Whimsical, but also ambitious
by AMY STEWART
I LIVE IN A NEIGHBORHOOD IN EUREKA THAT would have been torn apart had Caltrans gone ahead with its plan to build a freeway bypass around downtown. Instead, the agency abandoned the idea and gradually auctioned off the houses it had acquired in the proposed right-of-way. When I came to Eureka on a house-hunting trip in 1998, the Caltrans auctions were just winding down. But even now, people around here are still relieved that those homes were not lost or moved.
Instead of a noisy roadway, there are stately Victorians, California bungalows, small cottages and the occasional duplex or apartment. It's a diverse neighborhood, not especially wealthy, full of friendly people and decidedly lacking in pretense. One thing most neighbors have in common is a desire to see the old homes preserved.
That's why Carol Green and the Board of Directors of The Whimsy Garden are working hard to raise $15,000 by next month, and another $120,600 by August. Caltrans still owns a few properties in town; one of them is an old Victorian on a three-quarter acre lot at 1000 F Street that will be sold at auction if the group cannot make a downpayment by Feb. 18. Only about $2,000 has been collected, so the group has a ways to go.
Green, a teacher at Pine Hill Elementary, has lived next door to the house since the mid-'70s. She rented her own house from Caltrans, raised her children there, and planted a garden. Once the bypass was cancelled, she bought the house. But she always had her eye on the boarded-up twin Victorian next door, and the enormous lot behind it that extends to E Street. She learned that the property was once owned by the Ryan family, some of the earliest settlers in Eureka. James T. Ryan was known for his friendship with Wiyot leader Ki-we-lat-tah.
Green saw the property as an important part of Eureka's history and wanted to find a way to preserve it. That's when she got the idea to create a whimsical Victorian garden that could serve as a kind of indoor-outdoor museum and a place where schoolchildren could learn about horticulture and local history. She particularly wanted to emphasize the Wiyot tribe's connection to the site and grow some of the plants used in Wiyot basketry. She approached the Wiyot tribe and asked them what they thought about the idea, and was pleased to get a letter of support.
"Most people know the story of what happened to our tribe," Wiyot tribal administrator Maura Eastman said. "It's nice to emphasize the positive side, to hear the good news. There's been a resurgence of interest in Wiyot culture at the local schools and around town. And as a gardener, what could be better?"
The Whimsy Garden board of directors hoped that the city of Eureka would provide the funds to buy the property. Although the City Council expressed support for the project, funding wasn't made available. Eventually the city agreed that if the group could raise the money themselves, the city (which can purchase property directly from Caltrans without going through an auction) would buy the property and transfer it to the Ink People, an umbrella group and fiscal agent for the Whimsy Garden project.
It was not until last summer that a price was agreed on: $134,000. If the 10 percent down payment is not received in time, the house and the large parcel of land it sits on will be put up for auction. "This project has been in the works for a while," said Mike Zoppo, property manager for the city of Eureka. "Caltrans has been very patient with us and very generous. They've really supported the idea of the Whimsy Garden. But now it's up to them [the Whimsy Garden board]."
Green worries about what would happen if the property went up for auction. "Somebody could come along and build apartments here," she said. City staff confirmed that the site is zoned for the highest density multifamily use and could hold up to 36 units, although the actual number would be smaller after setback, parking, and open space requirements are taken into consideration.
The plan for the Whimsy Garden is ambitious: The house, once restored, will hold a library, historic and botanical photographs, and the work of local artists. It will serve as a meeting space and classroom, especially during inclement weather. The garden, as planned, will be the sort of thing I'd like to visit but would never undertake in my own messy (perhaps "natural" would be a kinder word) backyard: It will showcase ornate Victorian gardening techniques including topiaries and espaliers (trees that have been trained into geometrical shapes) as living sculptures. The group plans to build a greenhouse for plant propagation, a gazebo for performances and small-scale events, and a number of other small outbuildings. The garden will accommodate workshops, tours and field trips for students. To make it all possible, a few hundred thousand dollars will need to be raised over the next several years.
"We plan to do the work in stages," Green told me. "The first step will be the restoration of the house. We're lucky to have lots of volunteers who want to donate labor and materials. We'll be looking for contractors, gardeners, anyone who can volunteer some time. And we'll be asking for donations of historic house parts, antiques and materials for the garden itself."
It's a tall order, to be sure, especially since the group plans to operate the garden as an all-volunteer organization. But so far, plenty of people have stepped forward to help with the project. Bill Cody, who lives in the neighborhood and heads the fund-raising committee, said, "We're really seeing the neighborhood develop in terms of the art scene. The Whimsy Garden is close to the Morris Graves, Ink People and Old Town. It'll serve as a kind of transition between all those places." Several local artists, including Cody's wife Linda Mitchell, have studios in the neighborhood, adding to the sense that a thriving art scene is taking hold in the area.
If you'd like to find out more about the Whimsy Garden project, visit their website at www.whimsygarden.org, or call 442-8836. The site itself is located between E and F streets at 10th, just down the street from the Ink People's office. Donations can be sent to the Ink People Center for the Arts, 411 12th Street, Eureka, CA 95501.
A benefit and silent auction to raise funds for the down payment will be held Feb. 8 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Humboldt Carpet Showroom at 205 G Street in Eureka. They'll be raffling off weekend stays at local bed-and-breakfasts, and the silent auction will include art, antiques and jewelry. Admission is $15 for non-members, $10 for members, and raffle tickets are just $1.
E-mail news of all things horticultural to Amy Stewart.
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