The struggle to save Ott's Assay Office

By William B. Wetherall

20 October 2009

Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building in downtown Nevada City, California, are widely revered as historical and architectural icons of the epochal mining era in the West. Each building has its own special history and significance, which most people understand and appreciate, but few people realize how close the buildings came to the brink of total destruction as a casualty of the Golden Center Freeway.

By cutting through the downtown area, the freeway took a heavy toll on Nevada City's historical buildings. The route initially designed would have taken out both the Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building. (It did destroy the nearby Union Hotel). Pressure by city officials and others induced a change in the route so that these buildings and the Hot Mill on Union Street, as well as the National Hotel Annex, were temporarily rescued. The Hot Mill was later victimized by an ill-fated sale of the property by the owner, Mike Haley, leading to the construction of a Shell Service Station which, in that location, was a blight on the Historical District. Fortunately, that blight has since been removed. Unfortunately, the Hotel Annex was later destroyed by fire.

Both Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, as well as the area now occupied by the post office parking lot, were acquired by the State as excess freeway property incident to the construction of the freeway -- offal from the condemnation process. Although there appeared to be no statutory provisions governing the disposition of such excess property, the policy of the State Highway Commission was that if the condemnee did not choose to re-acquire the excess property, the city in which the property was located would be next in line to acquire it. It is fair to say that throughout the City's pursuit of that opportunity, the State was genuinely in full support of the City's goal, and the City was steadfast in its assurance to the State that the buildings would be preserved.

Although the historic buildings were by-passed by the freeway bulldozers, they were not "saved"; their ultimate fate was still to be resolved. The events involved in that lengthy resolution process came at a favorable time when there was a growing public awareness that many of the buildings in the downtown area were architectural and historical treasures, and that the preservation and restoration of these unique specimens of the mining era could become a real stimulus to the tourist trade and help to revive the sagging local economy.

A prime example of this awakening and trend toward historical preservation occurred in 1961 when the New Verde Mines Co. deeded to the City of Grass Valley the fabulous old North Star Powerhouse, containing the largest Pelton wheel in the world and other priceless mining artifacts. The property, as restored by the Nevada County Historical Society, is now operated as a hard rock mining museum.

Another example of increasing public involvement in historical preservation was the crusade to save the Nevada Theater -- still haunted by the spirits of Mark Twain, Jack London and Emma Nevada-led by Sally Lewis, a passionate supporter of historical causes. This effort came to fulfillment, thanks to Sally and many donors, with the purchase of the building by the Liberal Arts Commission and the reopening of the theater in 1964.

The well-publicized development of Ordinance No. 338, the Historical Ordinance, over several years, and its final emergence and adoption by the City Council on August 12, 1968, was perhaps the epiphany of the public mood in support of historical preservation. The Ordinance emphasized the economic benefits to be derived from the increase in tourism brought about by the protection and perpetuation of our architectural and historical heritage.

The widespread interest, early on, in saving Ott's Assay Office was evidenced by a letterhead used by Sally Lewis, which was embelished [embellished] with a drawing of the Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, and was headed by the words "Save Ott's Committee". At the bottom of the page, in finer print, was the proclaimation [proclamation]: "Endorsed by Nevada County Historical Society, California Heritage Council, Placer County Historical Society, Western Mining Council, Inc., and the California Historical Society".

As a premonition of things to come, on December 30, 1963, the City Manager (then C.J. Smith) received a telephone call from the Division of Highways inquiring whether the City "wanted all of the available land north of the Ott's Assay Office for public parking". The City Council authorized a letter to be written to the Division of Highways inviting a representive [representative] of that agency and also a landscaping engineer to appear at a meeting "to discuss parking and landscaping on the proposed freeway". On February 10, 1964, Paul Sheridan and Dana Bowers of the Division of Highways appeared before the Council and discussed the landscaping matter, showing pictures of landscaping proposals.

In this propitious setting, our story really begins -- at a Council meeting on May 11, 1964, with the adoption of Resolution No. 275, introduced by newly elected Councilman Dan O'Neill, who (along with Beryl Robinson and Ben Barry) had been sworn in at the preceding Council meeting. In that Resolution, the Council gave vent to its pent-up frustrations regarding the manner in which the State was handling the freeway project. By way of recitals, the Resolution stated that the City had "waited almost a generation for the construction of the freeway" and had "suffered economic hardship due to the delay"; and that the City had "received assurances regarding the scheduling of construction, presentation of a landscaping plan and provision of surplus freeway land for the City".

The Resolution further recited that the State had given "guarantees regarding the saving of the Hotel Annex and Ott's Assay Office, and that the preservaion [preservation] and ultimate disposition of the Annex and Assay Office are matters of the highest concern to the people of Nevada City".

The Council resolved that the State report to the City in time for its June meeting on the State's landscape plan for the freeway, on steps to be taken during construction "to assure that all historical structures slated to be saved...are not molested or undermined in any way", and on steps to be taken "to ultimately dispose of these properties in accordance with the needs of Nevada City".

Prior to the reading of the Resolution, Paul Sheridan and Ralph H. Caudillo of the Division of Highways had briefed the Council on the progress of the proposed freeway construction. After the Resolution was read, Sheridan took sharp issue with a number of points made in the Resolution, but the Council proceeded to adopt it by the following unanimous vote: Mayor McPherson, Councilmen Robinson, Day, O'Neill and Cooper.

As directed in the Resolution, certified copies were sent to "Governor Edmund G. Brown, Highway Administrator Bradford, Director of Public Works Erreca, Deputy State Highway Engineer Legarra, Assistant State Engineer Hart, and Senator Paul J. Lunardi". Mayor McPherson appointed Councilman O'Neill as "one of a committee" to follow the "progress of the freeway".

As epitomized by Dorothy Weir, a well-regarded staff writer for The Union, in the next day's article, Councilman O'Neill "threw down the gauntlet to the State Division of Highways". Resolution No 275, to be sure, was a bit hyperbolic, but it did rattle some cages. Indeed, jump-started by the Resolution, the "save Ott's" campaign was ready to roll.

At the Council's June 8, 1964, meeting, Councilman O'Neill reported that he had met with highway officials in Sacramento on June 5, and a letter from the Division of Highways dated June 6 was read in which the City was asked whether it was interested in purchasing the Ott's Assay Office. By vote of the Council, the City Manager was instructed to negotiate with the Division of Highways "as to the Assay Office building and the lot adjoining".

On June 22, 1964, in response to Resolution No. 275, Alan S. Hart, Assistant State Highway Engineer, and two other representatives of the Highway Division addressed the Council on freeway matters, displaying landscaping maps and reporting on "progress on the proposed to starting construction dates". The minutes of the meeting state that the Council "seemed satisfied".

Although the buildings were known to be in a dismal condition, before making any formal proposal to the State, the City asked the State Department of Industrial Relations to make a preliminary inspection of the Assay Office, resulting in an inspection by Paul L. Solomon, the agency's District Representative, and Robert Hurlbut, the County Building Inspector.

In a letter to the City dated September 23, 1964, from the Division of Housing, it was reported that "the exterior walls contained both deteriorating brick and mortar, and that a portion of the left front corner (facing the building) had been torn away". In addition, the letter identified numerous other defects in the building, including the chimneys, the floor, and the plumbing and electrical systems, and concluded that "the building appears to be in an advanced stage of deterioration and would require extensive repairs to make it structurally sound".

The letter further suggested that the City retain a licensed architect and structural engineer "to make detailed tests of the structural conditions of this building, and to submit recommendations for necessary repairs to bring this building into a safe condition for public use".

Pursuant to negotiations with Jack R. Thompson, Property Manager for the Division of Highways, Marysville office, the City received a letter from the Division, which was read at the Council meeting on September 14, 1964, offering to sell to the City two parcels of land, one being the vacant area north of the South Yuba Canal Building at a price of $6,200.00, and the other the remaining part of the excess freeway property, including Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, at a price of $10,000,00. City Manager Smith informed the Council that these were "the best prices that could be obtained". On motion by Councilman O'Neill, the Council voted to accept both offers.

Since the financialy [financially] stressed City would be hard pressed to purchase the parking lot area alone, much less both that site and the adjacent buildings, upon further negotiations with Thompson, ^ eluding a meeting between him, the City Manager (then, for a short term, Henry Roese) and the City Attorney, it was decided that, with respect to the buildings, instead of a purchase agreement, the City should have a lease with an option to buy them.

Accordingly, on February 1, 1965, the City received from the Division of Highways a draft of a proposed Lease of the Assay Office and South Yuba Canal Building for a term of one year, at at a yearly rent of $480.00, payable in advance, for use as a "museum, commercial and parking" (the use then being made by the existing tenant, Sven Skaar, as described in his lease). By the terms of the Lease, the City waived all rights under Civil Code Sections 1941 and 1942 regarding the repair of building dilapidations. The City was also granted an option to purchase the leased property at a price of $10,000.00. As a separate transaction, the City received a so-called "Proposal by Direct Sale" whereby the City would purchase the parking lot area at a price of $6,200.00 .

Neither of the above mentioned deals came to fruition. They were at first delayed pending completion of a title search by Inter-Co. Title Co., and when it later came to light that all of the excess freeway property might be needed for conversion into a postal facility, these documents fell by the wayside.

At the Council meeting on December 14, 1964, the Council adopted Resolution No 290, introduced by Councilman O'Neill, which named certain buildings as historical monuments of Nevada City. The Resolution stated that the Council was instrumental in having Ott's Assay Office, the Hot Mill and the National Hotel Annex "excluded from the freeway right of way", and resolved that "the buildings are declared to be historical monuments of Nevada City and it is the wish of the Council that they not be torn down or materially altered in external appearance".

For years it had been known that the the post office in Nevada City was woefully in need of larger quarters, and in 1965 it became known, much to the dismay of the downtown merchants, that the Post Office Department had definitely decided to move the post office to larger quarters, probably outside of the downtown area -- for example, in the area of the Argall Way shopping center -- and this led to the idea that Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building could possibly be transformed into a post office. If so, the goal of saving the buildings presented what could become a win-win scenario.

At this point in time, it should be mentioned that on June 21, 1965, Beryl Robinson tendered his resignation as Councilman and was immediately elected City Manager, succeeding Henry Roese. He still held that office at the end of our story.

On August 9, 1965, Alf Heller, representing the Nevada Company, submitted to the Council a proposal that his group would like to work with the Council to determine "the feasibility of a new post office in the Ott's Assay Office". The "group" referred to by Heller were a number of Nevada County civic leaders and investors organized and operating as a general partnership, the partners being Dr. Jerome F. Frey, Downey C. Clinch, John Sbaffi, Shirley H. Brattin, Roy C. Tremoureau, Daniel 0. Newton, William C. Briggs, Albert L. Casey, Harold A. Berliner, Fred J. Conway, Stanley H. Halls, William C. George, Dwight F. Lang, Alfred E. Heller and Robert T. Ingram. Mayor McPherson appointed Councilman Jensen and himself as committee to work with Heller.

The plan as first presented by the Nevada Company was that the City would acquire title to the excess freeway property and then lease or sell it to the Nevada Company, which would make a deal with the Postal Service that would enable it to convert the property to a post office facility and at the same time preserve and restore the buildings.

Legal research on the part of both the City and the Nevada Company had confirmed that even though the City did not need the excess freeway property for any valid municipal use (except to the extent that the property might be used for public parking), the City had authority under Section 37361 of the Government Code to acquire it "for the preservation or development of a historical landmark". There was some concern about the meaning of the word "preservation". Above all, the City had to make sure that if it were to acquire the property from the State only as a "stalking horse" for a private party, the integrity of the buildings in terms of historical preservation would be fully, effectively and permanently assured regardless of any future changes in the ownership or use of the property.

On August 23, 1965, John Sbaffi, on behalf of the Nevada Company, presented to the Council a sketch of a proposed post office in the Ott's Assay Office.

On September 13, 1965, Alf Heller again appeared before the Council and reported on a recent meeting of the project committee. He stated that his main purpose was to "hear from the Council on the Ott's Assay Building". What he heard was a reading of Resolution No. 306, introduced by Mayor McPherson amd [and] adopted by the following unanimous vote: Mayor McPherson, Councilmen Jensen and Barry, and Councilwoman Friedrich.

Resolution No. 306 recited that the Nevada Company was interested in leasing or purchasing the excess freeway property from the City upon the City's acquisition of title, "with the view of utilizing said buildings, together with a proposed addition thereto, for the post office", and also recited that "the Nevada Company has presented to the City a preliminary design of the proposed facilities which would substantially preserve and restore the buildings as historical landmarks and tourist attractions, as well as provide a sizable area for public parking".

It was then resolved that it would be in the best interest of the City "to enter into an arrangement with the Nevada Company along the lines thus proposed".

On March 28, 1966, Sven Skaar appeared before the Council and inquired as to what was being done regarding the "disposition of the Ott Assay Office". Councilman Jensen informed him that "the matter stands between the Nevada Company and the U.S. Postal Department". It is true that the primary negotiations then underway were between those parties. However, it is also true that Nevada City had a vital part to play. In fact, as owner-to-be of the property, on matters pertaining to the preservation and restoration of the buildings, the City's input was paramount.

Skaar also introduced Buck Buchanan, who told the Council that he was interested in buying Ott's Assay Office, which "would be retained still as an assay office". He offered to make a deposit of $1,000.00 as a gesture of good faith. The City Attorney pointed out that if the City were to purchase Ott's Assay Office, it could retain the building as a museum and the lot could be used for public parking. The Council took no action on Buchanan's proposal.

At the Council meeting on May 9, 1966, a letter from the Nevada Company was read stating that it was ready to submit an agreement for the City's consideration and requesting the Council 's authorization to work with the City Attorney. With the Council's approval, Mayor McPherson appointed Councilmen Day and Paine, the City Attorney and the City Manager to work with the Nevada Company "with regard to the construction of a new post office."

On June 13, 1966, John Sbaffi appeared before the Council with a title report from Inter-Co. Title Co. on Ott's Assay Office, and also an Application for Option to Lease Property prepared by Bill Cassettari, one of the attorneys for the Nevada Company.

The Application covered all of the property regarding which the City had been accorded the prior right to purchase as excess freeway property, being an area of 31,056 square feet, and which included both buildings. In a nutshell, the proposal involved three elements:

(1) An Option from the State giving the City the right to purchase the property at a price of $19,287.16.

(2) An Option from the City giving the Nevada Company the right to lease the property for a term of 50 Years.

(3) As consideration for the lease, the Nevada Company would (a) pay to the City $19,287.16 in lump sum as prepaid rent, (b) construct a parking lot of not less than 25 spaces, and (c) take all measures required to preserve the exterior of the buildings.

It was further provided in the Nevada Company's proposal that the property would be used for the construction of a post office building to be leased to the Post Office Department and that a 5,000 square foot addition would be made to the existing building. The option would be for 18 months, would be successively assignable, and would be carried out through escrow at Inter-Co. Title Co. Upon the recommendation of the City Attorney, the Application was referred to the committee handling the post office project.

After 11 considerable discussion", Councilman Paine read a proposed Option for Lease which had already been drafted by the City Attorney pretty much along the lines presented in the Nevada Company's Application. By vote of the Council, the City Attorney was instructed to "go ahead with" the proposed Option.

Thereafter, on June 29, 1966, an extensive conference regarding the provisions of the proposed Option for Lease was held at the City Hall. The Nevada Company was represented by Downey Clinch, John Sbaffi and Bill Cassettari. The City representatives were Mayor McPherson, Councilman Paine, the City Manager, and the City Attorney. With minor "tune-ups", the proposed Option for Lease was approved. One of the unanswered questions raised by the City was whether the Nevada Company had in mind making an assignment of the Option for Lease, or itself exercising the option and then giving the Department a sublease. Another unanswered question was, in any case, why not have the City grant a lease or option for lease directly to the Post Office Department?

At a meeting of the Council on the following day, June 30, the City Attorney presented drafts of two resolutions, stating that he wanted to submit them to Bill Cassettari for his consideration. One of the resolutions authorized execution of a Proposal to Purchase Excess Land from the State, and the other authorized execution of the Option for Lease of that property to be granted to the Nevada Company. On a motion by Mayor McPherson, the Council voted to approve the Resolutions as presented.

On July 25, 1966, pursuant to action taken at the above mentioned June 30 meeting, the Council adopted Resolution No. 323, authorizing execution of the above mentioned Proposal to Purchase Excess Land, which covered an area of 31,056 square feet, including the Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building. The price for the property was $19,287.16 to be paid by the City through an appropriate escrow as consideration for a Director's Deed to be approved by the the Highway Commission and deposited in the escrow. (The City's offer was later approved by the Commission and a Director's Deed to the property, dated September 28, 1966, was placed in the then existing escrow at Inter-Co. Title Co).

The term of the Option for Lease was 18 months and the term of the Lease attached to the Option was 50 years (the maximum term allowed by law for a municipal lease). The total rent under the Lease was $19,287.16, payable in advance as an "absolute payment" for the Lease. As further consideration for the Lease, the lessee agreed to (1) "restore, preserve and maintain" the existing buildings in a manner meticulously set forth in the Lease, (2) construct and maintain an addition to the existing buildings, as well as a service area, in accordance with the provisions of the Lease, (3) construct an automobile parking lot on the leased premises and, upon completion, release the lot to the City, and (4) provide landscaping as required by the Lease.

The proposed Lease included the following provisions:

"Except for the parking lot . . . the leased premises shall be used during the first 20 years of the lease solely for the purpose of conducting thereon the business and operations of a United States Post Office. [By the terms of the lease, the Post Office Department was given the right, by successive options, to extend the term of the lease to a total of 50 years]. Upon the expiration or termination of any sublease to the Post Office Department, said premises may be used for any other business or professional uses which are compatible with the character of said existing buildings as historical exhibits; provided, however, that the written consent of Lessor to such other uses shall first be obtained. Such consent shall not be unreasonably withheld".

* * *

"It is understood and agreed by the parties hereto that the existing buildings on the leased premises . . . are important historical exhibits; that said buildings are unique architectural specimens symbolic of Nevada City's past history as a mining town, attracting numerous visitors to the City and thereby augmenting the economy and general welfare of the City; and that the restoration, preservation and maintenance of said buildings as required by this lease, is a major inducement to Lessor's execution of this lease.

* * *

"Within one year after the effective date of this lease, Lessee shall . . . complete all work necessary to rehabilitate said existing buildings in order that they will be fit for use and occupancy as a post office, and in order that their external architectural appearance will be substantially preserved and restored . . . the following elements of the existing buildings shall be substantially retained: masonry false fronts with present contours; window and door patterns; iron shutters; roof lines; pressed tin cornices; balcony and railing on South Yuba Canal Company Building; canopy on Ott's Assay Office; and exposed brick wall on the south side of Ott's Assay Office.

* * *

"Within one year after the effective date of this lease, Lessee shall construct an addition to said existing buildings . . . said addition shall be of such design, materials scale, finish and colors as will harmonize with the existing buildings as restored . . . it is specifically agreed that none of the following materials may be used on the exterior side walls: fluted metal, asbestos or composition siding; colored plastics or plastic surfacing; or any imitation materials not compatible with early Nevada City buildings."

On July 27 1966, a copy of the above mentioned draft of Option for Lease was delivered to Bill Cassettari along with a certified copy of Resolution No. 323 pertaining to the proposed purchase agreement with the Division of Highways.

The Option for Lease was never executed by either party. The Nevada Company eventually withdrew from the fray, leaving the City alone to deal with the Post Office Department.

In dealing directly with the Post Office Department, the City's approach was that the Department would take an assignable lease from the City, would develop plans and specifications for a post office facility to be constructed on the property, and then call for bids on the project. Upon the acceptance of a bid, the Post Office Department would assign the lease to the successful bidder upon an agreement that the property would be leased back to the governnment [government].

The chief negotiator for the Post Office Department had been, and still was, James G. Schultz, Regional Real Estate Officer in the Department's San Francisco office. The City's requirements concerning the restoration of the buildings were in sharp contrast with the established policies of the Post Office Department with reference to its postal facilities and placed Schultz in the role of a naysayer, which at times he did not seem to enjoy. Whatever his personal views might have been, in his negotiations with the City he was constrained by the fact that all of his dealings were subject to review and approval by the Department's national office. He took refuge in the fact that Department had for many years followed standardized practices and procedures with reference to its postal facilities, using its own standard form leases and following a manual entitled "Construction Requirements for Leased Postal Facilities". He would often remark that a certain proposal made by the City "would never be approved in Washington".

It became apparent during the negotiation process that the original plan of the Post Office Department involved the complete demolition of both buildings. This was confirmed when the City was supplied with detailed plans and specifications prepared by the Post Office Engineering Department in San Francisco, showing that they were completed on March 27, 1967. This material portrayed an all-new one story building, service area and parking lot to be built on the excess freeway property. Schultz was unwilling to approve any plan that would entail the. restoration of the exterior walls of the buildings within the public view, thereby complying with the requirements of the Historical Ordinance. The most he would agree to was that the front facade of the new building would be so constructed that it would "substantially resemble" the facades of the existing structures. In addition, he agreed that the following features of the facades would be retained and used in the new building: present contours, iron door and window shutters, ornamental cornices, balcony and railings on the South Yuba Canal Building, and the canopy on the Ott's Assay Office.

When it became evident that, as a prerequisite to any plan which the Post Office Department would approve both of the existing buildings would be torn down, the City's focus was directed to the matter of getting as much control as necessary over the features of the of the new building. However, the City's efforts in this regard were met with stiff resistence [resistance].

At one of the meetings with Schultz, held on January 16, 1969 -- the City representatives being the City Manager, Councilman Paine and the City Attorney -- he rejected the City's request that the new facade would have to be an "exact replica" of the old facades, insisting that the word "replica" would impose "too tight" a standard. He even took the stance that the Post Office Department should have the right to shift the location of the facades so that they would face more to the South, and also to lower the roof lines of the existing buildings, saying that he "knew" Washington would not approve a plan that would follow the existing roof lines. The City did not agree to either of these proposals, but suggested, as a "last-ditch" position, that a false "hump"in the facade, as in an old-style opera house, might be acceptable.

Schultz rejected other requests made by the City with reference to the construction of the new post office. For example, he would not agree that exposed used brick be used in the construction of all exterior walls, or that any particular materials or colors be required or ruled out.

The discussion concerning the retention of the existing exterior doors, windows and other features of the existing buildings revealed that there was a need for the City to clarify and confirm their ownership in order to allay any concern about the matter in dealing with the Post Office Department. The City was aware of the fact that Sven Skaar had been a tenant of both the Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building for about 10 years under a lease from the Ott family, operating an antique business known as The Pioneer; and when the Division of Highways took over, he attorned [?] to, and continued as a tenant of the new owner, paying $42.50 per month rent.

Under date of September 18, 1964, Skaar had written a letter to Charles Smith, then City Manager, offering to remain as tenant in case the City acquired the property, and also offering to grant to the City "a quitclaim to the parts of the buildings owned by me, namely the antique doors and windows". In addition, Skaar had supplied the City with a copy of a conformed copy of a "Final Bill of Sale" dated September 15, 1956, siged [signed] "Mrs. Emil J.N. Ott", covering "all removable articles contained on the premises of Ott's Assay Office on Main Street, such as safes, tables, scales, tools, chairs, book cabinet with books, ore-cabinet and all ores and minerals, decorations, partitions, inside doors, mills etc." These items were to be removed in accordance with the original sales agreement. The Final Bill of Sale also provided that all outside doors were to be left "until the building is torn down".

(The "Mrs." Ott who signed the Bill of Sale was the wife of Emil J.N. Ott, son of James S. Ott, who died in 1907. Emil ran the assay business until his death in 1953) .

On February 14, 1969, ten days before the facade plan was to go before the Council, the City Manager wrote a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Skaar summarizing the plan and describing its specific provisions regarding the use of the iron work on the existing buildings. The letter then stated: "Since you are the owners of the iron doors and window shutters on the buildings and have agreed to transfer them to the City upon the condition that they be used at the present site, this letter is written to confirm such agreement". By an endorsement on a copy of the letter (deemed to be a Bill of Sale), which was returned to the City, the Skaars tranferred [transferred] all of the iron doors and window shutters to the City upon the agreed condition.

With the Nevada Company out of the picture, negotiations between the City and the Post Office Department intensified. But the prospect of saving the buildings, or even their exterior walls, seemed all but lost. Perhaps the City had reached the moment of truth. Were the buildings really too far gone to be saved? Were they beyond redemption? Having insufficent [insufficient] funds with which to purchase all of the excess freeway property, much less to rehabilitate the buildings, the City Council reluctantly came to the conclusion that if the City did not go along with the facade idea, there was grave danger that the historical significance of Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building would be lost forever.

Although the facade would provide only a symbolic reminder of the real buildings, it was felt that, fortified by specific requirments [requirements] designed to perpetuate the use of the iron, work on the buildings as important architectural and historical features, together with the placement of suitable markers or placques [plaques] on or near the buildings, the new facility would meet the statutory requirement of historical preservation.

As a precurser [precursor] as to what was about to happen at the regular meeting of the Council on February 24, 1969, a special meeting was held on January 6, 1969, to discuss the status of the Ott's Assay Office project. Bob Paine outlined the history of the Assay Office. He stated that the City had so far paid nothing on the project and would pay nothing if a post office were built on the excess freeway property. He also stated that the building had deteriorated to the point where it could not be restored without tearing it down. The proposed post office, would incorporate the facade of the building and possibly the roof line, but complete restoration would be "a complete financial impossibility".

On February 24, 1969, pursuant to published notice, the Council held a public hearing on a proposal to enter into a long term Assignable Ground Lease with Post Office Department whereby the excess freeway property, including Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, would be leased to the Post Office Department for the construction of a post office building, service area and parking lot, with the expectation that the lease would be assigned by the Post Office Department to a succesful [successful] bidder for such construction, with a lease back to the government, the advance prepaid rent under the lease to be used by the City for the purchase of the property from the State.

As summarized by Dorothy Weir in The Union, "After four hours of talking, explaining, reading long legal documents, loud and hot words and loss of temper, the Nevada City Council voted Monday to "substantially" retain the facade of Ott's Assay Office on the new post office".

Among those present, and the first speaker, was Sally Lewis, speaking for the Save Ott's Committee, who harkened [also hearkened] back to the plan which was under consideration when the Nevada Company was in the picture, based upon an architectural pattern drawn for the Nevada Company by the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. She urged the Council to "go back to your old plan, you'll have lots of backing from all over California".

Bob Paine explained that the Post Office Department "preferred to deal with a municipality", and that the Nevada Company "were happy to step aside".

According to Paine, the buildings were no longer capable of being saved. In that connection, he read a report from the engineering firm of R.W. Ingram & Associates indicating that the south and east walls of the buildings had dry rot and were in too dilapidated a condition to make saving them feasible"'.

Introduced by Sally Lewis, James Lenhoff, president of the California Heritage Society, proposed to the Council that his organization be allowed to buy the property, in which case the buildings would be preserved "as they now stand". He indicated that the Heritage Council would be able to raise the money to fund the purchase. Lenhoff asked the Council to postpone any action on the proposed Lease for 90 days.

Remarks by Councilmen Paine and Day emphasized that for four years the Council had worked on solving three problems -- saving Ott's, obtaining parking, and keeping the post office in the downtown area -- and that the proposal then before the Council would solve all of those problems.

During a heated discussion with Mike Haley, erstwhile owner of the Hot Mill, who allegedly brought about its demise, Lenhoff asked the Council "if any member is to benefit financially" from the transaction. On this he was sternly rebuked by Councilman Paine, and the Council took no action on his proposal. However, Councilman Cooper made a motion to delay action on the Lease proposal for 90 days in order to give the Heritage Council an opportunity to see what it might come up with. The motion died for lack of a second.

Will Howard, former president of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, threatened the Council with the assertion "if there is any backdoor stuff going on we're against you".

As stated in Dorothy Weir's article, "City Attorney William Wetherall read the long agreement which took 25 minutes . . .". The proposed Assignable Ground Lease was for a term of 50 years. If assigned to a successful bidder for the construction of a postal facility, the assignee would sublease to the Post Office Department for 15 years, with successive options to extend the Lease for up to 50 years. At the expiration of 50 years, the property, with all improvements, would "vest in Nevada City" -- that is, revert to the City. There were also provisions to safeguard the facade requirments [requirements] in case the Post Office should allow the sublease to lapse and the tenant lease to another party. The small triangle on the south side of the Assay Office would be retained by the City as a park.

Upon the close of the hearing, at about midnight, the Council adopted Resolution No. 385 espousing the facade concept and approving an attached form of Assignable Ground Lease, which complied with the general terms set forth in the Notice of Hearing. The vote on the Resolution was as follows:

AYES: Mayor Rankin, Councilmen Paine, McPherson and Day.
NOES: Councilman Cooper.

As stated in the Resolution, at the time Resolution No. 323 was adopted on July 25, 1966, "it was thought that the existing buildings could be preserved, but since that time large cracks have appeared in the bearing walls of the buildings, and said buildings have fallen into such a state of dilapidation and deterioration that they are unusable and cannot be repaired or restored".

The worsened condition thus referred to was due, at least in part, to damage caused by freeway construction, which was so severe that the freeway contractor was required to place cables around the buildings to keep them from falling down.

The basic finding, as set forth in Resolution No. 385, was that "it would be feasible and desirable to require that the building be replaced by a new building with a front facade which would substantially resemble the existing facades, and place and maintain on or near said new building appropriate plaques or markers in order to preserve the site as an historical landmark".

At its February 24, 1969, meeting, the Council also approved a revision of the Agreement and Escrow Instructions with the Division of Highways in order that it would conform with the Assignable Ground Lease being offered to the Post Office Department. Among other matters, it provided that the Division of Highways would promptly deposit in the escrow at Inter-Co. Title Co. the Director's Deed, (which had been executed on September 28, 1966), to be delivered to the City upon payment of the $19,287.16 purchase price when received by the City as advance rent under the Assignable Ground Lease. The revised Agreement also gave the Post Office Department and its lease bidders the right, prior to the commencement of the lease term, to enter upon the premises for the purpose of inspecting the property, making test borings, and the like. An executed counterpart of the Agreement was delivered to the Title Co as its revised escrow instructions.

It should be mentioned, in passing, that as future changes were made in the City's agreements with the Post Office Department, it became necessary to amend or replace the ongoing Agreement and Escrow Instructions with the Division of Highways so as to synchronize the agreements; and all such changes had to be authorized by Council resolutions. Similarly, the escrow instructions given to the Title Co. by all parties had to be coordinated.

In this gloomy state of affairs, it apppeared [appeared] that only a miracle could save the buildings. Lo and behold, that miracle came to pass!. Realizing that its agreement with the City was not one to inspire dancing in the streets, and would probably lead to problems for the building contractor in coping with the requirements of the facade plan, the Post Office Department went back to the drawing board and came up with a plan which would enable it to construct the needed post office facility without utilizing either of the historic buildings.

It so happened that the chain link fence restricting freeway access had been installed at an "interim" location along the top of a slope and along a line located within the boundary line of the property described in the Director's Deed. By lowering the top of the slope along the freeway the fence could be moved to a new permanent location within the boundary line, thereby enlarging the area for use by the Post Office Department. The Division of Highways prepared a map showing the permanent location of the fence and the usable area thus added by moving the fence to that location. With the additional usable area, the Post Office Department concluded that it would be able to construct a new building, service area and parking lot on the excess freeway land without disturbing the existing buildings.

In less than a month after the adoption of the facade plan, when the ink was barely dry on Resolution No 385, the City received a letter dated March 19, 1969, from the Post Office Department inquiring whether the City would be interested in amending the Assignable Ground Lease (which the Department had not yet executed) or giving the Department a new lease, which would exclude the buildings, without any deduction in the lump sum rent. The letter was read at a special meeting of the Council on March 27, 1969. The City Attorney recommended that a new lease be prepared in accordance with the letter. On motion by Councilman Day, the Council gave the "go ahead" to the proposal and directed that a Notice of Public Hearing be given on the new "alternate" plan.

At the public hearing on April 14, 1969, the City Attorney recited the new Assignable Ground Lease and Resolution No. 386 approving it. By the terms of the Resolution, Resolution No. 385 which had authorized the facade plan, was expressly revoked, the concomitant Lease was withdrawn, and a new Assignable Ground Lease in conformity with the Post Office Department's alternate plan, covering only the undeveloped portion of the excess freeway property, was approved by the following vote:

AYES: Mayor Rankin, Councilmen Paine, Day, McPherson and Cooper.
NOES: None.

On the day after the Council's April 14, 1969, meeting, the Sacramento Union carried an article, replete with pictures of the Assay Office, the South Yuba Canal Building, and the area of the proposed parking lot, purporting to describe what took place at the meeting. The heading was "Nevada City Renews Fight". The heading should have been "Nevada City Ends Fight". To be sure, there had been ardent opposition to the facade plan which the City had finally accepted. As reported in the article, "Two groups opposed the project and asked the State Highway Commission to nullify their sales agreement with the City. The 'Save Ott's Committee', headed by Mrs. Leland Lewis, a Nevada City resident, and the San Francisco based California Heritage Council, represented by James Lenhoff of Oroville, sought to bring the matter before a recent Sacramento meeting of the full commission".

But the "fight" was over. As further stated in the above mentioned article, "A last minute proposal by the post office department that the building be left intact and that the new facility be constructed directly behind [sic] the existing structure met with approval by all parties". After the Lease authorized by Resolution No. 386 was read, Councilman Day asked David Osborn, a director of the California Heritage Council, what he thought of the Lease. The response was "Sounds good to me". It is no exaggeration to say that for everyone, whether at the meeting or not, the new agreement was almost too good to be true.

The deal with the Post Office Departmemt [Department] was still not finalized. At the Council meeting on Frbruary [February] 24, 1970, almost a year after the buildings were accorded a safe haven, the City Manager read a letter from the Post Office Department indicating that it had changed its position regarding the long term Assignable Ground Lease. Under that Lease the City would retain title to the property for the duration of the Lease, at which time there would be a reversion of the property, including all improvements, to the City. The Department's letter requested that the City "release" that interest. To save time, the City Attorney had already prepared an Option to Purchase the needed land as a substitute for the Assignable Ground Lease. The Council voted to give Notice of Public Hearing on the Option matter to be held at its meeting on March 13, 1970.

Following the hearing on March 13, the Council adopted Resolution No. 410, revoking Resolution No. 386, withdrawing the Assignable Ground Lease, and approving the Option to Purchase, which was for a term of one year, ending March 13, 1971. The vote was as follows:

AYES: Mayor Rankin, Councilmen Cooper and Paine.
NOES: None.
ABSENT: Councilmen McPherson and Day.

On October 29, 1970, pursuant to the Historical Ordinance, the Nevada City Planning Commission issued a permit for the construction of the new post office in accordance with the plans and specifications. The project was categorically exempt under the California Environmental Quality Act.

In response to a request from the Post Office Department, on February 8, 1971, the Council adopted Resolution No. 436 approving an amendment to the Option to Purchase by extending the option period from March 13, 1971, to June 11, 1971.

Then, finally, came the day of reckoning. On June 11, 1971, the last day of the extended option period), the City received from Toco Properties, Inc., as assignee of the City's Option to Purchase granted to the Post Office Department, a Notice of Exercise of Option to buy the land to be used for the post office facility.

On June 15, 1971, the City mailed to Toco a title insurance commitment issued by Inter-Co. Title Co. and a copy of a letter dated June 6, 1971, from the City to the Title Co. placing in the escrow the City's Deed to Toco.

At long last the magical moment had arrived. On July 15, 1971, the long-pending escrow at Inter-Co. Title Co. closed. At the end of the day, Nevada City owned Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building; Toco Properties owned the adjacent land where the new postal facility would be built; Toco and the Post Office Department had a contract whereby Toco would construct a post office, service area and parking lot on the land and lease the new facility to the Post Office Department; and the State of California received $19,287.16 for the excess freeway property. All of this, in effect, took place simultaneously.

Although the process of closing the escrow was methodical and without bells and whistles, the consequences for Nevada City were exciting. They were monumental, literally and figuratively. Not only did the City achieve its goal of getting fee simple title to the historic buildings, but that title was covered by a title insurance policy in the amount of $5,000.00. Eventually, the City would receive the benefit of a new post office and parking lot in the downtown business district. And the postal facility, being in private ownership, would be added to the tax rolls.

Upon the close of escrow, the City received an Escrow Closing Statement from Inter-Co. Title Co. in which it was charged $64.00 as the premium for the title insurance policy, but $50.00 of that was covered by Toco Properties, which also paid all other escrow costs. Thus1, the City's out-of-pocket layout for this adventure was $14.00.

In bringing all of this together, a lot of people deserve a lot of credit. The principle players for the State included Gilbert Mulcahey, Jack R. Thompson and Wayne Mulch of the Division of Highways, Marysville office. They did not tamper with the initial price for the property when it was learned that the City would be selling the vacant land for the same price it would pay to the State for all of the excess freeway property. And they deserve special praise for their patience in holding the Director's Deed in abeyance for a matter of years until the City finally came up with the purchase money.

For the Post Office Department the principle players, in addition to Schultz, were Sam Fraser of the Sacramento office and W.L. Robinson of the San Francisco office. As the key player in the entire drama, Schultz's underlying position was that the restoration of the buildings simply was not economically feasible and should not be financed by the United States government. Looking back, from the standpoint of the U.S. taxpayer, who is to say that Schultz was wrong? He was simply using a different yardstick than that used by the "save Ott's at all costs" proponents, whose yardstick was based on immeasurable values but was equally valid.

When Schultz agreed to the facade formula, he was actually compromising the fundamental approach of the Post Office Department because he realized that the the requirements of that plan would result in much higher construction bids than would otherwise be the case; and this was undoubtedly a factor in the Department's final decision to eschew any responsibility for the buildings.

Members of the Nevada Company, notably Downey Clinch, John Sbaffi, Harold Berliner and Alf Heller, as well as its attorneys, Bill Cassettari, Harold Berliner, Richard Phelps Stookey, and David Lillevand, Jr. (of the law firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in San Francisco) put in a great deal of time and effort in advancing the "save Ott's" project. Alf Heller, as owner of The Nugget, added his editorial voice to the cause.

In the vanguard for the City, in addition to all of the Mayors and other members of the Council who served during the years of this "work in progress", were Beryl Robinson, the City Manager, and the City Attorney.

Great causes have their "movers and shakers". In this cause, it has to be said that one of them was the legendary Bob Paine. Another was Dan O'Neill. Without slighting others who could be named, Arch McPherson and Lon Cooper come to mind as worthy of mention.

Certainly, a special kudo goes to Beryl Robinson, whose influence, first as a Councilman and then as City Manager, was felt throughout the "save Ott's" episode. As a proactive City Manager, he was at the forefront of every City program. With Beryl in the wheelhouse, the ship of state was always following the right stars and moving forward at full throttle.

Sally Lewis, of course, and even James Lenhoff, despite his questionable tactics, are to be praised for their total commitment to the cause of preserving historical landmarks.

Along with the exuberance that came with the ownership of the Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, came the daunting realization that they were structural derelicts and that their restoration would require tons of money. In a real sense, they were only half-saved, which brings us to a sequel to our story -- through restoration, saving the other half.

This is where the special skills of the City Manager came into play. Always on the prowl for grant money, he was instrumental in raising sufficient funds to finance the complete restoration of both the South Yuba Canal Building and Ott's Assay Office, except for a shortfall of $21,639.00 on the Assay Office project which was made up out of the City's general funds.

Even before the escrow closed on the acquisition of the buildings, the Council, on May 17, 1971, passed Resolution No. 445, which authorized the filing of an application with the Economic Development Administration for a grant of funds for the ambitious Downtown Betterment Project, including "reinvestment in a vital landmark", and also authorized the City Manager to deal with the EDA. Already the City Manager was taking on the challenges of restoration.

About 7 months later, on December 13, 1971, the Council adopted Resolution No. 467, which approved a formal Offer of Grant made by EDA and authorized Mayor Rankin to sign an Acceptance of the offer. Included as Phase II of the widespread and manifold Downtown Betterment Project was a plan for the restoration of the South Yuba Canal Building.

Then [fast forward] the Council, in sequence, entered into an Agreement for Engineering Services with William E. Ladue, as specialist in restoration work; approved plans and specifications for the project prepared by Ladue; ordered publication of a Notice to Contractors inviting bids; rejected all three of the bids thus received (all were in escess [excess] of $100,000.00 and also m excess of the projected cost of the project); approved revised plans and specifications prepared by Ladue; ordered publication of a second Notice to Contractors inviting bids; and, finally, accepted a bid of $88,200.00 submitted by Peterson and Associates, Inc.

At a special meeting of the Council on June 26, 1972, called to discuss the renovation of the South Yuba Canal Building, Ladue reported to the Council on the progress being made on the exterior walls of the building and stated that the interior would "have complete restoration". The consensus of the Council was to "move forward".

By Resolution No. 540, adopted on February 13, 1973, the Council accepted the "work of improvement" and authorized Ladue to record a Notice of Completion of the contract for the South Yuba Canal Building restoration.

The restoration of Ott's Assay Office was somehat [somewhat] delayed because of rather intricate funding matters. Suffice it to say that the cost of restoration was $59,639.00, the accepted bid price, and $38,000.00 of that came from grants negotiated with the State Department of Parks and Recreation. The balance of. $21,639.00 ($15,000.00 of which was put up by the City for matching grant funds) came from the City's general fund.

At its meeting on August 22, 1977, the Council adopted Resolution No. 807 approving a Project Agreement with the State Department of Parks and Recreation in which the project was said to consist of "the stabilization and restoration of Ott's Assay Office including new roof, new ceiling, rebuild side and rear brick walls, stabilize front wall, repair foundations, replace floor, provide utilities and paint".

At the above mentioned meeting, the City Manager announced that he had contacted the Oakland Museum "to ask if any of the original artifacts (which had been sold to Sven Skaar and disposed of by him] could be returned to the building". It was common knowledge that, as reported in the December 15, 1976, issue of The Independent, some of the fixtures and furnishings of Ott's Assay Office "found a home in the Oakland Museum". The response to the City Manager's inquiry was that "as soon as work started the original doors would be given to the City, also any other arifacts [artifacts] that were not being displayed would be loaned back to the City".

The City was fortunate in again retaining Ladue as structural engineer for the Assay Office restoration. The successful bidder for the work was T.E. Honkanen of Auburn.

By Resolution No. 904 adopted by the Council on September 11, 1978, the work of improvement re Ott's Assay Office was accepted and Mayor Rankin was directed to record a Notice of Completion.

Ladue and the contractors who worked on the buildings did a superb job of restoration. Ladue's basic approach, as described by Beryl Robinson, then City Manager, who kept a watchful eye on the work, and whose daily schedule included a visit to the work site, was to create a "network of steel, a steel skeleton", inside each of the buildings, tied to and supporting the exterior walls. The existing walls, as in the case of many old buildings, were thick enough to permit the replacement of the interior walls with new walls of concrete and rebar steel. The rear wall of Ott's Assay Office was mortally damaged by the freeway construction and had to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. All of the exterior walls were pointed with new mortar and heavily treated with sealants. It must be said that both buildings are true examples of faithful historical restoration.

There were fallout benefits directly derived from the City's ownership of the buildings, which were now usable. Even before the Ott's restoration was completed, the Council by Resolution No. 897 adopted on July 10, 1978, approved a Lease of the Assay Office to Don Schmitz, doing business as the Nevada City Mint. The Lease was to commence on "the day after the adoption... of a resolution accepting said work of improvement' . . . "Schmitz had appeared before the Council as early as December 12, 1977, with a proposal that when the Assay Office was restored; he 11 be considered as a tenant"; and the Council expressed interest in his proposal.

The lease to Schmitz was for a term of 2 years, with 2 successive options to extend the term , which if exercised would result in a total term of 6 years. The rent was $255.00 per month, subject to upward adjustment at the beginning of each option period. As further provided in the Lease, "The leased premises may be used for the purpose of operating the business of a private mint, manufacturing and selling medallions and gold and silver ingots, and also selling gold specimans [specimens], chains and similar items . . ." The lessee was also given the right to use a designated area in the building for the purpose of providing a public display of historical artifacts of the kind that might well have been on hand when the Assay Office was in business.

At the July 10, 1978, Council meeting when the Lease to Schmitz was approved, the Mayor reported that Doris Foley "has aided in preparation of the display to be used in Ott's".

As it turned out, Schmitz was a valued tenant of the Assay Office for the full 6 year term, and his use of the premises was ideally compatible with the historical use.

On May 14, 1973, about 3 months after restoration of the South Yuba Canal Building was completed, the Council adopted Resolution No. 548 approving a rent-free lease of the ground floor of the building to the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce for use in conducting its usual business and as a tourist information center -- uses which were compatible with the historical use of the building. For many years, with the blessings of the Council, the Chamber had been allowed to occupy a niche in the space - starved City Hall, and with the move to the South Yuba Canal Building that precious niche could be retrieved and put to good use by the City.

At a dedication program on May 16, 1970, sponsored by the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission and the California Heritage Council, Ott's Assay Office was designated County Registered Historical Landmark No. 1 and the South Yuba Canal Buildinq was designated California Registered Historical Landmark No. 832.

Thus, Ott's Assay Office and the South Yuba Canal Building, now safe and sound, are standing together as shining specimens of Mother Lode style architecture, proudly and stategically [strategically] ensconced in Robinson Plaza at the foot of Main Street.

These were formative, transformational years in the history of Nevada City, when a town with boarded-up store fronts on its main street, reeling from the loss of the mines and the decline of the timber industry, and suffering from a decrepit infrastructure, was starting to morph into what it is today -- an authentic, vibrant, world-class mecca for tourists and technology aspirants, and hometown of talented and creative people from all walks of life, beautifully cradled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in the "other Eden" -- not England, as Shakespeare would have it, but Nevada County, California.

October 20, 2009 [penned] Bill Wetherall [signed]
  (City Attorney, 1959-1979) [penned]


Origin of report

This report, on the saving of Ott's Assay Office, covers events from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, when Nevada City was reeling from the impact of State Highway Commission plans to build a freeway between Nevada City and Grass Valley. The so-called Golden Center Freeway would be built in the mid 1980s after two decades of planning and preparation that involved considerable conflict over the preservation of historical buildings and other landmarks.

On 12 August 1968, in the thick of this conflict, the City Council adopted Nevada City Ordinance No. 338, which gave proponents of preservation legal leverage over those who saw no economic benefit in keeping the past alive. The so-called Historical Ordinance was drafted during the period that William B. Wetherall was serving as the city attorney (1959-1979). He dramatizes its gestation and birth in a 13-page report he wrote in 1996 called The story of the Nevada City historical ordinance.

His report on the saving of Ott's Assay Office can be read as a study of a case which reveals the political environment that spawned the Historical Ordinance. He wrote it when he was cleaning out his files, which included the notes he had kept during his years as city attorney. While writing the report, he consulted City Council and other records as well, and talked to other witnesses. The basic story, though, was deeply etched in his own memory.



The received copy of the report on Ott's Assay Office runs 23 pages of typescript. It is the only copy I (WOW) have seen, so I assume it was the final if not also the only draft.

William B. Wetherall was 98 when he wrote the report. He made the usual typos but some words he simply spelled the way they sounded to him. He meticulously proofread documents, but in his more advanced years he tended to overlook mistakes. As this is an interesting aspect of his character at the time, I have kept his spellings and shown alternatives in following [brackets].

WBW produced this report on a used personal computer supplied in the late 1990s by Ben Yang, who was then an HP engineer and had lots of equipment at his home workshop. The PC ran a late version of DOS, and a pre-Windows version of Word Perfect which WBW's secretary had been using in the office when it was in Nevada City. The computer was set up with an HP printer and Gateway monitor in the poorly lit back-room office of his home in Grass Valley.

He had long since forgotten what little he had learned about DOS commands and so had problems exploring the hard drive and floppy disks. The Word Perfect commands he had once learned from his secretary also gradually slipped away, and none of the state-of-the-art techies in the family could help him when he got into serious trouble.

He had difficulty creating and saving new files, so he would open an existing file and overwrite what was already on it. He created cliet documents the same way. Once he finished a trust or POA or whatever, he would use the file as a template for another client with similar needs. At times he would leave the computer running at night, afraid that if he turned it off he might lose the file. And at times he did lose something and have to start all over.

The antiquity of the equipment didn't matter to WBW, though. It if worked, it worked. The 1960s-vintage IBM Selectric, the office workhorse until his last secretary insisted that he buy a word processor, also kept working. Now and then he had to lug it to the only guy in town still able to fix them. He used the IBM to address envelopes and write short notes.

So stepping into the back room was, for many people, like entering a working museum. For WBW, though, it was a "fashion" statement. He simply saw no need for a mouse in the house. He was probably the only attorney in the entire county if not the state who didn't own a fax. He had to call, and he got calls from, from attorneys all over the United States related to his work. "Fax it" became an essential phrase in the business world. Attorneys wanted, and thought he would want, to get faxes of documents that would follow by mail, so as to speed up work. The only operable phrase in WBW's lawyerese as "mail it" -- meaning a postage stamp on an envelope that would arrive in a few days. Today "mail it" is more likely to mean "send it by email" -- and anything requiring postage is "snailmail".

WBW told funny stories about lawyers he knew who took pride in reprinting their business cards with a fax number. It their day, fax numbers were like email addresses and URLs. "Follow WBW on Twitter at"


Sally Lewis's Chronology of Ott's Assay Office

Sally Lewis, a preservation activist, wrote a chronology of developments related to the Ott's Assay Office controversy. The chronology has been updated and published in various editions, including the one reproduced below, which I cut and pasted, and slightly reformatted, from a pdf file posted by My Nevada County. The italicized statement in (parentheses) at the end, describing the origin of the pdf file, is part of the file.

Chronology of Ott's Assay Office
as recalled by Sally Lewis

Between late 1966 and early 1967 it was the general talk around town that we were to have a new post office at Nevada City, and it would be located on the site of Ott's Assay Office. I know very few details of that period, because it was a subject of little interest to me at that time.

In the summer of 1967 vague rumors started to surface (from unknown sources in Sacramento) that said the Ott's building was in danger of being torn down. In October or November Ted Bagglemann of the Sacramento Union called me and urged us to "get on the stick" to save Ott's. To do so, we needed to create a city historical ordinance and then register the building as a historical landmark. I told Bagglemann I would not be able to check into the matter until June 1968, because I had a solid schedule until then.

In the spring of 1968 Doris Foley and I went to Sacramento and met with John Michael, the executive secretary of the Historic Preservation Office of State Parks. We asked Michael how we could register the building. Doris showed him her research, which he called "excellent," saying it was primary material. Michael recommended that we register Ott's Assay Office as a "Point of Historical Interest" (a Nevada County landmark) rather than as a California state registered landmark.

In June or July of 1968, when the proposed Nevada City Historical Ordinance was up for adoption, Councilman Bob Paine requested a one-month delay so he and Councilman Lon Cooper could walk the boundaries of the proposed district before making a decision. So again delay.

Margaret Trivelpiece called me in September to say The Union newspaper wanted to do an article on the preservation process; it was possible they would support our project. Our campaign at this stage was only letter writing and personal communication, so this sounded wonderful to me. We met for lunch at the National Hotel and Margaret quizzed me about the matter. When her article appeared the next day (a front page article "above the fold") it consisted mainly of Bob Paine's comments; my own interview was confined to two paragraphs at the end of the article.

We had publicity all through the fall, not all of it beneficial: the city had a civil engineer condemn the Ott's building and there were threats that if the new post office couldn't occupy the Ott's site, it would be located in the vicinity of the SPD store on Zion Street. There were also a lot of other threats. We were called many things: "misguided old ladies," "crazy" or just plain "dishonest with ulterior motives."

The California Historical Society furnished us with an attorney, Walter Frame of Sacramento (an elderly gentleman whose desk was stacked up worse than mine). Osborn and Woods advised the California Heritage Council of the situation, and President Jim Lenhoff came up and we began planning a strategy.

Mr. Lenhoff told us the history of how Ott's Assay building had been saved from the freeway project. According to him, there had been a protest from the Nevada City Council during the planning stages of the freeway. The council had asked the state to move the route in order to spare Ott's. The change in the route was finally made at a cost to the state of $235,000, presumably to save such historical buildings as the National Hotel annex, the old Hot Mill, and the Ott's Assay/South Yuba Canal complex. But after the hotel annex and old hot mill were torn down by their owners, and a Shell filling station was put in where the hot mill had stood, the highway commission decided not to sell the Ott's Assay Office complex back to the original owners. They offered instead to sell the building to the city for $10,000. The city couldn't afford it at the time, so the state put the deed in their safe until the money could be raised at some future date.

My schedule in December and January was always the same. I went to Bakersfield for Christmas and stayed for most of January. Before I left town I asked the city council to notify me if they had a meeting on the subject. However, when they did hold a special meeting in early January, I was not informed. As soon as I found out about it, I came home. When I returned I requested a special city council meeting, which was scheduled and attended by approximately 50 people during a terrible snowstorm. Councilman Paine would not let the meeting be postponed.

At the meeting I requested that the Save Ott's Committee (SOC) be given six months to study the structure, the viability of preserving it, possible future use of building and a possible source of funding for the project. Councilman Cooper made such a motion, which died for lack of a second. Bob then addressed me in a high dudgeon, noting that I had drained the town dry to buy the Nevada Theater. How was I going to raise the money to save Ott's, he wondered.

Jim Lenhoff reminded the council of its prior commitment to the state to preserve the building after highway commission had expended nearly a quarter of a million dollars to change the freeway route. Bob Paine then moved to demolish the building. We were told that after we left the meeting attorney Bill Wetherall reminded the council they might have to face the highway commission as Mr. Lenhoff had threatened, but Paine "poo-pooed" that prospect.

Early the next morning I received a call from John Michael (who I later learned had property up here), and he asked what had happened at the meeting. He advised me that we get some political clout together and go directly to the highway commission chairman, Moon Lee, who lived in Weaverville. I said I'd go at once, but he advised me to wait—too much snow at that time. In late February I called Mr. Lee, made an appointment, and headed for Weaverville. It was certainly a trip. The roads were clear, but there was 2–3 feet of snow on either side. Moon Lee took me to lunch and listened to my story. The next morning he gave me these instructions: write to each commissioner, and send him a structural engineer's report, a description of the proposed use for the building, and how we planned to fund the project. He said this would have to be done immediately, as the next meeting of commission was in four days!

I spent the night on my return trip in Oroville with Jim and Donna Lenhoff, discussed the trip, and came home on a Thursday, exhausted, but exhilarated. I was able to get the letters off and line up a structural engineer through the state architect's office in Sacramento, who came up and gave a positive report. On Sunday I was taking a nap when the doorbell rang. There at my front door stood Mr. Moon Lee with his wife. We went down to the building and Mr. Lee did a lot of measuring. (It must have been March 16, 1969, the day before St. Patrick's day, as I remember Bob Paine came by dressed head to toe in green.) As I watched Mr. Lee measure the building I told Mrs. Lee how his visit to the site had surprised me. She said he always tried to conduct a personal inspection of any historic building when possible. I was impressed—the drive to Weaverville had taken me five hours. He was due in Sacramento the next morning to attend a highway commission meeting.

The city was notified to appear before the highway commission. Mr. Lenhoff and I went down to Sacramento the day before. It was to be an early morning meeting. I had a call from SOC's attorney about 4 pm informing me that the city council had agreed to save the building and do away with the demolition order; they wanted to cancel the meeting with the highway commission, but Mr. Lenhoff said no.

Four of the highway commissioners were present, but not Moon Lee. David Osborn and Bob Paine came in together. Then Mayor Rankin, City Manager Beryl Robinson and City Attorney Weatherall arrived. Assemblyman Gene Chappie was there also. Moon Lee arrived. When I went up to introduce Mr. Lenhoff to Mr. Lee, Gene Chappie tagged along, obviously in utter confusion, for he was meeting Moon Lee for the first time.

I told Moon Lee the city had agreed to save Ott's and the council wanted to cancel the meeting. He had put us first on the agenda so the matter could be discussed until it was finished, even if it took all day. He suggested our group meet in the back room first; we would still have a place on the agenda.

We adjourned to the back room, followed by two or three reporters, but Mr. Lenhoff said it was a closed session. Jim Lenhoff asked for the city's agreement in writing to save Ott's. Mayor Rankin objected, asking if it was a question of trust. Lenhoff said yes, it was, and reminded him of the city's agreement to save the building three years before, during the freeway project. Jim Lenhoff requested the city to save Ott's and the South Yuba Canal building, and if they wanted a new post office, to build it on the adjoining lot.

Rankin was upset. Bob Paine never uttered a word, but he did write me two notes during meeting asking if I couldn't shut up Lenhoff. I made only one statement—how did they want the reporters handled? We filed out and I went to the commission meeting to report our settlement. Mr. Lee said he, too, had intended to suggest they build the post office on the adjoining lot.

John Michael advised we should create a Historical Landmarks Commission in Nevada County. It took until the fall of 1969 to complete our work to register the building as a county landmark. In the course of our research we found that the building we had called Ott's was not his original office. Ott's first assay building had been next door, and had burned down in the 1863 fire, and then Ott had moved into the structure we were saving.

We registered the South Yuba Canal building as a California Historical Landmark. It took three applications to get it through and it was the first state-registered landmark submitted by our new commission. The site of Ott's original office was marked with a flagpole and a monument built from tailings from the Ophir Mine in Virginia City (the mine whose success had resulted from Ott's legendary assay in 1859), all donated by the California Heritage Council.

The dedication of the two buildings and site next door took place on May 16, 1970. It was a major event, both the program and preparation. A crew of men painted the building and the balcony railing was repaired. Support was widespread—except from city hall. I appeared before the city council to ask Mayor Rankin to come and welcome the guests, and invited any other councilmen who wished to appear. I had wanted Bob Paine to accept the plaque (or any other position he wished), but both he and John Rankin refused. Paine left town on the day of the dedication. Rankin agreed to do the welcome, but made it clear he would leave immediately after his speech, which he did.

Guests came from all over the state—approximately 200 people. We recorded the key speaker, Mr. Frederick T. Searls, general attorney for PG&E, and a member of the pioneer Nevada City family. Dinner that evening was catered by volunteers, and many guests stayed overnight. In reviewing the program, I notice Mr. Lenhoff was not mentioned, which surprises me. He must have declined. He did serve as master of ceremonies at the dinner, which was held at the Nevada City Elks Lodge.

We learned much later that the council's original underlying plan was to build the post office at its present location, to demolish Ott's, and then use the Ott's site for a parking lot for the Bank of America. They never intended to build a replica of Ott's and use it as the new post office, as they had claimed at the time.

I often wondered how the city finally acquired ownership of Ott's, as they did not have the money. Recently, City Manager Robinson told me that Ott's and the adjoining property on Coyote Street was owned by the highway commission and was offered to the city for $19,000. They had no money, so they found a buyer (a Mr. "Thorne") who would pay $19,000 for the empty lot on Coyote Street, and then the city bought the property. The question now is, who rents the post office to the United States Postal Service? It is not widely known in Nevada City, but I would guess it still is owned by the Downey Clinch estate.

(First composed by Sally on August 13, 1996, edited soon after by David Comstock at her request, and amended by Sally with handwritten notations before her death. Updated by Dave on October 19, 2009, from several versions found by June Rice among Sally's papers at the Searls Historical Library.)