By the early 1900s, the North Star Mine had become successful and prosperous. The owner, James Hague, felt there was a need for a more suitable social center for entertaining eastern investors, other mining owners and managers, visitors from San Francisco, and the gentry of Grass Valley. He also was in competition with the Bourns, who had the Empire Mine Cottage designed by Willis Polk, renowned San Francisco Bay Area architect.
James Hague commissioned Julia Morgan to build the North Star House. This was one of the first few commissions for this talented young architect, who would go on to design over 700 buildings in her long and impressive career. Although we don’t know exactly how Julia Morgan was selected, most of the social and business leaders of Northern California belonged to the Pacific Union Club of San Francisco, where much of the networking of the day took place. Members included James Hague, Arthur and Mary Foote, Julia Morgan, and the Hearst family. The Hearsts included wealthy mining prospector George Hearst, his wife Phoebe, who knew Julia and was a strong advocate of hers, and their son William Randolph Hearst (for whom Julia designed the Hearst Castle). It is easy to imagine how the connection might have been made in San Francisco.
The North Star House is a 10,000 square foot mansion, designed by Julia Morgan and is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. This honor was bestowed because of the architectural importance of both the architect Julia Morgan, and a premier example of the First Bay Tradition Arts and Crafts Style.
Brief Timeline of the House
Julia Morgan began design of the house in 1903-1904 and it was completed in 1905. The Footes moved into the house in October, 1905. Both Arthur and Mary Foote were cultured, educated Easterners, so entertaining dignitaries was both natural and enjoyable for them. But this was also a family home. Their son, Arthur B. (Sonny), returned home to work as assistant superintendent to his father, and then became superintendent when his father retired in 1913. Also in 1913, Sonny married San Francisco socialite Jeannette Hooper. Sonny and Jeannette had three daughters, all of whom grew up in the North Star House. Three generations of the Foote family were living in the beautiful home.
In 1929, when Newmont Mining Company bought the North Star and Empire mines, Sonny and Jeannette purchased the North Star House and some surrounding acreage. (Until then the house had been owned by the North Star Mine.) Thus the Foote family continued to live there until 1968. By that time, the daughters had grown up and had their own homes and families. The mine had shut down in 1956. Sonny had pre-deceased Jeannette, so when Jeannette died in 1968 their daughters sold the house. The purchaser wanted to use it for a boarding school for troubled youth and the daughters were hoping this would be a wonderful environment for those children.
From 1968 on, the beautiful home was on a downward path. The owner of the boarding school made many alterations to the building. It was all very poorly constructed, resulting in severe structural and aesthetic damage. The school went bankrupt after about 10 years. Then the house sat empty for 20-some years. During that time there was major vandalism and destruction, with all the windows and doors broken, holes in walls, smashed fireplace bricks, and more. Add in years of neglect and weather damage, and by 2000 the house and grounds were in dire condition.
There were citizens in the Grass Valley area who had been trying to get ownership of the house in order to restore this historic treasure. In 2003, a new developer bought the former North Star Mine property (which included the part the Footes had owned). He agreed to transfer ownership of the North Star House to a non-profit organization (the Land Trust). Finally, work could begin to restore the house to its previous elegance.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Arts & Crafts style of architecture, which began in England, had taken hold in the San Francisco Bay Area. Julia Morgan became one of the talented group of architects embracing that style, including Bernard Maybeck (one of Julia’s mentors) and Willis Polk (Bourn Cottage).
The Arts & Crafts movement was a progressive social movement in response to the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of many forms of cultural expression such as ceramics, furniture and architecture. The essence was to bring back hand craftsmanship and naturalism as common usage instead of machine made things.
On the West coast both Berkeley and Pasadena were hot beds of this ideal. Practitioners were dedicated to healthy outdoor activities, growing vegetables and flower gardens, eating natural food, wearing hand made clothes, eating off of hand made pottery, and using handmade utensils.
The architecture of this movement was to emulate the outdoors and build using locally available materials and the craftsmanship of artisans. There were a number of early adapters, including architect Bernard Maybeck in Berkeley, and the Green & Green Brothers in Pasadena.
Julia Morgan was educated in Berkeley and Oakland during the rise of this movement and greatly influenced by these early practitioners. She also had obtained a solid understanding of structural engineering while studying Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley. Later she attended L’Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris, thanks to the efforts of Maybeck and Phoebe Hearst, who recognized her talent and brilliance.
The North Star House, planned around a courtyard, reflects the formality and symmetry she learned at L’Ecole, a school based upon traditional classical European architecture at the time.
The exceptional innovation is the extensive use of local indigenous materials which are the essence of both Organic and the Arts & Crafts architecture. In some ways the structure seems to blend with and grow out of the site.
Julia Morgan made use of the round natural ponderosa pines growing on the property for structural columns. The walls and floors are made of Douglas fir trees that grew on the site, and most of the interior wood paneling and trim is made of local native cedar. All of the lumber used in the North Star House is made from clear old growth timber, wood that is unavailable or unaffordable for building today. The rock walls and round columns were crafted by Italian stone masons that she recruited from throughout the state. Their rock was “mined” from the tailings piles of the North Star Mine. A small railroad was constructed to carry rock from the main head frame tailings pile from the rejected ore that did not have enough content to crush and process the gold. However, if you look closely there are glints of gold in the rock masonry.
The roof was covered with redwood shakes imported from the coast where the great redwood forests once thrived. Few things were imported from outside California. The glass was imported from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where most glass was manufactured in those days The copper electrical wire and plumbing pipe were from mines in Colorado and other copper rich states.
Cement was produced in California because mines and processing plants had been built to construct the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco as well as the mines. The mines were the cutting edge of industrial technology in that era, and Grass Valley and Nevada City were the “Silicon Valley” of the day when many inventions were created, such as the Pelton wheel, used to generate electricity for running the lights, motors and pumps of the deep mine shafts. Julia Morgan was a master of engineering design with concrete and the miners were masters of building strong durable reinforced concrete buildings, dams and emplacements for the heavy machinery used to extract and crush the gold ore. The reinforced concrete foundations of the North Star House are extensive where often stone masonry would have been used, and testify to the long undamaged standing of the house. Inside, Miss Morgan was very advanced in using thick concrete plaster and metal lath on both sides of some of the interior walls. This technique not only made the walls hard and durable, but sound proof and fire-resistant. These techniques were precursors to how buildings would be reinforced and fireproofed after the great earthquake of 1906. It is still used today for most buildings.