Nevada City, California, arguably offers the most compact, well-preserved locale in the state to view nineteenth-century small-town residential and commercial vernacular architecture. The commercial downtown was designated a National Historic District in 1985, and the subsequent appointment of Conley Weaver as the City Consulting Architect has helped to protect the historic character of this area. When other mining towns of the era dried up, Nevada City remained strong owing to its designation as the county seat, its primary role in the Gold Rush, its rich mineral deposits that fueled the economy for decades, the particularly inventive and talented people who settled there, and its ongoing promotion of the arts. Though remarkably intact, the creation of Highway 49 in the late 1960s bisected the town and destroyed its original downtown plaza, a planning decision that reflects an all-too-common national trend during that decade.
Located on Deer Creek (part of the South Yuba River) in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, the town’s seven hills offered residential sites secure from the fires and floods that in the 1850s and early 1860s periodically ravaged some of the expediently built wood-frame structures in the lower downtown. While commercial buildings shifted to brick and cast iron in the 1850s and 1860s as kilns and foundries became established, many early wooden commercial facades and the predominantly wood-frame houses from the 1850s to the 1890s stand as timely and notable examples of the national stylistic trends in the architecture of this period. This is remarkable given the town’s isolation in the Sierras, without shipping or rail access, the latter not available until 1876 when a narrow gauge railroad connected it to the Central Pacific Railroad.
As best as can be determined from the records that remain, very few trained architects participated in the design and creation of the town’s buildings. Rather, carpenters, cabinetmakers, and local citizens built these structures using vernacular frame-construction techniques combined with plans and stylistic features taken from architectural pattern books. Two of the latter were Samuel Sloan’s The Model Architect, first published in 1852, and Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses from 1859. Knowledge of pattern books and national stylistic trends came with the literate, middle-class residents from the East Coast who moved to Nevada, as it was first known before creation of the state that chose the same name. Displacing the local Native American Nisenan population, those seeking fortunes from placer gold mining in the early 1850s usually stayed just a short time, taking their earnings back home. Other immigrants, who came to work the veins and mines that others owned, had little capital and often lived together in simple wood-frame boarding houses. This included a sizable Chinese population, which adopted local vernacular American building forms for residences and businesses on upper Commercial Street. It was the predominantly Anglo-American and European merchants, politicians, miners, and engineers who developed hydraulic and quartz mining techniques for gold extraction that built the town’s stable economy and architecture in the 1850s and 1860s.
Inventive technologies developed for mining imparted a can-do attitude reflected in the town’s buildings and infrastructure. For example, within just a few years of New Yorker James Bogardus’s development in 1849 of prefabricated cast-iron architectural building parts, which allowed factories and exhibition buildings to be constructed with an abundance of iron and glass, the foundries in Nevada City turned out the tall cast-iron and glass doors that fully opened up to the street the retail facade of Espenscheid Boots and Shoes. When fire ransacked downtown structures multiple times, locals turned to fireproof construction methods consisting of brick walls with solid cast-iron door and window shutters, and a wooden ceiling overlain with six inches of sand, above which stood the roof structure; ostensibly, if fire penetrated the interior and burned the ceiling, the sand would fall and quench the fire. The town built a gas works for downtown street lighting, was a leader in hydraulic infrastructure (Pacific Gas and Electric was founded there), and served as the site for the first long-distance telephone line. Given these significant technological developments, perhaps it is less surprising that the town’s architecture was in sync with national stylistic developments.
The Greek and Gothic Revival houses from the 1850s on give testament to the growing presence of women and families in the town and the importance of the home as a center for fostering middle-class morality, set above and apart from the many brothels in the downtown area that served the large, transient male miner population. These families worshipped at the Congregational (now Baptist) Church built in 1855; at St. Canice Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church, both built in 1864; and at Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1873. As a lithograph from 1856 shows, the earliest churches were all built in simple Greek Revival style, featuring axial symmetry, centrally placed steeples, pedimented fronts with or without a columned portico, dentil molding, and, more unusually, quoined edges. Similarly, a few early civic structures—Firehouses No. 1 and 2, and the Nevada Theatre—display Romanesque arch detailing in the brickwork and windows well before H.H. Richardson made it fashionable on the East Coast. Two of the extant churches, the Congregational Church and United Methodist Church, combine Greek and Gothic Revival stylistic features on the same building. This combination of two styles that are often read in opposition to each other—rational versus emotional, civic and governmental versus religious—reflects the absence of trained architects and the builders’ reliance upon pattern books, which fostered the picking and choosing of details with little deference to stylistic purity and intent. Proper Gothic Revival houses did not appear in Nevada City until 1860, with the grand, three-story Red Castle on Prospect Hill and the picturesque cottage on the corner of Broad and Mills, whose board-and-batten Gothic detailing just below the roofline copies that modeled by Sloan in his “Design for a Cottage” and a “Building in the Castellated Style.”
Whereas nationally the Italianate style became popular generally in the 1860s, it took a decade to influence the residential architecture of Nevada City. Sloan’s Italianate designs for “A Plain Villa” and “The Same Ornamented” are credited as the direct source for the Marsh-Christy House, built in 1873 atop Boulder Hill. One of the earliest of a number of Italianate dwellings, it was closely copied for the house on Clay Street, built in 1895. Both have the centrally placed lantern (with seven and six lights, respectively), the simple extended cornice with single brackets, a tripartite facade, and quoined edges (here made of wood) apparent in Sloan’s ornamented version. Another design of Sloan’s for a “Suburban Villa” may have inspired the Robert Forman House on Piety Hill (1885), without the low gabled roof or pergola extending to one side. A heavily ornamented Italianate residence graces the crest of Aristocrat Hill; arguably the grandest house in the town, the Rectors House of 1885 features a two-story bay window, wraparound porch, porthole windows, double brackets below the cornice, and a fenced parapet atop the roof. The most eclectic of all, though, is the Mulloy House, set prominently at the juncture where Broad Street splits into East and West Broad streets on Nabob Hill. Dated to 1870 (which would make it the first Italianate structure in Nevada City), the simple Italianate substructure is nearly masked by various additions, likely built later: the centrally placed turret with four-sided pedimented base, a balcony across the front featuring stained glass windows and French doors, and ornamented wooden rails framing the lower porch area.
The eclecticism of the Mulloy House reflects a national trend in the 1880s and 1890s, whereby the pick-and-choose effect of pattern book building and the plethora of revival styles led to increasingly diverse combinations that generally fall under the rubric “Victorian.” For example, the Second Empire house on lower Main Street, characterized solely by the prominent mansard roof for the attic floor pierced with windows and built in 1890, is basically an Italianate building with a two-story bay window like that at the Rectors, with the addition of wooden quoins on each edge and machine-cut wooden railings for the balconies and their support structure. The Queen Anne house at 441 Washington Street, probably built in the 1880s, features two turrets with conical roofs (one open, one closed with shingle siding), classical dentil moulding, a sunburst pedimented front porch, and asymmetrical woodwork detailing and a windowbox on the two second-story front windows. The Moorish single-story on Sacramento Street features a hexagonal onion dome over the front bay window, half of a Moorish arch at the entry stairs, lattice-work infill behind the curved porch framing, Victorian gingerbread woodwork beneath the thin double brackets of the cornice, and added decorative woodwork in the pediment of the gable. A similar onion dome and Moorish arch detailing were modeled by Sloan in his “Oriental Villa,” which is better known in its manifestation as “Nutt’s Folly” or Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi, from 1860. The builders of the Sacramento Street house perhaps used Sloan’s design as its inspirational source, given that this seemed to be common practice in Nevada City.
Despite its small size and relative isolation in the Sierras, the local residents and builders in Nevada City kept a close eye on national stylistic trends. The buildings featured here are joined by many that are similar in the downtown historic district and in the close confines of the seven hills. The entire area can be walked in half a day, if one moves fairly quickly, offering good exercise and a solid education in nineteenth-century vernacular architecture.
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