From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 3 (of 4)
Rancho Nipomo, early 1950’s
Captain Dana would have been greatly saddened by the condition of the home he built for his family. The damage that was caused by numerous structural changes, abandonment, negligence, vandalism and the elements had taken their toll. This building was at one time the main center for agriculture, industry and administration between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Now it was simply a derelict in the middle of a field. If something wasn’t done soon, it could be lost forever.
Fortunately, this was not going unnoticed. Interest and support was building at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society and on September 9, 1954 they took possession of the adobe. The purchase price from the Grisingher family was unstated but believed to be $500. The property consisted of the footprint of the house, a six foot apron around the house and an easement from Oak Glen Avenue. This event marked the very first step toward saving the building and the property.
The Historical Society now had the adobe but the question was-what to do with it? This was a large building and the damage was vast. A historic restoration would be ideal, but the place was literally in danger of falling down. Simply stated, the project was so overwhelming the Historical Society didn’t know where to start. Not much was done for the next few years, but finally in the late 1950’s someone stepped forward.
Fred Dana’s son, Alonzo, took a leadership role in saving the adobe. He used his family affiliation and membership in the Historical Society to launch an effort to save the structure. He was successful at getting society members and community groups like the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts and Cal Poly students involved. Community members would show up for workdays and tackle the most important issues, like repairing the roof and filling holes in adobe walls. A lunch was prepared so it was a social event as well. This was a great start at saving the structure, but, was it enough?
By the time the 1970’s rolled around, it was becoming apparent that a more aggressive approach was needed to keep the structure standing upright. Keeping the building from falling down had been the priority up to this point but it was a losing battle. Volunteers decided to apply the most common procedure during that period for protecting adobe walls and keeping them from falling down. This consisted of plastering all the walls, inside and out, with Portland cement. This was a drastic step but it worked. The cement gave the building the structural stability that was needed. Now, time could be taken to repair trouble spots without fear of collapse. However, this method also had some drawbacks and was never meant to be a permanent solution. First of all, adobe has to breathe and the cement shell sealed in moisture that would destroy the adobes over time. In addition, the condition of the walls was no longer visible. For a restoration, all of the concrete plaster would have to be removed.
By the end of the 1970’s the idea of a historic restoration was considered not feasible and the goal was to make the building useful for future generations. Most of the original flooring was removed, including the veranda, and concrete slabs were poured. In the interior the slabs were covered with Spanish tiles. The two small rooms at the ends of the veranda were demolished and re-built with stabilized bricks. It was decided that a full time caretaker was needed. A water and septic system was installed and some interior rooms were converted into caretaker quarters.
The Historical Society had done its job. The Dana Adobe had been saved from destruction. Now it was time to consider what the next steps should be. This process would last almost until the 21st century. Yes, the old building was still there, but it was a concrete ghost of itself and it was not living up to its potential. What was needed was another Alonzo Dana; someone who could spark the interest and enthusiasm to bring the Dana Adobe back to its former glory.