Saving history, one round barn at a time

Round barns are fast disappearing. This late 19th century architectural trend faded quickly, so a substantial number have succumbed to the ravages of time. The survivors are often historical landmarks, and in some cases, even tourist attractions.

Sonoma County has three good examples: Mount Weske, Fountaingrove and DeTurk.

Looking back at them through the past 50 years, it would seem that they take turns falling apart. Or being restored. Either way, it makes news.

It's the DeTurk Round Barn's turn to be in the spotlight - this time for the right reason.

Last week the Santa Rosa City Council contracted with GCCI Inc., a Santa Rosa construction firm, for a $2.1 million renovation that will breathe new life into the historic structure on Donahue Street, creating a space for weddings and limited community events.

The old barn was built in 1891 by pioneer winemaker and horse-breeder Isaac DeTurk as a stable for his trotters.

That was the same year that a San Francisco businessman named Adolph Weske, founder of the highly successful California Cracker Company, built his round stables, circled by a mile-and-quarter racetrack at Mount Weske, his country retreat, in the foothills east of 101. Weske's barn was much more elaborate than DeTurk's utilitarian building, with a walkway around the cupola on top so he could watch his horses on the track.

While DeTurk's barn is truly circular, Weske's is an octagon. Architectural historians consider both to be authentic examples of the round barn style, as is the most visible of the Sonoma County trio, the 16-sided Fountaingrove Round Barn.

On a slope beside the Fountaingrove Parkway on the northern edge of Santa Rosa, this last remaining building from the Utopian "Home Centre" of the Brotherhood of the New Life was built in 1899 when Kanaye Nagasawa, one of the first Japanese in the United States (who remains an historic figure in Japan) was managing the Fountain Grove Winery and its vineyards for the departed founder of the community, Thomas Lake Harris.

Nagasawa hired a well-known Santa Rosa carpenter named John Lindsey to construct the barn from plans drawn by the community's fanciful architect, who claimed to design the buildings to be "taken directly into the celestial sphere come the millennium."

The millennium has come and gone and the round barn still stands. The current owner is the same corporation that owns the Fountaingrove Inn. Manager Ken Murakami says that plans call for a catering extension of the inn. But high development costs and the economic downturn have stalled the project, although Murakami offers assurances that it is only delayed.

Meanwhile, the red barn has fallen into disrepair. At one point, when the hotels were new and the parkway was being built, the property owners at the time offered the barn to the city. The council declined the offer, and several years later, new owners, a couple from Germany, proposed a brewpub and beer garden on the site that never got beyond the proposal stage.

When the Fountaingrove Inn's project gets under way, care must be taken to preserve the plaque placed there in the 1990s, with appropriate speeches and Japanese dancers, dedicating the barn to Nagasawa, who ordered its construction.

There is now a full-fledged park up the hill named for Nagasawa. That's how important he is to our history. But the barn is what every freeway traveler sees, entering and leaving the town.

It deserves our attention.

The Mount Weske barn apparently has been well tended. A family member who lives in the homes on the Weske estate says the barn has been restored to "pristine" condition and is used as a music studio by family members.

It is gated and is neither accessible nor visible to the public.

MEANWHILE, the DeTurk Barn, which has sat empty for the past 27 years, is getting considerably more respect these days.

Vacant since the early 1980s, it was Santa Rosa's corporation yard from 1910 until that facility moved to its current location on Stony Point Road in 1983.

There were a couple of abortive attempts to make it central to a historic complex when the oldest wood-frame house in town, the Hoag House, was moved there from its original location at the creek end of First Street. But plans for a low-cost housing development went awry. Although the structure was sound - old Isaac built it well - the years of city use had left its dirt floor and surrounding acreage full of toxic substances.

Finally purified, it was re-roofed and painted in a neighborhood preservation effort about 10 years ago, but the barren interior and dirt floor made it unsuitable for public occupancy. The new plan to renovate the interior to acceptable standards should bring the city a much-needed venue for meetings and events.

Considering the stories told about the rainy-day poker games and employee Christmas celebrations that started in the center and worked outward in its corporation yard days, it should be a great place for parties. (They will be temperate parties, of course, since alcohol is not permitted in city facilities.)

And, finally, at long last, the people of Santa Rosa will have a chance to stand in one of these historic barns we have here, to hear the tales (probably fallacious) about how much energy was saved by the shape, since hay could be distributed from a central spot, rather than carried from stall to stall.

Or, maybe, someone will tell the old story the Fountaingrove architect liked to tell - about the tramp who died in the round barn, walking himself to death looking for a corner in which to relieve himself.

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