Briones House makes '11 Most Endangered' list
National Trust for Historic Preservation lists it among nation's most endangered historic places
Palo Alto's oldest structure, the 1844 adobe home of Juana Briones, was named on Wednesday to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2010 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The home has been a source of contention and litigation between property owners and the City of Palo Alto for years, while efforts to preserve the house go back into the early 1980s. The home was named a California State Historic Landmark more than 50 years ago, and was once a destination for tours by schoolchildren.
Today the home is in disrepair and threatened by demolition while locked in a legal standoff between the city and its owners. The house, once the center of a vast rancho, stands on a 1.5-acre site at 4155 Old Adobe Road in the lower Palo Alto foothills.
Assistant City Manager Steve Emslie said the new designation won't have a direct affect on a lawsuit between the city and owners but it could have an indirect impact.
"It strengthens the commitment of the city to preserve the house," he said. "It was a very rigorous process to get this listed."
Briones, a businesswoman and mother of eight, was one of only 34 women documented as a landowner in California after she was granted a historic legal separation from her abusive husband in 1844, according to a news release by the trust. She built her home on a 4,400-acre parcel purchased from Native Americans.
In July 2007 a stay of demolition was granted relating to a lawsuit involving the Friends of Juana Briones, the City of Palo Alto and the owners. The stay prevented owners Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer from demolishing the house, even though they had a court-ordered city permit to do so.
"The Juana Briones House is a rare tangible vestige of a unique and largely unknown story, one that can't be forgotten," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation said in the release.
The home is a rare example of a rammed-earth and wood-crib construction, called encajonado, and offers insights into life on an early California rancho, according to the release. The house had been remodeled nearly a century ago, when two wings were added.
The national "endangered" listing did not happen by accident.
Jeanne Farr McDonnell of Palo Alto, author of the book, "Juana Briones of 19th Century California," said she filled out the paperwork to get the house listed on the National Trust's most-endangered list. Brian Turner, an attorney for the National Trust's regional office in San Francisco and member of her group, The Briones Informals, suggested she apply to get the house listed, she said.
The significance goes beyond the original three-room home, McDonnell said.
"It helps us appreciate other cultures and the impact of women and other cultures in where we are today," she said.
The house expresses a continuity of local history going back to the area's Ohlone people: a wall of stones piled by native people living at the site encloses the patio, Briones' three rooms represent the Spanish period and additional wings added to the building in the Arts and Crafts and Mission Revival styles date to World War I, she said.
Prior to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which significantly damaged the building, the public, including many school children, was able to tour the home up to 20 times per year, she said.
Concern about the house's fate intensified in 1996 when then-owner Dan Meub, a Stanford neurosurgeon, inquired about demolishing the house due to shifting of major beams related to the 1989 quake. He said he and his family moved out quickly when the shifted beams were discovered in October 1996.
Nulman and Welczer purchased the house and property in 1997, initially intending to restore it. But they soon changed to wanting to demolish it, citing the extensive damage.
Former Mayor Gail Woolley initially played a major role in efforts to save the house, helping create the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation. She is on vacation in Greece and said by e-mail that she hadn't heard the news about the National Trust.
The National Trust's designation could be an important step in saving the house, McDonnell emphasized. Practically all of the places on the annual list get saved, she said.
The home's preservation has been complicated because a caretaker, Tom Hunt, has a "life interest" for half of the property, which was willed to him by a previous owner, McDonnell said. When he dies, the property will revert to one parcel, but now it is difficult for the Nulmans to build a large home on the property. Their present share is too small to have a large house zoned, she said.
Although Hunt no longer lives in the cottage on the property, he is dedicated to preservation of the home, McDonnell added.
Thirty Briones supporters gathered in front of a state historic plaque on Wednesday on Old Adobe Road near the house to celebrate the designation, she said. "Yerba Buena tea," made from the native healing herb Juana Briones, who was a medical healer, used to serve to visiting dignitaries at her San Francisco home, was served in her memory.
"She was one of the world's exceptional people. If she was born at the right time maybe she would have been our first woman president," McDonnell said.
A Palo Alto couple deeply involved in the preservation effort, Clark and Kathy Akatiff, got involved through McDonnell, who used to have a "Nature Explorations" business on California Avenue.
Clark Akatiff said McDonnell's true interest was in women's history, and she discovered Briones in the early 1980s. She later wrote "the definitive biography" of Briones, he said.
For several years there was a debate about whether Briones actually lived or spent time in the Palo Alto house, as her main residence was in San Francisco. But a grandson settled the issue by recalling when he was 8 years old grinding coffee on the front porch.
Akatiff said Briones in her last years lived in a large house in Mayfield, now the California Avenue area of Palo Alto.
Other places on the "Top 11" list include:
* America's state parks and state-owned historic sites;
* Black Mountain, Harlan County, Ky.;
* Hinchliffe Stadium, Paterson, N.J.;
* Industrial Arts Building, Lincoln, Neb.;
* Merritt Parkway, Fairfield County, Conn.;
* Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, Washington, D.C.;
* Pagat, Yigo, Guam;
* Saugatuck Dunes, Saugatuck, Mich.;
* Threefoot Building, Meridian, Miss.;
* Wilderness Battlefield, Orange and Spotsylvania counties, Va.
Associate Editor Carol Blitzer contributed to this story.