Who Owns History?

The willy-nilly art of preserving local landmarks

By Joy Lanzendorfer

For years, the Carrillo Adobe has quietly sat under its metal roof across from Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa. The San Jose­based developer Barry Swenson Builder is hoping to construct 120 townhouses on the lot, and now the site is the center of contention between developers and environmental–oh, wait. That’s not right. Let’s do it again. Now the site is the center of contention between developers and historians.

As the sign near it says, the Carrillo Adobe is where Santa Rosa began. Maria Carrillo, mother-in-law of General Vallejo, built the house in 1837. It may have been converted from an even older building, a satellite chapel for the Catholic Mission in Sonoma. The existence of an older chapel makes sense because that area was probably a village for the Pomo Indians, who lived and worked along the banks of the Santa Rosa Creek. In fact, historians think it’s likely that the Carrillo Adobe sits on top of an Indian burial ground that could be thousands of years old.

“This property is one of the most important historic sites in California,” says Tony Haskins, president of the Sonoma County Historical Society. “And it’s certainly one of the most important Native American sites.”

The Indians probably called their settlement “Gualomi.” They stayed on the property until 1851, when they were “removed” (a euphemism for forced marches and death) by General Vallejo to Lake County. In 1956, a study by state archaeologist Francis Riddell discovered evidence of human burial on the spot. Researchers Ward Upson and Thomas Origer later agreed with these findings.

But with its location in the heart of Santa Rosa across from upscale shopping and so near to downtown, the lot is also a prime piece of real estate. After much negotiation, the building proposal has downsized from 256 apartment units to a projected 120 townhouses. The new proposal also offers protection to the Adobe, which would become the centerpiece of a small park.

The Historical Society says the site is too important to have people tramping and driving all over it. According to them, the developers didn’t even hire a real archaeologist to study the site, since, they say, the one used was not listed as a member of the Registry of Professional Archaeologists.

Instead of townhouses, the Historical Society wants the land converted wholly into a park. “All 14 acres are almost sacred to us,” says Haskins. “At the risk of sounding uncompromising, while we’re all for progress and business, this is not the place for it.”

The Carrillo Adobe has been left to deteriorate for years. In the 1940s, the western wing of the building fell after heavy rains and simply disappeared from sight. Blackberries and poison oak have grown over the fence and inside the building. The roof fell in and rainwater severely damaged the walls before the metal roof was put up to protect it.

In order for the developers to build the townhouses, the city will most likely require them to preserve the adobe to some degree. Mike Black, development manager for Barry Swenson Builder, says the adobe would receive more attention than it has seen in years.

“We’re going to be enhancing a historical landmark that has been left alone for decades,” he says. “We’ll be improving the view of the park around it as well. It will be a better situation for everyone involved.”


The situation with the Carrillo Adobe highlights the problem with preservation in Sonoma County: Who gets to decide what happens to our historic monuments? While environmentalists have ardently guarded the state’s natural resources, starting with John Muir and the inception of the Sierra Club in 1892, Californians are less organized when it comes to historic preservation.

That doesn’t mean Californians aren’t interested, however. Sonoma County is full of history groups. Though there is some crossover among members, the groups vary from historical societies to “friends of” groups to antique car buffs to the “living history” folks who perform Civil War reenactments in local parks or dress up as 19th-century Russians at Fort Ross near Jenner.

Maybe the most popular examples in Sonoma County of living history are the annual cemetery walks. Started nearly nine years ago by Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department volunteer Kay Voliva, the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery walk occurs every October. In the evening, lantern-carrying guides dressed in old-fashioned gowns lead guests through the darkened cemetery paths where actors perform skits about local history on the very graves of the people they are about. The walk is so popular that the West County Historical Society started its own cemetery walk in the Sebastopol Cemetery.

The walks have also sparked interest in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery itself. Prior to these evening events, the cemetery–the oldest in Santa Rosa–had been ignored and left to vandals. But seeing history come alive spurred interest in the cemetery, and today it is has a wide network of protectors, including neighbors, teachers and retirees. Many of these people have even adopted the upkeep of gravestones.

“We started with a grassroots effort from volunteers to repair and clean up the stones and just have a presence there,” says Voliva. “It curtailed the vandalism and now the cemetery is a popular place to walk dogs.”

The Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery is a good example of the haphazard way that most preservation gets done in Sonoma County: someone shows an interest (Voliva, who regularly went on cemetery walks when she lived on the East Coast, says she’s always been interested in old gravesites) and organizes others to get involved. The problem is that this method takes a certain amount of vision. Someone has to see the importance of a place and find a way to get others involved. Often, preservation and restoration are based on personal taste more than historic significance; a cemetery is cherished while a city’s founding building is left to degrade under a metal roof.

“The preservation that goes on in Sonoma County is good, but I do think we have a long way to go,” says Voliva. “It’s terrible how the Carrillo Adobe has been allowed to disintegrate. We’re slowly getting around to thinking about more historic preservation, but we’re not there yet.”

Preservation is extremely expensive, so historical groups can only afford to take on one project at a time, if that. It has taken the Sonoma County Historical Society months just to raise the nearly $1,300 needed to restore an 1896 painting of the Sonoma County hospital by French immigrant Eugene Perrot. Given this rate of fundraising, it’s no wonder things are neglected.

Another problem is ownership. Even if a group wants to save a monument or building, they often have no power over it because it is privately owned. The West County Historical Society is trying to save the Green Valley School in Graton, which the Graton Fire District is thinking of selling. The original school burned down in 1866 and was rebuilt in 1930. For years, it was the center of the community, but when the rural schools were consolidated, the Green Valley School was left empty and has more or less remained that way ever since. And while the West County Historical Society is trying to protect this historic building, when it comes down to it, they may not have much of a say in what happens to it.

“That’s the problem with the schoolhouse,” says Evelyn McClure of the West County Historical Society. “How do you preserve something if you don’t own it?” Communities concerned about a historic building can contact the California Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and restoring monuments of Californian history. The trick to historic preservation is to underline the financial and cultural incentives of the past to the people who own the site, explains executive director Cindy Heitzman.

“The key is to call us as soon as a site is threatened,” she says. “When we’re called in early, we can work with people before they have a great amount of time and money invested.”

In the case of Carrillo Adobe, which developers have been looking at since 1999, it may be too late.


The 1970s, when Sonoma County began to focus on preserving its environmental resources and green space, was also one of the worst periods of historic preservation. Countywide, a wave of urban renewal swept through, pulling 19th- and early-20th-century buildings up by the roots and leaving dark, odd-angled modern buildings in their place.

Santa Rosa saw the worst of this trend. Many old buildings, including the courthouse, were torn down, streets were reorganized and the Santa Rosa Plaza mall was built smack in the middle of everything. Some feel these changes permanently destroyed the town’s original character, traces of which can still be glimpsed near the Sonoma County Museum and in the Railroad Square shopping district.

Other areas underwent similar changes. Most of Sebastopol’s original buildings were torn down in the 1970s, making the remaining old buildings, like the former bank that houses Alice’s Restaurant on the corner of Main Street, increasingly valuable.

“What was it with that decade?” McClure asks rhetorically. “The other day when I was going through my postcard collection of old Carnegie libraries, I noticed that a ton of them were town down in that era, too. That’s what they did here in Sebastopol–tore down our Carnegie Library and put up this building that I guess they thought was modern.”

By contrast, towns like Healdsburg, which were left relatively untouched by the urban renewal fad of 30 years ago, have seen a spike in property value in the past few years. Though most of it is due to the increasing interest in Dry Creek wines, the tourist-friendly charm of the town, thanks in large part to its historic buildings, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Part of the urban renewal fad may have had to do with expensive retrofitting guidelines and the cost to bring old buildings up to modern standards. But there are also financial perks to preserving old buildings. Aside from rising property value, historic commercial buildings are often eligible for property tax relief and other tax credits. Many older buildings are also exempt from retrofitting reassessment.


To connect with the past, most communities have to settle for such mundane topics as bread making and basket weaving. Not so for Sonoma County. From Jack London watching his mansion burn down in the middle of the night in Glen Ellen to powerful men consorting mysteriously at the Bohemian Club in Monte Rio to Luther Burbank creating white blackberries and spineless cacti in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s history is nothing if not interesting. The Bear Flag Revolt that took California out of the hands of Mexico and gave it to the United States happened in Sonoma; in fact, Sonoma was the state capital for several years. Movie stars like Natalie Wood and Winona Ryder come from Sonoma County, and well-known movies like American Graffiti, Scream and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds have been made here.

But the lesser-known history is also interesting. In Cloverdale, efforts are underway to revive what remains of the town of Preston, a utopian community that was the home of Madame Preston in the late 1800s. The town originally spanned 200 acres between Cloverdale and Mendocino County. Since then, it has been split into three parcels.

Ed and Lisa Ellis live in the old caretaker’s house on one of the parcels. In their spare time, they have been restoring Madame Preston’s church, a Quaker-like meeting house built out of old-growth redwood. With their own money, they’ve painted, cocked and hammered to get the church into decent shape. They even got the church bell working.

“All the neighbors love hearing it,” says Ed Ellis. “They are coming up to us and saying, ‘Oh, it’s great to hear the bell ringing again.'”

The Ellis’ restoration efforts are more unique when you consider that they don’t own the property. Their efforts come out of sheer love for the place and their own history with it. Ed’s family used to own the ranch until it was sold in the 1980s. He and Lisa even got married in the church.

In 1885, Madame Emily Preston and her husband, Col. Hartwell Preston, came to Cloverdale. No one knows where they came from before that, but the colonel was Emily Preston’s third husband and likely earned his rank in the Confederate Army.

Madame Preston was not that kind of madam. She was a healer and amateur doctor. She took advantage of the area’s fertile ground and dispensed medicine known for mineral water that came from the nearby geysers as well as its high alcohol content. People came from all around to get medicine from the woman they said could see through you with her “X-ray eye.”

Some liked her so much that they stayed on, and the town of Preston was established, swelling to 300 or so people during its 24-year lifespan. It became a utopian community full of musicians and artists. Madame Preston was most likely the first female mayor in California, and when she died in 1909, the town faded away after her.

Today, many of the original buildings are still standing, and the old cemetery is part of a winery. Unfortunately, Madame Preston’s mansion burned down due to an electrical fire in the late 1980s.

“It was a tragic loss,” says Ellis. “We called it the ‘mansion complex’–it was six or seven buildings, including a beautiful Italian-style main building. We almost had it completely restored, too.”

Since the Ellises started their work, they have invited the Cloverdale Historical Society to get involved, and have started giving tours of the property. They also raised about half of the $3,000 it will take to fix the church roof.

“One thing we’ve found is that you can’t go out and ask people to help with restoration; you have to just do it yourself,” says Ellis. “It’s like with Tom Sawyer–you’ve got to start painting, and then they will want to help. So the best thing is to just begin and not to wait around for someone else to do it.”

And when it gets down to it, that is the way history get preserved, at least for the time being. People who care do the work, and sometimes it gains momentum. Either way, many believe it’s an important thing to do.

“History defines our communities,” says Heitzman. “It gives us a sense of place, a touchstone to the past. It shows us who we are, where we’ve been and, to some extent, where we’re going. We are stewards to these resources, and they should be protected as well as our natural resources.”

From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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