Osborn/Woods legacy of history lives on in NC
With the passing this month of David Osborn, Nevada County lost one of its great champions of art and architecture, and a pioneer in the historical preservation movement. It was my great privilege to have known Osborn and his partner, Charles Woods, for more than 40 years, during which time I have been a staunch supporter of many of their projects. The two men arrived in Nevada City in 1957 as graphic designers for the now-defunct firm of Berliner & McGinnis.
Shortly thereafter, they teamed with the late George Mathis, the eminent Gold Country artist whose sketches are still in demand and are displayed nationwide. Their studio/shop, known as Mathis/Osborn and Woods, was in the National Hotel Annex, which in the mid-1960s gave way to the Golden Center Freeway.
Mathis, his wife, Jean, and daughter, Carol, left Nevada City for Coloma, where they opened the Friday House art center. Mathis was recruited by Aerojet to illustrate some of its space projects. Three of these illustrations are on permanent display in the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Osborn and Woods continued to operate the business. In 1961, after a fire in the Hotel Annex, the two purchased 244 Commercial St. for their graphic arts studio and printing business. A restoration followed. Here’s the story.
With a few exceptions, the entire downtown area of Nevada City is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district is delineated by city ordinance as “An irregular area bounded roughly by Spring, Bridge, Commercial, York, Washington, Coyote and Main streets.”
Within this area are scores of Gold Rush architectural treasures. At 244 Commercial St. stands one of the first of these buildings to be returned to its 19th century integrity. Lewis & Wright, J. J. Jackson’s Bee Hive Grocery, Osborn and Woods and the new J. J. Jackson’s were all tenants of the building.
According to late Nevada City historian H. P. Davis, the present building was constructed shortly after the fire of 1856 on the site of one that had been destroyed. The new structure housed a retail establishment downstairs and a “pool parlor” upstairs. The parlor’s proprietor was listed as Mrs. Susan Boley.
The original building had a gable roof, and the ceiling of the second floor was a foot deep with brick and rubble. This was a common 19th century fire-prevention practice, as were the iron shutters on the windows and doors.
When Osborn and Woods purchased the building, which was variously known as the Kelsey Building and Lewis & Wright, it was painted a pea-green. The upstairs shutters were closed, and “Nevada City Variety” was painted in script across the second-floor front. The building had most recently housed a dime store.
“It was a mess inside. I fell through the floor in one spot,” Woods recalled. “Spaces were chalked off on the upstairs floor and rented out for storage.
“We were in the middle of a big printing … so we had to get another place right away. Commercial Street was definitely (a) secondary (choice),” he said. Forty years ago, it was thought that a Broad Street location was preferable and more prestigious as a downtown venue.
The first floor was remolded or stabilized in about a month. The exterior was painted and the front windows, which had been tipped inward in a “’40s style,” were brought to the horizontal. The two well-known golden eagles on the roof were saved from the old Hall of Justice on Kearny Street in San Francisco on the eve of that building’s demise.
“On the last day … we got those birds out just as the building came down,” Woods said, chuckling.
New wiring was in place, and interior walls were cleaned and painted. Some notable first-floor acquisitions included cabinetry from a drugstore on upper Market Street in San Francisco, a fake fireplace from a Sacramento house removed for freeway construction and pilasters from Second Street in Marysville.
In the 1960s, preservation of Nevada City’s historic architectural integrity became a vital issue. Mainly, it seemed to be 20th century progress versus 19th century status quo. Groups were formed that seemed to be both for and against historic preservation. From this dialogue came an awareness of Nevada City’s unique place in California Gold Rush history, especially its architecture. Osborn and Woods were in the vanguard.
In future columns, we will relate more of the “hows” and “whys” of Nevada City’s historic district and those who worked to make it a reality. In the early 1960s, the battle of the freeway split the town into two camps before the town was split physically, which hastened the effort to preserve Nevada City’s past for the future.
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. Write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945.
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