Paul Matson: We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again |

Paul Matson: We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again

Paul Matson

This will be a two-part series on the ways in which Nevada City, California has managed to be a successful full-service city with a population of just 3,000 people. That is no small accomplishment.

In the past and today, it has been and always will be up to the people who live here to keep things rolling in a strong, sustainable manner. We’ve been “there” before, and what has been done in the past to accomplish these tasks is today more relevant and needed than ever.

This is an incredibly challenging and difficult time, on just about every level, for almost everyone. Our people and businesses are getting hurt, just as they were in the mid 1960s with the demise of gold mining. It is my great hope that when all is said and done, Nevada City’s Historical Ordinance and its Historical District will continue to shine and be seen as way to help the downtown, and the town as a whole, to recover and regain its strength, as it has in the past.

In the mid 1960s Nevada City, after much thought and careful study, created a historical ordinance and historical district. The missions: preserve the town’s historical integrity, and at the same time, help revive a very depressed business district.

So much has been accomplished for the public good … by remaining the best preserved Gold Rush town in California.

The challenges facing the downtown merchants back in the 1960s have sadly returned due to COVID-19, and are further exacerbated by online shopping. Once again we are facing a serious financial crisis for our businesses, residents, and for funding our governmental public services. Tragically some businesses will not survive this recent, huge business interruption.

I firmly believe that the ordinance and adhering to it is at least as important today as it was some 50 years ago. It will assist us in reviving the vitality and economic wellbeing of downtown Nevada City. And that vitality will spread as before throughout the city’s other business districts and residential neighborhoods.


William “Bill” Wetherall wrote the Nevada City’s Historical Ordinance. It was adopted unanimously on Aug. 12, 1968 by Mayor John Rankin and City Council members Arch McPherson, Lon Cooper, Bob Paine and Joe Day. In 1996, Wetherall, Nevada City Attorney from 1959 to 1979, penned “The Story of the Nevada City Historical Ordinance.” I will refer to it more than a few times with quotation marks. It was my privilege to work with him during my early years on the City Council. He practiced law until his 100th birthday!

It took several years and a lot of study and thought to get it right. That included, as per Mr. Wetherall, work by the City Council members as well as community leaders such as Alf Heller, publisher of the Nevada County Nugget, Margaret Trivelpiece, reporter for The Union, and Dan O’Neill. Planning Commissioners Don Fairclough, Dr. Leland Lewis, Bob West, Howard Keene and James “Cap” Davis, Bill Lambert and Lon Cooper all contributed. Mr. Wetherall credits former City Manager Beryl Robinson, “whose steady hand on the throttle has kept the City moving on the right track.”

Others significant contributors were attorney Harold Berliner, artists David Osborn and Charles Woods, Al Trivelpiece, Sally Lewis and Bob Wyckoff. After some years and different renditions, an ordinance was adopted that worked.

Writes Mr. Wetherall, the ordinance “provided that all buildings thereafter erected or altered within the District shall as to their exterior appearance within the public view substantially conform with a certain style of architecture called the ‘Mother Lode” type of architecture. In addition, the ordinance imposed stringent regulation on the use of signs within the District, and it placed restrictions upon the demolition or removal of buildings of special historical interest or of the Mother Lode type of architecture.

“Construction of the Grass Valley-Nevada City Freeway, which resulted in the destruction of several landmark buildings, including the Union Hotel, was, in itself a ‘wake-up’ call.

“Another factor conducive to the passage of the Historical Ordinance was the economic depression which had prevailed in Nevada County for a number of years. Mining operations, once the backbone of the local economy, were virtually nonexistent. There were numerous commercial vacancies up and down Broad Street.”


At a time when there was little to no money available in town, Nevada City adopted rules that would cost property owners even more money than before to conform to the new “Mother Lode” design standards. That took vision, courage and community support. The city had the foresight and gumption to underground utilities and install gas lights. In the long run, it all paid off big time.

Nevada City continues to support those regulations. When the dust finally settles, the town’s incredible look and atmosphere will go a long way to helping us regain our strength in all of our dynamic business districts, and continue to be a great place to call home.

I am grateful that the restoration and rehabilitation of the National Hotel is moving forward, and to date, in a manner consistent with the Historical Ordinance. We are doubly fortunate that the owners have the resources to finish this costly, complex task of bringing this landmark back to life. The National Hotel will once again be a centerpiece for our community, will help reinvigorate the Alpha Building and bring new, needed vitality to all other businesses in the downtown.

All of these efforts and the money spent have added up to much more than creating an attractive tourist destination. It has created an ambiance and dynamic atmosphere that make it a great place to live and work. The residents are relentless in the all that they do to enhance their homes and property. They are the driving force of everything that happens in town.

So much has been accomplished for the public good, both economically and esthetically, by remaining the best preserved Gold Rush town in California. We need to continue that effort going forward.

To get back into 100% full swing, however, it will now also take additional new actions and strong community support. That’ll be the topic of my next article, next Saturday.

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

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