Saturday, August 08, 2009

Early California History on Display in Sonoma


Few Northern California communities are as quaint, picturesque and historic as Sonoma, a town that traces its roots to 1823.

That was the year that a Spanish priest, Father Jose Altimira, founded Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and most northern of the 21 missions established in California.

In 1834, Mariano G. Vallejo arrived at the mission to oversee the establishment of a military outpost and small town. He laid out an eight-acre plaza, which remains the heart of the modern town of Sonoma.

Today the plaza—the largest town square in California—has more than 200 trees as well as a wide variety of shrubs, picnic tables and a rose garden.

In the middle of the oak-shaded plaza is the former Sonoma City Hall, an elegant Mission Revival style building constructed of local stone between 1906 and 1908. A unique feature of the building, which now serves a visitors center, is that all four sides are identical, apparently to please local merchants each of whom felt it should face his or her business.

The square is also home of a unique monument to California’s colorful history. Atop a massive boulder is a bronze figure holding the Bear Flag. The statue commemorates the short-lived Bear Flag Revolt, an independence movement that in 1846 claimed California as an independent republic.

For 25 days, Sonoma was the capital of this new republic, which was created from land previously controlled by Mexico. On July 7, 1846, an American naval ship captured the Mexican capital at Monterey and claimed the region for the United States.

Not surprisingly, the Bear Flag Party chose to join with the Americans and become part of the union. The monument marks the site where the Bear Flag, which is now the official flag of the state of California, was first raised.

Surrounding the Plaza is a mix of interesting historic buildings, each with a fascinating story.

For example, at the northeast corner of the plaza (114 East Spain St.) is Mission San Francisco Solano, an adobe structure erected in 1840. It is not the original mission, which was a wooden building erected in 1824 and replaced by the present one.

Fully restored, the mission is one of the finest examples of Spanish mission-style architecture complete with an early Indian Mission chapel and rooms containing exhibits that tell of life nearly a century and a half ago.

Nearby, you can find the old adobe Mexican Barracks (First Street East and East Spain Street), built in 1841, which is now a museum and part of a complex of buildings known as the Sonoma State Historic Park. Inside the barracks you can find informative exhibits describing the history of the area and a well-stocked gift shop.

Adjacent is the Casa Grande Indian Servants’ Quarters (20 East Spain St.), built in 1835. The two-story Monterey Colonial adobe building was once part of a larger complex, called Casa Grande, which was General Vallejo’s first home (he built his “Lachryma Montis” estate, west of town, in 1853).

The Hotel Annex (also at 20 East Spain St.) is a two-story blue and white building east of the servants’ quarters that was originally a one-story saloon located in front of the quarters. In 1903, it was moved to its present site and a second floor was added. Today it serves as park offices.

Many of the historic buildings around the plaza now house a variety of businesses including several excellent restaurants, the fabulous Basque Bakery, and the Sonoma Cheese Factory deli.

One of the most impressive downtown buildings is the Sebastiani Theatre (467 First St. East), built in 1933. Featuring a 72-foot tower and elaborate balustrades across the front, the theater was constructed by Samuele Sebastiani, founder of the Sebastiani Winery.

Note the hole in the tower, which was designed for a chime clock. The clock apparently was never installed because of concerns about noise.

The core area also houses several quality small museums such as the General Joseph Hooker House (also called the Vasquez House), an 1855 kit house (it was shipped to Sonoma from Sweden in numbered parts and reassembled), which is now home of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation.

North of the plaza is Sonoma Valley Railroad Depot (Depot Park Museum), a replica of the original depot of the Sonoma Valley Railroad (the original was located on the same site but burned in the 1970s). The museum contains displays and records of the railroad as well as a handful of restored train cars.

Of course, Sonoma is also noted for its wines and the historic Sebastiani Winery is located only a few blocks from the Plaza. Here you can tour one of California’s largest and oldest family-owned wineries.

The region’s oldest winery, Buena Vista, is located about a mile and a half east of the Plaza. These cellars were founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, considered the father of California’s wine industry.

Sonoma is located 30 miles north of San Francisco (and about four-and-a-half hours west of Carson City). For more information, contact the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, 453 First St. East, Sonoma, CA 95476, 707-996-1090 or go to www.sonomavalley.com.

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