Gaye LeBaron: Looking back at North Bay’s first ‘garden hotel’

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The news is that the venerable Flamingo Hotel, two years into its seventh decade, is about to get a sleek makeover suitable for the elusive Wine Country image Santa Rosa has pursued for years. This revelation has burst bubbles of memories all over town.

The announcement indicates major changes. Certainly, a relocated entrance that brings people into the pool area has considerable merit. The lawns and gardens, with a shady side under some magnificent old trees from the time when the property was a plant nursery, will come out of hiding. And, hopefully, there will changes in the cavernous lobby that some suggest has a decidedly 1930s aspect.

The makeover, which sounds like much more than a facelift, won’t happen until next year. But Point Hospitality, a San Francisco hotel management company, is set to take over the daily operation from the Ehret family, father and son, who have owned the hotel since 1978.

Theirs is the longest ownership tenure for the “Big Bird,” as the citizenry called it in homage to the pink flamingo that revolves at the top of the sign. The Ehret era has served it well, coming after a couple of decades of decline. They added the busy Montecito Heights Health Club and welcomed wine tourists, including foreign guests, establishing relationships with European travel agencies in the ‘90s.

Health club members became accustomed to hearing several languages while using the hotel pool and often felt they were on a very short journey to France, Germany and even Russia.

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Plans for the $20 million update hit the front page a couple of weeks ago. The news seemed to cry out for a look back on the hotel’s “ancient” history, which is a significant chapter in Santa Rosa’s 20th century narrative.

It was, as you may have guessed, Hugh Codding who came up with the plan for North Bay’s first “garden hotel.”

The 38-year-old developer was riding high in 1955. He had single-handedly engineered an annexation for his extensive (biggest-ever in the area) subdivision and shopping center on the city’s southeastern border and was seeking a new project.

Impressed by the explosion of real estate and commerce on a visit to Las Vegas, he planned a hotel near his Montgomery Village in the style of the ones he had seen along the Vegas Strip.

He bought a prosperous nursery across Highway 12 from longtime owners Ruth and Lloyd Cullen, who was a member of the county Board of Supervisors.

Expanding his vision with 22 acres of pasture and walnut orchard behind a roadside saloon called The Alibi, Codding lobbied the city fathers for an extension of Farmers Lane across the highway.

Hugh may not have known that much of his planned hotel site had been a “new town” more than a century earlier, a place called Franklin, which preceded but was soon eclipsed by Santa Rosa’s downstream plaza and rudimentary business district. He would have liked knowing that — and certainly would have found a way to use it in his promotions.

Codding described his chosen circular layout of rooms around a large and landscaped pool area, as “the exact design of the Lady Luck Hotel in Vegas.” But he named it for the first hotel on the Vegas Strip, opened a decade earlier by mobster Bugsy Siegel (who was murdered a year later). That Flamingo was iconic and Codding intended that his would be as well — without, of course, the mob connections.

But his construction loan ($500,000 in 1955 money, which today wouldn’t buy a median-priced Santa Rosa house) was apparently one debt too many for the high-flying Codding and bankruptcy threatened.

He threw himself on the mercy of his creditors — who generally liked the brash young developer — and rolled back all his elaborate plans. Divesting himself of assets, he handed over the unfinished hotel project to two other Santa Rosa entrepreneurs, Theron (Roy) Hedgpeth and Jim Stockman.

Hedgpeth, who held patents on several important construction tools, owned The Topaz Room restaurant on Courthouse Square for a time and had a large ranch in the northwestern part of the county.

Stockman was a younger Santa Rosa resident just beginning an investment career that would include a chain of Bay Area motels called Edgewater Inns.

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The grand opening in the summer of ‘57 was a benefit for United Cerebral Palsy called the “Golden Deed Ball” and, like the “Farewell to the Courthouse” party a decade later, it was regarded as a benchmark in the town’s social advance.

There were celebrities — not exactly Clark Gable or John Wayne but names everyone was familiar with at the time. Charles Coburn, a jowly old actor usually seen with a cigar in his hand, was the featured attraction, having just come off a supporting role in the very popular film “Around the World in 80 Days.” The master of ceremonies was George Fenneman, the announcer and sidekick of Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life.”

If the crowd was “underwhelmed” by the guest “stars,” you wouldn’t have read it in Women’s Editor Roby Gemmell’s “Bib ‘n’ Tucker” column, at two full pages, possibly her longest ever.

“Never,” she wrote, “has there been such a collection of mink, diamonds, chiffon, satin and lace together in one place in Santa Rosa before.”

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The next owner was Chicago investor James Harvey, whose manager, Vern Phillips, correctly assessed the community and turned the new hotel into a local gathering place, hosting a variety of charitable events. Wine tastings, with community leaders as “guest pourers,” were the newest money-raising wrinkle. People paid big bucks to have a glass of Martini & Prati Zinfandel poured by Police Chief Dutch Flohr.

Dinner theater was another innovation with sellout crowds for such not-too-old off-Broadway favorites as “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The Fantasicks.”

Saturday nights in the Flamingo lounge were more routine, but definitely “the place to be seen.”

The hotel’s founding father led the pack. Hugh was back in business by 1960, building another shopping center with another revolving sign that read Codding on one side and Town on the other.

Those with less money and no propensity for “being seen” still had reasons to come. KSRO’s new studios were on the second floor. And there were often celebrities to gawk at or ask for autographs. The first of these were young Hayley Mills, Karl Malden, Richard Egan and veteran Adolph Menjou, who moved in for several weeks in ’59 when Disney brought his film company to town to make the film “Pollyanna” at the MacDonald Mansion. Many film companies would follow, bringing the likes of Walter Matthau and John Travolta and other “draws” for locals.

This established the Flamingo’s rep as THE place to stay as studios discovered the wonders of Sonoma County as a location.

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Ownership and management changed several time in the next two decades. The rock-and-roll era cleared the bar of the town’s café society. Each new age and new owner made its own mark — go-go dancers, disco, karaoke. There were rumors that it was a “destination resort” for Bay Area philanderers.

The big pink bird, which could be seen on a clear night from some ridgetop houses in Sebastopol, stopped turning by court order, as did the Coddingtown sign, when grandfather status in the city’s zoning laws expired. But they both began to go ‘round again — with appropriate fanfare — in 1997 when both were designated as historical landmarks.

The Flamingo’s new look promises to be dramatic — a modest bid for the “Wine Country Chic” that neighboring Sonoma and Healdsburg already have attained.

Santa Rosa has had a problem with that stairway to tourism paradise. It may be the Capital of Wine Country, but most people don’t drive through vineyards to arrive nor find a pleasant walk-around-the-square (although that could change with the opening of the upscale hotel in the Empire Building.).

The Flamingo plan looks to be a spacious oasis in a tourist area where hotels tend to build tight and high. And there probably won’t be a murmur of protest from the born-and-raiseds, or arguments about how much high-priced elegance is too much.

Somewhere, Hugh Codding is grinning.

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