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Historic San Juan Bautista structure collapsing?

While the yellow and red tape and warnings signs might alarm visitors to San Juan Bautista State Park, it’s not what it seems.
Photo by Jack Foley.
Matt Bischoff, California State Parks Historian, with failing 1980’s additions to Plaza Hall slated to be replaced with an emergency exit in a project that will also include a lift for handicap access and seismic stabilization of the historic 19th century structure, once an important part of what during the colonial era was the most important city in Central California. Photos by Jack Foley.
Signs warn tourists to stay away from the 1980s staircase. Photo by Jack Foley
The state historian says the older part of the building is in good condition. This photo is of the "salon" or main livingroom area on the bottom floor. Photo by Leslie David
A view of the mission from a bedroom, once used by the Zanetta family in what is now known as the Plaza Hall. Photo by Leslie David

It seems that a priceless piece of California and San Benito County history is rotting away in plain view and may present a danger to tourists because the state hasn’t allocated the money to fix it.

But the reality is that the Zanetta House/Plaza Hall at San Juan Bautista State Park, where part of the 19th century structure has been cordoned off for years with yellow and red tape and signs warning people to stay away, isn’t really falling down. However, a less significant, but highly visible 20th-century addition to the building is in need of repair.

Fixing this addition will be very costly because of government safety and disability requirements, and it’s just one on a long list of state park structures waiting for attention as a result of deferred maintenance and modern disability laws.

According to a state parks official, a balcony, covered porch and stairway at Plaza Hall is failing; everything else is fine. But signage in the San Juan Bautista State Park doesn’t make that clear.

“It really looks bad and it looks dangerous, I wouldn’t go up there,” said John Garcia, a fourth-grader on a class field trip to study the state’s mission-era history up close.

State parks historian Matt Bischoff of the system’s Monterey District Office clarified that the portions of the building that are roped off are not part of the original structure and have no historic significance at all.

In an email to BenitoLink, Wanda Guibert, president of the San Juan Bautista Historical Society, said, “I am saddened by the poor condition of the buildings in the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, part of the nationally registered San Juan Bautista Plaza Historic District. If the state cannot provide the funds to restore and maintain the buildings, I would hope the city and state park could reach a collaborative agreement whereby local service organizations could help provide the time, talent and treasure to help steward these structures visited by thousands of tourists and fourth-graders each year.”

San Juan Bautista State Historical Park is one of the gems in the state’s system. It’s described on the park's website.

Once the home of the pioneering Zanetta family, Plaza Hall sits across the grassy quad from one of California’s original Spanish missions. The webpage’s centerpiece photo is a front view of Plaza Hall against the backdrop of a cloudy but rainbow-adorned afternoon sky.

“The park is part of a nationally recognized historic landmark adjacent to California’s 15th Spanish era mission,” the website reads. “The park and its Plaza represent what was once the ‘town square’ of the largest town in Central California and a vital crossroad for travel between northern and southern California. Visitors can gain an appreciation of California’s people, from Native Americans through the Spanish and Mexican cultural influences, right up to the American period in the late 19th century.”

Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Spanish Franciscan priests in 1797 and remains an active Roman Catholic parish in the Diocese of Monterey. The mission, on the northwest side of the Plaza Square, is not part of the state park.

On southeast side of the plaza are two other early California structures, the Plaza Hotel and the Castro-Breen Adobe. Both have received considerable repairs and upgrades in recent years and are tourist favorites. Plaza Hall and Plaza Stables are on the east side of the plaza

Like the mission itself, each of the four other structures is a unique, self-contained historic museum.

The website says the land might have been the site of an adobe building that housed cavalrymen, and before that a dormitory for unmarried Native American women. The site describes the current Plaza Hall and its builders this way:

“In 1868 [Angelo] Zanetta and [John] Comfort used the adobe bricks to form the ground floor of a two-story building that they hoped would become the county courthouse of newly established San Benito County in 1870.

“After Hollister was chosen as the county seat, the first floor of Plaza Hall was modified to serve as part of the hotel and later as the residence of the Zanetta family, while the second floor was used for public meetings and celebrations.

“Laid over 30-foot-long redwood beams, the floor of the upstairs hall had good ‘spring’ and therefore became famous as a dance floor. Many a grand ball was held there as were political rallies, temperance meetings, traveling shows and gatherings of local groups such as the volunteer firemen,” the website states.

Use of the upstairs for community events continued well into the 20th Century, according to Bischoff.

Noting that the parts of the structure nearest the neighboring Plaza Stables were added in the 1980s, Bischoff said, “it has obviously failed and has been cordoned off because it is not safe, but we do have plans to restore improved access to the building.”

However, the project, which will become an emergency exit of some sort, will not be cheap, Bischoff said. He cited a figure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for just one portion of the work.

One reason is that the project must include handicapped access in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and involve a complete seismic evaluation and stabilization, he said.

The stately building, which is generally considered a good example of Monterey Colonial design, sits almost atop the San Andreas Fault, which also runs alongside the mission.

Historic structures are not exempt from seismic or ADA laws, according to Bischoff, who is very keen on seeing the projects completed.

“We are working on a plan to get that building accessible as well as doing a seismic stabilization,” he said.

Bischoff was unsure of the reason the balcony and stairway were added in the 1980s, but said there is no doubt that the section of the building in question is “not historical.”

The new plans, he said, call for a much smaller stairway as an emergency fire exit and installation of a lift in the rear of the building for ADA access.

The project is being held up by other priorities and by a lack of state funding for upkeep and repairs on the park district’s 250 historic structures in 22 parks in Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties.

Asked when the Plaza Hall project will start, Bischoff said, “I wish I could tell you; it’s a matter of when we can get the money.  

“It’s a priority for us, it’s high on our list, but we have so many needs across our district and we cannot get everything funded. We are doing the best we can; these things are very special. We just cannot keep up with the deferred maintenance backlog.”

“San Juan Bautista values and promotes historic preservation and responsible stewardship of properties that contribute to the authentic historic ambience of our city,” said the historical society’s Guibert. “The city and state park have a lot to gain by partnering toward the common goal of preserving the historic buildings.”  

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Jack Foley (jackmfoley)

Jack Foley is a veteran journalist on the BenitoLink team. Foley is a Pulitzer co-winner for the San Jose Mercury News staff’s coverage of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. He was also nominated for a Pulitzer by the Center for Public Interest Law for a highly-lauded series that exposed California’s lax policing of bad doctors. He is an experienced investigative reporter who worked for the San Jose Mercury News for more than 20 years. Foley covered San Benito County news on and off throughout his professional career. In addition to his more than three decades in journalism as a reporter, photojournalist and editor, Foley also has taught news writing at Gavilan College, worked in the nonprofit, affordable housing field, including in San Benito County, and has done high level public affairs work for NASA.


Submitted by Ken Dunn (kenneth) on

It appears that Moth-Man Brown has no money to repair our priceless historic buildings, but he has countless Billions for his disastrous Bullet-Train Nightmare, which almost none of us will ever ride. We will, though, be able to enjoy its Ugliness everyday as it rips through the once-beautiful landscape of California, where nature almost got it right. The audacity is remarkable of the Californians who want to protect Ca. from Useless projects that destroy its beauty and its economy.

Submitted by (Grant Brians) on

The statement is mostly accurately made that historic buildings are not exempt from ADA and Seismic safety requirements. The missing word that should be there is "categorically". There are disagreements about the degree of the law compliance required in the ADA case, as in some historic buildings making them completely accessible will destroy the character and structural integrity. Seismic safety requirements are evolving and for different types of buildings once again require different types of evaluations.
It is totally true that publically accessible parts of publicly owned buildings are now required to have modifications adhere to both. However, in past court decisions, repairs for stability and stopping deterioration have been exempted. Perhaps this is one of those occasions? Additionally, adding an emergency exit is a major modification, perhaps that is unwise in a historic structure and perhaps it is the case that as in many other historic structures, the second story portion is simply not accessible to those who are not ambulatory? I am reminded of touring the Tower of London. There were a number of places that the disabled were directed to a different route that did not enable them to climb through places that can not be modified for wheelchair access....

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