To save a house

Historic Chico home is slated for demolition, unless someone steps up to preserve it

Paul Lieberum of the Chico Heritage Association in front of a home on West Fifth Street set for demolition.

Paul Lieberum of the Chico Heritage Association in front of a home on West Fifth Street set for demolition.

Photo by Ernesto Rivera

At first glance, not much remains of one of the last Gothic revival houses in Chico. Some of the signature cross gables that line its steeply pitched roof are missing their tips. The porch’s roof has crumbled, its remnants blocking the few steps up to what was once the front door. The double-hung windows have been boarded up, keeping onlookers from seeing the graffiti and trash inside. And the white paint has faded and chipped away, exposing light brown patches.

While passersby may be quick to think, “What a piece of junk,” the house, located in the heart of the south campus neighborhood at 618 W. Fifth St., is one of the most historic and oldest homes in Chico, and many here view it as a part of the town’s charm. Built in 1883, the small cottage is listed as part of the South of Campus Neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places—it’s known as the P.E. O’Hair Home—and on the city’s Historic Resources Inventory. For these reasons, the owner and members of the Chico Heritage Association have been trying for months to find someone willing to take possession of the house and move it within city limits so it can keep its historic designation.

Still, no matter how much this home means to people in the community, particularly local history buffs, it may soon be demolished. Efforts to preserve it are in the 11th hour, as the home’s current owner is poised to start tearing it down should the association find no takers.

Paul Lieberum, vice president of the Chico Heritage Association, is hoping it doesn’t come to that.

“It’s losing a part of Chico’s history and that’s what makes Chico the charming city that it is; our history,” Lieberum said. “Otherwise, it’s just any urban town in California. The historic buildings are what really make it attractive, and I think a lot of people realize that.”

Lieberum said he’s been taking phone calls about the house for months from people whose interests were piqued by the concept of a free house or owning a part of Chico’s history. “There have been several people who’ve acted like they were interested, but they haven’t put anything together to get it moved,” Lieberum said. “People just haven’t been able to find lots to put it on, or if they did have a lot, it just wasn’t economically feasible by the time they added everything together.”

In desperation mode, the association came before the City Council last week to see if the city could help with the endeavor by expediting the purchase of a city-owned property. “The reason we went to the City Council meeting was because the city had several lots that they’ve been talking about disposing of, but the council basically told us at that meeting that the process takes months,” Lieberum said.

That’s time the association doesn’t have.

The house is officially owned by Margaret Hill but her relative, Jesse Grigg, has been helping with many of the plans. Grigg is working to construct a rental property at the site. The city’s Architecture and Historic Preservation Review Board voted to approve demolition in November after a 30-day period. Those 30 days, and an additional 30 days, have come and gone and the family has recently pulled the demolition permit that allows them to tear down the structure.

Grigg needs to begin construction soon to get the structure up by next year. Members of the association acknowledge that Grigg has been patient in pushing back his plans.

“My family has been here since 1850, and Chico Heritage Association and the historic preservation of our community is important to me,” Grigg said. “It’s unfortunate to me that the house is so far gone. Being that close to campus, it’s a good rental property and we want to build something more substantial that can be historic in another 150 years.”

The property came into Grigg’s family in the late 1970s as a real estate investment. It has been vacant for about a decade. Grigg has been working for the past three years to either repair it, restore it or move it. Ultimately, he’d like to see it saved and is willing to put $4,000 of his own money toward the approximately $13,500 moving cost.

“It was built in 1883 and it’s one of Chico’s oldest homes,” he said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s just past its prime and served its purpose.”