SOUTH of MAIN – Discovering the Lost Buildings of the Mendocino Headlands opens next week at the Kelley House Museum. The exhibit takes visitors on a walk back in time, when the south side of Main Street was lined with more than twenty buildings that are no longer there.
The post office, the meat market, a photo gallery, Chinese stores, jewelry shops, water towers – all were once a part of the essential fabric of downtown. Storefronts occupied both sides of Main Street to form a two-sided corridor of commerce.
Today, the land to the south is clear of buildings, and the view as we walk down the street is unobstructed out across the Headlands State Park to the open ocean. What happened?
The exhibit will tell you all about it, but first, we’re going to let the late Chuck Bush, historical author and Kelley House Museum board member, explain the unique sequence of events that created the Park once the Main Street structures were gone.
Chuck wrote the following piece for the June 24, 1993 Beacon. He does a great job summarizing the formation of the Park and its close relationship with the Mendocino Historic District. It’s also a reminder that involved citizens, including those who volunteer for the Historical Review Board, can have a lasting effect.
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In the late 1950s when the Zachas were developing the Mendocino Art Center and adding a new dimension to the town, Auggie Heeser decided to give his land that was west and north of Heeser Drive to the State Fish and Wildlife Department so that people would be able to go out on the headland and fish until the end of time.
That event seems to mark the beginning of the efforts to keep the flavor of Mendocino as it had developed since the 1850s; it was the first preservation effort. In 1960 that land was transferred to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, in line with its efforts to preserve the northern California coast in its natural condition.
Then in the late 60s the Boise Cascade Company purchased Union Lumber Company of Fort Bragg, and by so doing, acquired over 70 undeveloped acres of headland south of Main Street, along with Big River beach.
That company had, at other locations, built company housing on like property, and the idea that something similar might be developed here aroused the townspeople.
The Mendocino Headlands Park Committee was set up, led by Emmy Lou Packard and later by Mildred Benioff. It searched for, and found, and alternative – with the help of William Penn Mott, the very able director of the State Department of Parks and Recreation.
A swap was arranged so that the headland and beach property became state park land, and in return the lumber company received timberland located inland.
However, Mott also felt that it made no sense to preserve the coastline if the town might be allowed to become an ugly eyesore; he specified that it was no deal unless the town set up a plan to preserve its uniqueness.
The first action taken was to submit, in 1970, the forms necessary for Mendocino to be accepted into the national Register of Historic Place. Significant in the proposal were pictures showing the town’s unique architecture, including the Presbyterian Church, MacCallum House, Masonic Hall, Chinese Joss House, and groups of Main Street buildings. In 1971 the town was designated a National Historic District.
Second, the Headlands Park Committee, with the support of state and county officials, created an Historical Preservation District Ordinance designed to protect the character and heritage of our picturesque town.
An enormous amount of time and effort went into this project, which was finally approved by the County Board of Supervisors to become effective March 9, 1973. The ordinance set up our two historic zones, established the Mendocino Historical Review Board, provided standards and procedures for review, and penalties for violation.
In the early 1970s, Al Nichols, who inherited his cousin Auggie Heeser’s properties upon his death, sold the acreage located inside Heeser Drive loop on the headlands to the Department of Parks and Recreation – so that just about all the headland that hadn’t yet been developed became state park land.
In 1972 the Coastal Commission was organized and four years later the California Coastal Act was passed by the legislature, mandating the development of sound coastal management plans, and localized responsibility to the counties and towns along the coast.
In 1980 a Citizens Advisory Committee completed the Mendocino Town Plan as so directed, and in 1983 this was adopted by the Board of Supervisors. So today  the coastline of the Mendocino Headland and the entire western end of the Headland are protected as state park land, and will remain preserved in a natural state, hopefully forever.
External changes to town buildings must be reviewed first by the County Planning and Building Services Board and second by the Mendocino Historical Review Board; the former organization now also reviews any changes to property within the Mendocino County coastal zone against the standards of the Coastal Act.
Members of the Historical Review Board have the difficult assignment of making judgements regarding proposed changes to town buildings.
Mr. Mott originally proposed for the whole town of Mendocino to become a museum, with the townspeople wearing period costumes – sort of living in a time warp. That was not what the townspeople wanted.
It has been pointed out to me that they wanted to preserve the authenticity and flavor of this old lumber mill town with its unique and wonderful architecture, but they also wanted the town to be alive and to prosper, allowing limited growth and change necessitated some sort of compromise – to keep the town compatible with the past but not necessarily totally unchanged from the past.
I’m sure it is very difficult for Board members to determine what is and is not appropriate; some people feel they are too conservative and others that they are too liberal.
Nevertheless, I and most of the people I have met, think this town still looks wonderful; it has slowly grown but still retains its uniqueness. Let’s hope we will always be able to feel that way about this special place.
SOUTH of MAIN exhibit runs January 24 through May 18, 2020, at the Kelley House Museum, 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino. Hours: Fridays through Mondays, 11am to 3pm. (707) 937-5791. info@KelleyHouseMuseum.org