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