Unlike Sacramento’s Old Town, Monterey’s Cannery Row or Disneyland’s Main Street, the charm and energy of Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square hinges on the fact that it’s real. It's not a tourist center filled with cute little shops sporting fake facades and hawking overpriced wares. Instead, Railroad Square is where the locals—-as well as the tourists—-come to eat, shop, hang out and play. You can dine at one of the famous gourmet restaurants, find a refrigerator for your home, browse one of the trendy boutiques, people-watch while drinking a latte, and buy another chicken for your coop, all within the same few blocks. Could you find an appliance shop or animal feed store at Pier 39? I think not.
Each different section of the square has its own character. Each individual shop exudes the personality of its owners. This area isn’t completely pristine and color-coordinated. Yet, everything comes together beautifully, anchored by the commanding presence of the turn-of-the-century stone buildings. And the entire Railroad Square District is listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
We’ll start our walking tour at Depot Park, located west of Hwy. 101, where 4th and 5th streets dead end. (Not far behind the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall.) If you drive here, there’s parking in the area, but bring some change to feed the meters.
Our first stop is the venerable depot. It was built in 1904, on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad line, to replace another depot which had burnt down. As well as being steeped in history, this particular building also enjoys an aura of glamour. It appeared in one of the classics of American cinema: Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt , which was shot on location in Santa Rosa. The legendary director called this his favorite film of all the ones he ever made. In it, Santa Rosa serves as the archetype of the idyllic, peaceful, all-American small town.
As the rising popularity of automobiles ended society’s reliance on the “iron horse,” the depot shut down and remained abandoned for many years. But, recently, it was renovated and is welcoming travelers once again as the site for the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitors Bureau and the California Visitors Center. Even if you don’t need any of the maps, brochures, or Santa Rosa souvenirs, stop in anyway just to see the new promotional poster up on the wall. It’s a picture of our governor sporting sunglasses reminiscent of his Terminator days. Written underneath are the words: “See California. You’ll Be Back!” ...only in California.
Now go back outside and let’s take a look at the statue in front of you. No, it's not a bust of an obscure historical figure. In fact, I’m sure you'll recognize these guys.
This bronze sculpture of a smiling Charlie Brown with an arm around his pal Snoopy was commissioned by city and county agencies to honor Peanuts creator and Santa Rosa luminary Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz. Although Schulz had declined to have a public statue made of him, he did approve of one for the Peanuts.
Schulz moved to Santa Rosa in 1958 and spent over 40 years writing his Peanuts comic strips here. In the meantime, he became a beloved and respected member of the community. Soon after his death in 2000, the county renamed the regional airport to the Charles M. Schulz Airport in his honor. (The logo shows Snoopy atop his red doghouse, clad in goggles and a scarf, taking to the skies.) In 2001, this Peanuts sculpture was unveiled. In 2002, the Charles M. Schulz Museum opened two blocks away from his former studio.
Then, in 2005, the city organized the “It’s Your Town, Charlie Brown” tribute, which featured 55 statues of Charlie Brown placed throughout Santa Rosa, each uniquely painted by a different Sonoma County artist. The homage attracted a record number of tourists from around the globe who combed the city searching for each statue. The following year the city sponsored the “Summer of Woodstock” tribute. You’ll see the Charlie Brown and Woodstock figures sprinkled throughout town. We’ll see a few of them as we continue our walking tour.
Turn south and go to the Western Hotel building which now houses the Flying Goat Coffee Shop.
Flying Goat Coffee / Western Hotel Building
The Flying Goat, in the old Western Hotel building, is a popular coffee shop featuring fresh-roasted specialty brews. This structure was built at the turn of the century by the same group of Italian stonemasons who built the depot, plus two other buildings still on the square. Look straight across Depot Park to A'Roma Roasters, which is housed in one of these buildings. The second is kitty-corner from that and is the Hotel La Rosa. Other examples of the stonemasons’ work can be found at the Kenwood Depot, the ruins of Jack London's Wolf House, and the Stonehouse Inn on Highway 12, just east of downtown.
The big, gray basalt blocks used to make these buildings came from a former quarry at Annadel Park, on the eastern side of town. In fact, the Annadel quarry was one of the prime sources for paving many of the streets of San Francisco.
Unfortunately, not many more original buildings remain on Railroad Square. Some were destroyed during the great 1906 Earthquake. Although it’s usually referred to as the “San Francisco Earthquake,” the United States Geological Survey reported in 2005 that, according to new data, the quake was most powerful in an area between Santa Rosa and what is now Sebastopol. It caused more deaths and destruction in Santa Rosa, per capita, than in any other place. In effect, no other city in the United States, throughout history, has ever suffered as much devastation from an earthquake as has Santa Rosa.
Now, walk east to Wilson St. and turn right.
Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa
Continue south on Wilson until you reach the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa. When this upscale hotel was developed here, it was heralded as a sure sign that Railroad Square had “made it.” Not so long ago, this area was the skid row of Santa Rosa, full of boarded-up buildings, drug activity and prostitution. When the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall came to town, it was built like a fortress, turning its mighty back to Railroad Square, and separating it from the downtown. But little by little, inch by inch, Railroad Square was won back by a group of tenacious residents and merchants. And now that this is the hip place to be, locals are bemoaning the fact that the town is split in half by the mall.
Go through the Hyatt and out the back doors to the sculpture garden. View works by local artists, including: "Three Spheres" (pictured above) by Daniel Oberti of Sebastopol, "Reflect Reason Resolve" by Nicolas Van Krijdt of Petaluma, "I Ching" by Bruce Johnson of Cazadero, and "Spirit Form: Emerging" by Riis Burwell of Santa Rosa.
Go all the way to the back of the garden until you reach the Prince Memorial Greenway and cross over the footbridge to Olive Park. As you cross the bridge you’ll notice (if it's dark enough outside) the light installation "Zag," an artwork of ever-shifting color and intensity by Santa Rosa artist Michael Hayden.
Turn right after the footbridge and walk to Wilson St. Turn right again and backtrack toward Depot Park.
Heading north on Wilson St., you'll pass La Gare French restaurant, a favorite of locals. Next, you'll see Disguise the Limit / Funny business, a fun shop full of costumes, novelty items and lots of giggles. At the corner, turn right onto 4th St. You'll be in front of the Lee Brothers Building, the first to be built on Railroad Square following the great quake.
Meander down 4th, stopping at any of the many little shops bound to catch your eye. This is the main shopping area of Railroad Square and there are several antique and furniture stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants and more. If it's breakfast or lunch time, meet up with all the locals at Omelette Express. There’s even a Charlie Brown statue outside the front door, ready to greet you. When you get to the end of the block, just take a look around. To your right, on the side of the Whistlestop Antiques building (on the wall facing Davis St.) you’ll see a cool mural entitled “Locomotive #10." If you were to go straight, you’d end up at the back entrance to the Santa Rosa Plaza mall. Look over to your left and you’ll see the popular Syrah restaurant, one block up and to the right. The Last Day Saloon, a nightclub with live music and dance floor, is kitty-corner from it on your side of Davis. Cross 4th St. and you'll be at the well-know MIXX Enoteca Luigi restaurant. Now, meander on down the street, back toward the depot.
Hotel La Rosa
When you get to the end of the block, the beautiful Hotel La Rosa will be on your right. It is now one of Santa Rosa's more famous establishments. Way back when, it was a bit more...infamous. For example, the hotel’s bar supposedly served alcohol all through Prohibition. The story goes that a Santa Rosa policeman tried to close the bar down once. But, he came so close to being tarred and feathered, that neither he, nor anyone else, attempted that feat again.
Keep heading north on Wilson. You’ll come to the Redwood Gospel Mission which provides food and shelter to the homeless. Area merchants were once concerned that the mission's clients might make shoppers uncomfortable and keep them away from the area. Tensions between the two groups grew. One time, after someone had dropped off a huge bag of daffodil bulbs at the mission, a few of the men staying there went for a walk around Railroad Square. All the shops were closed, all the merchants were gone. And the men planted the bulbs in all those flower barrels lining the street. The following spring, the merchants were surprised when daffodils began to bloom. They were even more surprised when they found out how they got there.
The next step of the tour takes us a little off the beaten path. If you’d rather skip this step, turn left on 6th St. and continue to the corner of Adams St. Otherwise, continue up Wilson.
DeTurk Round Barn
Coninue north on Wilson and turn left on 7th St. Go to Western Farm Center, on your right, and cut through their parking lot. Turn left on 8th. Make a quick right onto Donahue St. which leads you to DeMeo Park and the DeTurk Round Barn.
There are only about a dozen historic round barns left in the state of California. Three of those are in Sonoma County. And two of those are in Santa Rosa. This one was built in the late 1870s by Isaac DeTurk, a wealthy winery owner and horseman. It’s about 20 years older than the other, more visible, round barn on Fountaingrove.
Part of the surrounding DeMeo Park is a dog park which was dedicated to a Santa Rosa Police K-9 named Maverick, who was killed in the line of duty. There’s a very sweet plaque there in his honor.
At the turn of the century, this neighborhood was called “Little Italy.” It is now named the West End Historic Neighborhood and it's an official historical district. Much of Railroad Square’s renaissance can be attributed to the resolve of these residents. Initially, the area began to decline in 1948 when Hwy. 101 cut this section off from the core of the city. Many of the residents moved away and the homes were bought up by absentee landlords who let the buildings fall into disrepair. Eventually, some of the run-down buildings became drug havens. But in the early 1980s, the residents banded together to fight crime and save their neighborhood.
Now that we've seen DeMeo Park, we'll move on to the DeMeo Teen Center.
Backtrack through the Western Farm Center parking lot (Drive back later to get pet supplies, the prices are right.) and go straight onto Adams St. You’ll pass Starks Steakhouse, owned by the same couple who own Willi's Wine Bar, Willi's Raw Bar and Montis. Next is the DeMeo Teen Club, better known as Chops. It’s a place for Santa Rosa youth to call their own. There's a recording studio, nightclub and dance floor, art studio, gym with a climbing wall, computer lab, teaching kitchen, and café.
The club is named after Charles “Chop” DeMeo who was born a bright but poor kid on the wrong side of the tracks in Santa Rosa. After working his way through UC Berkeley, Chop became a lawyer, mayor of Santa Rosa, and a multimillionaire.
When he died in 1995, DeMeo left most of his estate, nearly $16 million, to a non-profit agency. He specified that some of the money go toward helping Sonoma County's homeless, primarily mothers with young children, and that the rest be used to create a place for Santa Rosa teens. Chops opened in 2001.
People found out about DeMeo’s gift—the largest charitable bequest in Sonoma County history—at his funeral. Shortly before DeMeo died at age 90, a friend went to visit him at the hospital. Chops smiled at him and said, “When they find out what I’ve done, they’ll be surprised.”
Read more about DeMeo and his gift in Gaye LeBaron's article in the Press Democrat.
. Go to the left and follow the old railroad tracks through the field and down toward the depot. You’re almost at the end of the line.
There are some big dreams for the abandoned field you’re walking through. There are hopes of building a Food and Wine Center here, with a farmers market, cooking demonstrations, special events, etc. There’s also talk of a commuter train running from Cloverdale, through here, and on to Larkspur where you could catch a ferry to the city. There might be a development of condos with ground floor shops including the Food and Wine Center. The city is hoping to develop urban parts of Santa Rosa into mixed-use areas, where people could live, work, shop and play all in the same space, that way limiting traffic growth and urban sprawl. And, to boot, the project calls for all kinds of “green” building techniques. That's a lot of dreams. Let's hope something becomes reality.
Just before you get to Depot Park, A’Roma Roasters will be on your left. Stop here to end your journey. The coffeehouse offers live music weekend nights and free wi-fi connections. And due to the dynamic mix of people who gather here and spill out onto Depot Park, this is THE hang-out spot in Santa Rosa. There’s the artsy crowd from the theater, and the teens from Chops. There are the progressive folks from nearby New College and the old-timers who’ve been in this area for years. There are a few of the homeless from the rescue mission and plenty of locals who live in homes throughout Santa Rosa. And of course, there are the tourists. So sit back, people watch, and take in the ambiance of Railroad Square.