Trouble in a Gold Rush Town

Two historic buildings threatened in Nevada City, California

UPDATE: On Tues., May 17, Yuba River Charter School signed an agreement with the Nevada City School District to lease the elementary school. The first day of school will be August 23, and the charter school administration has promised to work closely with the neighborhood.

With a rich history rooted in the Gold Rush, Nevada City, Calif., has never taken historic preservation lightly. The town of 3,000, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada west of Lake Tahoe, boasts a downtown district that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, and tourists and filmmakers have been attracted to its old-world charm ever since. However, two historic buildings facing an uncertain future there have put the preservation-minded residents of this small community into an uproar.  

Last year, the school district—facing declining student enrollment—was forced to shutter one of two elementary schools to cut $1.4 million from the $9 million budget. The two schools under consideration: the historic Nevada City Elementary and Gold Run Elementary.

"I had many sleepless nights over the decision to close a school in such a small community," said Nevada City Superintendent Roxanne Gilpatric in an e-mail. "There are times when, regardless of one's personal opinions, one must act in the best interest of the students."

Nevada City Elementary was built in 1937 by renowned San Francisco architect William Mooser as part of the Works Projects Administration. It was neoclassically inspired with an Art Deco facade, and its 12 classrooms were connected by internal hallways—a rare feature in California public schools. (Mooser also designed the San Francisco Maritime Museum, Crissy Field, and many of the buildings in Ghiradelli Square.) Gold Run Elementary, on the other hand, was not historic and had no architecturally significant features.

A committee, formed according to state Department of Education guidelines and consisting of staff and parents representing both Gold Run and Nevada City Elementary, researched the logistics. And in a state where budget gaps have made national news, numbers spoke more than historic significance. Annual utility bills for Nevada City Elementary totaled about $65,000, but Gold Run's expenses were only $40,000, according to Gilpatric.

Plus, Gilpatric says, Gold Run had a larger lot for portables, should the district grow again. In the end, the committee recommended closing Nevada City Elementary.

"We didn't think in a million years they would ever close that school," says Nevada City resident Krisanne Heaton, whose son attended Nevada City Elementary. "There is a rotunda and it's almost like two arms—you walk in and it envelops you, gives you a hug. It was a space that you met other parents, bonded with other families, and it made me feel safe about the kids."

But in June 2010, the school district closed the 74-year-old school. It was a decision, Heaton says, that "utterly shocked" the community.

Nevada City's second threatened historic building is the town's massive courthouse at 201 Church Street, where the courts have stood since 1864. The structure features an Art Deco facade, also added during the 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration restoration project.

But last year, California's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the Superior Court of Nevada County declared the current space "unsafe, substandard, overcrowded, and functionally deficient." And plans to vacate the building and build a new, 84,000-square-foot courthouse for an estimated $108 million were announced last spring. The project, slated for completion in 2015, would be funded by judicial branch fees, penalties, and assessments, with no impact on the state's general fund.

Teresa Ruano, spokesperson for AOC, says remodeling the current building or rebuilding on the current site, would be cost-prohibitive, in part because those options require the court to make a temporary move during construction.

"There are space issues and seismic issues [with the courthouse]," Ruano says. "And it's not [always] cost-effective to renovate a historic building."

Residents see a connection between the two threatened buildings. "[What's happening with the courthouse is] so relevant with what's happened with NCE," Heaton says. "Really, what it has come down to is that the state continues to make development codes that go completely against maintaining old buildings. There are ridiculous restrictions that make it impossible to renovate these structures and meet code."

Help from a Nonprofit

The California Preservation Foundation has been working with the Nevada City community to save the school and courthouse from the chopping block. The foundation has written letters to the committee, attended school board meetings, and even presented feasibility information to the Administrative Office of the Courts last December. "We really want to bring attention to the cultural assets of the area," says Jennifer Gates, field services director at the foundation, which held its annual conference in Nevada City in May 2010. "Usually we hold the conference in San Diego or Hollywood or some big city. But we chose instead to go further afield and bring our membership there to bring awareness to what happens in smaller communities like this." The San Francisco-based nonprofit is partly funded by the National Trust's Partners in the Field program.

To complicate matters, officials from AOC came to an August 2010 board meeting expressing interest in buying the two-acre Nevada City Elementary school site as a way to keep the proposed new courthouse downtown. News of this possibility was not formally announced until December, spurring conspiracy theory rumors among residents, including one well-read opinion piece in the local paper. School district officials say a conspiracy is "simply not true.”

"Yes, three months after we decided to close the school, the [Administrative Office of the Courts] surfaced. They said they were interested [in buying the site]," Gilpatric says. "But you don't discuss things you don't have offers for.”

But even if the Nevada City Council comes up with a cost-effective way to renovate the courthouse, it is still unclear how much sway their resolution would have with a state-led project. School board members have not announced any decisions about how they will use the Nevada City Elementary school site, but the committee plans to make a recommendation to the school board at a meeting on Jan. 25.

"It's such awesome architecture in the center of downtown," Heaton says. "But I guess some people do not appreciate the history of Nevada City, or they see it as something for the tourists. They know it's something that makes us money, but they need to understand its value as an integral part of the community beyond its facade."

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Submitted by PowerPawsNW at: February 2, 2011
What does anyone want to bet that the administrators and politicians have been inundated with a strident "we need jobs" lobby and made a "hit list" on the least loved hard-to-fit-in buildings (non "Gold Rush" exteriors). It's soooo easy to roll over and play dead to such lobbies and then write something off to do the politically expedient thing. I'm so sichk of "new construction" -- whether it's for housing or offices or schools -- as the panacea for economic distress.

Submitted by CPF at: January 26, 2011
California Preservation Foundation is involved in the preservation of both of these wonderful buildings and continues to work with the groups involved in saving them through our Partners in the Field Program in partnership with the National Trust.

Submitted by Mack at: January 25, 2011
Chris and Gold Rush Glo are right. These two buildings are icons of Nevada CIty. My understanding is that there is at least one (maybe two) buildings buried under the Court House's facade. It well deserves a place on the National Trust's 'most endangered' list. The bureaucrats must never forget that they are merely the temporary stewards of California's rich and robust history as encapsulated in these buildings. They are worth the extra bucks that might be required to preserve. This is like ripping the heart our of a grand old lady. For shame!

Submitted by Jennifer at: January 25, 2011
I'm with Nightwatch, is there any way the court could use the school while rennovating? Then when the court moves back, the school could be used for other things. In my hometown we had a similar situation. School enrollment was down so the school district closed the oldest and more difficult to maintain school. They then rented out the classrooms to small business owners. For example a friend opened a yoga studio in one class room. The school district was able to make a little money off rent and the building still got used and wasn't torn down.

Submitted by quagmire at: January 25, 2011
I should have provided a means of response. If anyone can answer my previous questions, email

Submitted by quagmire at: January 25, 2011
I am interested in Nevada City Elementary. Is it for sale? What is the intended use of the property?

Submitted by Chris Brewer at: January 25, 2011
This is among a growing number of proposed projects around the state where schools, courts, and municipal governments simply ignore the community benefits of historic properties not to mention state and federal laws that pertain to these properties. Nevada City is the most charming of the many gold rush towns and losing those two landmarks would be like putting the highway through town like they did in the 1960s. If the residents of Nevada City need assistance in dealing with this issue, I would suggest contacting California Preservation Foundation in San Francisco. And yes I am a member. This is the very type of project CPF is equipped to help with. There are a number of us in the field who are quite aware of the legal issues involved and CPF can help. Best wishes to my favorite Gold Rush community. I say meet at the National and hash it out!

Submitted by lisan at: January 25, 2011
those buildings are gorgeous!!!!!! Do not tear down. The art deco era may not be popular right now but they are gorgeous buildings. As a trio that makes them even more a draw. I am from Wisconsin and appreciate these buildings wherever they are. They still have a modern look and look contemporary at the same time. If they tear down, they will regret it later. I have been thinking about going to Tulsa, Ok, just because of the Deco buildings there (but would see other attractions). Please save.

Submitted by GoldRushGlo at: January 25, 2011
The City/County and, if applicable the state, still would have to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, and because the County Courthouse and its annex are listed in both the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register, the California Historical Building Code would apply. The local officials need to contact the Office of Historic Preservation, as well as the Executive Director of the State Historical Building Safety Board. The California SHPO also is the Chair of the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

Submitted by John Mereness at: January 25, 2011
Arguments that will be hard to overcome. The shame is that we spent to much money to rebuild Europe after WWII (so it was back to what it was) and here we just continue to loose identity (Victorian and Art Deco is what that city is).

Submitted by Nightwatch at: January 25, 2011
Part of the solution is right before the eyes, or so it would seem. Move the courts into the old school building while renovating the courts. Might save a million or more in rents. And give breathing room to decide about the school. Its called re-use.

Submitted by Jeff Boswell at: January 25, 2011
Thank you for the article. Our community still has a great deal of work ahead in order to save these two structures and the vibrant energies and economy they create for downtown Nevada City. The community must now come together, stronger than ever, to exert as much pressure and sway on the Courts to diligently and honestly work toward a creative solution that will keep the Court House in its current location.