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Sea Ranch Lodge tops list of Sonoma County’s most beautiful buildings

Earlier this year, we asked Press Democrat readers to tell us, in their view, what are the ugliest, homeliest, least attractive buildings in Sonoma County. And they responded with some pretty strong opinions.

There is Santa Rosa Plaza mall (“hideous,” said one reader), the CVS Pharmacy building in Sebastopol (a “monstrosity,” another reader said), the Sonoma Cheese Factory building in Sonoma (likened to a “gas station bathroom” turned inside out) and even The Press Democrat building in Santa Rosa and printing plant in Rohnert Park (“looks like a prison building” and “needs a paint job”).

The most scathing critiques were reserved for Santa Rosa City Hall (“so ugly you can’t even tell which side is the front or back” — ouch!), which got the most votes for ugliest of them all.

Because we highlighted what are viewed as our architectural dogs, we thought it only fair to also call attention to our gems. So we asked, what buildings in Sonoma County are the most beautiful?

The winner, in our online poll, is Sea Ranch Lodge, set in the Sea Ranch community that is a product of the environmental movement of the 1960s.

With unpainted redwood siding and sloping shed-style roofs, the 17-room lodge (restoration of the rooms is set to begin this fall) rests on 53 acres within the coastal community designed by a cadre of architects whose mantra was “living lightly on the land.”

Intended to be the antithesis of the so-called “Malibu wall” approach to dense, multistory seaside development, the Sea Ranch community runs for 10 miles and 7,000 acres along Highway 1 at the county’s northern reach, without lawns or fences and nothing but native vegetation.

The lodge captured 12 of the 46 nods by Press Democrat readers in our poll aimed at identifying the county’s best-loved buildings.

Santa Rosa architect Mark Quattrocchi said he was “delighted to see the lodge as a community favorite.” He had pegged it as “the least-known, yet among the best architecture in Sonoma County.

“Its timeless, unpretentious design makes it approachable to all,” said Quattrocchi, a Sea Ranch resident and local architect for 35 years.

The Sea Ranch Lodge was voted the most beautiful building in Sonoma County by Press Democrat readers. Photo taken on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Sea Ranch Lodge was voted the most beautiful building in Sonoma County by Press Democrat readers. Photo taken on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Sea Ranch resident Rachel Schanding called the lodge “one of the most iconic buildings and an architectural destination worldwide.”

People are also voting for the Sea Ranch community, which shares the lodge’s aesthetic, with their wallets, buying homes there currently priced 41% higher than last year, with an average price of almost $1.5 million — on par with San Francisco and Santa Barbara and double the Sonoma County average, according to a Sonoma Magazine report.

“Guests and residents become stewards of the land with a mindedness to its preservation,” said Julie Cavanaugh, another Sea Ranch resident, about the community. “And it’s just plain fun to be there.”

In a meadow on a separate part of the Sea Ranch community rests a sacred structure, smaller than most granny units and open to the public from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.

Sea Ranch Chapel, fashioned from redwood in 1985 with stained glass windows and few straight lines, defies architectural classification.

The Sea Ranch Chapel was voted the most beautiful building in Sonoma County by Press Democrat readers. Photo taken on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Sea Ranch Chapel was voted the most beautiful building in Sonoma County by Press Democrat readers. Photo taken on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“Organic, artistic, curvilinear. It really moves people,” said Jim Nybakken, vice president of the foundation that maintains the chapel.

The chapel, which got three votes in our poll, has guest book signatures of people from all over the world, he said. It can accommodate only 20 people.

“Beautiful sweeping lines, resembling a witch’s hat or something Robin Hood would have worn,” Stephanie Loney, a Sea Ranch resident, said about the little chapel.

Luther Burbank’s legacy

The greenhouse at Luther Burbank's Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat, 2005)
The greenhouse at Luther Burbank's Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat, 2005)

Sixty miles away in Santa Rosa and a century older, Luther Burbank’s Greenhouse garnered nine votes, finishing a close second in the architectural beauty contest.

Designed and built of brick and stepped glass roof panels by the famous horticulturist in 1889, the greenhouse stands next to Burbank’s Greek Revival home and near his grave beneath a cedar tree in the city park at the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues.

“Unique, historic and lovely,” Amber Turner of Novato said of the greenhouse. “Emblematic of Sonoma County as the center of agriculture and as the economic driver of the region.”

Still a working greenhouse, the structure emerged unscathed from the 1906 earthquake that killed more than 100 people and devastated downtown and some neighborhoods.

“Its elegant barrel-vaulted shape is a one-of-a-kind glass house where one can easily imagine Mr. Burbank hunched over a new hybrid plant,” said Quattrocchi, who once lived across from the park on Tupper Street.

“This greenhouse has special meaning for Sonoma County residents as a connection to our collective history and as a striking architectural form,” he said.

David Alan Pitts of Santa Rosa said he has purchased plants at the greenhouse at least 100 times.

A general contractor, Pitts said he admires the condensation catchment system inside the greenhouse and has dreamed about building a similar one for himself. “No time, no money,” he lamented.

Historic buildings

Historic structures, including at least three from the 19th century — Burbank’s greenhouse, Hood Mansion and the Petaluma Adobe — account for 12 of the 19 buildings cited by readers.

The Empire Building on Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa High School and the Museum of Sonoma County, which occupies the 1910 Post Office that survived downtown urban renewal in the 1970s, date back to the early 1900s.

The Empire Building in Old Courthouse Square. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2014)
The Empire Building in Old Courthouse Square. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2014)

Admiration of older buildings is no surprise, said Quattrocchi, who has restored dozens of schools built in the 1920s to 1940s and found unwavering community support.

Restoration links us to our history, he said. “It’s no wonder Sonoma County residents are so drawn to its many magnificent historic buildings.”

Fondness for old structures does not “indicate a disdain for modernism” but is “safer and easier,” Quattrocchi said. “Contemporary buildings can challenge us and make us see our world differently, while historic buildings are ”familiar and comfortable.”

California’s statehood was 14 years away when Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo began building the Petaluma Adobe on a hilltop east of the Petaluma River in 1836.

Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (Crissy Pascual / Petaluma Argus-Courier, 2016)
Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (Crissy Pascual / Petaluma Argus-Courier, 2016)

A pair of two-story buildings surrounding an open courtyard with a covered second-story veranda — made from adobe brick and redwood — served as the commercial headquarters for his 100-square-mile land grant rancho until the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846.

Construction started with wooden pegs and rawhide lashings to hold the beams together and evolved to iron nails and hinges, glass windows and a hand-split shingled roof as Vallejo’s agricultural empire prospered.

The workforce ranged from 600 to 2,000 people, but not all of them lived at the Adobe, and a Native American village bordered Adobe Creek.

Patricia Moore of Santa Rosa enjoys visits to the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, where she relishes the long walk to the entrance on a path lined by huge blooming cactuses.

“Once in the courtyard and the building, it is easy to imagine what life was like at that time,” she said. “When I tried to think of Sonoma’s best-looking buildings … nothing came to mind except the Adobe and its link to the past.”

Hood Mansion

Grapevines dot the lawn of Hood Mansion, the property of William B. Hood in Santa Rosa, circa 1898. (Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library)
Grapevines dot the lawn of Hood Mansion, the property of William B. Hood in Santa Rosa, circa 1898. (Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library)

One of Sonoma County’s oldest surviving homes, the William Hood House — also known as Hood Mansion — is tucked among buildings in the Los Guilicos complex on Highway 12 east of Santa Rosa.

Constructed in 1858 by Hood, a builder, grape grower and sheep rancher, the two-story home is described by one source as “a nice Victorian-era farmhouse” rather than a mansion, most notable because it is made of bricks likely manufactured on the site by Native American workers.

Santa Rosa, founded in 1833, had fewer than 1,000 residents when Hood built his homestead.

Hood lost the home to foreclosure, and in 1905 it became the summer retreat for Sen. Thomas Kearns, R-Utah, who expanded the structure.

The home at the foot of 2,730-foot Hood Mountain, the highest peak in the Mayacamas Mountains, is also noteworthy for surviving the Glass fire, which did $8 million damage to the county complex last year.

“Nice to just sit on the lawn and look at the valley and mountains,” said Nick Gaetano of Santa Rosa said of the spot.

Santa Rosa buildings

Nancy Wilson of Petaluma, a 1957 Santa Rosa High School graduate, stayed true to her alma mater.

“No contest. Santa Rosa High School, hands down,” she said. “Classic, iconic, the high school everybody wishes they’d gone to.”

Opened in 1875 as the eighth high school in California, with 10 students and three teachers, it was for more than 80 years the city’s sole public high school.

The 1924 brick building with pointed arches over the three-door entry on Mendocino Avenue exemplifies the Gothic Revival style popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, Quattrocchi said.

The hallowed hallways have served as settings for two movies, “Peggy Sue Got Married” in 1986 and “Inventing the Abbotts” in 1997, but flunked a chance to be featured in the late director Wes Craven’s horror flick “Scream” in 1996.

The school board, in the face of a public outcry, denied permission for the shoot, despite Craven’s $30,000 offer. The closing credits for “Scream,” a hit that grossed $173 million worldwide, included the note “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.”

With a gold-topped tower and a clock facing in each of four directions, the 113-year-old Empire Building on Old Courthouse Square is an icon for downtown Santa Rosa.

The four-story white building, with rounded arches above its doorways, was the work of John Galen Howard, who came to California in 1901 to design the master plan for the UC Berkeley campus.

Built in 1908, the statuesque 20,600-square-foot structure was featured on the cover of the 1982 historical book, “Santa Rosa’s Architectural Heritage.”

“That clock tower has been used as the symbol since the courthouse left downtown,” Keven Brown, co-owner and manager of Corrick’s stationary and gift store, said in a 2014 interview.

Untouched on the outside, the building is now in its fourth incarnation since opening as a bank, transforming into the first home for the late Henry Trione’s Empire College business school and then housing law offices for some 50 years before emerging in 2019 with an interior makeover as Hotel E, a boutique inn.

It was Trione who gilded the top of the tower, but the famous clocks no longer operate.

The tower and the Beaux Arts building are an architectural mismatch of “seemingly incompatible styles,” Quattrocchi said, but the combination works “likely because it’s familiar and part of our daily downtown experience.”

Historian and Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron wrote in May that the Empire Building “was the last remnant of the old downtown.”

The Sonoma County History Museum began its life as the 1910 Santa Rosa post office. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat file )
The Sonoma County History Museum began its life as the 1910 Santa Rosa post office. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat file )

The Museum of Sonoma County, an imposing presence on Santa Rosa’s Seventh Street with four limestone columns atop the front steps, is itself an artifact — and one that narrowly escaped demolition three decades ago.

Designed by James Knox Taylor, known as the “national architect,” the imposing building opened on Fifth Street in 1910 as Santa Rosa’s post office, serving a population of less than 10,000, with federal tax offices on the second floor.

“Its history is written all over it,” said Katie Azanza, a museum manager, noting the “worn areas in the lobby’s terrazzo floor, where postal customers used to stand in line.”

Postal services relocated to a new building on Second Street in 1967, and two years later the old building — with Spanish terra cotta tile roofing — stood in the way of the post-1969 earthquake urban renewal project that created Santa Rosa Plaza.

The late Dan Peterson, a Santa Rosa architect, nominated the old post office for the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 but still had to save it from the wrecking ball.

In 1979, Peterson headed the team that raised and rolled the 1,700-ton building two blocks north, covering 800 feet in 75 days. The Museum of Sonoma County opened its doors in January 1985, following a remodeling and expansion also led by Peterson.

Art deco, gothic

Folks of a certain age recall shopping at Rosenberg’s department store in Santa Rosa, where an elevator operator pushed the buttons to reach the second floor.

The store, which opened in 1937 and closed a half-century later, also gave the city a genuine art deco building, distinguished by its rounded corner and prominent steeple at Fourth and D streets.

“It’s one of those things that instantly takes you back to a former era,” said Loren Cooper of Santa Rosa.

The building sat vacant for several years and was set for demolition until the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain moved into the building that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s a “simple but pleasing example” of the art deco style, Quattrocchi said, noting it was highlighted as “an exemplar of future architectural technology” at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair.

Bob Michaelson of Cape Coral, Florida, checked in to our poll with a nod for Santa Rosa Junior College’s Emeritus Hall, where he took several classes as a student from 1978-81.

“Some would say it’s aesthetically pleasing architecture. I would say it looks good,” he said.

Named in honor of retired and deceased instructors and administrators, the modernist-style building designed by local architect John Van Dyke was erected in 1978.

“I’d just say that every building is unique and has characteristics that make it so,” said Robert Grandmaison, an SRJC architecture and engineering instructor, noting the campus includes modern structures as well as others more “collegiate gothic” in tone.

Modern construction

Sonoma State University, which made the ugly buildings list with Stevenson Hall, rebounded with Weill Hall, the cavernous 1,400-seat concert hall at the Green Music Center, named for megadonors Joan and Sandy Weill.

Modeled after the acclaimed Tanglewood in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, Weill Hall has a back wall can be fully opened onto a landscaped and terraced lawn where music lovers can sit.

The indoor seats, made of European steamed beech wood, were handcrafted by a 200-year-old company in western New York state.

The Joan and Sanford J. Weill Hall at the Green Music Center. (The Press Democrat file)
The Joan and Sanford J. Weill Hall at the Green Music Center. (The Press Democrat file)

“Not only is the architecture pleasing to the eye, its form to function is superb,” said Will Morris of Bodega.

The Weills, who are Sonoma area residents, donated $12 million to SSU to assure completion of the music center, which opened in 2012. Sandy Weill is a part owner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Gone but not forgotten

In what amounts to a posthumous recognition, the poll cited the Fountaingrove Round Barn, which stood on a hilltop above the northern entrance to Santa Rosa since 1899 until it was incinerated by the Tubbs fire in 2017.

Santa Rosa's historic round barn, which was totally destroyed by the Tubbs fire in 2017, pictured here in 2003. Many mourn the loss of the building, including readers who remembered it as one of the most beautiful structures in Sonoma County. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat, 2003)
Santa Rosa's historic round barn, which was totally destroyed by the Tubbs fire in 2017, pictured here in 2003. Many mourn the loss of the building, including readers who remembered it as one of the most beautiful structures in Sonoma County. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat, 2003)

“It’s like a part of Santa Rosa went with it,” said Marisa Oakes, a Santa Rosa native who drove past the photogenic red barn twice a day on her commute. “It belongs at the top of the list.”

The barn had survived the 1906 earthquake and wasn’t even scorched by the Hanly fire of 1964, which traveled much the same path as the Tubbs fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.

“It stood up there like a shining star,” Oakes said.

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

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