3/18/2001: Hugh Codding

Hugh Codding dies at 92

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.

His clashes with Santa Rosa's city government also assumed legendary proportions. Keeping his promise not to build within the city limits, he developed in an unincorporated area and built to county standards. He was told he would have to widen streets and make other improvements to meet city requirements before the city would accept Montgomery Village for annexation. It was part of a larger issue - who would control the growth of Santa Rosa. And Codding was eager to fight City Hall.

With characteristic chutzpah, he proposed to incorporate the City of Montgomery Village. Maps were drawn and submitted to the county supervisors. But on the eve of the election in which residents were asked to choose annexation or incorporation, there was an 11th hour agreement and Codding stopped in at radio station KSRO to ask Village residents to forget becoming a city and vote for annexation.

With the results of that 1955 election, Santa Rosa's population increased from less than 18,000 to more than 30,000.

"As much as I liked the idea of my own private city, logic prevailed," he told an interviewer years later, in a video-history made for the Sonoma County Museum.

In 1955, for the first time in 10 years, he agreed to construct a house for a client on Alaska Drive, in the Santa Rosa city limits, breaking the vow he had made when the City Council had ordered an early Codding house torn down for substandard foundations.

After a financial disaster which cost him ownership of the new Flamingo Hotel before its completion and would have ended the Codding saga had not his creditors been wiling to compromise, Codding recovered to build the Coddingtown shopping center on the Indian Creek Lumber Company property north of the city.

Later enclosed, It became one of the first modern suburban malls on the West Coast and he brought such San Francisco retailers as Joseph Magnin and Roos-Atkins to what grew into a regional center. He also continued to build east of Montgomery Village, partnering with Lee Evans in the Mayette Village development. In the 1960s, he persuaded State Farm Insurance's western headquarters to from Berkeley by agreeing to buy the existing office building and build them a new one near Coddingtown. Later, he lured them away from Santa Rosa, to Rohnert Park.

By the 1970s, before he turned his attention to the new city of the &‘60s, Rohnert Park, to build Codding Bank (which was sold to the National Bank of the Redwoods in 1994) and more small shopping centers, apartments and offices, he listed Lakeside Village, Mayette Village, McHenry Village in Modesto and and two shopping centers in Merced as part of his corporate family.

In addition, in the preceding two decades there had been a succession of savings and loans, title companies and a weekly newspaper as well as a half dozen of his own homes, each one more elaborate than the one before.

His homes, offices and businesses were decorated with taxidermied exotic animals that were trophies of his big-game hunts in the 1950s and &‘60s, including an elephant head, trunk outstretched over the living room, and a giant polar bear which stood for several years in the bar at the Saddle &‘N Sirloin restaurant in Montgomery Village.

Many of those animals became the central collection of the Codding Museum on Summerfield Road and now comprise the natural history museum at Petaluma High School, a Codding gift.

In later years, his hunts became less frequent and he turned his attention to the ocean, fishing and diving for abalone from his second-home at Sea Ranch.

Always a renegade, sometimes a rogue, Codding loved to tell the stories of his early escapades, of dragging a lone set of reinforcing steel from foundation to foundation for the first homes in Montgomery Village, just ahead of the building inspector; of the trench he dug on a weekend across Farmers Lane to connect his new shopping center to Santa Rosa sewers, rushing to complete the hook-up before the courts opened Monday morning when an injunction could be issued.

When state officials were slow in approving funds for the Steele Lane overpass over Highway 101, Codding first considered running for State senate, then offered/threatened to have his construction company build it himself. He got his overpass.

That shopping mall's revolving sign, which reads "Codding" on one side and "Town" on the other, became a source of contention with city officials when the city, having passed an ordinance in 1971 prohibiting such signs, ordered that it be phased out -- that is, stopped in 10 years. In 1981, it was turned off by order of the city's building department. Several years later, mysteriously, the sign began to turn again. Codding denied any knowledge and there was an outcry from Santa Rosa citizens, calling for landmark status for the sign.

Equally mysteriously, the file in the city's Community Development Department containing the information about the sign, also disappeared. The sign continues to revolve.

From the free-wheeling, fast-building years of the &‘50s, Codding was considered a hero by many who admired his aggressive approach to development and commerce. He liked to quote a past district attorney, Joe Maddux, who told him to remember that "to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs." But, as growth became a political issue in the county, his influence waned. In 1996, at age 79, he ran again for Santa Rosa City Council, losing by 7,000 votes.

His response when asked for reaction was vintage Codding: "I'm 60 percent relieved and 40 percent disappointed," he said. "It was a blow to my ego. But my mother always said,'You gotta take a club to Hugh.' If my ego didn't get a blow once in a while, you couldn't live with me."

Codding loved to tell stories poking fun of himself, Blackman said. One of his favorites involved a veteran contractor telling the young Codding what he thought of his carpentry skills.

"Codding, you couldn't build a box," the contractor told him. "Well, maybe you could build a box, but it wouldn't be worth a damn," Blackman recalled.

That kind of self-deprecating humor reflected the fact that the ambitious, brash developer was also a down-to-earth, gregarious guy.

"I think Hugh in many wasy was a very humble person," Connie Codding said Saturday. "He had as much respect for the truck driver as he did for the CEO of Bank of America."

His employees, from construction workers to office staff, were his biggest fans and he was equally loyal to them. Many of the "originals" continued to attend his birthday parties and corporate dinners long after they retired.

Codding's first marriage, at age 21, to Dorothy Geisel, did not survive the war years. He was divorced a second time, in 1956, from his wife of 10 years, the former Elizabeth (Betty) Ferenz, mother of his two sons, Hugh Bishop Codding Jr., known as Brooks, who died in an automobile accident in Arizona in 1981, and George David Codding, now owner of Montgomery Village.

In 1956, Codding married his office manager, Nellie Williams Pearson, whose business acumen helped establish Codding Enterprises as a successful corporation. Nell and Hugh formed a formidable team. As he liked to tell it, he made the deals and Nell found a way to pay for them. Nell, who also achieved community leadership, was chosen among the most powerful people in the county in a newspaper survey in the 1980s.

Codding's response was a bouquet of roses and a note saying: "I bask in your reflected glory." Nell died in 1990.

Codding is survived by his wife, Connie, in her own right a community leader and political activist who heads the Codding Foundation. It donated more than half a million dollars to nonprofits from 2006 through 2008.

In a column in The Press Democrat last September, Connie Codding wrote of the mental deterioration of her husband from Alzheimer's disease and the memories that remained.

"In our case, Hugh tells me almost daily how appreciative he is of me," she said. "One of his mother's favorite sayings was, &‘There is nothing appreciated like appreciation.' This has stayed with him all these years."

Organizations which have benefited from the Coddings' philanthropy include the 4-H Club, Memorial Hospital, Sonoma County Museum, Southwest Community Health Clinic, the Earl Baum Center for the Blind, Santa Rosa Boys and Girls Club, the SRJC Foundation, the Sonoma County Community Foundation, Children's Health Network and others, many of them focused on children.

Hugh and Nell Codding were among the couples -- known as Henry's Angels for leader Henry Trione -- who bought the former Christian Life Center to create what is now the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

After Nell's death, Codding also donated $1 million to the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park for the Nellie W. Codding Theater.

Codding was honored by the Redwood Empire Council, of Boy Scouts as Sonoma County's Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 1993. And, in 1996, Hugh and Connie were honored with Santa Rosa Junior College's President's Medallion for their community service.

Family was important to Codding, who loved to quote the homespun sayings of his mother -- he even compiled a list of them to give to friends. He believed in kinship and loyalty. He provided a home for his late son's former wife and daughters and, for his ex-wife, Elizabeth Mulkey, a job that she loved, as gardener in Montgomery Village -- the highest-paid gardener in the state, he liked to say.

The family will hold a small private service, followed by a public service in the coming weeks at a large venue like the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

"I think there are very few people that have had an impact on as many lives as Hugh has had," she said.

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