Every work day, I look out my office window and study the Sonora Dome. Sometimes when the sun hits it just right, it is magical.
It was one of two buildings I was curious about when I came for an interview — the other being the Curtin Mansion. That day, I learned the history of both: Curtin painstakingly renovated, although still unused; the Dome abandoned and left to decay for the past eight years.
I have, of course, read and edited all the stories we’ve published over the past three years and many more published before my time. But I had not been inside the building until Tuesday.
Pat Chabot, Sonora High superintendent, showed me around.
The sky was full of smoke from the firefight in Mariposa County, but even so, the view of downtown Sonora and the hills beyond from atop the steep hill on Barretta Street was magnificent. Even better from the ballroom on the second floor of the Dome.
Up a few steps, though the columns and once blue double doors, the building remains set in time, both as Sonora High’s administrative offices and as Sonora Elementary.
A large portrait of Vernon Dunlavy, Sonora High’s first superintendent, hangs opposite a glassed-in board showing the numbers of the offices — Mocse Credit Union, Tuesdays 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. room 107, superintendent 109. Outside room 109, the benches where legions of elementary school students sat while awaiting punishment from the principal remain.
The school clock in the front office suite stopped at 6:39, and the intercom system is mute.
In essence, today the 20,000-square-foot building is one big storage facility. Hundreds of cardboard boxes hold school records, each meticulously marked with the date when they can be shredded or to identify those that must be kept forever.
Two huge classrooms with large double hung windows hold artifacts in varying conditions from the Tuolumne County Historical Society — a Victrola, a wicker baby carriage, a Washington Street sign and any number of old wooden desk chairs. Lots and lots more.
In another room crammed with large, full, black plastic bags and poker tables and signs and just stuff are the fixings for Sober Grad Night.
Ceilings and walls have cracked, carpet burned by sun into little more than dirt.
The one working room is the KAAD radio station studio, a refuge from the disuse of the rest of the building, located in a corner of the basement.
This place in 1909 cost $50,000 to build. Generation after generation of Sonora’s children were educated there. As Chabot says, “the movers and shakers of Sonora all went to school here.”
The building became too small for a growing enrollment and then state architects said it could be a school no more. Earthquake unsafe. By 1973, elementary students were in a new building on Greenley Road and the next year the district sold the building and all the outlying property and buildings to Sonora High to keep it out of the hands of someone town leaders didn’t want to have it.
In 2002, a local non-profit paid for a study of the building. While its cost analysis is now seriously out of whack, its descriptions of what’s wrong and what the place could be can serve as a roadmap for the new group adopting the age-old rallying cry “Save the Dome.”
The Historic Dome Preservation Group says it needs $7 million to make repairs and upgrades. Their idea is museum and art galleries on the main floor, offices and other public space on the second, similar to what HMR Architects said in 2002.
Angela Brown, the president of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, said the preservation group has twice spoken to the society’s board about the plans but it is too early to say whether the society would be interested in moving there from its home in the former county jail on Bradford Street.
It’s early all the way around, but, still, those labels — museum, art galleries, offices, public spaces — are too ethereal for public consumption. Plus, this is 2018 and the idea of a creative workspace is one that should be considered. Imagine artist studios or old-fashioned printmakers. Bright, cheery communal spaces for writers. Culinary arts and meals in the ballroom. Dance and theater classes with performances on the ballroom stage.
And then the balloon of imagination bursts when the idea of parking is raised. At best there are 10 spaces around the dome. There is some street parking. The closest public parking lot is at the bottom of the giant hill on which the dome sits at the corner of Church and Washington.
Tear down the two buildings beside the dome? Talk the board into letting go of the Cassina High property? Or, as HMR Architects suggested, get the city to build a parking garage on the baseball field?
As I stood there Tuesday looking at the field and the two adjacent buildings and the street below it seemed like such a big undertaking.
But the folks who built this community had much bigger obstacles. They endured, and so has the dome. Now this community can figure out how to continue its life.