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'Designed for Living': When Santa Rosa was a national role model

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Santa Rosa's 150th Anniversary

Read more special PD coverage of Santa Rosa at 150 here

In 1942, director Alfred Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Pulitzer-winning playwright Thornton Wilder, traveled California looking for a place to make a film called “Shadow of a Doubt.”

They wanted the perfect small town to play an essential part in a psychological thriller, and they found it in Santa Rosa. The town became part of the film noir plot.

Through the summer months, Hitchcock’s cameras focused on the town — the courthouse in the middle of the square, the ivy-covered stone library, the two-story Victorian home on tree-lined MacDonald Avenue, the church on the corner, even the ‘Til Two tavern just south of the square.

They didn’t have to change a thing. They used Santa Rosa precisely as it existed at the start of World War II.

But what the movie didn’t show or tell were the streets that went nowhere, the failing water and sewer systems, the need for a modern hospital. There was no effective building code or modern zoning laws or even a traffic signal.

Four years later, at war’s end, it was clear that despite its “small town America” ambiance and agricultural and retail stature among North Coast cities, Santa Rosa’s infrastructure was in dire need of repair.

In the council election of 1946 a slate of purposeful businessmen took leadership away from the “old guard,” and set about effecting change.

Led by Mayor Obert Pedersen, whose family furniture store was the town’s oldest business, more than 100 volunteers rang every doorbell and stood, literally, on every front porch, wrote letters to the editor, haunted radio station KSRO’s studios, spoke at every service club and women’s group and called meetings in every corner of town (even one in Italian, which was the language of Santa Rosa’s largest immigrant population of the time).

Rallying voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax and increased business license fees, they opened dead-ends, installed traffic signals, instituted new regulations. With the Chamber of Commerce at the fore, they campaigned for modern health care. Memorial Hospital opened on the first day of 1950.

Tagged “The City Designed for Living,” the campaign not only accomplished its aims, but it attracted national attention.

In 1947 a state commission published a 28-page booklet about Santa Rosa’s successes, titled “The People Design the City,” and the largest newspapers in the U.S. told the Santa Rosa story. The entire county basked in the glory.

But within a decade the new rules would be called to question.

Santa Rosa’s insularity had ended. Subdivisions sprang up on the edges of the town, with “no money down, move-right in” GI loans to accommodate new residents. That’s when a young Santa Rosan, fresh out of the Seabees with boundless self-confidence as his greatest asset, built a shopping center in the Hahman prune and walnut orchard at the edge of the city limits and continued eastward with 2,600 homes.

Hugh Codding’s Montgomery Village not only provided housing for postwar growth but also made him leader of a new generation, new to town, with young families.

His publicity schemes, like building a house in less than five hours and a church in one day (in time for a late afternoon wedding) brought Santa Rosa, again, to the forefront of the “new” Bay Area.

Santa Rosa's 150th Anniversary

Read more special PD coverage of Santa Rosa at 150 here

But Codding built without adherence to the new building codes, hooked into the sewer system without permission, piped water from a source several miles away. When attempts to annex to Santa Rosa met opposition from city hall he decided that Montgomery Village should become a separate city.

It came to an annexation election in 1955. Village voters were asked choose between Santa Rosa and incorporation.

But when city officials made eleventh-hour concessions about street widths and other “irregularities,” Codding took to KSRO radio to advise “his people” to vote for annexation,

It was done. Montgomery Village added approximately 12,000 people to Santa Rosa’s population — the same number as the last census — which had taken place (in words that became very familiar) “before the war.” The town had doubled overnight.