Other voices: Build Nevada City’s future by saving its past | TheUnion.com

Other voices: Build Nevada City’s future by saving its past

Forty years ago, a citizenry deeply concerned about the freeway’s destruction of integral parts of Nevada City as well as a boarded-up downtown business district, conceived of and established the Historical District Ordinance No. 368. It was probably the first such statute in the West. It outlined absolute standards for altering, surfacing and constructing structures within the city. It was not only a guide, but also a prohibition against removing pieces of the historic fabric of our city forever. A key provision is preserving Mother Lode architecture, which is defined as “the type of architecture generally used in the Mother Lode region in the State of California during the period from 1849 and 1900.”

I am one of the few people remaining who worked on that ordinance. I recall agonizing about appropriate materials and definitions of Gold Rush buildings. We worked to anticipate future problems: New construction, illuminated signs, street entrances from parking lots and building demolition. I also recall discussing that subjective decisions relative to preservation might perhaps be the most hazardous aspect of the ordinance. The City Council at the time of the ordinance’s adoption in 1968 consisted of Mayor John Rankin and council members Arch McPherson, Lon Cooper, Bob Paine and Joe Day. We were very fortunate to have Bill Wetherall’s able assistance as our city attorney.

Since the adoption and highly successful implementation of Ordinance No. 368, Nevada City has extended those protections to historic structures outside the Historical District.

Essentially, there are only two criteria for preserving a building: Is it a pre-World War II building, and can it be “reasonably repaired or restored”? Through rigid adherence to these principles, Nevada City is a shining example of a community that cares about preserving its character, integrity and Gold Rush heritage. I believe we are California’s best-preserved Gold Rush town.

Of the hundreds of Nevada City examples of restoration and preservation projects, allow me to cite a few buildings once in desperate condition. Their character as minor monuments and vibrant parts of the business community has been rescued by creative planning. Examples are the Spring Street Ice House (Foothill Theatre Company Office), Sacramento Street’s Celio Barn (Stray Cuts), 300 Commercial Street (The Country Rose Cafe), 425 Broad Street (My Favorite Things), The Old Brewery (Stone House Restaurant) and the Miners Foundry at 325 Spring Street, to name a very few. None of these projects would “have penciled out” very well and, for many, it would have been far more cost-effective to tear them down and start from scratch. However, they were executed in the spirit of preserving the whole, complete and entire fabric and essence of Nevada City.

I was overwhelmed with dismay when I discovered that a city planning commission had approved recent demolition of buildings that met and exceeded the criteria for historic preservation and restoration. These are probably the first instances ever when the ordinance has not been invoked for an old building’s protection.

Whether the apologies or reasons offered for these actions are problems such as much needed repairs, safety, insurance, the need for more parking or expense, they fall far outside of the protections that have worked so well for Nevada City over the past four decades. They also fly in the face of the hundreds of individuals and businesses who have honored these principles and invested millions of dollars to further enhance the character of our city.

I greatly appreciate our City Council’s recent discussion and efforts to refocus on the subject. I respectfully request and urge the council to continue to make it clear to all that the traditions and standards of many, many past City Councils and planning commissions be rigorously continued. This is what we have earned and what we deserve. To me, this is clearly what should be expected for and by our community as Nevada City moves “forward into the future by preserving its past.”


Charles Woods lives in Nevada City. He co-founded the American Victorian Museum and KVMR radio.

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