As demolition looms, scholar moves to preserve historic house on film

L.A. Cicero briones hearth

The original walls of the Briones house consist of adobe framed by wood slats, an example of a rare construction technique known as “rammed earth.”

L.A. Cicero Briones backdoor

The Briones house, which sits atop a knoll on Old Adobe Road in Palo Alto, was built in the 1840s.

L.A. Cicero Kristine Samuelson and Al Camarillo

Professor Kristine Samuelson, who teaches documentary production and direction in the Department of Art and Art History, drove to the Briones house with Professor Al Camarillo to shoot video as he narrated.

briones plaque

To understand the significance of the Juana Briones House to history Professor Al Camarillo, just imagine the regard a high-tech buff has for the iconic garage across town that William Hewlett and David Packard used as their workshop almost 70 years ago.

That only begins to describe how strongly Camarillo feels about the long-neglected dwelling that sits atop a knoll on Old Adobe Road in Palo Alto. Juana Briones was an early-California renaissance woman: an illiterate immigrant of mixed descent who nonetheless was a strong single mother and successful businesswoman, landowner, litigator and humanitarian.

The adobe structure dates back to the 1840s, when she established her 4,400-acre rancho overlooking Santa Clara County, just south of the Stanford family ranch. Not only is it the city's oldest house, but experts say its walls reflect a rare construction style seen in only one other home in California.

But after nearly 10 years of opposing the efforts of city officials and preservationists to save the house from the bulldozer, the current owners of the property at 4155 Old Adobe Road have won the right to tear it down—most likely, according to Camarillo, to make way for a multimillion-dollar home like the ones currently surrounding it.

"You knock that down, and you're knocking down this amazingly unique architectural and construction type," Camarillo said. "They won't let us go in and take a portion of the wall out. … That's the real travesty."

Several years after local residents formed the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation, a group whose efforts to preserve the house date back to when talks of its demolition first started, Camarillo became a member. Although his involvement has brought notable academic clout to the group's efforts to raise awareness and funds, not enough has been donated so far to buy the house at fair-market value from its owners, Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer.

Then in mid-April, a new group of preservationists, Friends of the Juana Briones House, filed a lawsuit to stop the demolition. The group alleges that the city of Palo Alto violated state laws by issuing the permit without conducting an environmental impact report. A hearing on whether the court should issue an injunction is set for June 7. If the owners prevail, the group's attorney expects that the house will be demolished the following week.

The owners have previously agreed to allow Camarillo and Art and Art History Department Professor Kristine Samuelson to come onto the property to capture its history prior to any demolition. And last Friday, Samuelson, an award-winning filmmaker who teaches documentary producing and directing, drove up to the house with Camarillo and took video footage as he narrated. The footage will be archived in hopes that, eventually, a filmmaker will use it for a documentary about Briones.

A full life

Born in 1802 in the area now known as Santa Cruz, Juana Briones de Miranda was of Spanish, African and Native American heritage. Her parents came to California in 1776 from Mexico—then known as New Spain—as part of the historic De Anza Expedition, helping to found the present-day cities of San Francisco and San Jose. At the age of 18, she married and later had 11 children with a cavalryman stationed at San Francisco's Presidio, where Briones and her siblings had grown up.

Records show that three of Briones' children died during infancy and that she later separated from her abusive, alcoholic husband and relocated the family to what is now known as the North Beach neighborhood. She took in weary sailors whose ships passed through the bay and administered herbal remedies she learned from her father.

Briones operated a small farm with cattle out of her new home, and a state landmark plaque recognizing her early ingenuity stands in front of the church overlooking North Beach's Washington Square. "She's the first woman ever commemorated with a historical marker in San Francisco," Camarillo said. "Isn't that amazing?"

According to the heritage foundation, Briones continued to use medicinal herbs to help an ethnically diverse array of settlers in the area. Then in 1844, she purchased the 4,400-acre Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, which spanned what is now Los Altos and Palo Alto.

"With California's admission to the Union in 1850, new laws challenged land ownership and many families who owned land under the Mexican California government lost their properties," the foundation states on its website. "Not Juana. She astutely chose good people to represent her in the U.S. Land Commission Hearings."

A chronology goes on to say that Briones not only held onto her rancho in Palo Alto but waged a tenacious fight that lasted 12 years and reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to hold onto property in San Francisco. She won.

"Juana's life story is a model of personal integrity, economic self-sufficiency, compassion for others and success as a landowner against great odds," Camarillo wrote in a guest opinion piece that ran in the Palo Alto Weekly in 2005.

The Home

Briones died in 1889, and her adobe house remained in the family until 1900, when it was purchased by Stanford botanist Charles Nott. The ranch was sold off in pieces by Briones' grown children, and in 1954, the state recognized the house with historic designation—a designation that doesn't preclude its demolition. The original walls consist of adobe framed by wood slats, an example of a rare construction technique known as "rammed earth."

In the ensuing years, the property changed hands several more times, and the house underwent a series of additions and renovations. When it sustained severe damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the owner at the time sought funding for repairs under the Mills Act, a law that offers tax breaks to owners of historic properties who agree to preserve and open them up to the public.

That never happened with the Juana Briones House, which sat vacant and uninhabitable for several more years. Then a decade ago, the couple that currently owns the property came along and applied to tear down the house.

The city of Palo Alto went to court and asserted that the house should be protected under the Mills Act and won. But the homeowners then turned around and sued the city, arguing that the law shouldn't apply to them. Their case went to Superior Court, which ruled that the city must grant the demolition permit—as well as reimburse the homeowners more than $311,000 in legal fees. The city appealed that decision and lost.

Preserving history

Throughout the seven-year legal battle between the preservationists and the homeowners, Camarillo said the couple has spoken only through attorneys. Their initial application for a demolition permit sparked the formation of the heritage foundation and its ambitious campaign to raise enough cash to buy the property, which Camarillo said would have cost about $2 million.

"We got to about $300,000 and then we couldn't go any further," Camarillo said.

In keeping with his post as the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor of Public Service, Camarillo has launched a new undergraduate track in the History Department called "Public History and Public Service," and for the introductory course last fall, students put together cardboard exhibits about the history of Juana Briones that were presented to the public on March 15 in Building 200.

Camarillo said approximately 45 people attended, including five members of the Briones family. The next time he offers the course, Camarillo said he may ask students to package their presentations so that they can be used by the Los Altos Hills Historical Society or displayed in the Cantor Arts Center.

"I was in conversation with Al recently and when I heard of the documentation need, I volunteered to shoot the footage," Samuelson said. "My children attended Juana Briones Elementary School in Palo Alto, and I feel it is vital to maintain any record possible of Juana Briones' remarkable life and contributions to her community."