The Man Who Corrupted Healdsburg
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Healdsburg's Most Famous Developer
The photograph, if it exists at all apart from local memory, can be found now only in an old, tucked away issue of the long-gone and lamented New West Magazine.
In the photograph, a burly young man with the muttonchop sideburns of the mid-seventies is standing in one of the walkways of Healdsburg's Plaza. Nearby is the small artillery field piece that now stands outside the Villa Annex, and the sign, "Healdsburg,
The Town that Adopted the (Whatever the number was) regiment of the U.S. Army". It was a Korean-War era leftover, a reminder of Healdsburg's long and honorable tradition of service in and support for America's military.
The brash young man, whose body language and assertive glare say "world by the tail", is staring directly at the camera. There is no shy smile, no caught-off-guard surprise at being photographed unaware. Instead the young man, in a response no doubt secretly envied by generations of pursued politicians and celebrities, is looking directly at the camera, and flipping it the finger.
The headline on the piece that followed, in homage to Mark Twain, read: "The Man Who Corrupted Healdsburg".
Larry Wilson, the man in the photograph, was a man with a vision. A dream of Healdsburg, how it ought to be. Though Wilson is long gone, we are living, today, in Healdsburg, with the consequences of that vision.
He was known, in the mid -seventies, as Healdsburg's Howard Hughes, a stranger from out of town with apparently unlimited resources he was willing to apply to a mystery plan to renovate Healdsburg's downtown.
For twenty-two months, Wilson had been buying up buildings on Healdsburg's Plaza's west side, then a pleasantly eclectic collection of Victorian brick storefronts and bays, with an overall harmonious small-town feel. A sense of how the town looked and felt then can be glimpsed now in the blowups on the wall inside Long's Drugs.
"We want a turn-of-the-century Main Street atmosphere," Wilson described his plan before the City Planning Commission in May of 1976, asking for a "favorable attitude" from city officials toward what city planners considered major problems in bringing the downtown buildings up to code. His proposal included artist's renderings of a transformed Plaza bordered by flagpoles in a "Plaza of the Flags" motif.
Healdsburg bumper sticker circa mid-1970s
-- courtesy of Healdsburg Museum
The Planners were not overly receptive to Wilson's proposal. When one planner said that a "Hollywood facade" covering dangerous public buildings would not be allowed, Wilson assured the commission that he intended no flagrant code violations and that he wanted a "quality development".
Wilson said that he hoped for a public meeting to further his plan. But Wilson's public appearances locally had been rare. Instead, Wilson preferred to oversee his vision from a distance: Hawaii, since, he explained in a quote that did not sit well with locals, "water seeks its own level."
Meanwhile, tenants of Wilson's buildings, whose owner of record was his wife, a member of a prominent Bay Area wholesale seafood family, were complaining that their rents had skyrocketed, while repairs to the old buildings had been neglected. Rumors continued to fly about Wilson's plans for the town. According to one, he intended to make Healdsburg a Theme Community, on the order of Solvang, the ersatz-Scandinavian village in Southern California. Only the operating theme, in Healdsburg, would be that of
|The Heidelberg Cafe anticipated Larry's dream 20 years earlier.|
the Tyrolean Alps, with the cops outfitted in lederhosen.
The following month, Wilson appeared again before the Planning Commission. He admitted that there had been a lack of communication with townsfolk about his plans for downtown and the Plaza. The result had been "untruths and rumors running around the city" which he hoped to dispel.
He hoped to begin after Labor Day with a "cosmetic" face-lifting, to be followed about eighteen months later, by another stage involving new construction. This would be succeeded by a period of several years during which the two stages would be blended into an overall look that would be "easy to the eye."
His renovation plans had been delayed said Wilson, a man still in his thirties, because he had suffered three heart attacks, and because one of his financial backers had gone into receivership. He was, he said, considering three offers to take over the development, including an outright sale of all his downtown properties.
"I don't expect the tenant to bear the brunt of the cost of development, but we do expect a return on our money. Nobody can put up new buildings and rent them for what we're renting for."
In what turned out to be prophetic statement, Wilson said: "We're not going to put money into buildings that won't pay. We'll close them all."
And that is pretty much what happened. The double whammy of high rents and skimpy repairs drove the tenants of some of which--Garrett Hardware, Wright's Feed Store, Carroll's Pharmacy, The Office---had been on the Plaza for decades, out of the neighborhood, and in some instances out of business.
There was, however, no rush of new tenants. The town was undiscovered by tourists then, and Sonoma County wines hadn't yet acquired the exalted reputation they have now. As the buildings continued empty, month by month, while, even with minimal maintenance, upkeep costs remained, Larry Wilson saw his cash flow thin to a trickle. Forced to make a deal, he sold his stalled Utopia to a Canadian financier, even further distant from the spirit of the community than Wilson was.
Eventually the entire western side of the Plaza was demolished, leaving space for the Stalinist wedding-cake constructions that have taken their place. His dream shattered, Wilson left the area and not long after died, of a heart condition, at forty-one.
So here we are, living in what is, in many ways a skewed version of Larry Wilson's theme community: wine culture, antiques, pricey restaurants, boutiques. Sure, it beats being malled by franchises, and tourism has brought us two fine independent bookstores and an interesting movie theatre. But wouldn't it have been something to see Healdsburg's cops outfitted in lederhosen?
John van der Zee © 2002-2003
© 2003 ourHealdsburg.com. All rights reserved.
John van der Zee
John van der Zee lives in Healdsburg. His books include: "Agony in the Garden", "The Gate, The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge", "Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience", "The Imagined City: San Francisco in the Minds of its Writers", Canyon: the story of the last rustic community in metropolitan America and "The Greatest Men's Party on Earth -- Inside the Bohemian Grove", among others.
Sources: Michael Mecham, "The World Discovers Larry Wilson", front page, The Healdsburg Tribune, Thursday, May 6, l976
Michael Mecham, "Oil for Troubled Waters. Developer Larry Wilson outlines plans to City Council" The Healdsburg Tribune, June l0, l976
New West Magazine An offshoot of the LA Times Sunday Magazine, New West was one of the many descendants of Clay Felker's New York, originally a Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. New West was a West-Coast Seventies version of the lively, personal, present-tense, farewell-to-objectivity New Journalism as sponsored by Clay Felker, and practiced by, among others, the young Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Gail Sheehy.
|The Heidelberg Cafe|
THE HEIDELBERG, Healdsburg, California, Telephone 34,
Specialties include the real Sauerbraten, Potato Pancakes and Red Cabbage. Exterior murals by Viennese artist - Frank Marcus
-- Postcard Photo from Circa 1950s. postcard (the building still exists on Healdsburg Avenue just south of Mill Street.)