Santa Rosa, California
Thursday, March 9, 2000
Monroe Hall is a west Santa Rosa institution
that has stood as a social center for 78 years
during good times and bad.


Building's wood floors harbor many memories, polished by decades of dancers' feet
by Penny Hastings, staff writer

Monroe Hall in west Santa Rosa hasn't changed much since the 1930s when Chuck Hayes used to watch the grownups two-step around the floor from a bench against the wall.

The music still rings and dancers swing, tap and twirl every day of the month at one of the oldest dance halls in the country, with a hardwood dance floor lauded by local hoofers, many of whom honed their dancing skills there. This is where some people even met their future mates.

To help feed the family during the poverty-pinched depression years, Chuck's father and uncles would sometimes rent the hall, located on West College Avenue, and put on country dances.

The Monroe Neighborhood Clubhouse, as it was called then, has a rich history. It was built in 1922 at the insistence of Monroe district women who began meeting seven years earlier "for social and intellectual advancement."

In the early years, they met in each others' homes and an occasional rebuilt chicken house. during World War I they helped the war effort by sewing quilts and knitting afgans for the servicemen.

They put up preserves, once sending more than 500 glasses of jelly to a hospital in Fremont for convalescing soldiers. Dues were $1.50 a year.

As the membership grew, so did the women's desire to have their own clubhouse.

They persuaded J. A. Larson to sell them a half-acre of property on what was then part of Guerneville Road, but which later became West College Avenue. He sold it to "the ladies" for $10. The first hurdle cleared, they borrowed $4,000 from Albert Leggett at 6 percent interest.

The women -- there were by then 38 members -- had to have their husbands co-sign, since money was not loaded solely to women at that time.

They build a 5,000-square-foot clubhouse consisting of a theater, ballroom, kitchen and club rooms. Today, the sturdy stucco building sits at the same location, at 1400 West College Ave., and from what old-timers in the area remember, it looks pretty much as it always did.

George Conners, 81, whose mother Minnie Conners was one of the earliest club members, was still wearing short pants when the hall was built. His early memories are hazy, but he says he spent a lot of time there when he was growing up. He remembers going to dinners and dances and card parties with his parents.

"I used to sell soft drinks for a nickel out of a big container of ice," he says. For dances, there was always live music, sometimes just a fiddler. "It was the social center. There wasn't any television or even radio in those days."

Conners left the area in 1942 and moved back to the county just six years ago. When he lived here as a boy he watched the dancers from the sidelines.

Now he dances regularly at the old hall. He prefers ballroom. He likes that the building hasn't changed much, although he sees the improvements -- the hardwood maple floor that was installed in 1947, the addition of restrooms and the remodeled kitchen.

Clarence and Charlotte Freitas are responsible, their tenants and dancers say, for "rescuing the clubhouse" from possibly being torn down or turned into a restaurant.

The Freitas met at a square dance over 30 years ago. After they married, they danced regularly at the west Santa Rosa dance hall with the Circles and Squares, a dance club that still meets there.

When the women's club decided to sell the building in 1977, the couple bought it and changed the name to Monroe Hall. In the 23 years since, the Freitas' have upgraded and improved the facility, but always stayed true to the character and history of the building.

For many years the hall barely broke even. They say they almost sold it once, but decided against it. Their tenants, all dance professionals who put on events or give dance classes, say that for Clarence and Charlotte, owning the hall is more than just a business. It's a "labor of love."

Steve Luther, who rents the hall for 92 events a year, including weekly country-western dances, says he enjoys using Monroe Hall. "It's almost like you're coming into someone's living room. They take care of the hall like it's their home and we're their guests. They decorate it for every holiday and bring armloads of fresh flowers from their home garden."

The couple say they aren't looking for new tenants. The hall is so popular, it is booked up every day of the year and into next year. Many current tenants have been with the Hall for years.

Katherine Malaby, who runs Katherine Wheeler Tap and Dance Class, thinks she takes the longevity prize if you don't count the square dance groups that were in residence since before the Freitas' bought the hall. "I love the place," she says. "I would hate to have to go someplace else."

There are usually three events going on daily -- from jazzercise in the morning to tap and jazz in the afternoon, with the nights reserved for ballroom dancing, square dancing, country-western, contradance, Sufi circle dancing and all the special events -- the hoedowns, hot salsa and cool swing, two-step, West Coast swing and something called Dance Jam.

Most of the evening dances begin with lessons. Steve Luther says his events cater to the beginner or intermediate dancer. Newcomers can come with or without a partner, and they can have two left feet.

"Everyone can learn to dance," Steve believes. "Dancing breaks down the barriers. It's healthy and makes people smile."

Another thing that makes some people smile are the wall decorations Clarence has put up over the years. The wooden walls, made of narrow boarding, are a rich brown, and go from floor to high ceilings.

After they bought the hall, Clarence decided to hang a few of his family's old farm implements and tools on the walls, just to spruce things up a bit. He began on one long (70-foot) wall. Soon he began adding "old stuff" he found at garage and barn sales. The collection grew.

Charlotte says, "When he got half way down the first wall, I told him, 'Why don't you just finish this wall and end it there?' But, he kept picking up stuff wherever he went, so he turned the corner." Friends and dancers started bringing him things they thought would fit in. "I couldn't turn them down," he said. So, he filled up that wall and turned another corner."

The resulting decor is somewhere between an old museum and livery stable.

An abundance of artwork and old-time farm tools and equipment tell the story of the rural lifestyle in western Sant Rosa during the early and mid 20th century.

While dancers catch their breath between sets, they can look at an old plow harness, horseshoes from mules and oxen as well as horses, a square nail collection, antique tools and barbed wire. They can gaze at an eclectic blend of ancient farm equipment, scenes painted on saw blades, a wringer from an old-time washing machine right next to an even older wash board. There's even a rattlesnake skin and a stuffed raven sitting on a branch. They could take lots of breaks and still not see it all.

The centerpiece of the hall is the rich, soft honey-colored, hardwood floor that covers the ballroom. Smooth and meticulously cared for, the maple floor, installed in 1947 for $1,400 has been burnished over the years by gliding and twirling feet.

The floor is unfinished. According to Clarence, he keeps it clean by frequent vacuuming so dust and dirt don't accumulate and get ground in. Once a year he rubs on a layer of lemon oil. Otherwise, he says, "The dancers' feet keep it polished."

While he can't hazard a guess as to how many people have danced on that floor in the past 53 years, he does know that each week anywhere from 200 to 500 dancers use the facilities.

For the first 50 years, the building was a true community hall, the scene of thousands of club plays, card parties, fundraising activities, social events and a twice-monthly dance to music played by local bands.

Today, it is "strictly ballroom," one of the few halls in the area used only for dancing.

If that old wooden floor could talk, it would surely tell tales of the thousands of dancers who waltzed, whirled and found romance on its smooth surface during the years.

Certainly it would smile at the memory of Rod Johnson, a 1951 Analy High School graduate, who went to a dance with his family. There he met a sweet 16-year-old named Bette Widulsky from Santa Rosa, also accompanied by her family. Bette says she was too young to date, so the young couple only saw each other at clubhouse dances, always under the watchful eyes of their families. eventually, Bette finished high school, and they married in 1955.

While they sometimes took time off during the years, when careers and the raising of three sons kept them busy, today they're back, dancing with the memories their feet stir up at Monroe Hall.

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