Juana Briones House

Historic Juana Briones House coming down  

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The owner of Palo Alto's oldest home, Juana Briones House, has begun deconstructing the 166-year-old structure after 13 years of lawsuits that delayed its removal.

The 1844-1845 house, which was built by Palo Alto pioneer Juana Briones, contained remnants of a rare form of adobe architecture, of which there is only one other example in the state, according to architectural historians.

Juana Briones de Miranda was part of the California population of Spanish, Mexican and Native-American descent.

She was also a humanitarian, a healer, and the daughter of members of the historic De Anza expedition into California in 1776. She became a prominent Palo Alto rancher, according to the Juana Briones Heritage Association.

The property at 4155 Old Adobe Road in the Palo Alto hills also contained a rock wall built by Native Americans that has also been taken down, Kent Mitchell, attorney for property owners Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer, said Wednesday morning (May 25).

Nulman, Welczer and the City of Palo Alto wrote conditions into the permit after a first lawsuit with the city that allows preservationists and historians to salvage certain historical elements, including the rock wall.

In 1997, the Nulmans wanted to remove newer wings a previous owner added to the house but the city denied their request, Mitchell said. They applied for a demolition permit and prevailed after a nine-year battle when the city denied their application.

In 2007, Friends of the Juana Briones House sued and won a stay against the demolition, but on appeal, the Nulmans prevailed. The California Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Mitchell said. The city reinstated the demolition permit on Wednesday.

Woodside-based Reusable Lumber, which specializes in historical sites, began work on Friday.

Clark Akatiff, a member of Friends of the Juana Briones House, said the group made a careful record of the home during a one-month window some years ago when they were allowed on the property.

He is meeting with city officials and preservationists Wednesday afternoon to discuss where to store the rock wall and a plaque.

Akatiff said the historic wall cribbing -- a slat-style architecture into which adobe or dirt was poured to make walls -- and other parts of the home might be made available to the group as the building is deconstructed. He said Mitchell is working on a potential agreement.

Akatiff said he has accepted the court's judgment, which comes after two lawsuits and appeals.

"It feels like there is some sense of cooperation after such a long and arduous lack of cooperation. This was a legal procedure and we fought it long and hard," he said.

"It is interesting to note, in passage, that in both court cases the initial decision was always in favor of preservation, only to have the decision reversed by some opaque reasoning and costly litigation. I guess it's legal, but it does lead to some bad decisions. The decision to allow the demolition of La Casa de Juana Briones is surely such a decision," he said.

Two great women in Palo Alto are to be memorialized: Juana Briones and Esther Clark, who started the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, he said. Akatiff said perhaps the Briones plaque and the rock wall could be used to create a memorial to both women at adjacent Esther Clark Park.

Part of the property is under a life estate that was willed to Thomas Hunt by the previous owners, Mitchell said.

Hunt does not currently live on the property, but he has control over a small house. Upon his death, the land and home would revert back to the owners, he said.

Nulman and Welczer could not be reached for comment on whether they plan to build on the property.

But Mitchell said, "The answer is clearly no. They built another house. I've never heard them talk about it. They are just going day by day. I don't think there is any clear plan."