Historic Juana Briones House coming down

The owner of Palo Alto's oldest home, Juana Briones House, has begun deconstructing the 166-year-old structure after 13 years of lawsuits that delayed its removal.

The 1844-1845 house, which was built by Palo Alto pioneer Juana Briones, contained remnants of a rare form of adobe architecture, of which there is only one other example in the state, according to architectural historians.

Juana Briones de Miranda was part of the California population of Spanish, Mexican and Native-American descent.

She was also a humanitarian, a healer, and the daughter of members of the historic De Anza expedition into California in 1776. She became a prominent Palo Alto rancher, according to the Juana Briones Heritage Association.

The property at 4155 Old Adobe Road in the Palo Alto hills also contained a rock wall built by Native Americans that has also been taken down, Kent Mitchell, attorney for property owners Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer, said Wednesday morning (May 25).

Nulman, Welczer and the City of Palo Alto wrote conditions into the permit after a first lawsuit with the city that allows preservationists and historians to salvage certain historical elements, including the rock wall.

In 1997, the Nulmans wanted to remove newer wings a previous owner added to the house but the city denied their request, Mitchell said. They applied for a demolition permit and prevailed after a nine-year battle when the city denied their application.

In 2007, Friends of the Juana Briones House sued and won a stay against the demolition, but on appeal, the Nulmans prevailed. The California Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Mitchell said. The city reinstated the demolition permit on Wednesday.

Woodside-based Reusable Lumber, which specializes in historical sites, began work on Friday.

Clark Akatiff, a member of Friends of the Juana Briones House, said the group made a careful record of the home during a one-month window some years ago when they were allowed on the property.

He is meeting with city officials and preservationists Wednesday afternoon to discuss where to store the rock wall and a plaque.

Akatiff said the historic wall cribbing -- a slat-style architecture into which adobe or dirt was poured to make walls -- and other parts of the home might be made available to the group as the building is deconstructed. He said Mitchell is working on a potential agreement.

Akatiff said he has accepted the court's judgment, which comes after two lawsuits and appeals.

"It feels like there is some sense of cooperation after such a long and arduous lack of cooperation. This was a legal procedure and we fought it long and hard," he said.

"It is interesting to note, in passage, that in both court cases the initial decision was always in favor of preservation, only to have the decision reversed by some opaque reasoning and costly litigation. I guess it's legal, but it does lead to some bad decisions. The decision to allow the demolition of La Casa de Juana Briones is surely such a decision," he said.

Two great women in Palo Alto are to be memorialized: Juana Briones and Esther Clark, who started the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, he said. Akatiff said perhaps the Briones plaque and the rock wall could be used to create a memorial to both women at adjacent Esther Clark Park.

Part of the property is under a life estate that was willed to Thomas Hunt by the previous owners, Mitchell said.

Hunt does not currently live on the property, but he has control over a small house. Upon his death, the land and home would revert back to the owners, he said.

Nulman and Welczer could not be reached for comment on whether they plan to build on the property.

But Mitchell said, "The answer is clearly no. They built another house. I've never heard them talk about it. They are just going day by day. I don't think there is any clear plan."


Posted by campanile80 , a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 25, 2011 at 11:40 am

This will be Kent Mitchell's great legacy...being party to the tearing down of a 150 old historic home and a priceless Native Aamerican rock wall. Other individuals'grandchildren will point to what their grandparents created. For Mitchell's descendants, it will all be about he he helped tear down. That's the finalegacy of his public service.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

If it was really worth preserving, then it should have been moved to beside the Woodside Store, or some museum site. If they can take London Bridge brick by brick across the Atlantic, then this relic could have been moved somewhere more accessible for those wanting to preserve it to visit.

Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:50 am

"being party to the tearing down of a 150 old historic home and a priceless Native Aamerican rock wall."
Let's try to avoid exaggeration and outright lies. Read the story. The home is not being destroyed. A special firm is taking it apart and the rock wall will be given to Palo Alto.
People had their opportunity to purchase this house. Instead they chose to try to control it without having any financial stake in the manner.
It is about time the owner triumphed and got rid of this dubious" historic" eyesore. I hear that the owner may sue the "friends" group that caused him so much grief.
Goodbye and good riddance to the Briones dump

Posted by member, a resident of Professorville
on May 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm

And perhaps the adobe portion of the home can still be preserved and relocated. As stated in the article, it is not being demolished, but "deconcontructed" piece by piece and therefore the possibility that it can be relocated to a public site for the public to enjoy still exists - perhaps to the nearby Esther Clark preserve which was part of the orignial Juana Briones Rancho (along with the plague and rock wall that Clark Atatiff mentions also need a home)? Of course, this would take some significant $$$ donations, but from what I have read, it seems that the passion to raise the funding to preserve this historically significant structure (and in doing so perhaps partially compensate the owners for their expensive legal battles) is there. Maybe this is something that PAST and the PA Women's Club can take on in partership? All the elements are there -- great woman in history (and among her accomplishments one of the first to own property in CA), historical structure, etc. Therefore, the funding should follow if people truly want to preserve this structure (as opposed to simply attacking and blaming the owners and their attorney)...

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Two points
1. No one had the opportunity to purchase the house because it was not for sale and it was under litigation.
2.The place was not a dump when the owners bought it. Almost 20 years of total neglect will have that affect on any property.

Posted by too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm

"1. No one had the opportunity to purchase the house because it was not for sale and it was under litigation."
I am sure for the right price it could have been purchased. But the house had been on the market before. Plus the city of Palo Alto did nothing to preserve this home for the last 5 decades.

Web Link
"The home on Old Adobe Road went through numerous renovations and was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but remained open for tours until 1993.
Palo Alto's building inspector declared it a dangerous structure in 1996 and ordered the adobe section vacated."

There were plenty of opportunities for the city/interested individuals to buy and preserve this house.(see linkf or ownership from 1924: Web Link) Obviously no one wanted to make the financial commitment--better to have someone else preserve it while you bark orders at them.

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on May 25, 2011 at 3:54 pm

This sounds a lot like the story of Steve Jobs and his Woodside house. He neglected it for enough years that it was falling down by itself, and - voila! - he got his demolition permit. Then there was the oldest wood frame house in town, which the developer wanted torn down. He was told that he had to build around it, and - voila! - it mysteriosly burned down. I think it was at Waverley and Forest, or Homer. Oh, and the couple in Los Altos Hills who, after being told they couldn't demolish, did it anyway and paid a fine. Money speaks.

Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Please note, from the websites I provided that the house was declared a dangerous structure before it was sold to the current owners. The previous owners and the city allowed itto deteriorate.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Did the people who wanted to preserve the house offer to maintain it because they thought it was so valuable? No. If litigation had been stopped, perhaps the preservationists could have made a deal to buy the property. But they apparently wanted someone else, including the City, to pay any costs.

As many know, only the center portion was part of the original house. At least two additions were made much later which hardly makes the entire structure historic.

Posted by Lorenzo, a resident of another community
on May 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Jaime Nulman lives on a street named after one of Juana's daughters (Manuela). He lives down the street from Juana Briones Park and a school name after her. The house he so selfishly demolished is on a street called Old Adobe Rd. Down the road is a CA landmark dedicated to Juana. Jaime/Welzcar have cursed themselves and he lives in a community that will always remind him of what he did. "Jaime and Welzcar, look around you, you live in Juana's memeory and past!" You can't escape that!

Posted by MidtownMom, a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

If it was worth preserving, the city should have bougth it ..

Its being relocated - enjoy it at a different spot. Let the owners get returns on the land they had purchased ..

Posted by Wasteful, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Very little of that house was actually original, it wasn't worth saving. If those who wanted to save it had come up with the money to move the house to a location of their choice, they should have done it. It wasn't fair to the owners to have strung them along for all those years, I'm glad the City had to reimburse them for their legal fees. As a City taxpayer the City should have stopped all this litigation years ago and saved the taxpayers of PA all that money.

Posted by Selfish, self-centered, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 25, 2011 at 11:25 pm

The house is not being relocated. A wall is bring preserved. Please read the story.
I am always amazed at people who want what they want, and won't adapt, no matter how many people are against them. As though they were fighting for truth and justice, but they were fighting for selfish, self-centered self-gratification. They bought a historic structure with the intention of demolishing it. Luddites.
Well they won. Now they say they have no plans? Liar. liar, pants on fire.

Posted by Mirror, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 25, 2011 at 11:50 pm

@Selfish - your comment is funny, since it applies pretty well to te preservationists as well as the owners (in your view anyway). As with many issues around here, no-one is covered with glory in terms of how they handled the disagreement.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 26, 2011 at 10:01 am

The home is located in a very costly residential area. Did or did not the current owners receive a huge property tax break in exchange for purchasing/owning a historic property? I've asked this before and not received an answer, but I am interested and I think it makes a difference.

Posted by local gurl, a resident of College Terrace
on May 26, 2011 at 10:02 am

You want to save something? Buy it yourself.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

This is a perfect example of banking on a litigation "all or nothing" approach to solve a problem; the risk is that at the end of the day you end up with nothing.

HOWEVER, fortunately, unlike with the examples cited above -- including Steve Jobb's Jackling house -- the house is being deconstructed "board by board", not demolished.

SO! there is still an opportunty here to relocate the adobe house -- or some smaller version of it -- to a public site where the public can see, touch and feel it.

Let's focus on that OPPORTUNITY and put our dollars behind it rather than rehashing the fight which the owner clearly won.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

... and what is interesting here is that Juana Briones herself had to go all the way to the US Supreme Court to protect her rights to this property --and she won!

If that court decision hadn't been respected, then there would be no house to save.

Now the CA Supreme Court has just handed down its decision favoring the current owners of the house.

Its time to respect that decision, move forward and work with the owners to save what can still be saved of the adobe house and relocate it -- either to Esther Clark nature preserve down the street (which was original part of Juana Briones' Rancho) or to Juana Briones Park.

If the preservationist really cared about the house -- as oppsosed to "beating" the owner (which they lost)-- then they would be focusing on this solution rather licking their wounds.

Again, there is still the opportunity to save and relocate the adobe house, but time is wasting!

Posted by Selfish, self-centered, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 26, 2011 at 10:27 am

>it applies pretty well to te preservationists as well as the owners

No it doesn't. There is a big difference between trying to save something for the community and valuing its history, and promoting self-interest. Valuing our history is not for personal gain. Can't you tell the difference? Sad.

People who say buy it yourself believe that money should decide everything. Limited narrow thinking.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2011 at 10:32 am

> People who say buy it yourself believe that money should decide everything. Limited narrow thinking.

And your thinking is equally narrow: expecting a single person to bear the brundt of providing a benefit for the entire community. Come on! That never works and is not fair.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2011 at 10:34 am

Again! Stop licking wounds and rehashing the past and focus on the OPPORTUNITY before it is lost forever.

If the community really cared it would band together, put up themoney and relocate the adobe house or some version of it to a public site.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2011 at 10:38 am

Can't understand some of the attitudes here.

If this is historic and worth saving, then it needs to be seen by the community, school field trips, historic reenactments and other uses. It needs to be maintained, restored and enjoyed for the history it supposedly can bring to our lives. At present, it isn't in the condition to do this or even in the type of neighborhood which would want sightseers and floods of school trips.

What is at present a derelict building is no good to anyone. Keeping it in its present condition is doing nobody any good.

If it is worth saving, it is worth moving. If it is worth moving it is going to have to be maintained and restored. If nobody is going to do any of this, there is no point whatsoever in wasting time and energy as well as money that isn't available. If a historical society wants to spend the money then they should speak up and act. Otherwise, removed the eyesore.

Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2011 at 10:46 am

What we have in this city is a group of "historical zealots" who believe that everything is historic and needs to be "preserved". Of course they feel no need to make any financial commitment for this--they just want to usurp private property rights and tell people what to do with their homes. The "friends" group that has been fighting the current owner is an example of this self-centered group of people. I hope that the owner sues them and wins a big settlement.
As for the Briones Home--it was declared dangerous in 1996. It was heavily damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. How come the city and these zealots at that time did nothing to preserve the house if it was so important.
As others have pointed out, there have been numerous additions to this home over the years and only a small portion of the house actually may date back to Juana Briones' time.
Finally, the home is not being demolished, it is being deconstructed. It is not too late for the "friends" group to put their money where their mouths are and buy the piece.
Finally, a general warning--beware of any Palo Alto groups that use the term "friends" in their title--they usually have a hidden agenda--look at Alma Plaza and what the "friends" group has accomplished there.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Well said, "Too much Traffic".

My understanding is that the current owner offered to preserve and restore the adobe portion of the home onsite as part of his development plans but that the "friends" group rejected this, instead choosing to litigate for the chance to force the owner to preserve the entire house. And then lost it all.

Greedy, greedy makes a hungry puppy!

Posted by Mirror, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm

@Selfish, self-centered - again, check the mirror, friend. You think you are preserving "for the community," which means you and people who agree with you. The other folks think they are protecting property rights "for everyone." We should all get off our high horses and try to work out compromises.

Posted by wOw, a resident of another community
on May 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The DCA (Don't change anything) mindset is almost as bad ad the NIMBY one. Frickin hoarders.

Posted by nimby2, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

You should borrow a mirror and check yourself in it first before you open your mouth to lecture us and keep saying those waw,waw,waw...

Posted by HUTCH 7.62, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 27, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Kent Mitchell has pulled a "Steve Jobs" Neglect it to the point it has to be torn down. Shame this city is quick to forget it's past.

Posted by Sarah Smith, a resident of Woodside
on Jan 25, 2014 at 8:38 am

the people who bought the historic home and did not keep it up to par & should be fined for letting the house go to ruin. They should pay for the home to be moved and to be restored since they are the ones who let it go to ruin .. and didn't want the structure on the property they bought knowing that they were the caretakers of this historic home and still let it go to ruin. They should be jailed for letting our history be destroyed or just pay for the move and damages they allowed to happen while it was in their care.

Posted by L'Ann Bingham, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 1, 2014 at 10:43 pm

I would like to shed some light in regards to the previous comment, "the people who bought the historic home and did not keep it up to par..."

I lived in the Juana Briones house during this era and can relate to you my firsthand experience of what actually occurred.

The house was in the same family for over 70 years. "Aunt Marjorie" bequeathed the property to her niece and nephews. The niece bought out her brother's portion. However, little cash accompanied the inheritance and the niece was of average means.

Then the '89 earthquake struck. The house, without earthquake insurance, a foundation and made of brittle brick was hit hard. FEMA provide a few dollars, though nowhere near the amount needed to restore the structure.

I can tell you that this was a magical, special place. The center of the home dated back to 1844 and was indeed the most special part of the house. I lived in a suite of rooms above this portion. The dining room and other rooms were filled with historic, beautiful Eastlake furniture. During the holidays, the home glowed with warmth.

I feel fortunate to have lived there. The home provided a quiet, peaceful place during an academic period of my life. Perhaps this is a situation where with greater support from many players, this special place, with ties to women's rights, the Supreme Court and California history could have been saved.

I'm so sorry to learn that it is gone. We have lost a treasure.

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