Do you know the story of how Dr. Carroll Andrews bought the Community Center building on East Napa Street for $28,500 back in 1952?
The 1915 structure had until 1948 been home to the Sonoma Grammar School. But in the fall of that year, a structural engineering report declared the facility unsafe. The report identified a host of issues, but the bottom line was that the building was poorly constructed, and the school board accepted the inevitable consequence: it was unfit to house a school.
But when the board then voted to abandon the building and construct a new school on MacArthur Street (known today as Prestwood Elementary), a group of Sonoma residents rose up in protest. Led by Dr. Carroll Andrews, a local physician, they argued that the building was sound enough, and would be needed as a school in light of increasing enrollment.
Historic accounts say that this protest actually led to quite a bit of polarization in town, with some people supporting Dr. Andrews’ group and others siding with the School Board. An independent commission was ultimately called in to resolve the issue and they sided with the Board, which promptly moved to put the building up for sale.
The price was listed at $75,000. In today’s money this would be about $800,000: no small change, but definitely a bargain for a 30,000-square-foot building. However, the board was disappointed to receive exactly zero bids. In fact, over the course of several months they were forced to lower the price a number of times until, finally, they listed it at $20,000 in January 1952.
At that point, Dr. Andrews started gaining support for a new idea: that ‘the people’ buy the building as a site for a new community center. On February 20, 1952, Dr. Andrews placed a bid on the property and, after a bit of competition with a local Realtor, “won” the property for the whopping sum of $28,500.
The town immediately rallied behind the idea of a community center, realizing Dr. Carroll’s vision of a place for the people, by the people. The Sonoma Valley Grange put on a fundraising barbecue. Irma and Mary Bundschu organized a gala open house at the building; others put on performances to raise money for the new organization. By July, all manner of tenants were providing programs and performances to the community – and by August, the organization had been officially incorporated.
The rest, as they say, is history. (And don’t worry: all of the structural issues have since been addressed.)
In fact, the Sonoma Community Center’s 70-year story is full of interesting episodes like this one. For example, some might know that Wes Craven’s first “Scream” movie was filmed at the Sonoma Community Center. But did you know that Sonoma’s win got Santa Rosa blacklisted in Hollywood? The 1996 film was meant to be shot at Santa Rosa High, the backdrop for many previous movie productions (including “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Inventing the Abbots”). But shortly before filming was set to begin, the school suddenly dropped out. A variety of reasons were cited, but rumor has it that the community wasn’t too thrilled about a slasher film being shot at the local high school. Wes Craven was less than happy, and even included a stab at the school in the movie’s credits.
In any case, Santa Rosa’s loss became Sonoma’s win. Daniel Casabonne, the community center’s executive director at the time, saw an exciting way to put the Valley on the map, and offered up the center’s 1915 former school building as an alternative site. The production company agreed, scenes were re-written, and the center’s second floor was temporarily transformed into Woodsboro High School. Lots of locals still remember their time playing extras in the film – and to this day, “Scream” aficionados come from all over the country to re-enact scenes at key locations in the building.
Come learn more about these and lots of other stories at the community center’s “That 70th Show” exhibition, which opens on Jan. 27 in honor of the organization’s milestone anniversary. Curated by local artist Mike Acker, the exhibit features images and historical materials that tell the story of how the center got its historic landmark designation, how it became a concert venue for Green Day, and much much more. And because the center continues to be a place for the community, by the community, you’ll also find an interactive wall where you can contribute your own stories to the larger narrative.
The story of the community center is the story of Sonoma. Come be a part of it from Jan. 27 through April 30. An opening reception takes place on Friday, Jan. 27, from 5 to 7.30 p.m. For more information, call 707-938-4626 or visit sonomacommunitycenter.org/about/celebrating-70-years.