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Historic group takes leap into future

THE SONOMA LEAGUE FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION is integrating new technology into the historic sites it manages. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

THE SONOMA LEAGUE FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION is integrating new technology into the historic sites it manages. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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Imagine walking up to a historic building, taking out your smart phone, and scanning the QR code embedded on the building, or even on the brochure in your hand.

If that were in place today, and you were scanning the Sonoma City Hall, your screen would tell you that the cornerstone laying was done in 1906 and the building was completed in 1908. It might tell you the architectural style, the architect and the original cost.

QR stands for “quick response” and is represented by a barcode containing information.

This is the future, and that’s where the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation is headed. Changing with the times, the group is marching forward into the world of technology, expanding its vision to broaden opportunities for the public to learn about their history.

For the past 45 years they’ve focused on the past. But that’s only part of their mission.

“We’re evolving,” said Barbara Wimmer, president of the League. “We’re moving into the 21st century with smart chips, Facebook and an up-to-date website. We’re trying to get our message out to a broader audience, to tell them what resources we have and what services we provide.”

The QR chips are one technology they are working on now. They will be part of an updated walking tour brochure which will have codes to scan on each building featured. Some may have audio chips, which will be like having your own private tour guide.

But that’s not all.

They’re planning a modest interior remodel of the carriage house at the League’s Maysonnave House to include an archives and research room, and they’re doing an inventory of their collection. It will be called the Heritage Center.

“We have real treasures that haven’t received attention,” said Robert Demler, vice president. “Our research room will provide a place where both members and researchers alike can actually use them.”

And if that weren’t enough, they are also making sure all their records are digitized for better public access – a huge undertaking that was begun years ago and is still underway.

“We can’t just let them sit in a data base,” said Dr. Peter Meyerhof, library director. “We have to be able to provide pictures and information on demand.”

The board is enthusiastic about the future, and hope they can attract younger members who are interested in Sonoma’s rich heritage.

And while they were known for years only for their advocacy efforts, they are moving away from being a negative voice and trying to use persuasion and incentives to preserve important structures in the community. One way they’ve done this is to be a champion for Certified Local Government status, which requires a city commission to provide a higher level of scrutiny whenever a historic resource is involved in a development project.

The designation was bestowed by the state of California last year.

“I’m proud that we continue to be an important resource for the city,” said Yvonne Bowers, who edits the newsletter and manages the Historic Survey. “They trust what’s in our historic resources survey and they ask questions about buildings that might be impacted. We have a good relationship, and we want to keep that intact.”

The survey, which documents buildings 50 years and older, will soon be updated, thanks to a grant from the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission.

“The Survey is the brain of the league,” said Bowers. “It’s been our core competency for the last 35 years.”

The League was founded in 1969 by the late Margaret Eliassen and others who worked tirelessly to take over the Toscano Hotel and make it a house museum. It is now part of Sonoma State Historic Park.

Another achievement of those early years was the operation of the Gen. Joseph Hooker House which was relocated behind La Casa Restaurant on Spain Street.

“That’s where our library was,” said Bowers. “We also operated a tea room and people could look at everything while they were there.” It is still operated by the League, but is now more a house museum and exhibit center. The library was moved to the Maysonnave House on First Street East.

The restoration of the Maysonnave House and grounds, which is now the League’s headquarters, was one of their largest undertakings.“It was a strain on the League for a while,” said Wimmer, “And when it was finally done, we rested on our laurels and a few other projects were neglected.”

But now they are back on track and with an enthusiastic board, who are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, updating bylaws, sponsoring student interns, preparing special exhibits and making themselves a useful, educational resource for the entire community.

A popular new program is the informal “First Thursday History Night” which takes place on the first Thursday evening of every month at 6 p.m.

“We bring out maps and deeds and we have a theme for the evening,” said Meyerhof.

“In March, our guest is to be George McHale, city historian, who is coming with artifacts and unusual objects. This evening is always fun and open to anyone.”

The League still has formal lectures and special events, like the time-honored program that recognizes outstanding preservation achievements in the area and they are making an effort to reach out to other organizations to acquaint them with their resources.

“Although our mission has not changed, we’re definitely an organization in transition,” said Wimmer, “But we’re all looking forward now and we’re really enthusiastic about where we want to go.”

At close to 150 members, the League continues to be a vital element in the preservation of Sonoma’s history, and they’re making sure that the people who come after them will be just as excited as they are.