Learn the history of every old house in town
Oodles of information exists about the Valley’s older homes and the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation has launched it all onto an online, easily accessible database.
Type, for example, Second Street East in the search field at sonoma.cfwebtools.com, and up pop 25 addresses, each with an old photograph of the home and a listing of its architectural style. Then click on a specific address and find descriptions such as “a wing has been added to the back, siding is wood shiplap.” Since many of these properties have since been renovated, it’s a step back in time to see how they used to look.
Searches can be made for a specific address, an entire street or even a year – a search for 1932 turns up a barn on Fifth Street East, a Craftsman in El Verano and a bungalow on MacArthur.
For some properties the original builder and architect are listed, and facts such as “primarily redwood construction with a slate roof.”
The original information was gathered in 1978 by a group of league volunteers, lead by Johanna Patri, who is still an active member. At that time the volunteers spent 14 months surveying the Valley with clipboards and cameras, gathering as much architectural information as they could about any house believed to be more than 50 years old. Smaller surveys were completed in 1998 and 2012, updating existing data and adding more homes for a total of approximately 700 properties.
For 30 years the information has existed in paper files, available by making an appointment and visiting the league’s Maysonnave House on First Street East. Now it takes a only a few clicks to research an address and learn, as another example, that the three-story Casa Blanca apartment building on Boyes Boulevard was built in 1946 and “is the oldest, largest building in the neighborhood.” The online data will soon be linked to the league’s new website, which is currently under construction.
“This is a big deal,” said Chuck Bingaman, the league’s newsletter editor who made the announcement to members in early December that the project was complete. His personal favorite entry is 18 Spain St., which brings up detailed information about the Swiss Hotel, built by Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s brother, Don Salvador Vallejo.
The effort to bring the records online was spearheaded by league members Gerard Bessat and Alice Duffee and took more than two years. It will always be a work in progress as new information becomes available. The league invites current homeowners to offer any new facts they may have about their property to be added to the file.
“As time marches on, more buildings become old,” Duffee said, leading to eventually adding completely new entries. The Sonoma Valley information is consistent with the way other communities have logged historic information. The team researched the records of San Diego, Pasadena and San Francisco to use as a guideline.
“Our survey is a wonderful starting place. It paints a picture of the past that can be added to forever,” she said.
Bessat, a native of France who has lived in the United States for 30 years, is bemused that in Sonoma a home built 100 or even 50 years ago is considered old, compared to his homeland where buildings have stood for centuries. He has continued plans for the project, with hopes the information will eventually be able to be accessed by a phone app.
The database can also be searched by architectural style. A search for California Bungalow brings up 10 addresses all on the “eastside.”
“You can search for an architectural style that interests you and make yourself a walking tour,” Bingaman said.
Some records are missing photos, and the league hopes to add missing photos soon. It also wants to update some files to indicate that the home was lost to the 2017 wildfires.
Besides buildings, there are a few non-structural entries. The stone bridge that crosses Nathanson Creek on Second Street East just south of East Napa Street was built in 1909 “and is one of the last of its kind in the Valley.”
The website can make anyone who spends some time on it a potential tour guide, knowledgeable about the Valley’s history as told through its buildings and bridges.