This old house
Chico structure is impetus for new county protections
If you follow Bell Road west from Chico about two miles, to where it meets Meridian Road, you’ll come to the Bell House, one of the oldest wood-frame dwellings in the area. It’s a small, unoccupied structure set back from the corner and surrounded by farm land. Some of its exterior panels just below the roof have been removed, and the house appears to be up on risers.
A large storage barn near the Meridian Road entrance to the property seems to be in fairly good shape, but an ancient water tower—a tank supported by a wooden frame—next to the house has collapsed, blown over earlier this year in a spring storm.
The house is a valuable part of Chico’s history—and is desperately in need of some TLC. Two years ago, in 2008, its owner approached Butte County seeking a permit to do some stabilization work. But the parcel on which it sits is the product of an illegal lot split in 1977 and is out of compliance with county codes, and as a result the county was unable to issue the permit.
County supervisors, realizing then that the lack of a special permitting process for historic structures wasn’t good, ordered the Department of Development Services to prepare a code amendment covering such structures, even if they were on noncompliant parcels. They also sought an inventory of historical and cultural resources that eventually could be folded into the county’s new general plan.
When Principal Planner Claudia Stuart presented a draft version of the code amendment to the supervisors Tuesday (March 29), Supervisor Jane Dolan quickly noted that the water tower had fallen over.
“If we wait much longer [to approve an amendment], there will be nothing to preserve,” she exclaimed.
The history surrounding the Bell House is sketchy, but according to a document Stuart prepared for the supervisors, it’s believed to have been built by Hugh Bell in the mid-19th century.
“Mr. Bell is listed as a trader in the 1850 census”—making him an extremely early resident of the area—“and is thought to have been the owner of a ferry service which provided shipping to Butte County during its early years,” Stuart writes.
As such, his Sacramento River ferry was an important part of a regional transportation system that, in the 1860s, carried goods shipped from the Bay Area to Chico Landing on the river and thence up Humboldt Road to the silver mines in Nevada and Idaho.
She believes Bell Road “may have been named after Mr. Bell,” but won’t say for certain. Perhaps she’s being too cautious. After all, the road ran directly to the only property in the area owned by a man named Bell.
The house is an example of Folk Victorian construction with Gothic Revival features. Folk Victorian, Stuart writes, “describes homes patterned after popular styles such as Gothic Revival, but built more simply, inexpensively, and without the use of professional architects. …
“The house’s association with Hugh Bell and with historic regional transportation and mining activities establishes its importance to Butte County and Northern California history” and “render it eligible for listing in the proposed Butte County Historical and Cultural Resources Inventory.”
The public benefits of historic preservation, Stuart told the supervisors, are economic as well as cultural. Preservation of historic buildings attracts tourists who spend their money locally, in addition to fostering a community’s links to the past and preserving its character.
Stuart had brought the amendment to the board because her department wanted guidance on these issues: first, whether owner consent should be required for listing on the inventory, and, second, whether a fee should be charged for such listing.
Stuart had no sooner finished her presentation than Dolan moved that anybody be able to nominate a site for the list, but that its owner must agree. She also wanted no fee to be charged.
There was little discussion, and the motion passed unanimously.
The draft amendment will now go to the county Planning Commission for a public hearing.
In its current form, it proposes various criteria for listing on the inventory, including that a structure be at least 50 years old and that it have historical significance. The amendment also, like the city of Chico’s historic-preservation ordinance, would enable discretionary review of demolition permits but impose no other restrictions.