Hugh Bishop Codding, for more than 60 years a larger-than-life figure in the economy and politics of Sonoma County, died Saturday of pneumonia. He was 92.
Codding, generally credited with having altered the course of post-World War II Santa Rosa, became a legend in residential and commercial development in the 1950s and '60s.
"I doubt there's going to be another guy that comes around like him for a long time," former Santa Rosa city manager Ken Blackman said Saturday.
Ever controversial, Codding served two terms on the Santa Rosa City Council, winning both by the largest margins up to that time, while spending not one cent on a campaign. He was the mayor who presided at the city's 100th birthday celebration in 1968, but as a developer later filed lawsuits against the city that delayed the construction of Santa Rosa Plaza for 13 years.
"He didn't mind stepping on toes. He knew what he wanted to do," said his wife, Connie Codding. "But he also just had an incredible generosity."
Codding's early development projects constitute the quintessential story of Santa Rosa's building boom of the late 1940s and 1950s.
Codding was the youngest child of George Codding, a Petaluma insurance broker, and Ruby Jewell Codding Hall, an early feminist who was the first woman to run for county supervisor, albeit unsuccessfully, in 1936.
He was proud of his pioneer ancestry. A great-grandmother was a member of the Donner Party, and his great-grandfather, Tennessee Bishop, owned a sheep ranch at the upper end of the Dry Creek Valley and was an early and controversial Sonoma County sheriff.
Codding was born on July 11, 1917, in Oakland and spent his childhood in Piedmont and on the family ranch in Covelo. There he enjoyed a kind of "Huck Finn" boyhood, learning hunting and fishing skills - which became his favorite recreation as an adult - from friends on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. The family moved to Santa Rosa when he was still in elementary school.
After his graduation from Santa Rosa High School in 1936, Codding worked for his plumber stepfather, David Hall, and took construction courses at night.
The first house he built, on speculation, is at 938 Bush Street in Santa Rosa. He sold it in the late 1930s for $2,950. His next venture was a small development near the corner of E Street and Bennett Avenue. He named one of his new streets Georgia Street for the girlfriend of the man he bought the property from, displaying the whimsical approach to development that would characterize his career.
His first brush with Santa Rosa government, which would affect post-war Santa Rosa, came when the City Council took a field trip to view the foundation for a Codding house deemed substandard. Codding was ordered to tear the house down, and he vowed he would never build another in Santa Rosa.
He honed his construction skills with the Navy Seabees in World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater, and was among the force mobilized on Iwo Jima awaiting orders to invade Japan when atomic bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered.
Home from the service, he parlayed his $400 discharge pay into the developments that would result in the decentralization of Santa Rosa.
First he built Brookside Terrace subdivision, off Sonoma Avenue near Doyle Park, where one of the one-block streets is Codding Drive. With his profits and a $10,000 bank loan, he bought the portion of the Parsons Ranch that fronted Franklin Avenue and built one of the first under-one-roof shopping centers in the state, taking the idea from Sacramento's Town & Country Village.
He used the same name and accepted an offer of $25,000 for the center before it was completed, continuing to build homes on the remaining property, adjoining the Grace Tract.
He then bought the Hahman family's prune and walnut orchards on Farmers Lane and, in 1949, started construction on another, larger shopping center which opened in 1950 with a dozen businesses. He named it after the new street, which had taken its name from Billy Montgomery, the young sailor who was the first Santa Rosan to die in World War II, at Pearl Harbor.
In addition to Montgomery Village, Codding Construction was building the first of nearly 3,000 homes, which sold faster than workers could lay the foundations, on land acquired along Santa Rosa Creek eastward toward the rural lane called Summerfield Road.
His project gained national attention for stunts like building an entire house in three hours and 18 minutes, or a church in five hours and 16 minutes. Time magazine featured him as the wunderkind of the post-war boom.
He loved the attention and he loved stunts. He hired a flagpole sitter to promote Montgomery Village, and announced plans to put his family cat into orbit when the Soviets launched a dog. He gave his friendly opponent, City Manager Sam Hood, a live ocelot as a Christmas present and later bought a baby elephant as a political symbol of his chosen party when he was contemplating a run for state Senate.