Landmarks: Rosenberg’s department store a fond memory
Edited version, 1/8/13
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
Today people know the building as home to Barnes & Noble, but for Santa Rosans old enough to remember, 700 Fourth St. will always be Rosenberg’s department store.
“We all have our Rosenberg’s memories,” columnist Gaye LeBaron wrote in 1994, “school uniforms, prom dresses, a first charge account, a wedding gown, the Christmas vacation job, the special slippers your mother always wanted for her birthday, the clerk who called you by name.”
Rosenberg’s provided a number of “firsts” for several generations, from first jobs to first prom dresses and silverware sets. The building also was unique, an unassuming structure built in 1937 in the style of architecture that would later be known as art moderne.
It was Rosenberg’s fourth downtown location, replacing one structure that was destroyed by fire in 1936 and another that was damaged in the 1906 earthquake. The new building cost $250,000, a whopping sum for Depression-era times, and represented a declaration of hope. It became a spectacle in its own right, with a model exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island as “an exemplar of future architectural technology.”
The building was steel-frame with reinforced concrete, adorned with the trademark glass-enclosed tower that still shines neon green. In 1950, the Rosenberg family sold the business and the building to the McNeany family, which operated the business until its closure in 1988.
“My grandfather [Joseph McNeany] owned a store in Fond Du Lac, Wis.,” said Bill McNeany Jr. “In the late 1940s there was a fire that destroyed the store, [so] instead of rebuilding he decided to retire. During his retirement they traveled up and down the coast of California and fell in love with the town of Santa Rosa. He purchased Rosenberg’s in the early 1950s.”
The McNeanys continued the tradition of customer and community service, even retaining the signature doorknobs that bore the letter “R.” A first floor annex was added in 1961, and though another severe earthquake caused cosmetic damage in 1969, the store carried on. The current Barnes & Noble occupies the former store, composed of two floors and distinguished by the mezzanine that remains today.
“The old Keegan Bros. Store, which is now Peet’s Coffee on the corner of Second and D streets, housed our linens and domestics department along with children’s,” said McNeany. The main store housed the men’s and women’s departments, cosmetics, lingerie, shoes and greeting cards.
The McNeanys lost ownership of the store between 1966-1982 but were able to re-purchase it in 1982, hoping to save the building and the store. Financial difficulties that were exacerbated by the new Santa Rosa Plaza led to its final closure in 1988, McNeany said.
“The decision to close was a very difficult one for my dad [Bill McNeany, Sr.],” he said. “We had over 100 employees at the time, and he was very concerned about their welfare.”
Shortly after, the Art Deco Society of California chose the building for its Preservation Award, citing its status as the largest and most modern department store north of San Francisco and adding, “ADC gives it an award in fond hopes that it might be saved.”
Vacant since the store’s closure, the building’s roof leaked and vagrants moved in. Although many said it couldn’t be saved, a committee was established in 1990 to prevent the building’s demolition. Although the city approved plans for its demolition in 1994, Barnes & Noble was looking for space in the area. Developer Tom Robertson bought it for $1.8 million and set to work restoring it with the help of Healdsburg-based Monticello Group.
By using original materials, the building remained eligible for historic landmark status and subsequent tax credits for its developer. The work was painstaking. After a long search, replacements for the original “Owens-Illinois, catalog No. 317” art deco glass were found in Chicago, and further renovations revived interest in the building.
Long-time customers and employees praised the Rosenberg and McNeany families for their care. One woman even asked for a piece of tile from the second floor, where the women’s department had been. Barnes & Noble and Starbucks Coffee opened, as did newly-formed upstairs offices.
In 2000, Sonoma developer Steve Ledson purchased the building. Although stalled by the recession, his plans call for significant changes, including a new eight-story structure on what is now the Barnes & Noble parking lot.
“I would like to do an eight story, older-style building that is in keeping with what downtown Santa Rosa was like when the Rosenberg building went up,” Ledson told the Press Democrat in 2000. “I really enjoy historical buildings, so I want to make sure what goes up next door is in top shape and it keeps that way forever.”
In the meantime, bookstore shoppers can still breathe in the history of the building, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.