What You Would Have Seen at the John Muir House in 1952

By Harriett Burt

(This article was orignally published online in the Martinez, CA Patch, December 13, 2011, http://martinez.patch.com.)

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Martinez Historical Society Newsletter in September, 2009 and documents the dilapidated condition of the Muir mansion 60 years ago. Since its 1964 designation as a National Historic Site extensive renovation and restoration has taken place. Just this year, the Visitors Center’s interior was remodeled and updated. Displays that illuminate Muir’s life and achievements more completely have been added to the mansion’s rooms while still keeping the late 19th century ambience. (HJB)

Nowadays the John Muir House is the pride of Martinez – a National Historic Site attracting thousands of visitors annually from all over the world, an oft-used symbol of the city, the centerpiece of Earth Day festivities each year, and one of the featured historic homes on the Martinez Historical Society’s annual Home Tour.

But 59 years ago, it was a decrepit looking old mansion overlooking the recent Alhambra Avenue extension to Arnold Industrial Highway (State Route 4). Its owners, Roderick Kreiss and his family and his sister, Barbara Schulz and her family, were preparing to sell it and the remaining few acres of the once extensive Strenzel-Muir orchard properties. The owners gave it an estimated value of $40,000 – a huge amount at a time when a roomy two or three bedroom home with all the modern conveniences sold for less than $10,000. An evaluator possibly from the California State Parks Department raised a rhetorical eyebrow at the amount in a 1952 report on the condition of the property.

John Muir’s daughters, Helen and Wanda, inherited the property on his death on Christmas Eve in 1914. Built in the late 1870s by their grandfather, Dr. John Strentzel, the home stood on a knoll south of the city of Martinez near Franklin Canyon. The Muir heirs sold it to Mr. Kreiss and his sister in 1930. The Kreiss and Schulz families were best known locally as the owners of Granshaw’s Florist which they bought from Dunstan Granshaw’s father at the end of World War II and sold to Wilbur and Frances Hall in the early 1960s. Barbara Schulz was an active member of the community serving as president of the Soroptimist Club and the Martinez Chamber of Commerce.

The John Muir Memorial Association was just being formed in the mid-1950s when the Kreiss-Schulz families bought a second florist shop in Concord and decided to move there. First formed to preserve Muir’s gravesite on Alhambra Creek near present-day Wanda Way, the Association which included prominent citizens such as Justices A. F. Bray and Wakefield Taylor, began casting an eye on the Mansion itself. The first goal was to preserve it as a California State Park.

The Contra Costa County Historical Society has a document in its files written in 1952 by an unidentified person who appears to be reporting on the building and its condition to an unidentified body apparently making a decision whether to purchase it for preservation. Excerpts follow:

"Structurally, the John Muir home is quite interesting and represents a very fine home of the late 1870 period. It consists of a full basement, first floor, second floor, full attic and cupola with bell.

"The main structure has a brick foundation which is in good repair. This foundation extends to a depth of four feet below ground level. The outer wall above ground is adobe with an inner lining of fired red brick and an outer covering of redwood channel rustic.

"Originally there were four separate chimneys, some with fireplaces on both floors. One of these has been removed in order to make room for closets in the dining room and one bedroom.

"The fireplaces are each different in design and appearance, all but one being beautifully designed marble from various sections of the world; other (sic) is brick, now painted, with raised hearth added.

"Ceilings are all 10’ with 8’ double hung windows of Redwood. The windows had interior louvered shutters in three independent sections. Most of these have been removed but are stored in the attic.

"The interior was originally plaster except for the library which was paneled Redwood. Roof failures in the past have destroyed some and damaged other sections of plaster.

"The wall paper covering the plaster had been very ornate, typical of the period. All of this has been stripped and some areas replaced with modern paper, other sections are bare plaster.

"The house was simply wired by Muir in 1912 having originally been illuminated by gas.

"The condition of structures is a tribute to the craftsmen who built it. The foundation is true and uncracked, floors and walls are level and plumb.

"The interior has had rough treatment in some sections but nothing structurally damaging. Alterations have been few and easily remedied if desired except for addition of window and doorway in the kitchen.

"The exterior shows the effect of neglect to quite a degree. The exterior paint is in horrible condition and is almost totally lacking. However, no sign of rot of deterioration other than weathering was noted.

"The grounds at one time were beautifully kept and landscaped with trees and shrubs planted by Muir. Many are natives and others are from all over the world. Incense cedar, Deodars, Eucalyptus of several species, olives Acacia, Bird of Paradise, Arborvvitea, Palms, Lemon, Pomegranite (sic), Cactus of several types, roses and wisteria (sic) were among the kinds recognized. Muir reputedly collected these varied species himself during his various travels…..Many of the plantings are in very bad condition from neglect and lack of water."

The report concludes that the purpose of acquiring the property "would seem to be as a shrine or memorial to John Muir." The barriers to this acquisition, according to the author would be the "exhorbitant ‘wishing’ price of $40,000" put on the property by Mrs. Schulz. The condition of the house and grounds and the difficulty of access and providing parking were also cited. At the time, access to the home was on a driveway on the south side from Arnold Industrial Highway (now Highway 4). The driveway crossed a 50 foot strip under different ownership. In addition, plans were already underway, according to Mrs. Schulz to build a freeway and ‘clover leaves’ bordering the property to connect with the nearly completed Alhambra Avenue extension from "the Y" at Alhambra Way near H street.

In the end, the property was put up for sale by Kreiss/Schulz and purchased by Henry and Faire Sax in 1955. The Saxes undertook private restoration projects while working closely with the John Muir Memorial Association to secure official Park status either from the state or the federal government. Turned down by the State, the group was successful a decade after this report in securing National Historic Site status for the site. Several extensive renovation and restoration projects have occurred since then so that Home Tour visitors will see an accurate representation of a late 19th/early 20th century home occupied by a prominent and prosperous family along with museum quality displays of artifacts from Muir’s life and work.

For Martinez residents who have lived here for years without visiting the site (very typical and true of this writer for a decade or so in the 1960s and 70s), you’ll be glad to know that the John Muir National Historic Site is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free.

Next time: Faire and Henry to the rescue! Why there is not a 1950s era suburban development on the site of the Muir House and the Martinez Adobe.

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