Century-old home saved, not restored

June 27, 2010 

• COLUMBIA STATE HISTORIC PARK, TUOLUMNE COUNTY
Maintenance backlog: $6.7 million

Long after the plumbing leaks were fixed, water stains linger on the wallpaper inside Columbia State Historic Park's best-known home.

The stains will have to wait. The park has a nearly $7 million list of repairs, and the Wilson-McConnell house, beloved as it is, has plenty of competition.

"We stopped all the leaks, we dried the house out, but now we have to come up with money to restore it," said Vince Sereno, superintendent of the state parks sector that includes Columbia, during a tour of the 1878 home.

The park's 160 buildings are the largest state-owned collection of Gold Rush structures and represent an important part of Tuolumne County's tourist-driven economy. Keeping them in shape costs plenty.

Roofs leak. Storm water gathers around foundations and threatens to undermine them. Some buildings have faulty electricity. Some have lead paint, asbestos or mold.

Sereno tries to arrange fixes with a general fund maintenance budget that has reached $200,000 in good years but dropped to a quarter of that last year. Big projects occasionally get done with the help of park bond money, such as the $4.4 million restoration of a five-building complex known as the Knapp Block.

A drainage project for much of Main Street is about to start.

"They're not glamorous projects," Sereno said. "People can't see them, but if you don't do them, the park can't function."

The park staff has to make sure that the repairs match the historical appearance of Columbia, founded in 1850.

"You have to preserve history, not create false history," Sereno said.

At Umpqua Bank, which operates a branch in an 1854 bank building, that means lath and plaster rather than wallboard to repair a ceiling damaged by a roof leak. The building needs a whole new roof, but that's too expensive.

Branch manager Ruth King said these challenges come with working in a place so unique. Her bank has an ATM machine on one side and a nearly 160-year-old gold scale in the lobby.

"We hear all day long, 'Is this a real bank?' " King said. "Yes, we're a real, live, functioning bank. We do our business here. It's fun."

— John Holland

• RAILTOWN 1897 STATE HISTORIC PARK, TUOLUMNE COUNTY
Maintenance backlog: $5.8 million

In a Jamestown park that showcases the mighty power of locomotives, a single light fixture could have caused a disaster.

The light sits outside the much- visited roundhouse at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. An inspection found that wiring to the fixture was not properly grounded, allowing current to travel along various metal parts to the turntable that guides engines and cars into the maintenance bays, according to electrician Steve Spath.

"It was a visitor safety issue because the kids go for a ride on it," Spath said. The repair, he said, "was critical. It had to be done."

The electrical fix was part of a $50,000 roundhouse rewiring effort, a project the safety risk shoved to the top of a nearly $6 million list of Railtown repairs.

About 30 freight and passenger cars await restoration. Drainage must be improved around several buildings to keep storm water from undermining the foundations. A system for separating waste oil from water is needed so that the water can go into the town sewers, rather than being hauled off by a hazardous waste handler.

— John Holland

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