The hazy future of a historic house in Pleasanton is now a bit clearer, with neighbors and city officials committing recently to preserving both a part of their community's heritage and increasingly limited green space.
Hidden behind towering trees at the end of a long dirt path flanked by rose bushes, the Century House on Santa Rita Road has been around longer than its name suggests. At 150 years old, the house has had many lives: originally built as a weekend duck hunting lodge by George Atkinson in the 1870s, the Spring Valley Water Co. held ownership at one point and several families called the place home as well.
Time had taken its toll on the Century House when the city of Pleasanton assumed ownership and renovated the building in the 1970s. Over the years, people were married, held birthday parties and attended classes on site.
When the Century House was first remodeled, it wasn't because any particular historic event took place there. Instead, the old wooden farmhouse exemplified the typical home from a time before the city was even founded.
Nearly 50 years later, the city is once again looking to preserve and make use of the former residence, which served as a venue for public classes and events until it was deemed unsafe in 2012. In an interview, Mayor Karla Brown told the Weekly that the reasons for giving the Century House a new facelift are largely the same ones as before.
"It's a pretty special place," Brown said. "It's so easy to miss it, and the trees are so mature."
"Right now, most events are held at the Senior Center or downtown buildings, and this side of Pleasanton could use some community centers out here," Brown said. "If we're going to restore it, then let's use it."
The Century House is near and dear to the heart of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Joanie Fields as well, who called it "one of the only structures in our community that has such a long history."
"Since I grew up here and have known some of the people that have lived in this house, it is very special to me," Fields said.
The parks commission has spent over a year and a half studying the possible usage of the house, according to Fields, and "with some small changes in the floor plan we will be able to have larger classes for all age groups," in addition to birthday parties, weddings and business meetings.
"This is something that is sorely needed ... This will make it more usable for our community," Fields said.
While the Century House has "a lovely history to it," Brown said it also has problems like interior wood rot and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, which are expected to present renovation challenges and "be expensive to do it right."
"ADA compliance requires access to the upstairs, and that's an elevator -- and that's a challenge," Brown said. "Right now there's a men's and women's bathroom, neither are big enough for a wheelchair. We asked to make one bigger, but (staff is) assuming they probably need two more bathrooms just for a group of 100 people."
Another option being tossed around is a building separate structure with a kitchen and outside bathroom.
"Old beautiful houses aren't government buildings, but they have to be if they're owned by the city. You have to be ADA compliant," Brown said. "It's difficult to make it compliant with all the government regulations, and that will be a big challenge."
The lengthy lifetime of the Century House means it needs "a complete upgrade of all electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling, a new foundation plus ADA compliance issues," according to Fields.
The first renovation of the Century House decades earlier was "done on a shoestring", and former Pleasanton mayors John McWilliams and Ken Mercer contributed to the effort, she said.
"Mr. McWilliams replaced all of the spindles, making them to match the original ones on the staircase. Ken Mercer helped lay the bricks in the patio and also helped paint the house," Fields said, adding "these two people are just examples of what was happening during this period when we all worked together."
Since then, however, "the codes have all changed," Fields said. "I call it a nip and tuck. When a building has sat empty for eight years, many issues appear that might not have been so evident at the time."
The matter of paying for everything is also weighing on the city and its budget. Depending on the type and amount of work required, city staff estimated at a June 21 public workshop for the Century House Master Plan that renovations and repairs could cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3.5 million.
"It's all financially dependent on capital improvement budgets and this is an expensive one," Brown said. "The city should put money aside because all old homes need maintenance. Ownership of an old home is expensive but that's a part of our city, and the old homes in Pleasanton are what makes us unique."
Regular maintenance shouldn't be as much of an issue because it "would be like any other city-owned properties," according to Fields.
"All buildings are allocated major and minor repairs as needed, such as interior/exterior painting, new carpeting," Fields said. "Our city staff has done an outstanding job keeping all of our buildings in working condition throughout the years."
When it comes to having enough money upfront to get the renovations done, Brown said, "We're not confident because we've had a couple down years, especially with COVID and funds we've given to our small businesses to keep them afloat, getting the Century House renovated will be a challenge."
One hurdle the city appears to have cleared recently, though, is making peace with surrounding neighbors who were upset by a proposal to pave over approximately 25% of the adjacent Bicentennial Park to add more parking spaces. The parking area for Century House currently has less than a dozen parking spaces but could potentially fit a total of about 20, according to city staff.
"We have quite a few apartments in that area ... which makes an area like Bicentennial Park more valuable," Brown said. Now the city's ultimate goal is to add more parking while preserving "the whole sense, the look, the historic layout of the front yard with the roses."
At first glance Bicentennial Park appears to be an unassuming strip of land bare of any play equipment, but neighbor Jean Hazell, who lives about a block away, said it's an essential facility for her family and neighbors. Walking less than a mile to Ken Mercer Sports Park might not seem like a big deal, but she said "it's not okay if you've got mobility issues or really little kids."
"The green space was part of what made the parcel special and we hoped to make it common ground," Hazell said.
Hazell and her neighbors successfully circulated a petition recently, which was signed by more than 900 residents demanding the city find parking alternatives for Century House besides taking away their green space.
At the city workshop, officials indicated interest in exploring the option of opening the gate between the park and Century House during larger events, which would allow some limited access along Tanager Drive for cars.
Ultimately, the council directed staff to abandon additional parking options at Bicentennial Park and instead add a drop-off area on Santa Rita, as well as explore adding more parking spaces along the outer perimeter of the existing driveway, which would leave the front lawn and rose bushes intact.
The owner of the Tri-Valley Medical Center building at the corner of Santa Rita Road and Mohr Avenue was also receptive to a shared-use parking arrangement on their property. Hazell called it "a great offsite option to complete what they're doing onsite" that's also conveniently located near the crosswalk.
"This process has yielded an outcome where we can both honor the history and restore a special place that a lot in the community hold dear, and also honor the commitment that was made a long time ago to the green space of this park," Hazell said, also adding "a lot of neighbors were heartened and reassured that the process worked when city officials listened."
Even before the draft master plan is expected to be completed this fall, Hazell said the process has already "knit the neighborhood together." Now more neighbors now recognize each other while out for a stroll in the treasured bit of local green space where it all started.
"I came away from the process feeling really glad about it," Hazell said.
The Century House is not only a portal to the past but also a place where residents have imagined their future, whether attending a wedding or art class on site. Brown said "the romantic side of me" would "like to see it used for weddings, birthdays and life events, as well as classes that the neighborhood could use," while Hazell envisions chamber music concerts.
With its out-of-the-way location and ability to hide in plain sight, the Century House has been overlooked at times, but Brown said the building is a reminder for locals that "not everything that's old and valuable in Pleasanton is on Main Street."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly stated Pleasanton Parks and Recreation Commissioner Joanie Fields lived in the Century House during her youth. Fields grew up in Pleasanton and knew people who lived in the house, but never resided there herself. The Weekly regrets the error.