A brand new, grand old hall
Surviving 100 years of fires, firefighters, clerks, councils and multiple facelifts, Sonoma City Hall celebrates its centennial
It stands like a sentinel in the center of the Plaza, looking out over the town in all four directions, an impassive stone compass. It has survived temblors, fires, countless renovations, the vicissitudes of time, the vagaries of politicians, the revelries of vagrants and the raucous conga lines of Ken Brown’s city parties.
With the late afternoon sun glinting off its arched windows, with its seven flags billowing in the breeze, it’s tempting to believe Sonoma’s City Hall has been here forever—a bastion of bureaucratic civility in what once constituted the Wild West. You certainly might, and with good reason, believe that crudely fashioned stone fountain has been here since the dawn of the Pleistocene Era, or long enough to be corroded by the teeth of ancient ground sloths. (It was actually installed by the Woman’s Club in 1909 and has been described by some local wags as the ugliest municipal construction of any kind in the state of California, or perhaps the known universe. Suggestions to replace it with something—anything—more attractive immediately collide with the adjacent building’s listing on the National Register
of Historic Places.)
Soon to hit the century mark, City Hall has weathered quite a bit, albeit with the help of several facelifts, and another is due before its birthday on Sept. 9.
Designed to withstand the onslaught of ages, if 100 years doesn’t seem long enough, well, give City Hall 500 more. It’ll still be here. Given the mettle of its visionaries and the sheer time, paperwork and patience it took to complete, it would be a disservice to us all if City Hall didn’t plod solemnly into the next millennium.
Over 100 years ago, Julius E. Poppe, president of Sonoma’s board of trustees (forerunners of today’s City Council), supported a plan submitted by A.C. Lutgens of Santa Rosa for a handsome Mission Revival-style building replete with a tile roof. All but one of Poppe’s colleagues agreed, the latter wanting something less costly. The price tag? An estimated $8,000.
“President Poppe has the right idea in regard to the new city hall,” opined Sonoma Index-Tribune editor Harry Granice in his Nov. 5, 1904, edition. “He realizes that the edifice will endure long after he and his successors go out of office, and expressed himself as favoring the best material and the best workmanship possible, even if it takes the city longer to complete it.”
“Longer” proved to be an under-statement.
Plans for the new hall developed at the speed of frozen molasses. That December, bids for the building proved too high and it actually had to be rebid. Needing more money, trustees held a $10,000 bond election. Despite the 20 percent increase, voters approved it, 125 “for” to 17 “against.”
“This is a great victory for Sonoma and many of our citizens are wearing broad smiles these days,” wrote Granice. The smiles turned out to be premature. A legal technicality voided the election. Undaunted, trustees set another election for September and hired architect Lutgens to begin construction.
The bonds passed again and bids opened Dec. 6, 1906. The lowest bidder, John T. MacQuiddy of Sonoma, came in at a whopping $15,475-—nearly twice as much as originally projected. In February, the installation of a single cornerstone was cause for grand ceremony that, Granice reported, also included the placement of a time capsule containing records, photos of buildings around town, a copy of George Washington’s eulogy, a copy of the Woman’s Club directory and General Hooker’s autograph.
Anxious for completion, the town was in for another bump (literally) in the road. In the early hours of April 18, 1906, a great earthquake rocked the Bay Area. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Work on City Hall, of course, came to a standstill, along with most everything else.
“Banks couldn’t get money, so wages couldn’t be paid,” says local historian Bob Parmelee. “When money was available again, the stonemasons went to San Francisco (instead) to work. Big wages were being paid there after the earthquake.”
City Hall construction somehow resumed in June, but then it halted altogether. Costs had soared after the quake, and the contractor abandoned the job. Trustees advertised in January of 1907, awarding a new contract to James B. Newman of Napa for $14,200.
Despite a four-month stonemason strike, most work was completed by December. By spring the new hall was a bona fide reality, its imposing stone exterior culled from Sonoma’s legendary Schocken Hill, its interior wired for electricity and fitted with two steel jail cells. New furniture was purchased, including shiny cuspidors, just in time for City Hall’s official dedication on Sept. 9.
Original plans show the building with roughly the same exterior it has today, with doors on all four sides so fire engines—occupying the large open area on the ground floor—could race off in the direction of the fire (heaven forbid it come from a diagonal direction). The bell in the tower called volunteers, though it was later replaced by a siren.
– Wayne Wirick
“Doors were always unlocked,” recalls Al Mazza, who as a child liked to go to the movies with his pals before popping over to City Hall to sit on the firetrucks afterward. They must have left more of an impression than the films: In 1957, Mazza joined the fire department and eventually became its chief.
City Hall’s layout broke down something like this.
The marshal (or police chief) sat in the southwest corner office, the northwest corner had bathrooms, the northeast corner had the jail cells, and the southeast corner housed an elaborate stairwell to upstairs. The second-floor layout was the same—a large open room in the center flanked by corner offices for the city clerk and other city officers. The open room served as the trustees’ meeting room and later, as a court.
In 1948 the fire and police departments were moved to a new building on Patten Street and a museum, featuring the memorabilia of Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, wowed townsfolk with scale-model World War II airplanes.
“Some were hanging from the ceiling. It was quite a collection,” recalls Mazza. Wows faded to murmurs, then faded to the mutterings of cramped quarters. Needing additional space, the city donated the collection to the Air Force Academy in 1958 and launched the first in a series of remodels that took place over the next 50 years.
An unforeseen, and none too pretty, remodel would spontaneously occur one hot night in August of 1980, when a fire broke out on the bottom floor.
At that time (and probably to the delight of town gossips and kids who wore secret decoder rings), an air horn mounted atop of the Patten Street firehouse would blast different patterns, depending on the direction of the fire.
The horn blasted once that night, signifying the Plaza. “I heard over the radio: It was the City Hall,” said Mazza. “It started in the computer room downstairs. It was definitely an arson fire, but didn’t damage the upstairs.”
City operations temporarily moved into the fire station while City Hall was repaired. Musical offices continued, when in February 1981, the municipal court moved into quarters at the new police station on First Street West.
In 1987 the city’s offices again camped out at the fire station. Unreinforced masonry buildings needed seismic retrofitting, and pragmatic Sonoma city officials volunteered to be the first to “fix” their building, lest the unreinforced masonry one day reinforce itself upon their heads. The building sat on rubble, so a new concrete foundation was poured in place, and steel was inserted in the walls.
“When we were moving out there were lots of things in the attic,” says Wayne Wirick, director of development services. “There were traffic warrants, old records and True Crime magazines.” Perhaps to dispel any number of rampant, scintillating rumors about City Hall’s part, Wirick recalls that “nothing” was found in the walls, which were apparently thin and unsubstantial beneath the exterior stone facing. “No bones or ghosts in this building,” reiterates Wirick. “The only time it creaked was during an earthquake.”
That’s right. Leave the scandal to True Crime.
What City Hall lacks in drama, it sure makes up for in structural grooming. The building is undergoing yet another renovation, and Mayor Joanne Sanders, for one, is praying and imploring that it be completed before Sept. 9, when it will be rededicated on its centennial. True to prediction, it outlasted its builders and will likely outlast us all—for the next century, and the next—in the center of our beloved Plaza.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA