoma County’s memorial.

Santa Rosa’s leaders shared Waters’ enthusiasm and took the first step, asking city voters to approve a $100,000 expenditure to buy the necessary land (that included, as a subplot, the old Chinatown, the removal of which had been a downtown merchant’s goal for many years).

Despite the newspaper campaign and the display of colored versions of the plan in several Santa Rosa businesses, it never got off the ground. Santa Rosa voters defeated the $100,000 land purchase by just 67 votes. Apparently, it rained on Election Day. The newspaper blamed the loss on the weather.

But, as history blogger Jeffrey Elliott points out, the Board of Supervisors had virtually ignored the Caulkins Plan.

The focus was on ways the county’s war memorial funds would be allocated to the benefit of its other towns. Veterans’ organizations fought among themselves. The supervisors’ territorial imperatives informed their positions. It wasn’t easy. Feelings ran high enough at one point that Santa Rosa’s supervisor got so angry with the others that he shed his coat and glasses and offered to fight Guerneville’s supervisor.


With the failure of the Caulkins Plan, the county board allocated the memorial money, parceling it out under the watchful eyes of the American Legion and VFW groups. Petaluma, Cotati, Sonoma, Sebastopol, Guerneville, Cloverdale and Santa Rosa (there was no Rohnert Park) got their own memorial buildings; and Memorial Beach was developed in Healdsburg. Santa Rosa’s memorial building was positioned, not in the center of town, but across from the County Fairgrounds on the city’s southern border.

The courthouse stood firmly in the middle of its square for the next two decades. The jail, across Hinton Avenue, became almost a joke as prisoners continued to wave at friends out the second-story cell windows while the board explored solutions.

In the middle 1960s, the county bought land north of town and took up residence in unimposing and not-too-?expensive structures that no visitor ever stood in front of to have their picture taken. The complex clearly lacks the majesty required to be called the Sonoma County Courthouse.

Also in the ’60s, Santa Rosa built a real City Hall, choosing a site on top of Santa Rosa Creek, the stream that Cal Caulkins had hoped to make the centerpiece of his civic center.

The creek, which is joined somewhere under E Street by the smaller Matanzas Creek flowing down from the southeastern hills, passes through a tunnel under the Federal Building and City Hall. The “new” post office on Second Street is equally as exciting as the county buildings. In the 1970s, citizen’s groups converted a failing church complex into the Luther Burbank Center - the town’s first auditorium. And the abandoned 1910 post office, considered a classic example of Federalist architecture, was moved two blocks to become the county museum.

It retrospect, all this certainly makes the Caulkins Plan seem like a good idea, a missed opportunity, by comparison. But nothing governmental is simple, which is why the slightest suggestion that the county and city are talking about sharing quarters raises the eyebrows of local historians.

However, it is hopeful to the max. Fifty years ago the slightest consideration of a solution to mutual problems would have been a shocker; 100 years ago, difficult at best, and 150 years ago, unthinkable.


Historically speaking, pioneer politicians painted a target on Santa Rosa in the very beginning. It started with the 1854 election that removed the county seat from the pueblo of Sonoma to the very new town with a more central location.

Sonomans were not happy and, neither were Petaluma’s leaders. Between 1871 and the 1930s there had been at least five attempts to split the county and/or to negotiate or legislate a removal of the county seat to Petaluma. Some petitions got all the way to the floor of the state Legislature before being shot down by large majorities.

Not all the discontent with Santa Rosa came from “River City.” Another brief flurry in 1980 involved a Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce president’s desire to make the entire 4th Supervisorial District into a separate county, causing then-?Supervisor Nick Esposti to observe that he could end up as “either governor or out of a job.”


All this is why those who study the politics of the past might well express surprise at any hint of “joint city-county” cooperation. It may be flying in the face of a history that tells us relations between Santa Rosa and the rest of the county have long been tenuous at best.

The Petaluma-Santa Rosa rivalry likely has roots in the Civil War. Not slavery, but rather the differences in how the two towns began. Petaluma was the first commercial center, a shipping point with waterway access to 1850s boomtown San Francisco. Its pioneers understood money and trade as a commodity. Santa Rosa was central to an area, including the settlements in Sebastopol and Healdsburg, where the land and its fertility were what drew the “westering” farmers from the upper South, Missouri and Kentucky.

As war grew closer, a political rivalry was born. Petaluma was Union, with its own militia. Santa Rosa was Confederate with no militia but with a newspaper, the new Sonoma Democrat, that trumpeted the Southern case. But the Civil War stories (the legend of the Petaluma Union militia that marched on Confederate Santa Rosa and stopped for beer at Washoe House is a Petaluma favorite) are a whole different tale, oft told.

The county seat became a power issue that lasted 100 years or more, ending (if indeed it has) with supervisorial redistricting that gave four of the five supervisors pieces of Santa Rosa and tucked the oldest rivals, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, into the same district.

Peace in our time? What an intriguing idea.

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