Date: February 24, 2003
For Immediate Release
Contact: Bill Mayfield
City Attorney's Office
Rules in Juana Briones Case
Palo Alto, CA -- Superior Court Judge John F. Herlihy has
ordered the owners of the historic Juana Briones House in Palo Alto
to complete earthquake repairs and restorations required by their
contract with the City of Palo Alto.
In a decision issued on February 21, 2003, the City's contract
under the California historic preservation statute known as the
Mills Act was found to be valid and binding on the current owners
of the property, which is located at 4155 Old Adobe Road. Under
the Mills Act, reduced property tax valuation is available in exchange
for preservation agreements for historic structures.
In 1988, the City of Palo Alto and former owner Susan Berthiaume
contracted for preservation under the Mills Act, but in the following
year the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 damaged the adobe walls
central to the building. A later property owner, Dr. Daniel Meub,
made illegal alterations to the Craftsman style wings which seriously
compromised their historic integrity, and in 1996 the Palo Alto
Building Official banned occupancy because of its deterioration
and unpermitted alterations. Since acquiring the property in 1997,
the current owners (Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer) had left the
home in a deteriorated condition and ultimately sued the City to
allow them to demolish it. Palo Alto countersued to enforce the
historic preservation duties under the Mills Act Contract.
Several attempts were made during the litigation to resolve the
dispute, first through moving the structure to some nearby location
where it could be preserved in public ownership and later by outright
sale to a historic preservation foundation. After all these solutions
failed, the case was submitted to Judge Herlihy after a week long
trial in November 2002 and extensive post-trial briefing through
The Mills Act Contract requires historic preservation and public
tour access through October 2007, when the contract will expire.
The ultimate fate of the Juana Briones House therefore remains undecided
by the litigation, but the court ruling removes any doubt that the
Mills Act Contract must be adhered to and cannot be avoided by demolition
or through destruction by neglect.
Juana Briones House
Juana Briones, for whom the Juana Briones Elementary School
is named, was an important figure in early California history
known for her independence and prominence in the small settlement
of Yerba Buena (now the North Beach area of San Francisco).
She was married to a military officer attached to the Presidio,
but after their separation she acquired almost 8,000 acres
off Arastradero Road and built the Juana Briones House there
in about 1850. The central core of three small rooms was built
from an unusual type of adobe known as "rammed earth,"
with clay almost a foot thick rammed between a wooden framing
and then coated after the 1906 earthquake with concrete to
protect it from weathering. Craftsman style wings and a second
story were added in 1908, and the house passed into the family
of the noted artist Marjorie Eaton during the early 20th Century.