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Peninsula | Womyn

Famed Juana Briones House under Demolition: There goes much of our California history--por qué?
by Justine Q. Perez
Wednesday Jun 1st, 2011 11:26 PM
The Juana Briones House in the hills of Palo Alto is famous for being a rare reminder of California’s early Mexican heritage. After more than a decade of legal battles with the people who bought the house in 1998, preservationists lost their last legal battle, and the historic abode is under demolition at this time.

Some of the descendants of Juana Briones live in Santa Clara County and visited the old house this week to say their good-byes. One of them wrote, "The house is being dismantled, piece by piece, board by board. There goes much of our California history--por qué?"

The Juana Briones House in the hills of Palo Alto is famous for being a rare reminder of California’s early Mexican heritage. In 2010 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the house one of the 11 most endangered historic locations in the US. But it is now being torn down by the current owners of the property, after more than a decade of legal challenges.

The historic house is situated in a park-like setting with trees and plants including the edible cactus plant, nopal. It is easy to imagine Juana, a healer who learned herbal medicine from curandera traditions of Mexico, performing her good works in this home. She was a pioneer who managed a large farm and ranch after establishing herself as the first woman in California to be granted a divorce.

Juana Briones raised eight children on her own. Her humanitarian work, including nursing sailors in San Francisco back to health during an epidemic of smallpox, made her a well-known figure in early California history. She is famous for doing all this at a time when women had few options -- and women of color fewer still.

The historic house is U-shaped, with a central section and two wings. The central section, which consists of three rooms, is the old adobe portion of the structure, built in the 1840's. Even the street it is on has been named for the house; it is located at 4155 Old Adobe Road in Palo Alto. It was constructed in a rare style by packing earth between wooden slats. (Most adobe homes are built out of bricks). The house has become a living landmark of California history and a symbol of Juana Briones’ accomplishments.

In 1987, the City of Palo Alto designated the Juana Briones House as a historic landmark.

The house had changed hands several times over a 150 year period. In 1998 new owners purchased the property and applied to the City of Palo Alto for a permit to demolish the building. The City denied their application. In February 1999, the owners sought a writ either compelling issuance of the demolition permit or requiring the City to provide a hearing for appeal of the permit denial. They sought a declaration of rights relieving them of performance under the Mills Act contract; brazenly, they also demanded that the city cover their attorney fees.

Under the Mills Act, cities enter into contracts with the owners of historic structures. Such contracts involve a reduction of property taxes in exchange for the continued preservation of the property. It was legally required that the Juana Briones House be preserved under the provisions of the Mills Act in the purchase contract when the new owners bought it in 1998.

Litigation by the new owners resulted in an administrative hearing on their application for a demolition permit. In 2007, the City approved the application and issued the requested permit. Appalled that the house would be destroyed, an unincorporated association of concerned citizens decided to fight back. They took the case back to court, arguing that the demolition permit "violated key mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act and its own Municipal Code." They sought a writ commanding the City to set aside its approval of the demolition permit.

In 2008, the courts issued a new judgment, saying that the City abused its discretion and failed to proceed in the manner required by law when it approved the subject demolition permit. The court ordered a stay and it looked as if the house would be saved. Preservationists, feminists, and Californio Period history experts celebrated outside the court with dancing singing and a mariachi band.

Their period of joy was short-lived, however. After more than a decade of legal battles, the court ruled the city has no choice but to approve a demolition permit. Today the owners are removing the house from the property.

Some of the descendants of Juana Briones live in Santa Clara County and visited the house to say their good-byes. One of them wrote, "The house is being dismantled, piece by piece, board by board. There goes much of our California history--por qué?"