Mountain View Voice

News - May 24, 2013

Immigrant house may be placed in new city park

City unions offer free labor to restore tiny historic home

by Daniel DeBolt

After saving it from demolition earlier this year, City Council members voted Tuesday on a strategy for restoring and relocating the tiny historic home known as the Immigrant House.

The council voted 6-1, with Mayor John Inks opposed, to place the home at 771 North Rengstorff Ave., the lush 1.2-acre lot which the council voted to buy earlier this month. The property owner, Frances Stieper, expressed interest in seeing her home's gardens and 125 trees retained as part of a new city park.

Mountain View firefighters and the city's SEIU union-represented employees said Tuesday that they were interested in donating time and talent towards restoring the home. After sitting at 166 Bryant St. since the 1880s, the Immigrant House had to make way for an office development earlier this year.

"There are a lot of talented workers in this city who are willing to work on this," said retired firefighter John Miguel, who was joined by firefighter Greg Cooper in offering to help restore the home. "I'd encourage you to let them do it. It builds camaraderie, it builds friendships. I don't think you can go wrong."

"I always thought this was a good project, but the thought of the community coming together to work on this — it's a celebration, it's wonderful," said council member Ronit Bryant.

The city had estimated the cost of restoring the home at $225,000, but council members decided against the option of funding half or all of the cost. Instead, the council's 6-1 vote supported community fundraising and the use of volunteer labor to restore the home. Advocates assured the council of their fundraising abilities, with assistance from the local Kiwanis Club.

"In a few months we've been working on this, so many people have come together," said Diane Solomon, an advocate for the Immigrant House. "A lot of people don't even celebrate their heritage, If we have this, people would come out and say, 'We're proud of who we are, grandma and grandpa came here and they lived this way.'"

Advocates for saving the home, lead by Marina Marinovich — whose Croatian immigrant grandparents and father once lived in the 400 square foot home — expressed interest in using the Stieper property, or one of two city-owned lots on Shoreline Boulevard, near Eagle Park. One of the Shoreline lots would be closer to the home's historical location downtown.

Council member Ronit Bryant said she had switched her support from using the one of the Shoreline lots near Eagle Park to using the Stieper lot. "It already has all the big trees and it is in a neighborhood that would well use another community garden." Putting it in a new park at 771 Rengstorff, "actually sounds like a real good solution ... if we are indeed moving in that direction, which I hope we are."

Council members have yet to vote on whether to use the Stieper property as a park, though members indicated support for that on Tuesday.

"Shoreline (Boulevard) would be kind of my second choice," said council member Chris Clark, who supported using the Stieper property. "It's not really part of park or something folks would want to migrate to by itself."

Other options included placing it in Shoreline Park near the Rengstorff House, or at Mountain View's Deer Hollow farm at Rancho San Antonio county park, which sits outside city limits in the foothills.

"I think it would feel lost in a bigger setting," said downtown resident Carol Lewis.

Council members questioned the $225,000 estimate to restore the home, which public works director Mike Fuller said was from a contractor that specializes in restoring historic buildings. He admitted it was on the "high end."

"I'm having a difficult time with how much effort goes into restoring what is, excuse me, a shack," said council member Mike Kasperzak.

"I'm hoping that refurbishing the house will turn out to be a lot less expensive than the city fears," said council member Bryant.

"This isn't a piano, it's a house," firefighter Miguel said. "It looks pretty simple to work on."

The council ultimately voted to have the city oversee the restoration. Mayor Inks expressed concern about the plan, saying that it should be entirely a community effort.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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