Gaye LeBaron: Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove Round Barn won’t be rebuilt, but the memory endures

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It’s a question still floating in the rarefied air around here almost two years after the smoke and ash have settled: Is the Fountaingrove Round Barn going to be rebuilt?

The simple answer is “No.”

Marin County businessman Angelo Ferro, owner of the Fountaingrove Inn as well the site on the hilltop where, since 1899, the round red barn stood watch over the northern entrance to Santa Rosa has other plans for his land. He politely referred questions to his property manager, Justin Hayman, who assured us that they are well aware that the barn “was a special building. ” But,” he said, “we are focused now on a development that will be highly beneficial to the whole community and the Round Barn does not fit into that category.” Further explanation of the plans, he added, “are not ready for the public just yet.”

So there’s the answer. But there is another question, which doesn’t have a simple answer. And that is: What is so special about a very old barn gone forever in the Tubbs fire?

The Fountaingrove Round Barn had been there beyond memory and seemed to be invincible. It had, after all, survived the 1906 earthquake and wasn’t even scorched in the 1964 Hanly fire, or in other burns along that same wildfire corridor.

We don’t know for certain how many times fire has followed that same path, clearly defined in the 1850s by the trail, then a wagon road along Mark West/Porter creeks for travelers making their way to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the Russian River and the sea. There weren’t always power lines — campfires and carelessly dropped cigarettes, and of course, lightning, have been around longer. The fire history of earlier times must come from the scientists — geologists, meteorologists, climatologists.

Our answers, my friends — to borrow from poet Bob Dylan — are “blowin’ in the wind.”

SO, GIVEN THE staggering cost, not only of property but of lives and livelihood, what’s the big deal about an empty barn that hadn’t been used for at least 40 years?

Why the rush of photographs, sketches, paintings, poems and Christmas tree ornaments memorializing the Round Barn?

Questions about its future — and its past — come from many who have no notion of its history, from those who don’t even live here but have seen it in passing from the highway all these years. Where to begin?

Is it the oldest structure lost in the 2017 firestorm? Probably.

We do know that it was the last remnant of a thriving Utopian community, which was the mission of a 19th century spiritualist and small-m messiah named Thomas Lake Harris. He assured believers in his Brotherhood of the New Life that all structures at the “home centre” he named Fountaingrove were built to be taken directly into the “celestial sphere” when the time came.

These included separate two-story buildings for the women, for the men and a veritable mansion for Harris and his closest disciples. The winery, noted for producing the first California wines to sell in the east and even in Europe, may have been included in this promise. Perhaps even the Round Barn, which was built after Harris departed in the wake of a scandal, leaving his winemaker and de facto son, Kanaye Nagasawa, in charge of the community.

It was Nagasawa who provided the plans and hired a local carpenter named John Lindsay to do the work. And the fact that it was Nagasawa’s creation made it significant — on two continents.

NAGASAWA’S STORY is beyond that of a pioneer vintner. It is a tale of high adventure and an important chapter in the history of Japan.

He was one of a group of 15 students smuggled out of Japan in 1865, before western influences were permitted in that country. The head of his Satsuma clan was sending his brightest students to Britain so they could return as leaders of the nation when the old world regime, already weakened, came to an end.

At 13, Kanaye was the youngest of the group, chosen because he was not only of the samurai class but extremely bright.

He was living with a family in Glasgow, Scotland, learning the language and the ways of the west, when he came with several of the older students, to New York to experience America. Through an English writer and politician interested in the emerging Japanese nation, the young Japanese met Harris at his experiment in communal living in upstate New York.

When all of the other Kagoshima 15, as the students are known, were called home to take their place in the new government, Nagasawa, who had apparently bonded with Harris, not so much as a spiritual guide but as a father figure, refused to return.

Thus, when Harris came to Santa Rosa in 1875, the young samurai came with him, ultimately inheriting the management of the community, although land laws that discriminated against Asian immigrants prohibited him from ever taking title. The success of his vintages made him famous in his native country as “The Grape King of California.”

The Kagoshima 15 have long been celebrated in Japan, with books and films and television documentaries. There is a sculpture of the group (including young Kanaye, waving goodbye) in the Kagoshima rail station. When President Ronald Reagan addressed Japan’s parliament in 1983, he spoke of Nagasawa as an example of “the many miracles hardworking Japanese have brought to our shores.”

THE ROUND BARN had been watching over things from the Fountaingrove hill for 108 years before it was recognized as an official historical site — with an appropriate plaque, a ceremony and Japanese music and dance. That 2007 event was concurrent with the dedication of Nagasawa Community Park in the midst of the subdivisions that replaced the old Utopia.

The commemoration of Nagasawa’s role in Sonoma County’s history came 120 years or more after he got off the train at the Santa Rosa station. While his barn and the plaque are gone, there is a bust of him in City Hall (and a bust of his friend, pioneering horticulturist Luther Burbank, in the prefecture headquarters in his native Kagoshima). There is a continuing student exchange program between the two cities. These tributes are credited to the late Fern Harger, an Oakmont resident with a lifelong interest in Japanese culture who discovered Nagasawa’s story when she moved to Santa Rosa in 1976.

Nagasawa’s legacy also was celebrated in a small museum created by the late Marijka Byck in the tasting room of her family’s Paradise Ridge Winery on the eastern edge of the old Fountaingrove community.

When the fire destroyed Paradise Ridge, Nagasawa’s samurai sword was recovered from the ashes.

SO WE RETURN to the question of why this lost treasure, which sat empty except for pigeons, owls, stray cats and an occasional transient is so notable in its absence.

First, there is what might have been. Property manager Haywood talked about the plans being made a dozen years ago to renovate the barn as part of an expansion of the Fountaingrove Inn. The owner was thinking of an event center on the site, he said — perhaps a winery, with the centerpiece barn surrounded by vineyards. But whatever the future held for Round Barn died in the fire, along with nearly everything for miles around. Those losses were so tragic, so widespread, that it seems trivial to spend time, and so much ink and lament, on the loss of an old red barn on a hill. There must be a why in all of this.

The terms we hear most often in reference to the building are “icon” and “landmark.” An icon is a representative symbol. Just the fact that it was a barn made it a symbol of an agricultural past. Its shape was a good example of one of three types of circular design symbolic of the late 19th century Round Barn Period of American architecture. And finally, rooted in the Brotherhood and promises of the “celestial sphere” it stood as a symbol of the widespread Utopian movement of the 1800s.

A landmark can be a mountain, a rock formation, an ancient tree, a 200-year-old stage stop at the fork in the road. It is anything that can be clearly seen and is recognizable from a distance.

A landmark tells you where you are. That’s why losing one is important to us. In too many parts of our city and county, after that particular October, where we are now can often be hard to know.

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