Conklin’s moves with NSF questionable
We are writing in response to statements made by Mr. Conklin in your Sept. 23 roundtable interview, and the Sept. 24 editorial, “Conklin’s integrity remains a concern.”
Your editorial correctly raised questions about the decision-making process and actions concerning the North Star House restoration project and those principals directly involved to date.
The editorial referenced our group, North Star Foundation . NSF is a small group of professionals in the historic restoration field who are connected with the larger preservation community. We have been working to save the North Star House for many years, long before the Nevada County Land Trust or Bruce Conklin became involved with the project.
Our contention is not so much the purity of the project, but rather the total lack of professional historic planning being implemented or undertaken at the beginning of the project.
NSF’s panel of experts in historic preservation aggressively urged Mr. Conklin to conduct a Historic Structures Assessment of the project prior to taking any restoration actions shortly after the Land Trust acquired the property. Further, NSF’s experts advised Mr. Conklin that the structure should be partially mothballed in order to stabilize the structure and prevent further deterioration, until such time that the future use of the building could be determined.
Mr. Conklin was well aware of our suggestions, as we had involved him in our activities for saving the house during the last two years of his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. Both of these actions would have gained time while proper historic planning was completed so that the best course of action could be determined.
It was estimated by experts at the time that mothballing the house would cost between $100,000 and $150,000, which would have stabilized the structure from further deterioration. This is significantly less than has been spent to date on Mr. Conklin’s unplanned and unadvised reconstruction project.
Mothballing the house to suspend further deterioration, a detailed historic assessment by preservation architects, and planning to determine end-use options were all suggested to Mr. Conklin by NSF over 18 months ago. However, Mr. Conklin initiated an aggressive restoration project without proper planning, without retaining the services of a professional preservation architect, and without a future-use plan for the site (such as public access, private ownership, state park, etc.).
The result, a year and a half later, is that the initial grant money provided to the project by Nevada County has apparently been used up and still there is no historic assessment that would enable future restoration actions and fund-raising. Rather, under Mr. Conklin’s direction, there were no additional grants written for, no substantial money raised beyond the initial Dryden Wilson funds, no historic architectural assessment made, and many questionable changes have been made to the house that could potentially affect its future historic designation and ability to attract further grant funding.
The lack of a Historic Structures Assessment has led to compromises of this national historic structure. This project has significance far beyond the borders of Nevada County. Contrary to statements made by Mr. Conklin, the building was never in danger of falling down and was structurally sound, according to our experts.
Since Mr. Conklin had not conducted the proper engineering and historic architectural assessment of the project, he had no way of making any technical judgments about the structural integrity of the building. As manager, Mr. Conklin, having no experience in restoration of this kind or scope and ignoring and refusing to accept any professional advice, simply made amateur mistakes. We feel his statement, “The Land Trust feels they acquired a house that was in danger of falling down,” is a thin attempt to cover those mistakes.
Robert Mackensen (former staff member of the State Office of Historic Preservation and a preservation architect) commented recently, “I hope, for the sake of this Julia Morgan icon and the sake of the cultural heritage it should be able to accurately convey, that those in charge will recognize that every alteration diminishes the ability of future generations accurately to perceive, and thus to understand, their past.”
Mr. Mackensen goes on to say, “It was not the concerns of just a few people, and the roofing material was the least of our concerns. It was and remains the cavalier attitude toward historic materials and historic accuracy. The summary demolition of the tree-trunk columns, without evidently any effort to preserve and protect the originals, which were undoubtedly personally selected by Julia Morgan, constitutes a grave loss to this historic resource. Additionally, the architecturally inaccurate substitutes for original chimneys and dormers suggest an unacceptable level of indifference to recognized preservation standards.”
Mr. Mackensen is also a member of the NSF advisory panel.
In our opinion, the Dryden Wilson funds were poorly managed by Mr. Conklin in a rush to action with little to no planning being undertaken. Further, it appears that the advice of preservation experts was deliberately ignored by Mr. Conklin, calling into question his ability to bring the kind of professionalism required for the preservation of a National Historic Registry candidate site.
The Union editorial staff is, in our opinion, justified in raising questions about Mr. Conklin’s decision-making and use of public funds.
NSF is now working with Nevada County Land Trust’s board to get a restoration plan in place in order to avoid a continuation of poor planning and management or further compromises made to the architectural integrity of the structure.
We have more information at http://www.northstarhouse.org outlining our concerns and going-forward suggestions for this project. You will find on the site both our assessment of the first year’s work and our presentation of suggestions to the Land Trust board of directors earlier this month.
The North Star House and grounds are a local and national treasure and deserve better than a “historic adaptive reuse restoration” (whatever that is) approach. It is both to our community’s advantage and our responsibility to do a proper preservation and restoration of the North Star site.
Rob Kellenbeck and Neal Mitchell are directors of the North Star Foundation.
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