Campaign launched to save tiny 1888 "immigrant house"
Downtown, Shoreline discussed as best location for historic structure
Local residents once fought to save the home of Mountain View pioneer and businessman Henry Rengstorff, but now there's an effort to preserve a tiny home that provided shelter for the laborers, immigrants and struggling artists of the city's past.
"This was a house that people came to in Mountain View who were absolutely just starting out," said Marina Marinovich of 166 Bryant St., a tiny cottage behind the Pearson house.
Marinovich's father and grandparents lived in the home in the 1920s and 1930s after immigrating from Croatia, and she spent a lot of time inside the house during her youth in the 1970s when her best friend, an artist, paid $98 a month to live there for several years.
As downtown increasingly towers over it, Marinovich has dubbed the vacant 14-by-20-foot home the "immigrant house."
She wants to honor her grandfather's wish to save the place, but has only a few months to do it. She was spurred by last week's approval of an office project for the site. Developer Roger Burnell and City Council members have said they will work to move the tiny house onto a downtown lot owned by the city or next to the Rengstorff House at Shoreline Park. But such efforts have not been required of Burnell, who could still demolish the little house along with the historic Pearson House at 902 Villa Street, which council members seem less interested in saving.
Marina's grandparents and her father later lived comfortably on an 8-acre Mountain View orchard later annexed into Los Altos (Marina still lives on part of that property), but their humble beginnings took place at this very house at 166 Bryant where they lived until 1932.
Her grandfather, George Marinovich, moved into the house in 1923, after having left Croatia in 1913. He worked as a hard laborer in mines, digging trenches and sending money back home where his family had been starving. His landlord, Mabel French, taught him English. "He dug a trench from Mountain View all the way out to the Bay," Marinovich said. The city hired him to do that," she said. "He did anything he could."
It took 15 years until he could afford to have his wife Zuva join him in 1928, and a year later they could afford to bring over only one of their four children, Marina's father Benjamin. He was an adult by then and couldn't recognize his dad when he finally arrived with only 10 cents in his pocket. All three of them lived in the small house for three years.
Marinovich recalled her father later visiting the home in the 1970s, and "when he pulled up to look at the house I could just see him going through all these memories."
Built in 1888, she believes the house may be the oldest residential building in downtown, older than the Pearson House next door.
Countless others also lived in it.
"My mom lived with her family in that immigrant farm house during World War II," said a poster under the name jholzmann on the Voice's online forum. "It's hard to imagine seven people living there at once. I think it would be a nice addition to Shoreline. (She could tell some stories if anybody wants to listen.)"
Marinovich sees preservation of the immigrant house as "honoring our ancestors and the people that actually did all the work, the real hard labor to get where we are today."
A majority of City Council members appeared supportive of saving the house at the July 10 meeting. Several expressed interest in moving it to Shoreline Park to contrast with the Rengstorff House, though members of the Mountain View Historical Association and Friends of Rengstorff House say it might not be a good fit.
"The idea of having a small immigrant house next to Rengstorff House really attracts me," said council member Ronit Bryant. "Although I don't want to add houses or buildings to the park, this is a very small structure. As far as educational value this should be really useful."
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga also said she would be in favor of moving it to Shoreline near the Rengstorff House.
"Putting it out at Shoreline is not a bad idea," said council member Tom Means of the immigrant house.
"We restored the Rengstorff House, let's also show how the workers lived here," said council member Jac Siegel. "It wouldn't be a big deal to have it moved out to Shoreline."
"I'm OK with taking the immigrant house somewhere, not so interested in the Pearson House," said Mayor Mike Kasperzak.
Council member Laura Macias was the only member to raise concerns about moving the house to Shoreline.
"Having waxed poetically about all the wildlife there, that's probably the last place I'd want to move an old house," Macias said.
Instead Macias favored moving it to a downtown lot owned by the city, "maybe next to Dunn's Automotive where that parking lot is never full," Macias said.
Not sure about Shoreline
That idea is shared by Nick Perry, board member and newsletter editor of the Mountain View Historical Association. "It'd be great to see 166 Bryant St. preserved, but I'm conflicted about moving it to Shoreline Park," Perry said in an email. "The Rengstorff House is there because its closely associated with the history of the city's baylands and has always been in the North Bayshore. Before we decide to move any Old Mountain View structures to Shoreline, we should try to find locations that are more like their historic setting. Storing both 166 Bryant and 902 Villa on one of the city-owned lots one block away on Franklin Street would give the community more time to find the best solution."
Gerold Kaminsky, former Shoreline manager for the city and Friends of Rengstorff House board member, also weighed in.
"It would be nice to save the house, but it does not belong at Shoreline," Kaminsky said in an email.
Marinovich said she hasn't heard from Burnell since he promised her he would try and save it as he was trying to build support for the office project lat week. Burnell has not made any public promises about saving the house and did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Siegel said Burnell had previously offered to spend as much as $500,000 to move the Pearson House, restore it and maintain it for a few years. But council members let him off the hook last week by not making such preservation efforts a requirement of the office project. Zoning Administrator Peter Gilli said Burnell could not demolish the buildings until buildings are financed, designed and permitted by city staff, a process which usually takes at least a few months, sometimes years.
City staff members say they will examine options for moving the house this summer and report on "all the liabilities, insurance requirements, what it takes to move a house, the city's requirements for moving a house, implications of warehousing it and what properties could be used," said Jannie Quinn, the city attorney.
"At this point I don't know where we could possibly move it," said Scott Plambaeck, city planner for Burnell's office project. "We still need to meet and discuss the options. We will probably know more in a few weeks."
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