Part of Benicia’s beauty comes from our historic buildings. Designed with an elegance and attention to detail from a bygone era, it is our privilege and responsibility to maintain these buildings. It is good to see the progress being made on First Street, particularly with the Mason Building which is at the top of the street. The scaffolding has been removed and parking spaces have been freed up. It’s a painstaking and expensive process to repair these buildings but well worth the wait.
Northern California was rocked Aug. 24, 2014, by an earthquake on the West Napa Fault. While Benicia was far more fortunate than its neighbors, Vallejo and Napa, in avoiding widespread damage, the city didn’t escape unscathed.
Benicia’s building staff issued a red tag to the Paper Tiger building at 901-903 First St., because of damage, according to an update from Rachel O’Shea, the city’s chief building official and City Floodplain manager. Two years later, another notable downtown building was red-tagged. In July of 2016, Benicia staff responded to concerns about the Mason Building, formerly known as the Esty’s Building, at 106 West J St.
After a site visit, the Building Division asked for an engineer’s evaluation. The city then required the owner take several precautions, including having tenants leave the building. There’s been progress on both structures, O’Shea said. City staff has been working with the engineering team of the Paper Tiger building owner, R. N. Haney. Together, they’ve evaluated and shored the historic structure “to save it from any further damage,” she wrote. “Over the years, the owner continued to demonstrate a commitment to repairing the structure, though the project experienced delays for a variety of reasons, including the repair costs and the specialized construction needs.” The good news is the building now has a new foundation and cement frame in the front lower story, and “all shoring has been removed and framing is underway.” Built in the late 1890s, the building’s lower level was modernized decades ago. The building’s upper story reflects the period of its origin, making it a contributor to the historic downtown.
Collaborating with the city’s unreinforced masonry plan check consultants, the Mason engineering team prepared construction plans to address crack repair and parapet reinforcement. The building’s new owner completed repairs, according to O’Shea. “A major building on First Street is now ready for occupancy due to safety improvements,” she wrote. The venerable building, built in the mid-1880s, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been a Masonic meeting hall, a Solano County court room and a public meeting room.
Benicia staff recognize both the value as well as the challenges of having such historic and older buildings, O’Shea said. “The Community Development Department is committed to helping property owners who want to invest in Benicia’s historic buildings and choose to preserve and repair them as they age or experience unexpected natural disasters,” she wrote. “Unexpected damage to a historic structure can cost a significant amount of time, coordination, funds and a property owner’s commitment to historic preservation.” Often special skills and techniques are required.
Most historic framing won’t meet today’s building standards. Some projects must be addressed on a case-by-case basis with the help of historic architects, cultural resources experts, masons and other specialists. “Benicia values its history, and the Building Division encourages property owners to seek ways to preserve and rehabilitate or restore buildings to keep Benicia history alive for all who live and visit the community,” O’Shea wrote.