Paul Matson: Stay the course, Nevada City
Recently two important buildings were destroyed by fire in downtown Nevada City: 414 and 416 Broad St. The first structure was a long-time single-family home and is a contributing building on the National Register of Historic Places. The second, a professional office building.
Nearly 100 buildings within the downtown Historic District are on the National Register because they have either an “association with events that have contributed significantly to history” or “they are an embodiment of distinct characteristics of a particular period, type of architecture or construction method.”
National Register status is a great distinction. The list is notably long for this small town: the Nevada Theatre, Miners Foundry, the Courthouse, two fire houses, City Hall, Ott’s Assay Office, two churches, National Exchange Hotel, South Yuba Canal Building, and on and on. The Register research was conducted by the late Nevada County historian Ed Tyson.
At its Aug. 20, 2020, meeting, The Nevada City Planning Commission adhered to all of the city’s rules and guidelines in denying the application for the proposed new building at 414 Broad St. Those include the Historical Ordinance, architectural review, demolition, and building alteration and renovation. The new owner’s proposal met none of them. The Planning Commission vote was unanimous.
Nevada City native and significant property owner (including 416 Broad St.) Ken Baker testified at that meeting: “We have done work to reconstruct and remodel buildings within this core district and have never been afforded the low architectural standards outlined in the staff report. We appreciate that we have constructed to the (Historical) District requirements. It used to be that if you tore down a building in the Historic District you would rebuild it with like materials and on the same footprint. This is not happening as I see it in my review of the staff report.”
Bill Falconi, assistant city engineer, also testified: “Briefly, this place is on the National Register. I was here when they created the National Register and I think the only reason it is on the National Register is because it is the last example of a residence in downtown. So, it is kind of unique. We’ve worked with people. I think this building is in bad shape to say the least and needs a lot of TLC. But I think to add a second floor and to change the profile and the front is not in keeping with the Historical District and what has been intended over the years.”
This adherence to the guidelines for historic preservation is what makes downtown Nevada City so unique.
Bill Wetherall, long-time city attorney and author of the Historical Ordinance (adopted in 1968), wrote a “History of the Historical Ordinance.” Construction of the Grass Valley-Nevada City freeway was a “wake up call.”
“Mining operations, once the backbone of the local economy, were virtually non-existent,” he said. “There were numerous commercial vacancies up and down Broad Street.”
As we work our way through the pandemic, we are and will be facing higher vacancy rates and economic challenges once again. The ordinance goals and precepts to protect “Mother Lode” architecture are completely valid today.
In 2002, the building housing Friar Tuck’s restaurant, the Herb Shop, Off Broad Street Theatre and the Nevada County Probation Department burned to the ground. It was a contributing building to the National Register. Its replacement: a replica of the original structure.
In 2011, our community radio station, KVMR, teamed up with the Nevada Theatre to rebuild the barns behind the theater, once part of the Miners Foundry.
Their goal, which was highly successful, was to bring state-of-the-art broadcasting and performing arts facilities to each organization.
The three tin sheds were “non-contributing” to the National Register. The first application was unanimously denied by the Nevada City Planning Commission. The new design was not deemed faithful to Nevada City’s historical authenticity. The second application was granted, the design approved, a demolition permit issued, and we can all see and enjoy what was created.
The National Hotel, which is nearing completion, has worked within Nevada City’s guidelines, and it looks wonderful. It may well have been much more cost effective to tear it down and start over, but then it wouldn’t be The National.
As former Mayor Pat Dyer once said, “Nevada City moves forward by preserving its past and standing still in time.”
And as Mr. Wetherall summarizes his writing of 1996: “Nevada City has retained a unique character and ambiance which is truly reminiscent of its historical past. As a result, the city attracts thousands of visitors a year who contribute greatly to the local economy. Perhaps more important is the fact that the ordinance has helped spawn a cultural environment which makes Nevada City a better place to live — a city that deserves to be called, and is proud to be called, the Queen City of the Northern Mines.”
Paul Matson, who lives in Nevada City, is a former Nevada City City Council member and current member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not reflect the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Write to him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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