Hospital on ‘Hernia Hill’ represented big leap in health care for Sonoma County

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Here’s a challenge: Take a drive up Chanate Road to the place once known as Hernia Hill, stand in front of the hospital building and tell any two people who will stop to listen that this building was constructed in 1936 by the Work Projects Administration and marked a dramatic change in the way medical care was delivered in this county.

Then ask them what they think about tearing it down. I’d guess that one might say “Wow! It’s historic. WPA buildings are treasures. It should be saved.”

And the other may say “1936! That’s more than 80 years ago. Time to tear it down and build something new that we need right now. And I have no idea what that ‘Works’ thing means.”

Most often, as we all know, it’s the “Tear it down” contingency that wins. They have more resources and can make the argument that it’s economically feasible and socially important. And that trumps — pardon the expression — history every time.

So here we go again — fighting tooth and claw over a piece of real estate and dismissing what time and generations of effort have accomplished there.

Katherine Rinehart, our diligent director of the History Library and official county archivist, touched on it July 11 in a letter to the editor.

And she evoked scholars, both local and national, who underscore the importance of that “Works thing” in our history.

She points out that the main hospital building and some other structures on that site “appear to be eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources.” Two years ago they were recommended for further historical evaluation.

Katherine’s concern was validated the very next day when the front page told us that the county supervisors had approved the sale of the hospital complex to a developer with big plans – more than 800 rental units, a grocery store, an amphitheater (for heaven sakes) and, I’m sure, much more to come.

Most of the old hospital building, of course, is slated for demolition, save for the facade, which could be saved.

There’s no question that we need those rentals. We’ve got a serious housing crisis on our hands. But we also need to keep in touch with a past economic triumph. Which is exactly what the hospital building represents.

I don’t know how many rentals that single structure on the 82 acres would displace.

But then, I don’t know how many Roman high-rise apartments could be built on the site of the Coliseum either, if you get my admittedly overreaching point.

It’s an understatement to say that health care is ever changing. Not only have we just learned that coffee is good for us but we can make babies in test tubes, transplant everything but brains and live 20 years longer than our grandparents.

The story that main building tells is not only about this evolution of medical care but about Sonoma County’s part in a national effort to prevent financial disaster.

The PWA (Public Works Administration) and the worker’s agency, the WPA, were part of what was known as the New Deal, FDR’s “alphabet soup” created in the 1930s to keep people at work — earning wages, maintaining their dignity — when the country’s financial system collapsed.

These New Deal agencies, subsidizing every job from ditch diggers and hod carriers to artists and playwrights, allowed citizens to keep their homes and their self-respect while improving the infrastructure and life in general in their communities.

There are literally thousands of historical sites throughout the country marking the legacy of the New Deal. The University of California’s Dr. Grey Brechin is head of the Living New Deal, California’s chapter of a nationwide effort known as the National New Deal Preservation Association.

Brechin has seen and studied the origin of that hospital building and others of our landmark sites, including the first buildings on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus.

He has already checked in on the news of the sale, writing to Archivist Rinehart that he has been “impressed by the quality of design and construction” of the hospital building and “how it fit into an ensemble of other New Deal structures.

“I would like to learn more about the developer’s intentions for the site. It’s hard for me to believe that the hospital could not be adapted to housing or other uses as so many other historic and architecturally significant buildings have been.”

Brechin, along with all of us in Sonoma County, owe a debt of historic proportions to the late Pauline Goddard, whose master’s thesis was a remarkably complete survey of all the New Deal work done in this county — from elementary school playgrounds and completely new high schools to airport runways and, yes, a new and for-the-time modern hospital.

Let’s talk about this New Deal treasure that was a source of such community pride when it was built. The news story about the sale and impending development said the central building was the “former Community Hospital.“ Well, it was whole lot more “former” than that.

It was “Community” for 30 years before the county leased it to Sutter, a Sacramento-based nonprofit hospital system in 1996. Sutter did well there, well enough to build a new hospital to the north and hand the weary old Depression-era building with its older and newer satellite structures, right back to all of us — as represented by our supervisors, who saw fit, earlier this month to agree to sell it, some would say for not enough, to a builder who plans to clear much of the land for development.

Before that it was the County Hospital with all the charity the name implies. Poor people were treated without pay. All the physicians in town worked a few hours a week free at “County.”

“Hernia Hill” was the physicians’ nickname, based on the most common complaint that took farmers and workmen to a doctor.

Until the New Deal’s WPA program delivered this most-modern of facilities, County Hospital had bounced from the second floor of the old courthouse in 1859 — a facility the 1865 Grand Jury found to be “wretched” — to a new building, housing both patients and indigents at the corner of Cherry and Humboldt streets.

By the mid-1870s, neighbors were passing petitions. Complaints ranged from the bad smells to fear of contagious diseases to indigents and ambulatory patients loitering around their homes.

The response was to send indigents to the Poor Farm built in 1878 two miles up Chanate Road in a place called Pleasant Valley. Ten years later a hospital was built on a knoll next to the Poor Farm, a Southern-style building with screened verandas all around.

Physicians complained a little about the tough path up the grade for their horses, but they continued their volunteer work until the automobiles made the trip easier and the WPA built a new hospital.

There were dramatic changes in the mid-20th century when county hospitals went the way of the poor farms and were opened to all.

Meanwhile, there was just the private Mary Jesse Hospital (later the Tanner) and, after World War I, General Hospital available for patients who could pay. Many had their hernias repaired in a physician’s office. Babies arrived in the homes they would grow up in. House calls were the standard — any time of the day or night.

The New Deal’s County Hospital ushered in a new medical era. In 1937 the University of California Medical School established a residency program in General Practice there. (General Practitioners, or GPs were the late 20th century equivalents of today’s Family Practice physicians.)

Many graduates of the program stayed in Sonoma County, bringing a new kind of “country doctor” to replace the horse-and-buggy generation that made house calls with pistols in their medical bags.

The late Dr. Frank Norman, one of the transition GPs and a student of Sonoma County’s medical history, would tell you it was Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover medicine. “Pesthouse to penicillin,” he would say, “in 100 years”

In less time, our wondrous new hospital of the ‘30s has gone from community treasure to a target of the wrecker’s ball. Some would suggest we pause for breath and find a way to keep a connection with an important piece of our past.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sutter Health is a nonprofit health care system. A previous version of this column incorrectly described its nonprofit status.

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