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Happy 100th birthday Martinez City Hall!

525 Henrietta St., Martinez.  (San Francisco Public Library History Room Architect and Engineer 1917)
525 Henrietta St., Martinez.
(San Francisco Public Library History Room Architect and Engineer 1917)

By KRISTIN HENDERSON
Special to the Tribune

NOTE: The following is Part 1 of several installments on Martinez City Hall.

The building where we visit the police department, pay our water bills, submit our building plans, and attend public meetings began its life in 1917 as a Grammar School. I still remember Mario Menesini – upon Mike Menesini’s 2006 re-election – exclaiming from a City Council audience that he went to school in the very building in which we were standing. In 1994, according to the Martinez Historical Society, Nancy Hobert wrote the history of the Martinez Grammar School for the newspaper. This history was handed out during a Martinez Home Tour  and reads:

The newly renovated Martinez City Hall is now open for business at 525 Henrietta Street. When the City Council reconvenes it will be in what was originally the gymnasium for the Martinez Grammar School. Martinez Grammar School was located between Castro and Alhambra on the east and west and Mellus and Jones on the north and south. Plaza de Ignacio Martinez, located in the middle of the block, was used as a playground.

The school was built in stages. The first building, which is now the Boys and Girls Club, was then a two story building, dedicated the week of Sept. 13, 1909. As the population of Martinez grew, so did the demand for classroom space, and on May 16, 1916, the School Board minutes stated: “At various meetings the matter of an additional school was discussed.” The Stockton architectural firm of Stone & Wright was hired that night to design a new school house. Plans called for $45,000-$50,000 to construct the building.

The $49,000 building was completed by Aug. 24, 1917, and was first occupied on Sept. 4, 1917. “The many who have inspected the building, which has every modern convenience in the way of lighting, heating and ventilation, say that it is by far one of the finest school buildings ever erected in this section of the state. … There were numerous changes made in the wall studding, sheeting, brick work across the back, scenery for the assembly hall stage, concrete court, cement sidewalks, curbs and gutters and iron fencing across the front which were not provided for in the plans, but to provide for omissions or mistakes in the plans only $70 was expended, which is an enviable record for a job of that size and cost. …” (Daily Gazette, Aug. 30, 1917)

The Field Act was passed in 1938 and all school buildings were surveyed by the State Dept. of Architects. Buildings that did not comply were put on a schedule of upgrading. An official of the School Planning Division of the Department of Education toured the building in October 1952 and sent a devastating letter listing the multitude of items that needed to be upgraded. A group of concerned citizens requested the School Board to abandon the building on Henrietta Street in January of 1953. Throughout the first six months of 1953, the issues were debated, and in May 1953, a cost summary was made to repair the building. The work included structural, roof, door and sash repairs; adding fire escapes; painting, electrical, plumbing and heating work. The cost, including architectural and engineering fees of $16,467, was $214,069. The Board issued a position paper on other reasons besides cost why the building should not be considered for repair under any conditions. The reasons list[ed] were poor design, undesirable location, inadequate site, mental health of teachers, outside noise, more money spent would make it more permanent and “would not allow the children to enjoy the same educational facilities the children in Montecito and John Muir experience.” The decision was to construct wings of seven or eight classrooms at Montecito and John Muir, and consider a small primary school downtown when the District could afford it.

During the next 18 months, correspondence flew between the School District, appraisers and title companies. Monsignor William M. Burke of St. Catherine’s Church, and the City of Martinez were both interested in purchasing the brick school building. The trustees of the Catholic Church finally withdrew their request for consideration in March 1955. Superintendent Willard B. Knowles wrote to the City Council offering the property to the city for $5,000 down and $5,000 a year for seven years, for a total of $40,000. The offer was accepted.

School board trustees at that time were President Charles Laird, Emory Taylor, Kermit Coon, Phyllis Wainwright, and Lester Small. City Council members were Mayor Jack Fries, George Freschi, Thomas Francis McMahon, Robert Williamson, and William R. Zufall.

No doubt Martinez Historical Society has hard copies.

Martinez City Hall, 525 Henrietta St., has undergone three significant changes to its architecture and uses. We are going to examine these changes over a few installments of this column and in reverse chronological order. So, why does City Hall look the way it does now?

As a reaction to the 1989 earthquake, the City of Martinez – under the aegis of then City Manager Jim Jakel – planned to remove the brick from three facades of City Hall. On July 26, 1990, the Design Review Committee relayed poignant misgivings about these alterations (click here to see original document). On June 27, 1992, Planning Commission Chair Gus Kramer, wrote a letter to the City expressing the Commission’s “serious concern” over the removal of this brick. In a rare commentary on local government setting an example for its citizens, the Commission wrote:

The Planning Commission wishes to express its serious concerns with this “emergency” project and the process used to approve it. In addition, the Commission wants to provide the City Council with the comments of the Design Review Committee. To our knowledge, these comments have not been provided to the Council by the Director of Public Services.

The Commission feels that the brick removal will make the City Hall unattractive and set an undesirable precedent. How can the Commission hold private applicants to a high standard of design when the City does not hold itself to the same standard? What can the Commission say to an owner of an historic brick building in the downtown area who proposes brick removal rather than restoration?

This project was referred to the Design Review Committee for review of exterior colors only. The Committee members were so opposed to the proposal that they refused to rate the project. The Committee members asked to review other options. Although the City secured opinions from two engineering firms, no architectural firm was employed. No other options have been presented to the Design Review Committee.

We believe that the emergency has been largely eliminated by the exterior scaffolding. We request that the Mayor and Council delay the project and appoint a subcommittee to meet with the three architects who serve on the Planning Commission and the Design Review Committee. The subcommittee would provide the Public Services Director with direction in investigating further alternatives.

Ultimately, City Hall’s brick facades and terra-cotta were saved, although many other alterations occurred. Some of the Arts and Crafts-period architectural terra-cotta was in the way of the renovations, so they were hung inside City Hall. Thanks to a Tile Heritage Foundation Grant received in 2008, research revealed that the brick maker (Livermore) was also the terra-cotta maker.

I am considering nominating Martinez’s 1917 City Hall/Grammar School to the National Register of Historic Places. However, because of the many rehabilitations that have changed the character-defining features of what was originally a type of utilitarian “Prairie School” style architecture, I am seeking outside advice before I undertake such an expensive and monumental task.

Stay tuned to next week when we meet Frank Lloyd Wright.

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