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Sonoma’s Architectural History

Natural Material Structures – The Native American Period

In the distant past, Sonoma Valley was occupied by Native Americans of the Pomo, Wappo, and Coast Miwok tribes. They gave this beautiful place the name Sonoma which can be translated as Valley of the Moon. They built their temporary structures from grasses, reeds and flexible branches obtained locally.

Adobe Structures – The Mexican Period

On August 25, 1823, Father José Altamira, accompanied by a large group of neophyte Indians and a few soldiers, appeared in Sonoma Valley to initiate the Mexican period. They had arrived from San Francisco to build Mission San Francisco Solano, a complex of adobe and wooden buildings around a central quadrangle.  It would be the last in a chain of 54 missions that extended along the 1500 mile El Camino Real (The King’s Highway)from the southern tip of Baja California to Sonoma.

After only 11 years, the mission was secularized and Lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo arrived to establish a pueblo near the mission in order to prevent incursions from the Russian settlements to the northwest.  Vallejo laid out the Plaza which was to be the center of the Pueblo de Sonoma.

During the tumultuous years from 1834 to 1846, Mariano Vallejo rose in rank to Commandante General as he diplomatically handled power struggles within the Californian Mexican Government, dealt with restless American and European settlers, as well as the defense of the northern frontier from increasingly frequent Indian attacks.

It was during the short period from 1840 to 1846 that the majority of Sonoma’s adobe structures were built.  Adobe bricks were frequently made by non-local Indians who were captured in springtime raids to the north while construction of walls and roofing tiles was done by the former Sonoma Mission Indians during the summer and fall.

American settlers were frequently hired as laborers to provide lumber and perform carpentry.  Most adobe buildings were one-story. The two-story structures typically had an outside staircase that led to a balcony on the second level.  Chimneys and glass window panes were unknown at this time in Sonoma and flooring was almost always compacted dirt. Cowhides served as doors, window covers, mattresses, and on occasion roofing material and fencing.

Wood Structures – The California and American Periods

Just before dawn on June 14, 1846, a group of 33 Americans arrived in Sonoma from the Central Valley to establish the California Republic. Threats of expulsion from California by the Mexican Government motivated their actions.

A prototype of the present state flag was raised over the Plaza.  This marked the beginning of the American Period in California for the new government was set up only to be provisional and to forestall any but an official United States takeover.  The Bear Flag was replaced with the Stars and Stripes on July 9, 1846.

An increasing American military presence brought both men and money to Sonoma, as did the Gold Rush.  As more settlers came to Sonoma over the following few years, new construction was necessary.  A few more adobe structures were built but increasingly new construction and additions to existing buildings were fabricated using California redwood.

A variety of architectural styles can be found mirroring the origins of the settlers.  Thus we find saltbox frame cottages adjoining Monterey colonial-style adobes, with Gothic, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate buildings also dating from the second half of the 19th century.  Some of the frame buildings were pre-fabricated in the east and shipped to Sonoma around Cape Horn.

Stone and Brick Structures – The American Period

By the late 19th century, the Schocken and Pinelli rock quarries in the hills to the north of Sonoma began to provide new building material.  A major fire in 1911 destroyed many of the buildings on the east side of the Plaza.  Realizing the vulnerability of closely grouped wooden structures to fire, builders introduced cut basalt stone into the walls of several new structures.  Fired bricks were also beginning to be used as a construction material.

Following the 1906 earthquake reinforcing steel was first used in new building construction around the Plaza.  Art Deco and Art Moderne styles also found their way into the architecture surrounding the Plaza.  Small wood-frame Craftsman homes were built by developers in the residential neighborhoods further away.

Our Architectural Heritage and the League’s Goals

A brief walk around the Plaza and its neighboring streets reveal the rich story of Sonoma as seen through its historic architecture.

The foremost of the League’s goals is to preserve this manifestation of our architectural history so succeeding generations will be able to appreciate our Sonoma heritage as we do.