Historical tug of war – Controversy surrounds restoration of North Star House
On a recent Tuesday morning, the North Star House and grounds bustled with activity – volunteers were everywhere, whacking weeds, toting plywood, and scrubbing graffiti off the home’s original redwood panels.
On Saturdays, the graying volunteer ranks are joined by families and 9-to-5ers, said Cheryl Belcher.
Belcher is the executive director of the Nevada County Land Trust, which acquired the 99-year-old house last year following a prolonged campaign. Legally owning the 11,000-square-foot house – thanks to the generosity of donor and developer Sandy Sanderson – was only the first step in its costly, and controversial, restoration.
Last year, the building was in shambles. Water dripped through the hole-filled roof, caving in the concrete ceilings below. Plywood partitions and patchwork plumbing, relics of the house’s stint as a school for troubled youth, scarred the home’s interior.
And reminders of the most recent inhabitants, a gang of vandals and drug addicts, cover the walls in the form of crude graffiti, paint splatters, and smashed windows.
Belcher can see past the destruction, imagining a time when the house is again intact. “We got it before it was too late … Isn’t it great we stopped the destruction?”
But not every visitor can overlook the numerous references to drugs, sex, bodily functions, and Nazism that cover the house’s interior. The masonry has also been dismantled, perhaps destroyed during a futile search for hidden gold.
“Depending on their frame of reference, (visitors) either look at it and go, ‘Wow, what a great house,’ or they look at the graffiti and the extent of the vandalism and they say, ‘Oh, this is terrible. How could this have happened?,'” Belcher said.
Other visitors take a third view. Members of the North Star Foundation and other critics are disturbed not by the vandalism, but by the improvements added by the Land Trust.
They cite the concrete tiles used instead of the original shake shingles, the removal of large wooden columns and the tapering of the chimneys.
“Things were done with no planning … they were just rebuilding stuff,” said Rob Kellenbeck, a co-director of the North Star Foundation. “Columns were removed that shouldn’t have been removed; the redesign of eyebrows on the roof were not accurate.”
Kellenbeck and his partner, Neal Mitchell, founded the North Star Foundation in the late 1990s to gather support to save the ailing structure.
They have many qualms about the Land Trust’s actions, but the fatal error in Kellenbeck’s view was the Land Trust’s failure to conduct a historic assessment.
“This is a national historic structure, important to the architecture of the United States,” Kellenbeck said. “You can’t just do a mediocre restoration of structures like this.”
Belcher and former project manager Bruce Conklin acknowledge the group’s criticisms, but differ on how to best restore the property. When the Land Trust acquired the house and 14 acres last December, its leaders feared the roof would fall in, exposing the interior to wind and rain.
“We didn’t think it would last another year,” Belcher said. “We studied pictures as best as we could.”
The roof was their first priority. The Land Trust ruled out wood shingles -the original material – due to their flammability. After studying many materials, Land Trust leaders selected concrete tiles designed to mimic wood, Conklin said, a decision he fully supports.
Kellenbeck lauds the Land Trust’s effort to protect the house, but he said the house should have been temporarily stabilized until a historical assessment could be done.
But Belcher and Conklin wanted to get a sturdy, fire-safe roof atop the building as soon as possible. And they realize they’re not restoring the house to its original state.
“We want the building to be restored, but its not going to be put under glass,” Belcher said.
She is open to strict preservation – if the Land Trust had a beefy $15 million check to cover the construction and provide an endowment for maintenance. But so far that special millionaire hasn’t knocked on the Land Trust’s door. So the house will not appear precisely as it did in 1905, nor will it be a museum. For $3 to $4 million, the Land Trust can do a “historic adaptive reuse restoration,” Belcher said.
A recreated turn-of-the-century interior and exterior just isn’t possible without $15 million, Belcher said.
Kellenbeck, however, thinks that accurate restoration is the key to securing donations and grants. He said the foundation has several potential donors “standing in the wing” who are willing to act when a plan has been developed for the home’s restoration.
But those benefactors haven’t materialized.
The Land Trust is investigating the feasibility of several “sustainable” uses of the fully restored house, including a conference center, wedding facility, bed and breakfast, and educational center. Belcher emphasized the Land Trust will consider other suggestions. She guarantees some portion of it will be open to the public.
The Land Trust also has hopes of securing $50,000 of Proposition 40 money to open the site with trails, a restroom, and parking. Although she is confident of receiving the money, Belcher doesn’t know when it will actually be approved.
The Land Trust is also reviewing proposals from several architecture preservation firms. To select one to study the property, however, the non-profit will need at least $50,000 to fund the necessary work.
Belcher is unfailingly optimistic, however. She has the assistance of a corps of dedicated volunteers and has benefited from “amazing community love.”
But the Land Trust’s top priority is thwarting the vandals, who have made a comeback in recent weeks. Someone broke through the fence Monday night and stole several photographs.
Belcher said they plan to rig up a camera and light system and move a manager on-site.
The next priority is to protect the house from the elements before winter. Belcher estimates secure windows and doors will cost $250,000 – money the Land Trust needs to raise.
Free tours of the North Star House are offered on the first and third Saturday of each month. Call 272-5999 to reserve a spot. Work days are held Tuesday and Saturday mornings. To volunteer, call 272-5999.
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