Glen Ellen Historical Society seeks to preserve Sonoma Developmental Center

The Glen Ellen Historical Society is working to get the Sonoma Development Center on the National Register of Historic Places, hoping to preserve a place and its buildings they say are significant and important to the community.

“We’re trying to ensure that the essence of the community stays intact,” said Charles Mikulik, a board member of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. “We’re not trying to chain ourselves to the entrance to stop developers. It’s about having the community have a voice” in what happens to the Sonoma Development Center (SDC).

Mikulik was among the panelists in a recent video conference call moderated by Rajeev Bhatia, an urban planning consultant working with state and county on the SDC’s future.

The desire to preserve the SDC, its buildings and open space, has been in discussion for more than eight years, said Gregg Montgomery, vice president of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. It stemmed from a years-long effort to create a museum on the site.

Montgomery said he joined the historical society when he retired in 2011 and sought to “rekindle” the museum effort with a letter-writing campaign to the Department of General Services and Department of Developmental Services, he said. At about that time, it became apparent that the state was going to shutter the SDC, and the historical group started in earnest in 2013 to preserve the entire site.

“That was a wakeup call,” Montgomery said. The group needed to think “bigger than the museum” and focus on the “legacy of the facility” and its “illustrious” status as the first such facility in California, he said.

The communities of Eldridge, where the SDC is located, and Glen Ellen are inextricably connected, Montgomery said, because people who worked at the center for developmentally disabled lived in Eldridge or Glen Ellen.

“The SDC is part of our DNA,” he said.

Ruth Todd, an architect with Page and Turnbull architect and design firm, said the site is a “significant place and in everyone’s heart,” and has been determined by the California State Office of Historic Preservation to be eligible for the National Register because of its historic significance.

“The entire boundary of SDC is a historic district and eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places,” Todd said.

A period of “significance” was determined to be from the time the center opened in 1890 ending in 1949. Todd said 1949 was selected because that was when Fred Butler retired after running the SDC for 30 years.

“He had the most influence on the type of care that was given on this particular site, which is the one site in the nation where the activities like sterilization and the eugenics movement occurred,” Todd said. “My sense is that 1949 was chosen as the end of the period of significance because after that the center pretty much became very similar to other developmental centers.”

Paperwork to formalize the status is underway, but it is a lengthy and complicated process, Mikulik said. Much of the documentation has been done already over the years, some of it by Mikulik, who is a partner in Culture Resources Practioners, a company that works in archaeology, geoarcheology, GIS mapping, archival management and record searches.

“The last eight years of my life I have been doing something related to the SDC,” Mikulik said, including work that he did for his graduate degree.

Page and Turnbull has been evaluating the site since 2016 to “understand how a redevelopment can occur on the site in a way that still respects its historic significance,” Todd said.

Mikulik said, “Being on the National Register doesn’t stop anybody from tearing” down any of the buildings. “It just makes it harder to do that.”

The group is not opposed to affordable housing, something the state has said it would like to see at the site, Mikulik said.

“Affordable housing is great, if there is a way to keep intact” the historic significance of the buildings, he said.

“Some of the buildings are so run down” that the group would support a “replace in kind, equivalent structure that maybe doesn’t have the same footprint” but reflects the integrity of the original structure, Mikulik said.

Mikulik said neighboring parks would benefit, too, as additional grants would be available based on the historic register listing.

“It would be a huge benefit to have this done for the whole community,” he said.

The next phase of the Sonoma Developmental Center Specific Plan would be the development of alternatives of how to use the site in a “new way,” Todd said.

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