Trouble in a Gold Rush Town
Two historic buildings threatened in Nevada City, California
By Elizabeth McNamara | Online Only | Jan. 31, 2011
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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