671 South Oakglen Avenue, Nipomo, CA 93444 dana@danaadobe.org 805.929.5679

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.

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 2 (of 4)

As pointed out in episode 1, the unexpected death of Fred Dana in 1899 left the rancho physically and financially unable to sustain it self. This event forced Fred’s widow to sell to A.C. Fry who in turn sold to Lawrence Hourihan in 1902. It’s interesting to speculate the Adobe’s future had the rancho stayed in the Dana family.

The Hourihans were successful farmers on the rancho and basically enjoyed life on the Central Coast as many of us do today. However, their idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt halt in 1906. Nathaniel Hartnell, the nephew of the treasurer of Monterey County, showed up at the rancho seeking employment. Mrs. Hourihan and her oldest daughter escorted Hartnell out to a harvesting operation. Without warning, Hartnell drew a revolver and shot the daughter, killing her, and then fled. After authorities were notified, riders were mounted and a couple of days later Hartnell was killed in the ensuing shoot-out. The reasons for his actions were never learned.

The Hourihans were so traumatized by this event that they left Nipomo. Their daughter Helen, however, decided to stay and they deeded the property to her. She soon married into the Grisingher family of Guadalupe. They lived on the property until 1916 at which time they took up residence in Guadalupe. They owned and farmed the property for the next 100 years. The adobe was never to be owner occupied again. It might be said that this tragedy eventually led to abandonment by the owners. Structures that are not owner occupied rarely get proper, if any, maintenance.

For the next 20 years the property was heavily farmed. In 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression, the adobe would benefit from one of Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal policies. It was called the Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.Report). Its goal was to employ out of work surveyors, archeologists, photographers and other professionals to catalog historic buildings throughout the nation. The adobe was included and the information in these reports has been vital in today’s restoration process. They included detailed drawings and photographs of everything that was there in 1936. These reports are still on file at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Information in the report also stated that the building was occupied by itinerant farm workers.

As the years rolled by the old building continued to deteriorate. A 1949 LA Times photo shows it in a terrible state of disrepair. Windows and doors boarded up, large sections of plaster falling off exposing adobe bricks to the elements. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s break-ins, looting and vandalism were common. Rumors of buried treasure prompted numerous hunts, digging up the grounds and adobe walls searching for gold. Vagrants burned original door and window frames for firewood. Eye witnesses have told me personally that if you were looking for a place to do something that you weren’t supposed to do, the Dana Adobe was the place to do it. Surely the old girl would not survive this abuse.

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 1 (of 4)

On the Mesa bluff in Nipomo overlooking Nipomo Creek and the Temattate Mountains, sits a historic and cultural treasure: The Rancho Nipomo Dana Adobe. This structure, whose construction started in 1838 and was completed in 1851, was the home of Captain William Goodwin and Maria Josefa Carrillo Dana. It sat on the 38,000 acre Mexican land grant that was awarded to them in 1837. Today it is a mere 125 acres, but is the only existing Rancho period adobe in California that still has its original view shed. It is not only one of the most important historic buildings in San Luis Obispo County but in the state of California as well.

Captain Dana and the Rancho Nipomo story are well documented and often told. What is less known is why the structure was almost lost forever, who came to its rescue and how it is now being brought back to its original glory. This is that “story” and it begins on February 12, 1858.
On that date, in the master bedroom at the Dana Adobe, Captain William G. Dana died. His death started a chain of events that slowly, at first, then at an increasingly rapid pace, led the building and property to decline and near ruin. Over the next 100 years changes made to the house by successive occupants, vandals, looters and the elements brought the building to its knees. For the next 22 years, Maria Josefa along with sons William Charles, John Francis and other members of the family, ran ranch operations. It is documented that weather and economic conditions were difficult during this period. In 1880, Maria Josefa moved to Casa Grande, a fine home on Mallagh Street in Nipomo built for her by her sons. At this time, her 31 year old son Fred, and his family took occupancy of the adobe. Sadly, Maria Josefa was only able to enjoy her new home for three years and died in 1883.

By the time Fredrick Albert and Manuela Munoz Dana and family moved in, the Monterey Colonial style home was no longer in vogue. Styles had changed and the house was in need of some modernization. They did what anyone would do. They made some changes. Fred added several new interior and exterior doors. A double sided fireplace was installed between two bedrooms. In the south wall, an exterior window was made into a door and, adjacent to it, a window was added. In coming years this would prove to be a near fatal flaw. Structural stability was apparently not a consideration during these changes.

The Fred Dana family enjoyed their home until 1899 when Fred was killed in a buggy accident. The property was heavily in debt and Fred’s widow did not have the means to continue running the rancho. In 1900 the property was sold to A.C. Fry and family. Before moving in the Fry’s made additional changes. The culmination of these many structural changes eventually contributed to weakening of the structure.

In 1902 the property was sold again to Lawrence Hourihan and family. The Hourihans proceeded to occupy the house and farm the surrounding property. It is unknown what, if any, changes were made by the Hourihans to the house.