Nevada County’s North Star House to be restored as events center
No one was more happy Tuesday that Nevada County gave its blessing to restoring fabled North Star House to its former grandeur than Catherine Conway Gerstung, the great-granddaughter of famed house occupants A.D. and Mary Hallock Foote.
“Marian Foote Conway, my mother, would be overjoyed, since she spent quite a few hours up here trying to get somebody interested in the North Star House in 1966, when my grandmother died,” she said.
“There was absolutely no interest at all in it — even though it was a Julia Morgan (architectural commission) — so this is wonderful.”
She and her daughter, Jennifer Gerstung, said it was heartbreaking to watch over the years as the property was destroyed by vandals and overgrown with weeds before the North Star House Historic Conservancy in 2006 leased it from the Bear Yuba Land Trust and spent almost the next decade of volunteer labor fixing it up.
“We’re so blessed to have the community take this on,” said Jennifer Gerstung, 43, the great-great-granddaughter of the Footes. “I’m so grateful to see my family legacy be preserved.”
In a series of four unanimous approvals, Nevada County Board of Supervisors gave the green light for a two-phased master plan to develop North Star House’s 14-acre property in unincorporated Grass Valley near the Nevada County Fairgrounds as a historic public cultural and events center.
Phase I, estimated for completion within about the next year or two, will fix up the first floor and improve paving, allowing access of up to 325 people per day.
Phase II, estimated to take up to 10 years, will add a 3,600-square-foot main stage and a smaller stage, a second floor restoration, additional septic and paving, and a left turn lane on Auburn Road, allowing up to 575 people per day.
If additional septic capacity is added, the maximum numbers of people could rise to 375 in Phase I and 650 in Phase II.
“What we have here is of huge overriding public benefit to go forward,” said Supervisor Chair Nate Beason. “It’s one of these things that’s been hiding in plain sight for a long time.”
About 35 Conservancy members and other supporters of the project attended the proceedings, some testifying as the worth of the project.
“I believe North Star House is of significant economic value to the region,” said Jim Bair, pointing to a June 26, 2014 article in the San Francisco Chronicle in which Julia Morgan, who died in 1957, was posthumously awarded architecture’s highest honors for pioneering the California Craftsman style of construction.
“This building is a seminal work of Morgan’s right in our county — this is the beginning of a reach out to all of California.”
Conservancy board member David Wright said North Star House in 1905 was the second commission for Morgan, who went on to design more than 700 buildings, including Hearst Castle.
“North Star House is the only commission that we know of in the Sierra Nevada,” Wright said. “It’s one of the best examples of California Craftsman style — simple, unadorned, organic and using materials taken from the site.”
Conservancy board president Joe Heckel said the group was able and willing to comply with a host of mitigation measures and conditions imposed to control traffic, noise, parking, sanitation and other concerns.
“You name it, we’ve studied it,” Heckel said. “This is an iconic Nevada County resource and we want to open it to the public.”
Heckel said the master plan approval will allow the Conservancy to apply for grants and obtain additional funding.
“Our business plan calls for sustainability,” he said.
The master plan calls for 263 parking spaces. In accordance with a noise study done last year, amplified music will be limited to a maximum 95 decibels and must be turned off by 10 p.m.
On the opening day of Nevada County Fair, North Star House attendance will be limited to 150 people.
Although the site has two main driveways for entering and exiting, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Deputy Fire Marshal Terry McMahan said there are service roads on the property that could be used for emergency vehicle access if other routes are blocked by traffic.
“It’s the same as at the fairgrounds,” McMahan said.
The appearance of Conway Gerstung, at the end of the public hearing, triggered tears for some people. Conway Gerstung’s great-grandfather, A.D. Foote, was the superintendent of the North Star Mine.
He and wife Mary Hallock Foote, a writer and artist, entertained investors and local officials at North Star House during their tenure.
“Catherine, your presence here today makes a huge difference,” said Nevada County Supervisor Ed Scofield. “It’s really touching to see you here.”
Keith Logan, a friend of the Gerstungs, choked up as he read a prepared statement from Catherine Conway Gerstung.
“My family lived in the North Star House until its sale in 1968,” Gerstung’s statement said. “I still have a few of the original furnishings in my home across the street.”
Cheryl Belcher, Conservancy treasurer, said the Footes had, in fact, made North Star House the cultural, educational and social events center of their time.
“It’s ironic,” she said. “Now, we’re coming full circle.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
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