- Historic Sites
Eureka, California, came of age at the peak of our national infatuation with architectural ornament, when money and timber seemed certain to last forever
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
The only trouble with the Carson mansion is that you can’t go inside (it’s a private social club now). But in books available around town you can find color photographs of its rooms. With its Oriental archways and its elaborate door and window moldings, each one turned, carved, and incised within an inch of its life, the interior seems to have been put together with the same abandon as the outside.
The Eureka! Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau on Second Street has a list of addresses of other noteworthy houses in Eureka. You can search them out one by one or simply drive around at random; there’s one on practically every block. To get a sense of the workmanship that went into these houses—or your own—visit the Blue Ox Millworks on X Street. A ramshackle compound at the north edge of town, the place merits just a few lines in the evenhanded guide published locally: “Working Victorian sawmill features antique machinery and self-guided tour.” I stopped by for a few minutes and stayed two hours.
“We’re a Victorian job shop,” Eric Hollenbeck said, meaning that he’ll do whatever custom woodwork you need done, like replacing the balustrade for your porch or the gutter for your roof. “There are about eight left in the United States, and we’re the only ones that go from log to finished product. I tell the apprentices who work with me, if a guy comes in and shows you something he wants copied, tell him, ‘Sure, we’ve done that hundreds of times.’ Then we’ll figure out how to do it.”
“All this equipment you see I found in the woods around this county,” Hollenbeck continued, gesturing in the direction of an 1868 treadle-powered shaper. It had a seat like a tractor, and when he sat down and pedaled, a contoured edge appeared on what had been a straight-edged board.
The X Street site began life in 1904 as a powerhouse for Eureka’s trolleys. Hollenbeck bought the property in 1973 after it had been condemned by the city, and he has been slowly improving it ever since. Over the years he has collected a 1903 Heath sander, which can smooth a full-size door, and a 1948 thirty-six-foot bandsaw, which he acquired, he says, “to show the world I’m up-to-date.” He has three thousand molding knives for his turn-of-the-century molding machines, so that he can reproduce any profile. Holding up a section of banister for a staircase, Hollenbeck said, “This has to be shaped the same on both sides or your hand feels the difference. So we run the handrail through the machine twice.” When I asked him how he could compete with operations like Home Depot, Hollenbeck said, “A craftsman has to be good and affordable. There has to be a difference between the craftsman’s arts and the fine arts.” Hollenbeck and his two daughters are designing a molding to go over a picture window that looks out on Humboldt Bay. The molding will be a frieze of hand-carved squares representing local wildlife, and they have agreed on a rule: Each square can take no more than an hour to make.
Leading the way to his gypo sawmill ( gypo is a slang term for “small operator”), Hollenbeck said, “You can tell a new Victorian three blocks away, because it doesn’t look as solid. The corbels don’t cast the same shadows. You need your own sawmill to reproduce the old dimensions exactly, because these houses were built when a two-by-four really measured two-by-four.”
Hollenbeck describes Eureka as a classroom of Victorian architecture, “probably the best classroom in a small area in the world. We had timber, money, craftsmen, architects, and we were building at just the right time.” About six thousand visitors a year pass through the Blue Ox Millworks, and Hollenbeck and his wife, Viviana, expect even more will come when they finish assembling what they’re calling a historic park. They have optioned sixteen acres next to their mill, where they plan to create a craftsman’s village, teaching skills like blacksmithing, silkscreening wallpaper, making brooms and brushes, and firing tiles and bricks. Visitors can already tour a logging camp on skids, with a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, and a small theater. I admired the theater’s seats, which were thin wood veneer with comfortable-looking curved backs. “The state of California gave me those for a dollar apiece,” Hollenbeck said cheerfully. “They were upgrading to some orange plastic ones.”
Eureka offers other old-time diversions. You can take a carriage ride along the waterfront or a sunset cruise around the bay in the 1910 ferry Madaket . You can visit the Clarke Memorial Museum, a local history museum housed in an elegant former bank. You can eat like a lumberjack in the Samoa Cookhouse, a place that opened in 1892 to serve meals to employees of the Hammond Lumber Company. Jagged saw blades decorate the walls, and you sit family-style at wooden tables. Six dollars and ninety-five cents bought a breakfast of juice, coffee, eggs, sausage, French toast, biscuits, and gravy; the Cookhouse also serves lunch and dinner.
There are a cluster of antiques stores downtown, as well as the difficult to categorize Restoration Hardware, on Second Street. A local resident started the store in 1979, when he was renovating an old house and couldn’t find the right faucets and hinges. Now it has evolved into a nationwide chain selling high-end housewares rather than nuts and bolts. Swing music plays in the background, and you can buy a Mission sconce or a retro electric fan. Eric Hollenbeck, who could make twenty dollars last five years, has probably never set foot in the place.