Monday, September 6, 2010

#879 - Cotati Downtown Plaza

Most cities are laid out on a grid. Cotati has California's only hexagonal city plan, which is its claim to fame. You might be thinking, as I did initially, that a hexagonal city plan is a ridiculous idea. It turns out, however, that hexagonal city planning was at the forefront of city planning theory in the early 20th century.

View Larger Map

Hexagonal neighborhood unit,
Barry Parker, 1928.
Source: Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice.
There is, I think, scholarly work on almost any topic -- in this case hexagonal city planning. Thanks to Google, I found a nice paper in The Journal of Urban DesignHexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice. It turns out that there is much to recommend a hexagonal plan. In a standard grid based city, diagonal movement is difficult, but a majority of trips within a city require some diagonal movement. In a hexagonal plan, almost all movement is diagonal. Traffic intersections are safer as they are always three-way intersections with better sight lines and fewer possible collision points than a typical four-way intersection. A hexagon also required "10% less length of roads and utilities and allowed a substantial central green space in each block." In addition, "if the hexagonal grid was oriented so that it pointed due north, there would never be buildings with a northern exposure," providing all rooms with sunlight every day.

The rise of the cul-de-sac model of residential urban planning put an end to hexagonal ideas. In the 1930s, the cul-de-sac model was codified as the preferred FHA approved layout for new sub divisions and since then millions of homes have been built in subdivisions based on the cul-de-sac model.

The hexagon may have been a theoretically beneficial urban design, but it does have some negative points. In particular, the lots are triangular and tend to have large front yards and small, wedge-shaped backyards. In contrast, "the corner lots in a cul-de-sac were all the wedge-shaped 'pie-lots' valued by homeowners, because they had a small (public) front yard and a large (private) backyard." More fundamental questions also arise for hexagonal plans such as "How would streets be named or dwellings numbered?" and "How would strangers navigate the streets?"

In the end, the authors of this journal article make the excellent point that "what happened to hexagonal planning illustrates the futility of street and block planning as the sole concept behind city planning." This rings true on a visit to Cotati, where the hexagonal plan radiates for only two blocks before it is subsumed into a more traditional grid-like plan.

Things to do in Cotati
Cotati's hexagonal plaza plays host to an accordion festival every summer. If you don't visit during the festival, you can still see a statue of the late accordion musician Jim Boggio in the park.

The Marker
Cotati Downtown Plaza 
Cotati's hexagonal town plan, one of only two in the United States, was designed during the 1890s by Newton Smyth as an alternative to the traditional grid land planning. The six-sided town plaza was designed for founder Thomas Page, and each of the surrounding streets was named after one of Page's sons. "Cotati" derives from "Kotati", a local Pomo indian chieftan.
 California Registered Historical Landmark No. 879
Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperations with the City of Cotati and all organizations. June 7, 1975.  

Monday, August 30, 2010

#820 - St. Teresa's Church

Visit Date: July 17, 2010

St. Teresa's Church
Sometimes we are out doing other activities and have a spontaneous landmark moment. After a great day of canoeing on the Russian River near Healdsburg with friends, we decided to head back toward San Francisco via Highway 1 on the coast. We saw a landmark sign on the highway pointing inland and a made a sudden turn, taking our friends in the following car by surprise. With this act, our project was outed to our friends and surprisingly they didn't think that we were completely crazy.

The sign that caused our route deviation was for St. Teresa's Church, which is located just off of Highway 1 in the small town of Bodega. The church itself is very cute and constructed of redwood by early settlers. It has been in continuous use for almost 150 years. Unfortunately, we only had an iPhone with us to take pictures and the sun was setting, so the photo is a bit dim. Perhaps we will return during the day with an opportunity for better photographs and a look at the inside.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

#743 - Jack London State Historical Park

Visit Date: July 12, 2010

Jack London's Ranch Home
If you grew up in America, you probably had to read The Call of the Wild by Jack London at some point during your education. Inexplicably, Alisa and I avoided this fate though I have since read a few of Jack London's books. Jack London (1876 - 1916) was amazingly prolific, writing more than twenty novels and scores of short stories in a span of about two decades. Many of these works were written at his home in the Valley of the Moon, which is now the Jack London State Historical Park located near Glen Ellen, a short drive from Sonoma.

The park is beautiful. Even without the historical connection to Jack London, the park would make for a pleasant visit of picnicking and hiking. As with most all state parks, there is a use fee ($8 per car). Considering we had just been to The Petrified Forest in the morning ($8 per person for a half-mile trail), this fee seemed very reasonable given the miles of hiking trails, well preserved historical buildings filled with artifacts from London's life of travel, and friendly rangers willing to answer questions.

The Jack London sites to visit in the park can divided into three parts: The Londons' ranch home, the Museum where the historical landmark plaque is located, and the ruins of Wolf House. The ranch home is staged with many of the Londons' furnishings and you can see his office where he wrote many of his later works. The museum contains many artifacts from Jack Londons' world travels. From the museum, one can hike to the Wolf House ruins. The Wolf House was intended to replace the ranch home as the Londons' residence. Unfortunately, it burned during construction and Jack London passed away before any reconstruction could begin. On the way to Wolf House, there is a short path to Jack London's grave site where his ashes rest under a mossy rock.

Side Note: In The Valley of the Moon
Having visited London's ranch in the Valley of the Moon, I decided to read one of the books he wrote while residing there: The Valley of the Moon. I found it a curious book about Saxon and Billy, wife and husband, who find it hard going in Oakland and take to the road in search of a rural utopia. The first half of the book is about the challenges of urban life and the travails of unionized labor of the day. The second half is an agrarian journey around the Bay Area during which the hapless protagonists encounter farmers that are taking a more sustainable approach to the land and who are more than happy to share their thoughts on good agricultural practices. Many displays of didactic text around the Jack London State Historical Park emphasize London's interest in soil conservation and more sustainable farming practices. The second half of The Valley of the Moon is really a novelized treatise on the right way to farm and make a go of it on the land. Jack Hastings, a Sonoma Valley sustainable farmer who helps guide Saxon and Billy on their journey, is a barely disguised Jack London. And, not surprisingly, just like Jack London, our protagonists find their true happiness in The Valley of the Moon.

The Marker
This is the "House of Happy Walls," built in 1919 by Charmian K. London in memory of her husband, Jack London, renowned author. Here are housed many of his works and the collection gathered in their travels throughout the world. Charmian's house, the ruins of Jack's "Wolf House," and his grave were presented in 1960 to the State of California by his nephew, Irving Shepard.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 743
Dedicated by the California State Park Commission in cooperation with the citizens of Sonoma County, September 24, 1960.  

Saturday, August 7, 2010

#692 - Hood House

Visit Date: July 12, 2010

We had not planned on visiting Hood House, but driving south from the Petrified Forest we saw a landmark road sign for Hood House and took the next left as directed. Hood House is on the grounds of the Los Guilucos Youth Services Center -- a juvenile correctional facility. It's was initially difficult to find the actual house as most of the signage is designed to help visitors find jury parking, the police entrance, etc. If you visit Hood House, take the fork to the right when you first enter the property and you can't miss the house.

The House and Grounds

Hood House is beautiful and stately with a whitewashed exterior and a porch spanning the width of the building. It is currently undergoing seismic retrofit, which is really important for an all brick building in a seismically active area. Looking through the windows, the interior looks very impressive and we hope to return after the repairs are completed if the house is opened to the public.
Hood House
There was once a fantastic tree-lined manor drive leading from the road to a circular drive immediately in front of the house. The manor drive no longer connects the house to the road as various buildings of the youth facility have been built in the way. The remnants of the drive, and its bordering trees, did help us figure out where the house was. Alisa noticed the typical manor drive layout dead-ending into the correctional complex. We proceeded to circumnavigate the fence until we got to the opposite side where we found Hood House.

View of the correctional facility from
the Hood House porch.
Purchased in 1924 by the Knights of Pythias, a number of nearby red-brick buildings bear the crest of the knights or their female auxiliary, the Pythian Sisters. We are not sure, however, what the Knights of Pythias used the site for. We'll post an update if we learn anything more.

Hood House is a quirky historical landmark. Unlike other landmarks, like Jack London's house (our next post), which is nestled in a gorgeous state park, Hood House is inside a correctional facility. It is a fabulous mansion and we hope that it will be opened to the public following its restoration.

The Marker
This was the site of Rancho los Guilucos (18,833 acres), which Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted to John Wilson and his wife, Ramona Carrillo, sister-in-law of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, in 1839. The house, constructed in 1858 by William Hood for his bride, Elsia Shaw of Sonoma, incorporates the original bricks fired on the property. The property was purchased in 1943 by the California Department of the Youth Authority for Los Guilucos School for Girls.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 692
Plaque placed by the California State Park Commission in cooperation with Los Guilucos Citizens Advisory Committee and the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. May 28, 1960.

#915 - Petrified Forest

Visit Date: July 12, 2010

For our second landmark, we decided to head north of San Francisco to Sonoma County. Our destination: The Petrified Forest.

Location and Admission Fee
Getting to the forest requires a scenic drive through Sonoma County up winding roads into the hills. the entrance to the forest is hard to miss -- there is a giant roadside sign. The Petrified Forest is not a park (not to be confused with Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona). It is a privately run enterprise and it costs $8 per adult to enter the forest. In 1914, the entrance fee was $.50, which in today's dollars would be $10.91, so maybe $8 is a deal! Entrance fees seem like an unavoidable cost of this blog, so we'll keep track of our costs to visit landmarks as well as comment on whether or not we think the fee is worthwhile or justified.

The Forest
The historic landmark plaque is near the parking lot and does not require paying the entrance fee to view. Our goal, though, is not to merely see historical markers, but rather the landmark they identify. So we paid our entrance fees and took the half-mile walk through the forest to view excavated petrified trees. The trees are truly massive, but the experience was underwhelming and confused. The trail leads from one petrified tree excavation pit to another. Along the way, there are odd distractions like carved bear totem poles and what I can best describe as lawn ornamentation.
An excavated petrified tree.

Why is this here?
Perhaps my biggest issue with The Petrified Forest is that, to me, it doesn't fit the bill as a historical landmark. It is a landmark of natural history, but the significance begins and ends there. Contrast this with landmark #790, Yosemite Valley. Yosemite is also a landmark full of natural history, but it is also significant for its iconic landscapes and its historical importance as some of the first land in the nation set aside to preserve its beauty. Does the petrified meet the criteria for a California Historical Landmark? I suppose it does meet the criteria that it is "the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state" (see the full criteria here), but I'm not convinced that simply being the only or most significant example of something makes it a landmark.

We had brought a picnic and were hungry, but all of the picnic tables had "Reserved" signs on them, though we were the only people around. Perhaps the garden gnomes were having a family reunion later that afternoon. Returning to the car, Alisa and I agreed that The Petrified Forest seemed like the kind of place one would have stopped at during a 1950s family car trip across America in a big Buick without air conditioning. We own a Subaru, but out of nostalgia, we turned off the AC and rolled down the windows as we pulled out of the parking lot.

The Marker
The Petrified Forest, dating from the eocene period is the only known example of a petrified forest in California. Its size, scope and variety of petrification is unique in the world. Opalized wood, obsidian, quartz crystal, petrified coral and fossilized insects number among its wonders.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 915
Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with Ollie Orre Bockee, Jeanette Orre Hawthorne, and David A Conway, August 19, 1978. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

#955 Menlo Park Railroad Station

Visit Date: July 5, 2010

The great railroad stations of the gilded age celebrate arrival and departure with grand architecture and massive open spaces. Therefore, we thought it a good idea to start our journey with a visit to a railroad station, even if it is not particularly grand. More practically, we also already knew where this marker was, as I had once commuted to and from this station for an entire summer. I am sure that we will get lost looking for a marker at some point during this experience, but we wanted to start out with a sure thing.
Menlo Park Railroad Station circa 1918.

The Historical Marker
Located at 1100 Merrill Street, the Menlo Park Railroad Station is the oldest passenger station in California. Today it remains in use as a stop on the Caltrain commuter railroad between San Jose and San Francisco. The building, which now houses the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, is in good condition and retains its Victorian architecture. We have embedded a slideshow of some pictures below and will try to do this for all markers that we visit.

Getting there
I am a huge fan of public transportation and we had thought about taking Caltrain to the station, but it was a holiday which meant that Caltrain was running a frustratingly intermittent weekend service. We drove.

In the neighborhood

The Menlo Park Railroad Station is in a great neighborhood not too far from Stanford University. Immediately next to the station is Kepler's Books, a nice independent bookstore where I picked up a book on California history, and Cafe Borrone, a popular local coffee spot.

The Marker

This building, constructed in 1867 by the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company, is the oldest railroad passenger station in California. The victorian ornamentation was added in the 1890's when the station was remodelled to serve the newly-opened Stanford University. The extension on the northwest was added to accommodate increased traffic generated by the establishment of Camp Fremont nearby during World War I.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 955
Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the City of Menlo Park, July 4, 1983.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Starting Post

Where did General Vallejo sleep?

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo

If you have ever traveled to the east coast, you may have encountered a plaque advertising the fact that "George Washington slept here." George Washington did not sleep anywhere in California, but General Vallejo sure did and there are plenty of California Historical Landmark markers to show you where.

I am a history junkie and my wife, Alisa, cannot turn down an opportunity to read didactic text (she works for a museum after all). Whenever we see a historical marker, we want to read it and learn why this spot is important. That is why we are starting this blog as we visit every California Historical Landmark.

Isn't that obsessive?
It could be, but our goal is not really to check off all of the landmarks. The golden state is a great state with a history and culture as rich and varied as its geography and ballot propositions. We enjoy being tourists in our own state, hiking in the state parks, and sampling some of the best food and wine in the world. This project merely puts a framework around what we love to do already. Looking through the list of over 1000 landmarks, we were surprised at how many we had already seen (and will now revisit).

What do we want to get out of this?
Alisa grew up in California, so she had a solid California history education: camping in the Sierras; learning about earthquakes, fires, and water conservation; and, of course, visiting a mission. I, on the other hand, grew up in Wisconsin (state motto "Forward!"), home of the Iron Brigade, Fighting Bob La Follette, Harry Houdini, Senator Joseph McCarthy (unfortunately), Laura Ingalls Wilder (briefly), the Green Bay Packers, and cows. California is now my home and I want to know it better. While exploring California's past, we both look forward to enjoying the California of today and sharing this experience with friends and family, both through this blog and by dragging them along with us to a historical marker now and then.