Folsom historical groups want to restore Chan House

07/16/2013 12:00 AM

07/16/2013 9:29 AM

Boarded up and fenced off, with yellow paint peeling from considerable age, a single antiquated house in Folsom's Sutter Street historic district seems out of place among the country stores, gift shops, trendy businesses and cafes.

Behind the "No Trespassing" sign and outside the century of development that has changed the face of the 900 block, the Chan House is a reminder of a time when Folsom's population was about 80 percent Chinese.

The Chan House Project is about $260,000 away from transforming the 100-year-old structure at 917 Sutter St. into the Howard Sr. and Mabel Chan Museum, a place to commemorate the history and contributions of Chinese and other Asian immigrants in California.

"My brother and I wanted to do something with this house in honor of our family," said June Chan, who donated her portion of the house to the Folsom Historical Society. "We wanted the history of the Chinese to be presented. We wanted this story to be told."

The Chan House would become the town's third museum, housing Chan family heirlooms and Chinese artifacts collected by the historical society.

Loretta Hettinger, president of the Heritage Preservation League of Folsom, said the society has about 70 boxes of items already, and people in the community have stepped forward to donate personal items tied to Chinese history.

The 1880 census shows Folsom had the second-largest Chinese population in California, second to San Francisco, according to Jeff Ferreira-Pro, vice president of the Folsom Historical Society and project manager for the Chan House Project.

He explained that the Natomas Company, which managed construction of a canal and flume system to mining areas, hired Chinese laborers in an era when Chinese immigrants were discriminated against and driven out of other towns.

The Chan family has a prominent role in the local history, and Oak Chan, the father of Howard Chan Sr., is referred to as the last mayor of Folsom's Chinese community.

Oak Chan moved to Folsom during the 1850s. Hettinger and Ferreira-Pro described him as a liaison between Chinese residents and the rest of the community. In 1989, an elementary school was named after him.

Howard Chan Sr. purchased the house on Sutter Street around 1945 after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and Chinese Americans gained the right to own property.

Before that, evidence suggests that the Chan family had paid property taxes as part of their rent since the 1920s, navigating around the Chinese Exclusion Act, though Ferreira-Pro said that can't be proven.

"This house plays an interesting role as a bridge to the larger Chinese community in Folsom and the property rights issues that existed," Ferreira-Pro said. "That's why the historical society would like to embrace this house as a historical monument in its own right."

Hettinger said the preservation league felt a call to action when the city began renewing the streetscape in the area, and there was talk of bulldozing the house. Now, with attention from these local organizations, that threat has passed and the preservation league is helping raise money to preserve the historical site.

Howard Chan Sr. and Mabel Chan raised their three children in the Sutter Street house. It was passed down to June Chan, her brother Howard Chan Jr. and their deceased sister's children.

June and Howard Chan Jr., both retired teachers, donated their portions of the house to the Folsom Historical Society, and funds are being raised to purchase the remaining third of the house from Oak Chan's great-grandchildren.

Ferreira-Pro said raising money for the project has been difficult, especially since the project began during the recession.

He said the project needs to raise about $50,000 to buy the last part of the house. The renovations to convert the house to a museum will cost an estimated $250,000.

"If we could raise $300,000, we could restore the property and manage it as a museum on an ongoing basis," he said. "We've raised about $35,000 or $40,000 now, and part of it is money in the bank and part is pledged but not yet received."

He said the project is hoping to find a major donor to step forward to help the historical society gain ownership of the property, and funds for the renovation may be easier to collect when the house is owned by the nonprofit organization.

"My family is the last of the Chinese Gold Rush families," June Chan said. "We need to tell this story, not only of the Chinese in Folsom, but the Chinese in the county and in the state."

Call The Bee's Morgan Searles, (916) 321-1102. Follow her in Twitter @morgansearles.

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