Tom Durkin
Special to Prospector

North Star House: preserving history for the future

Ten years ago, one of Grass Valley’s least known but among its most important historical treasures was almost lost to history, decay and vandals.

Once the showcase home of the owners of the North Star Mine, the North Star House, designed by famed California architect Julia Morgan, was on the verge of collapse.

“The house was in failure mode,” reported Cheryl Belcher, treasurer and resource development chair of the North Star Historic Conservancy.

Tuesday, Belcher and Peggy Levine, executive director of the conservancy, sat down with The Union on the grand veranda overlooking the west lawn of the North Star House to describe its history, its future – and the “house party” they’re throwing Saturday night.

Lorraine Gervais and the Love Bombs will perform for the conservancy’s first major benefit for itself on the grounds of North Star House. The nonprofit organization has hosted several successful concert benefits for the Bear Yuba Land Trust, so they decided to have one of their own.

Saturday, the gates open at 6:30 p.m., Lorraine and the Love Bombs rock out at 7:30, and tickets are $40 donations.

“The Love Bombs are my party band,” said Gervais, a veteran Nevada County performer.

She said they intend to kick out the jams with R&B, soul, blues and rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

There will be festival seating on the grass, so bring low-back chairs and blankets – and leave room for the dancers. No coolers or picnics, please, but Sierra Nevada and Budweiser beer, Szabo wines, Fable Coffee and other soft beverages will be for sale along with Papa Murphy’s Pizza, Calla Lily Crepes, and Lazy Dog Ice Cream, according to Barbara Tanner, event planner for the conservancy.

A “coming out” party

Although the conservancy has been around since 2007, Saturday’s benefit marks a bold step forward in its fundraising profile.

“This is a pivotal year for us,” declared Belcher.

In fact, Thursday (Aug. 14), the Nevada County Planning Commission is considering a formal application to remove the property from Special Development Area zoning limbo and rezone it as a “community event facility.”

Levine prefers the term “cultural events center.”

Belcher agreed, “It’s evolving into what it was before.”

She explained Mary Foote, wife of mine owner Arthur Foote, was a self-described “Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West” – and she wrote a book titled just that.

Naturally, a Victorian gentlewoman of means would host salons and events catering to the culturally sophisticated of her time.

According to the official planning commission agenda, the staff recommendation is a “mitigated negative declaration.” In English: the staff supports the rezoning.

While the rezoning of the property was not locked down as of press time, the highly controversial outside events ordinance was passed 3-2 by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, pending a second reading.

“That doesn’t affect us,” Levine said, noting the conservancy already meets all the legal requirements of hosting public and private outdoor events, including concerts, plays and weddings.

And this coming winter, the North Star House will be available for rental for indoor events on the first floor (the second floor is still in the restoration future file). For the first time in 30 years, the North Star House will have heating, running water and a new septic tank, Belcher said happily.

A brief recent history

In 2003, developer Sandy Sanderson purchased the mine property and donated the decrepit North Star House and the surrounding 14 acres to the Nevada County Land Trust (now the Bear Yuba Land Trust, which rents the Gardener’s Cottage on the property). This was the beginning of the meticulous, laborious, expensive – and still ongoing – rehabilitation of the architectural prize.

In 2004 and $420,000 later, structural reconstruction and a new roof ensured the architectural relic had a renewed and promising future.

In 2007, the North Star House Conservancy was founded. A small but committed army of members and volunteers (21,000 hours and counting) assumed the monumental task of restoring the 10,000 square-foot mansion and surrounding property and buildings.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” observed Belcher, who has been involved since the start.

In 2011 – in what many considered a no-brainer – the six-year process started by the Nevada County Historical Society culminated in the placement of the North Star House in both the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Resources.

Growing on you

For the past several years, North Star has hosted the Nevada County Certified Growers Market – from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays

It’s proved to be “a gathering place” said Levine and Belcher. People sometimes occupy every table on the veranda drinking coffee, talking and reading newspapers.

Because of the growers market, The North Star House is already a community center, said Levine and Belcher.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at tdurkin@vfr.net.


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The Union Updated Aug 14, 2014 10:05AM Published Aug 14, 2014 10:05AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.