Mining a Piece of History

Nevada City is known as the Queen City of the Northern Mines. It is claimed by many to be California’s prettiest and best-preserved Gold Rush towns. Dotting the streets of its downtown are more than 90 quaint brick storefronts and Victorian homes all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of those storefronts resides at Greg Spotts’ high-end hat store — The Hat Store. This building dates back to the 1860s and housed a number of businesses — liberty stable, bar, housing for miners and an ice cream shop to name a few. Although a building full of memories and tales only read about in books, the building itself needed a major exterior and interior renovation. Spotts called upon long-time remodeler, Chuck Brasher of Chuck Brasher Construction Company, Grass Valley, Calif.

Located roughly eight miles from the project site, Brasher’s full-service design/build company was asked to update the front elevation and the interior first-floor spaces. Also in the plans was to renovate the building’s outdated second floor that needed a major overhaul. “The second floor was completely unlivable,” says Brasher, a 50-year veteran of the remodeling industry. “Turning that area into a livable space was a tough challenge.”

Building the foundation

Built on no foundation, Brasher had to put in a foundation while the wood-framed building was still in operation. “We poured the foundation using a very limited crawl space,” explains Brasher. Adding to that challenge, the building was sandwiched between buildings that were “tight to both sides.” The end solution included a lot of manual labor and whole lot of perspiration. First he shored up the building and dug the footings by hand while lying down. Brasher also tells of dragging dirt and rocks out in “kid’s plastic snow sleds.”

While working from the ground up, literally, Brasher’s next surprise was that the entire structure was 10 in. out of level. “Because we were required by the local planning commission to work ‘as is,’ we weren’t allowed to remove any of the original framing,” says Brasher. “So, we built a second floor on top of the first floor — if you punch a hole through the floor, you’ll be able to see the original floor.” To reinforce the floor, Brasher sistered new 14-in. joists to the existing ones to create a level floor.

Part of the strict requirements placed by the historical authorities, the “old, rusty corrugated roofing” had to be saved and put back in its original location. “The old framing did not meet the new snow load requirements and had to be restored,” Brasher explains. “We had to reroof the building and then had to use the 100-year-old corrugated metal roofing, which we put over a layer of bituthene.”

Other updates included installing all new electrical, plumbing and HVAC and installation of a new hickory floor and lighting with a little history of its own.

The light fixtures used in the retail store were purchased by Spotts for $6.00 a piece. The lights were initially used in the Nevada City city hall. Spotts took the unique silver glass and it had it transformed into a more modern and suitable light fixture for this newly remodeled store.

In addition to the hat store remodel, Brasher was also hired to complete a one-room apartment on the upper level, making it a more hospitable home for the Spotts’ own personal residence. The 738-sq.-ft. second floor, unlike the first level, had not been reworked, upgraded or used since the building was erected. “We believe the room was used for storage, and we’ve also heard that at one time it housed Chinese miners who worked nearby,” says Brasher. “The room was definitely unlivable, it had no ventilation, and the floors felt like you were walking on sponges.”

To make room for this new loft-style apartment, Brasher added 468 sq. ft. to the back of the structure, removing a lean-to-shed. The back of the building also posed a challenge because there was no exit to the 18- by 18-ft. yard and everything had to go through the front entry of the hat shop.

Reworking the upstairs space, Brasher designed a living area with built-in bookshelves overlooking the street below. He added a kitchen complete with an eating bar in the center, an expanded bedroom, sitting area, bathroom closet and rear deck rounding out the rear portion of the new second floor.

Compliant with the stern historical codes, Brasher added 12 operating skylights to increase light and ventilation. “We had to place all 12 skylights in the back of the building so they weren’t visible from the street.

Working within a historical district can pose unfamiliar challenges and can also delay production if plans are not approved. “This project took approximately eight months to complete,” says Brasher. “We were held up twice by the city because they didn’t like what we were doing here — namely, they thought we were taking too much off.”

Working around a local planning commission, an “as is” building and an operating retail store, this first place light commercial Master Design Award winner faced a combination of challenges in regards to proper execution and design. One judge commented that the combination of these three criteria mentioned is what makes this a truly noteworthy project.