Reimagining Historic Preservation at the Cooper-Molera Adobe

Jun 29, 2017

Maintaining historic buildings is expensive and often relies on the goodwill of donors and volunteers. In many places, that model is failing. So the National Trust for Historic Preservation is trying something new. And it’s starting with a historic building in Monterey.  

Long before downtown Monterey got a movie theater, a yoga studio and a boutique ice cream shop, a ship captain named John Cooper began to build his estate here in 1832. It’s two and half acres in size with two homes, two giant Redwood barns, a warehouse and a corner store.

“All combined and surrounded by original adobe walls from the 1800s,” says Nancy Runyon.  

Which is how it got the name the Cooper-Molera Adobe. Nancy Runyon is the president of the Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists. Their mission is to save and preserve local historic buildings.  I meet her outside the estate as cars and people pass by.

“When you walk into there, you just forget all about the traffic, you forget all about everything outside, you go back to another world,” says Runyon.

But even if you wanted to go inside, you can’t. The doors are locked for construction. The owner of the property, the National Trust for Historic Preservation based in Washington, DC, is commercializing the historic home.

“This appalled all of us who are in preservation,” says Runyon.

The preservationists believed commercialization would damage the Cooper-Molera’s historic character and take away from the educational programming there.

“We just thought it would disastrous for the Cooper-Molera and so we quickly started contacting people, getting support, and we had about 300 people sign up on our email list,” Runyon says.  

Their goal was to keep it under the stewardship of California State Parks. Up until recently, it took care of the property for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  But State Parks didn’t have the resources to keep up that agreement.  And without that help, the National Trust had limited options.  Katherine Malone-France is Vice-President for the non-profit.

“How do we generate revenue for this site that doesn’t have an endowment, you know doesn’t have really dedicated streams of revenue?” Malone-France asks.

The National Trust owns 27 historic sites across the country including the Cooper-Molera. She says the model of maintaining the sites through the goodwill of donors and volunteers just doesn’t work in many places. That’s why they’re trying something new, starting here in the heart of downtown Monterey.

“How can we use this as a prototype? And you know, listen, I am a big believer that California is a place you go, just like John Cooper, to do something innovative,” says Malone-France.   

On a trip from DC, Malone-France shows me around Cooper’s home. They adjusted their initial plans to address some of the concerns of the local historic preservationists.  So, businesses will not go in all the buildings. The two homes will remain as house museums.

What will change – the barns are getting updated to host weddings and other events, the corner store is becoming a bakery, and the warehouse will be a restaurant with outdoor dining. The developer, Doug Wiele of Foothill Partners in northern California calls the concept shared-use.

“The advantage of introducing commercial uses is that they pay rent. We’ve got some fairly extraordinary rents out of some really extraordinary merchants,” says Wiele.

Those rents will help keep the grounds up, fund the salary of a National Trust employee who will have an office on site, pay down the redevelopment cost - about $7 million - and keep the doors open.

Wiele unlocks the door into the warehouse, which will be the dining room of the new restaurant. The kitchen is going outside, in a new structure, because it’s very difficult to put a commercial kitchen in a historic building. All of the new construction will adhere to the federal regulations for historic remodeling.  

It’s a solution that pleases initial opponents of the project like Nancy Runyon.

“We’re hoping that even though there will be some active businesses inside now, that it will be a beneficial shared use and those active businesses will allow the National Trust to keep the historic house museums in good shape,” Runyon says.

Construction begins in July. But already, you can start to imagine a resurgence here; a soon-to -be bride checking out the barns, friends enjoying lunch and then exploring the house museums.  People coming in, not just passing by.