David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Remain To Be Seen: Historic California Houses Open to the Public. By Elinor Richey.
Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 180 pages. $8.50.
Reviewed by Dr. Clare Crane, member of the San Diego Historical Site Board; Education Director, Villa Montezuma, San Diego History Center; author of “Jesse Shepard and the Villa Montezuma,” Journal of San Diego History XVI (Summer, 1970) and “Withering Heights: Golden Hill, Where the Power Was,” San Diego Magazine, XXIII (March, 1971).
Remain To Be Seen is more than just a handsome, illustrated book of California’s historic houses. It is, in effect, a short history of the preservation movement in California, and should be required reading for anyone concerned with this timely issue.
Elinor Richey has impressive credentials for writing on this subject. A free-lance writer and lecturer, she is the author of numerous articles on architecture and the preservation movement, the founder of the Urban Care Architectural Heritage Committee of Berkeley, and author of The Ultimate Victorians, an illustrated history of late 19th century homes in the San Francisco Bay area.
A map of California is printed on the endpapers of the book, indicating the location of all 112 houses open to the public which are listed in the book. Twenty-two of the historic houses (including the Governor’s Mansion, the Winchester House, Hearst Castle, the Casa de Estudillo and the Villa Montezuma) are the subject of extended individual essays, illustrated by several photographs, both exterior and interior. The remaining ninety houses are represented in an abbreviated “gallery” by small photographs, accompanied by names, dates, locations, and open hours for each house.
The introduction to the book sketches the history of the historic preservation movement in california from its beginnings in the 1870s to the present. The initial emphasis was upon restoration of some of the old Spanish missions, some of which were “restored” by activists whose enthusiasm overwhelmed accuracy, so that the missions were sometimes rebuilt with shingle roofs and clapboard siding! Gradually, however, a more faithful sense of the past developed, and the later missions were restored with materials and techniques which provided a more accurate representation of the original buildings.
Not all historically significant buildings, however, can or should be publically owned and operated. One of the virtues of Miss Richey’s book is her brief sketch of the different ordinances which have been passed in recent years in an effort to promote the preservation of landmarks while continuing to use them for commercial, recreational, or residential purposes. In 1959, the California legislature, in response to pressure from the Santa Barbara Historical Society and other interested groups, passed a bill enabling cities to create historic districts for the protection and preservation of landmark areas. The City of Santa Barbara was the first to take advantage of this law, and in 1960 established “El Pueblo Viejo” district, encompassing 16 square blocks. All buildings of Spanish origin and design must be preserved, and all subsequent construction must be approved by an architectural review board charged with maintaining compatibility of design in the area. Other cities (including San Diego) have since adopted similar ordinances.
Since the publication of Remain To Be Seen, a new bill to promote historic preservation in California has been passed. Authored by Senator James Mills (Curator of Serra Museum from 1955 to 1960), the bill provides that owners of structures which have been placed on the National Register of Historic Sites or have been designated California Historical Landmarks, may apply for tax relief. To be eligible, an owner must enter into a contract with the appropriate county or municipal authority, agreeing to preserve the property and not make any major alterations for a period of twenty years. The property may then be examined by the County Tax Assessor and re-assessed at its present use valuation, rather than at its “highest and best” use—as is current assessment procedure. In effect, this compensates owners for preserving their landmarks.
Cheers to Elinor Richey for putting together this handsome, timely. and entertaining book; and for reminding us that we must actively support historic preservation if we hope to lengthen the list of homes that “remain to be seen.”