Sonoma League for Historic Preservation turns 50
Think of Sonoma Plaza absent its historic facade. Think tacky T-shirt shops and beckoning golden arches.
Think of a town without character, a town without a soul.
And though the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation doesn’t claim credit for everything, it’s played a major role in the preservation of Sonoma’s downtown history. This year the league celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Like General Vallejo more than a century before, Sonoma League founder Margaret Eliassen moved to Sonoma from Monterey. Active in historic preservation there, she brought her passion with her.
Elected league president at the inaugural board meeting of Jan. 14, 1970, it was determined that the primary aim of the league would be to support the city government in an historic survey, as well as help preserve, improve and beautify the Plaza-surrounding areas. The league would go on to do that, and so much more.
The league is headquartered on First Street East in the historic Maysonnave House, built circa 1900. The serene site includes a house with a verandah, a carriage house and a charming garden with stone fountain. Bequeathed to the city by Henri Maysonnave upon his death in 1989, the building was restored by the league and is leased from the city. It’s available to rent as a venue for private celebrations for up to 100 guests, and is open for tours on Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.
Alice Duffee assumed the role of league president this past January. With 27 years of experience in historic preservation and having previously worked with other nonprofit organizations, Duffee is well qualified for the job.
“Our mission is to educate and advocate,” she said. “We’re all about planning for the future of the past.”
The league works with contractors, architects and developers, and provides input at meetings of the city Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission. In 2018 the league, together with former City Historian George McKale, drew up city preservation guidelines, a framework for use in identifying, evaluating and protecting Sonoma’s architectural history.
“Over 50 years our mandate and mission has not changed. Our focus continues to be on preservation,” Duffee said.
One of the league’s early projects involved the historic Toscano Hotel. Twelve years prior to the league’s formation, the hotel’s owners, the Ciucci family, sold the hotel, one of the city’s oldest buildings, to California State Parks. Following the acquisition, however, the structure stood boarded up, its fate uncertain. When tearing down the building became an option, the town rallied to save it. Together with the state parks, Eliassen led the league’s effort in refurbishing the Toscano and the separate kitchen and dining room with period pieces. This would be the beginning of many league achievements.
Another involved the General Joseph Hooker House, built in 1852 by the future Civil War general. Along with fellow Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker spent time in Sonoma. Together the generals purchased a valley vineyard, and Hooker built a house on First Street West that he rented and eventually sold to the Vazquez family. They lived there for 50 years. In 1973 the house was gifted to the league by its then-owners, the Lynch family, and relocated to leased land off the Plaza. Following restoration, the house became a small museum maintained by the league. The league’s lease ended in 2017 and the building now houses Bedrock Wine Co. An exhibit of mid-19th century photographs hang on the Bedrock tasting room walls, reminders of its Hooker House heritage.
In 1990 the Duhring Building at the southeast corner of the plaza just down from the Sebastaini Theater, burned. “The community was devastated. It was a landmark building on the Plaza and housed the Mission Hardware where we gathered and bought our household goods and supplies,” said Johanna Patri, League Honorary Life Member. “I remember the cupola in the street, the building mostly destroyed.”
Again the town rallied. The community retrieved thousands of the old bricks from the rubble, cleaned them of soot and mortar, and returned them to the site for use in the rebuild. The league coordinated a fund raising effort to help cover restoration costs. The Duhring family granted the league an easement to ensure that the building’s exterior would never be altered. The iconic cupola became part of the league’s logo.
In 1977 California State Parks Office of Historic Preservation allocated funds for the league to conduct a survey identifying structures 50 years or older. The survey covered an area from Schellville to Kenwood and was completed over a period of several years. It is maintained on the league’s website.
“This (survey) was important in that identifying the area’s historic structures was needed prior to adopting meaningful steps toward preservation,” said Robert Demler, current executive administrator for the league and former league president. “The survey enabled Sonoma to attain Certified Local Government (CLG) status, a part of the Federal Preservation Program.”
The CLG accreditation allows access to grants and technical assistance. And the online survey provides help for Sonomans seeking information on historic structures for their families.
From time to time, the league recognizes persons or businesses involved in the preservation of historic Sonoma properties. In 2016 three wineries received the league’s Preservation Award: Buena Vista replaced crumbling mortar and drilled holes inside the old winery stonewalls to invisibly reinforce them with rebar; Three Sticks Wines incorporated unobtrusive seismic fittings into the restoration of the Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe, its new downtown location; and Pangloss Cellars restored the 117-year-old Hotz Building on the Plaza recreating the original redwood and glass storefront.
There are several membership levels in the league, and new members are welcome - for an individual it’s $55 a year, senior/student $40. Currently there are 230 league members. Benefits include updates on key preservation issues, and complimentary admission to most league events.
A league fundraiser 50th anniversary celebration will be held on Sunday, Oct. 13 in the gardens of the Maysonnave House.