A new educational and historical center may be on the horizon for Santa Clara’s historic Morse Mansion on Fremont Street, thanks to some creative thinking from the City’s municipal electric company, Silicon Valley Power (SVP).
Built in 1892 by “Seed King” Charles Copeland Morse, the mansion is the largest Queen Anne building remaining in the City and is on the national register of historic places. The City bought it in 2016 for $3.8 million.*
Despite the historical importance of the mansion, the City of Santa Clara has no money for any restoration or renovation; nor does the City have a revenue stream to support maintaining the building. Currently, a sorority rents the building and that lease expires in June 2024.
At a January meeting to discuss the mansion’s future, Assistant City Manager and SVP Executive Director Manuel Pineda presented three options for the property.
The first is simply to continue to lease the building to the sorority. Currently, the City is just breaking even with the sorority’s $17,000 monthly rent.
“This would require initial capital investment beyond [current] budgets for repairs, and there are no current funding source streams for this,” explained Pineda. “Further, since the lease was first signed with the sorority, neighbors have been concerned about using the property in this way.”
The second possibility is selling the property. This would be a challenge because the property would be subject to the Surplus Land Act, despite the mansion’s historical status, and would have to be offered to builders for affordable housing, Pineda explained.
“The historic designation very much limits the use, which would limit buyer interest. [But] staff research indicates that there is little interest in some kind of affordable housing project here,” said Pineda.
The third possibility is maintaining it for public uses. But the challenge to any community use is that there is no money and no source of future funding for it. That’s where SVP comes in.
“The benefit of this approach would allow the City to continue to own the historical mansion,” said Pineda. “Money used to finance the development and maintenance would come from restricted SVP money – for educational purposes – and wouldn’t affect rates. In addition to having this funding, an educational use would increase the likelihood of getting grant funding and matching funds.”
SVP’s concept includes exhibits about Santa Clara history and the architecture of the Morse Mansion; demonstrations about home electrification, and solar and battery power; sustainable yard and landscape exhibits; and classrooms.
Making this happen won’t come cheap. First, a study is needed to determine if the proposal is even feasible. Current estimates place the cost in the neighborhood of $8 million. Major investments are needed in the foundation, electrical, plumbing and roof, in addition to the renovations needed for the new uses.
At the January meeting, residents expressed interest in SVP’s proposal but also emphasized that they wanted the Morse Mansion to truly provide community access to the building and grounds.
They made clear that they don’t want to see another historical Santa Clara property acquired by taxpayer dollars and then become virtually inaccessible for anything except occasional private rentals; for example the Headen-Inman and Jamison-Brown houses.
Residents did favor continuing the sorority’s lease year-to-year while the City is exploring a new plan for the property.
If the City Council gives the go ahead, the next steps will be negotiating a one-year lease extension with the sorority and soliciting statements of interest and qualifications from engineering and architecture firms.
The City has already received three proposals for the study, Pineda said.
“Any information that comes out of this can be applied for other uses. Additional uses aren’t precluded,” said Pineda.
“We need a whole new strategy for all the City’s historical assets,” said Council Member Suds Jain. “We need dedicated funding for our historic assets. If the City bought the Morse Mansion to keep it from falling into disrepair, we should have established a source of funding. And if we’re subsidizing [historic buildings] we need to see how they could be best used for the City.”
*In 2007 the City considered buying the Morse Mansion from owners Gary Gillmor, Nick Litvac and Jon Campisi. This consortium bought it in 1981 for $300,000, invested $800,000 in renovation, and leased it for offices. They offered it to the City in 2007 for $3 million, and then-Mayor Patricia Mahan put it on the council priorities list.
The sale never went through, however, because it was clouded by the fact that Garry Gillmor and his family had donated $17,000 collectively to six of seven council members. Gillmor et. al. subsequently sold it to Myron Von Raesfeld, who sold it to the city in 2016 for $3.8 million.
Photo courtesy Eugene Zelenko, Creative Commons