The ruins of a historic Santa Rosa winery are slated for demolition this summer after the city’s chief building official deemed the partially collapsed, graffiti-covered structures a safety hazard.
The city this week gave Medtronic, the owner of the former Fountain Grove Winery buildings, 30 days to apply for a demolition permit and 120 days from the permit date to completely remove the crumbling stone, brick and wood structures from the property across Round Barn Boulevard from its headquarters.
“It just seems like the appropriate thing to do in the interests of public safety,” said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa’s chief building official.
The original winery was founded in 1882 on 2,000 acres north of Santa Rosa by Thomas Lake Harris, the leader of the influential Utopian community Brotherhood of the New Life. The winery ceased operations in the early 1940s after the death of the community’s second leader, Kanaye Nagasawa, and has sat neglected ever since.
Medtronic officials say they have done their best to keep out a steady stream of trespassers, to little avail. The walls of the winery not overgrown by vegetation are covered with elaborate graffiti and the floors are littered with evidence of people drinking, smoking and building campfires inside the structures.
“It’s been in a gradual state of deterioration for decades,” said Erik Kunz, Medtronic’s director of facilities.
A fire last June in the main stone winery building, built in 1888, burned an area of debris from the collapsed redwood roof. The blaze was visible from Highway 101, but firefighters quickly extinguished it. City building inspectors got involved at that point.
Setterland, a structural engineer, said when he first toured the property he was impressed with the workmanship of the historic masonry structures but mostly concerned about the safety hazards of having people inside buildings with collapsed walls and roofs.
“I was on the site five minutes and I said ‘Oh, this is an accident waiting to happen,’” Setterland said.
Medtronic installed a fence around the core group of buildings to keep, vagrants, teenagers and the curious out, Kunz said. The security guards patrol the area regularly and damage to the fences is repaired on a weekly basis, he said.
But on a visit to the site Wednesday, it was clear those measures had fallen short. As Kunz was unlocking the gate to give a tour, a group of young men walked up a nearby pathway, ducked through a large hole in the fence and entered the winery building.
“Excuse me! You’re trespassing!” Kunz yelled at the men.
Zach Moss, 22, and Brendan Doolin, 21, later said they and a friend were scouting sites for a horror movie and were attracted to the property for its history and spooky scenery.
“Visually, it’s great with all the graffiti and rubble,” Doolin said. “It looks really cool on film.”
He said he assumed that such an old, historically significant building would be protected by the city, not ordered demolished.
“It’s really disheartening to hear that instead of trying to protect or maintain it in any way they just want to tear it down, Doolin said. “It’s such a unique part of Sonoma County history.”
A report from 1994 concluded the property at that time was eligible for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, but “nobody has bothered to do it,” said Janine Origer, an archeologist hired by Medtronic to analyze the site.