As a kid, Jesse Connor’s idea of a good time was to get under an abandoned Victorian, climb up into it and walk around, imagining how it was. Or he’d sneak into an old train station and, dodging doves and bats, search through musty old trunks, and play along the rickety dock that held waiting passengers in days gone by.
“I’ve always had an affinity for structure, for old things,” says Connor, 59, a Nevada City designer and contractor who, with his wife Kay, has renovated many award winning structures in Nevada County, among them the Emma Nevada House on Broad Street (winner of a National Merit Award from Better Homes & Gardens magazine), and now their own residence, which recently received yet another Stan Halls Architectural Award from the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce.
The Connors’ Searls Avenue home began as a beer keg cellar. It sits across from what later became the Nevada Brewery and bottling works, first owned by Emille Weiss in the 1860s. A fire in 1891 took the wooden brewery down along with the roof of Weiss’ small residence atop the cellar. The brewery was bought and rebuilt in 1896 by Simon Hieronimus, the cellar site reconstructed with extensive stone and brickwork and backed into the hillside to keep the beer cool. Hieronimus also replaced and expanded the second story residence. Back then, folks stayed close to their businesses, particularly if the business was beer!
Building was full of trash
Over the years, the building went through many stages and ultimately became a storage or dumping ground for various auto parts and trash. Broken down vehicles accumulated and disintegrated in the front of the structure itself, which was made entirely of wood. But on a tip from Elise DeMattei, a neighbor and the granddaughter of ol’ Hieronimus, Connor learned about the extensive stone and brickwork that used to cover the front of the building. That’s all he needed to hear, and he was on to another major remodel to recreate what once was.
As he dug into the project, he discovered the cellar filled to the brim with decades-old trash. But the original foundation and the original cold-storage cellar were there, as echoed in the description offered by The Daily Transcript on Aug. 20, 1896: “The walls are built of granite, the floor of concrete, and the arched roof is of brick. Ventilation is provided by three brick chimneys. There is a well of wood water in one corner of the cellar, curbed with concrete and fitted with a pump.”
Fast forward to a beer cellar transformed in front by two richly created wooden garage doors with overhangs built from the original wood planks salvaged from the false roof popular at that time to reduce fire hazard. The garage walls – made of granite and stone – incorporate intermittent hand-blown glass bottles, each with a stamp on the bottom to identify the beverage it contained so it could be refilled on return.
The garage leads down to an extensive wine cellar with individual compartments that house various wine varietals. Each compartment is backlit and adorned with cast iron insignias on the doors. The well remains open and deep in the corner, crystal clear blue and green water streaming way down below. Rings of rust from beer kegs create a pattern in the cement floor. A long wooden bar, made entirely of recycled wood, shows off a glass bottle collection.
From the outside, wide sweeping stairs of stone lead up either side of the structure. One passes an old growth Walnut tree – a graft of black and English walnut that bears fruit to this day – on its way to the front porch and entry. The other curves around to the side of the pale teal-colored house with its darker blue scallop shingles to enter a brick-red door.
Looks can be deceiving
Never has the size of a structure been so deceiving. While curbside displays a nice wooden house atop a sturdy and beautiful brick and granite first story, once inside the labyrinth of living and dining rooms, kitchen, master bed and bath, staircases, a tucked-in rental unit, beautifully furnished guest room, and a bright and airy attic office space nicely fill 2,700 square feet of living space.
Throughout are signs of the past blended seamlessly with the present. A rich, dark brown leather couch cozies up to the fireplace. Antiques are peppered throughout, yet the bright wheat-colored kitchen with its smooth and creamy brown granite counter keeps life in the present. A stunning antique dining room table sits atop a sculpted carpet.
The master bedroom, which looks out toward the old walnut, comes equipped with a master bath that houses both glass shower and claw foot tub. Throughout the house, Connor has installed his trademark horizontal stain glass panels mounted high up a wall to let light flow throughout the home.
“There is so much character in old things that you can’t get out of new things,” says Connor, “so we should salvage as much as we can.” But new things have their place too, he concedes, pointing to antique original casements around a door adjacent to new granite counters. He likes the blend of old and new, as getting too precise and “perfectly antique” can be uncomfortable.
Mixing old and new
Connor admittedly enjoys the gift of gab, while his wife Kay focuses on the business end of things. Their office in the attic bespeaks their complementary styles. Kay’s desk sports a sleek computer with flat screen, tidy in-baskets, and a smooth, modern, desk surface. Jesse’s space incorporates an old roll-top desk where one might well find an inkwell and fountain pen if inclined to search.
Kay’s bookkeeping business is conducted in this bright and cheerful office with its separate entry for clients. The eaves of the attic become enclosed havens for storage. A quiet and private guest room is tucked around the corner from the office, complete with four-poster bed and the ubiquitous antique traveling trunk.
“My philosophy is to not waste anything,” says Connor. “There are histories and character and spirits in old houses. People are born, married, and die in a house. I feel all that.” He first learned about Nevada City back in the 1970’s and was told it was a ghost town and anyone could move into any of the houses. That got him up and moving!
“I’m a real lucky and blessed person,” he muses. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, what I’m born to do. I found this town where everything has history. To find out the history of each individual building fascinates me.”
Enough so to recreate an old beer cellar and move right into it!
Terri Bianco lives in Nevada City and loves the stories behind the homes she writes about.
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