Will ‘Faculty Row’ be saved?
Zingg insists historic houses are safe, but local preservationists vividly remember the ‘language houses’ battle
The white two-story house at 831 Rio Chico Way, across the street from Big Chico Creek, has an interesting history. Known as the Boucher Home, it was built around 1906 by Mandana Boucher, whose family lived there until 1912. During the 1930s and ‘40s, it was converted into Rosella’s Boarding House and for a while housed cadets training at the Chico Army Air Corps field.
Next door, at 825 Rio Chico Way, is the large, yellow E. I. Miller home, built in 1905 or ‘06 by Dr. Elmer I. Miller, professor of history and political science at Chico Normal School. Miller served for many years as vice-president of the college and twice as its interim president. A scholarship in his name is awarded annually by the Chico State University History Department.
These are two of the seven historic wood-frame houses tucked away on Rio Chico Way, just west of the Chico State campus. Most of them are two-story structures built during the early 20th century. Long used as student rentals, they’re a little worn these days, but it’s easy to picture them spiffed up and freshly painted and looking as trim and tidy as they did when they were new and known collectively as “Faculty Row.”
Historically, they’re as significant as any block of houses in Chico. Three early campus presidents lived there, and the late Ted Meriam—perhaps the most influential civic leader since Chico founder John Bidwell—was born and spent his childhood there. His former home, a rose-colored dwelling at 805 Rio Chico Way, was built in 1904 by his father, Morrison E. Meriam, a professor of psychology, and mother, Anna Lund Meriam, who for several years served as Annie Bidwell’s personal secretary.
It’s little wonder, then, that a university plan for the area that appears to leave no room for the houses has local historic preservationists concerned. They remember their successful mid-1990s effort to save the Third Street “language houses,” which the university wanted to raze and turn into a parking lot, and are determined to protect these houses as well.
But university President Paul Zingg insists Chico State has no intention of tearing down the houses. In a recent e-mail message, he told the CN&R he “particularly appreciate[s] those houses” and had “made it clear on several occasions … that the University has no intention whatsoever of razing, moving, or otherwise interfering with that row of seven historic houses….”
Preservationists want to believe him, but experience and the nature of the plans for the area make them nervous.
The history of the houses provided here comes from Michael Magliari, a Chico State history professor (and co-author of a biography of Bidwell), who has researched them extensively.
As he notes in a recent e-mail message to Glennda Morse, the university’s director of facilities planning, “taken together, [the houses] comprise a charming and still intact historic streetscape comparable in quality and appeal to that formed by the six historic ‘language houses’ that line West Third Street between Chestnut and Hazel streets (and once were, ironically, also slated for demolition by university master planners).”
Concern about the future of the houses first developed in 2005, when the university released the draft of its new campus master plan. The plan notes that the university owns the land and properties surrounding the Rio Chico neighborhood, the area bounded by Cherry and Orange streets on the west and east, respectively, and Rio Chico Way and First Street on the north and south.
The plan envisions the university ultimately acquiring the properties in the block and building an aquatic center on the site. It would be conveniently adjacent to the new Wildcat Activity Center, now under construction on the block between First and Second streets, and would replace the outdated swimming facilities near Acker Gym.
The plan takes note of the “historic importance” of the row of houses on Rio Chico Way and proposes either to retain them in place or relocate them to nearby historic neighborhoods.
At the time, preservation groups such as the Chico Heritage Association and the Butte County Historical Society expressed concerns about the plan, noting that relocation was not a satisfactory alternative and that the plan included no guarantee that the houses would be preserved on site.
The issue stayed on the back burner until Dec. 11, when Morse sent out a letter to Rio Chico neighbors and an e-mail to the campus community seeking comments on a just-released “First Street Master Plan.” The new plan is a set of visual concepts being developed for the renovation of First Street all the way from the campus entrance at Salem Street to the railroad tracks adjacent to Orange Street.
Preservationists were irked by the timing of Morse’s letter—end of semester, just before Christmas, while faculty members were busy with finals and grades—and the fact that she wanted the comments by Dec. 18, just a week away.
Over at the Chico Heritage Association, folks were upset as well by the fact they had received no letter and heard about the request for comments only through the grapevine. “I asked everybody if they’d seen a letter, but none had,” John Gallardo, the group’s president, said. “It wasn’t done in good faith.”
Of more concern was the plan itself. Its maps clearly show the Rio Chico block as set aside for a future aquatics center, with the outline of the center going right up to Rio Chico Way, obliterating the seven houses on Faculty Row.
And, even if somehow the houses were retained on site, the design for the neighborhood would make them inaccessible by car. The plan is to close First, Orange and Cherry streets and create a series of pedestrian “plazas,” but doing so would also cut off and isolate Rio Chico Way.
As such, Magliari notes in his e-mail to Morse, “…[it] will be useless as a residential area and will, presumably, be condemned and then razed to make way for the ‘Future Aquatic Center.’ “
In fact, he noted, the only way the houses could be retained on site, lacking onsite parking, would be for the university to purchase them and use them as offices or in some other way. “That would be fine,” he said.
The CN&R asked Zingg what the university intended to do with the houses, but he didn’t answer that particular question. He did say that the university will “take its time to solicit input on these matters” and that he regretted “any impressions to the contrary in Glennda’s e-mail.” Morse and Dennis Graham, the vice president for business and finance, could not be reached over the holiday break.
In any event, as both Magliari and Gallardo point out, the university would no doubt find it difficult to get rid of the houses.
For one thing, Magliari notes, the city has considerable leverage in this matter. The university will need to get the City Council’s approval to abandon use of First, Cherry and Orange streets. “I would hope the city would agree they need to be preserved before abandoning the streets,” he said.
And Gallardo argues that the university is required by state law to do an assessment of any structure older than 50 years and obtain the concurrence of the state historic preservation officer before demolishing it.
“Our position is that these need to be preserved,” he said. “Whether they’re kept as housing or offices, that’s not our concern. They need to be kept for posterity as a ‘gift to the street.’ “
Zingg apparently agrees, but it’s not clear at this point just how the houses will be preserved.