Another owner with an eye — and a heart — for history

By Jayson Jacoby November 26, 2010 02:16 pm


The loss of any historic building saddens me, but the transformation of a structure from landmark to eyesore seems to me an even worse fate.

This process — and I’ll veer here briefly from an architectural to an automotive analogy — is akin to parking a vintage Ferrari in a drafty old barn and letting the packrats soil the fine leather and gnaw the spark plug wires.

I would rather have only memories and photographs of such a thing, at the apex of its beauty and utility, than to have to watch it decay.

It is, of course, vastly easier to lament such episodes than to prevent them.

Saving a 122-year-old Queen Anne home, for instance, after it was nearly obliterated by fire, is no task for the timid.

Or the destitute.

Yet that is just the sort of intersection, all too often, where the earnest desire to preserve the past collides with the heartless reality of a renovation bill that, for the lumber alone, would have built the original home, and a dozen replicas besides.

We who live in Baker City, and who are touched by the timeless appeal of a solidly built edifice, are awfully lucky, though.

The people who own our city’s significant old buildings are, as a rule, a stubborn bunch, and not prone to slinking away from a challenge.

They have, many times over the years, opted for the lengthy and expensive ordeal of restoration over the cheap and brutal simplicity of the wrecking ball or the bulldozer.

John Fuzi is a member of this auspicious club.

And his entrance exam, as it were, is the Geiser house.

The home, built in 1883 at the northwest corner of Second and Madison streets and distinguished by its second-story turret and granite front steps, is among Baker City’s more important.

Besides its age — the home is just 19 years younger than the city itself — the Geiser house is a link to a family that gained considerable prominence during the latter two decades of the 19th century. That could be fairly described as our Gilded Age, the prosperous period when Baker City, fueled by the wealth of the region’s gold mines and cattle ranches, became a leading city in the young state of Oregon.

The Geisers, Swiss immigrants who owned the Bonanza Mine near Whitney, bought the Warshauer Hotel and christened it as the Geiser Grand, the name it still has.

The family, along with their cross-street neighbors the Pollmans, also donated part of the land that became the city’s largest park, Geiser-Pollman.

The Geiser home is unusual in a couple of respects.

For one, its original layout was never dissected and reconfigured as an apartment house.

Even more rarely, the home was passed down within the family for more than a century.

The last family owner was Susan Fleming, who lives in California. Her great-great-grandfather, John Geiser, built the ornate home.

In January 2005 the house caught fire.

And the flames, as they always do, were well-nourished by the weathered old wood.

We wrote in this newspaper, the day after, that the blaze “destroyed” the house.

Our dire description, it turns out, was exaggerated.

Although it took all of five years for us to figure that out.

I walked or bicycled or drove past the Geiser home probably 50 times during that half a decade. And most every time I complained, sometimes to myself and sometimes to whoever accompanied me, about the sight of a once-grand home looking as though it had absorbed a salvo from a battery of howitzers during the Battle of Verdun.

“What a shame,” was the gist of my whining.

But I didn’t know then about Fuzi, and his plans.

He too regretted what the fire had wrought.

And he had to look at the charred debris a lot more often than I did — he lives just across the street, in the Pollman house.

Except Fuzi intended to do something considerably more constructive than my tactic, which was to bemoan the situation with the petulance of a child denied dessert.

He bought the severely damaged house in August 2005, eight months after the fire.

Five years later, in August of this year, Fuzi began the renovation he had all along envisioned.

He’s far from finished.

But his efforts have already restored to the Geiser house a good deal of the dignity which it lost on that wintry day almost six years ago.

It no longer looks like a place that nobody cares about.

That never was the case, I believe, no matter how dilapidated the house might have appeared.

We don’t do things that way around here, as I think I mentioned earlier.

Or anyway most of us don’t.

It’s gratifying to live in a city which has such a deep respect, indeed such a love, for the weight of its history.

This attribute seems to me to grow more scarce with each year in our society, which so values the ephemeral and so readily concedes shoddiness in so many things.

I suspect everyone understands instinctively that with any old house there is a point of deterioration from which the structure can no longer be preserved, but only replicated.

Quite a lot of people would have put the Geiser house in that category, and been satisfied with their choice.

Happily, Baker City has a wealth of people like John Fuzi.

People who appreciate that a house is not merely a construction of wood and stone and other soulless materials, but also a trove of memories, each one as vibrant as the squeal of a child.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.