October 7, 2012

Discoveries: Julia Morgan's Grass Valley architectural gem getting its shine back

GRASS VALLEY – No need, really, to make that long trek down the coast to Pacific Grove or San Simeon. No need to fight freeway traffic to Berkeley, either.

GRASS VALLEY – No need, really, to make that long trek down the coast to Pacific Grove or San Simeon. No need to fight freeway traffic to Berkeley, either.

Architecture aficionados who want to celebrate the statewide Julia Morgan Festival need look no farther than the rolling hills of Nevada County.

It was here that Morgan, one of the 20th century's most renowned architects, made her first significant mark on the world of design in 1905. Put one way, the North Star House in Grass Valley is to Morgan's oeuvre what "This Side of Paradise" was to F. Scott Fitzgerald's – a first work as harbinger of fame to come.

While not widely considered part of her "greatest hits" collection, neither as opulent at Hearst Castle nor as quintessential a California Arts and Crafts offering as Asilomar, the North Star House nonetheless deserves a prominent place in the Morgan canon.

All the elements that made Morgan a rock-star architect of her day can be seen in the layout, construction and floor plan of the 10,000-square-foot mansion that once belonged to writer Mary Hallock Foote and mining engineer husband A.D. Foote.

As Morgan biographer and architectural historian Sara Holmes Boutelle noted, the sprawling, two-story house "is one of a series in which Morgan worked out ways to integrate geometric forms and simple local materials into a sense of natural wholeness."

Amazing that, as late as eight years ago, this mansion off the beaten path had been beaten down by decades of vandalism and neglect. It had been desecrated, gutted like a fish, left a burnt-out husk of its once-stately self.

If for no other reason, then, the North Star House deserves to be feted for its dramatic (if ongoing) resurrection, made possible by a hardy band of locals with a keen sense of history.

A cascading series of bad decisions by a series of bad or neglectful owners – whose sagas are too complicated and prosaic to hash out here – had left the once-beautiful house in near ruins.

Profane graffiti covered the walls. Ceilings sagged from disrepair. Junkies' needles littered the upstairs floor. Gorgeous Western redwood cedar shelves had been split and used as squatter's kindling. Mold and rot ate at the foundation. Bats and swallows nested in the high beams. Vermin skittered across the original Douglas fir floors. The gardens and grounds devolved from manicured to unmanageable.

Enter the North Star Historic Conservancy, a nonprofit group formed in late 2006 to help rehabilitate the house and 14-acre grounds, which the Nevada County Land Trust received as a donation from developer Sandy Sanderson, the most recent owner.

It's been a long, painstaking process, still perhaps years away from conclusion. But through donations, community involvement and sweat equity, the North Star House is well on its way to regaining its past grandeur and doing Morgan proud. It's not a restoration, in the formal sense, but a rehabilitation to make a modern use of the structure.

In 2011, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Each Saturday, spring through fall since 2010, the grounds serve as the site for Grass Valley's Grower's Market.

And, recently, the house's first floor and sweeping veranda have been improved enough to host special events.

And now, the North Star House is primping for its highest-profile coming out yet – inclusion in the six-week statewide Julia Morgan 2012 Festival, which features visual and performing exhibits, seminars and building tours from sites as diverse as the Hearst Castle, the Berkeley City Club and the Riverside Art Museum.

Saturday, the conservancy will hold a special Julia Morgan Day in tandem with its regular Grower's Market. Docent-led tours of the house – well, OK, parts of it – will be available throughout the day.

The conservancy knows it still has plenty of house- cleaning to do, especially if a few Morgan scholars might be dropping in from out of town. Maybe it should put up a sign reading, "Pardon our dust. And cobwebs. And mildewy floorboards."

Instead of taking note of all that's left to do – the entire upstairs, for instance – maybe it's better to focus on what's been done.

Those tanned hardwood floors in the main living room gleam. The original veranda, once enclosed by a previous owner for a chapel, has been fully restored and once again affords a gorgeous valley view. The semicircular brick fireplace, once scorched beyond recognition, has been rebuilt. Up next will be fixing windows and shelving and a complete re-do of the expansive kitchen.

The upstairs?

Well, the conservancy has wisely closed that off from visitors. Trust me, you don't want to see the heartbreaking damage done to Morgan's handiwork upstairs. Think rock stars trashing a hotel room, coupled with a post-hibernation bear den.

Peggy Levine, the conservancy's executive director, said volunteers should be proud of results thus far.

"You've got to understand," she said, "the house sat empty for 20 years. They hauled tons of garbage off this site when we first got here, almost 40 large bins. Like, here's an original window. We have the (materials) to make all of those over again. When I first volunteered, we were just going around the house picking up glass.

"It never should have gotten this bad. It's sad. But the house is sturdy. It held up."

True, from a distance and in a certain light, the North Star House retains its original stateliness. The roof and cedar shingles may be new and slightly too shiny, but the well-worn quarry rock, rolled up the hill from the mine below by workers in 1905, remains as solidly in place as Morgan's reputation.

Rest easy knowing it's not going anywhere, especially not going to seed anymore.


The Julia Morgan 2012 Festival is a statewide, six-week celebration of the life and work of California's first female architect.

Among the events is tours of the North Star House in Grass Valley, one of Morgan's first commissions in 1905. Docents will lead visitors on a tour of part of the 10,000-square foot mansion, built for writer Mary Hallock Foote and husband A.D. Foote, a mining engineer.

The event is in tandem with the regular Saturday Grower's Market on the North Star grounds (12075 Old Auburn Road, a half mile from the Nevada County Fairgrounds). It's open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Morgan Festival activities will culminate on the weekend of Nov. 2-4 at the sites of two of her most celebrated works – Hearst Castle and Asilomar State Beach & Conference Grounds.

For more information, go to http://www.landmarkscalifornia.org/julia-morgan-2012

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