Befitting his stature, Hard built one of the most beautiful and expensive homes in the county in 1869, a two-story brick structure that also served as the government meeting place when Antioch became the first city incorporated in Contra Costa County.
After he died, the house was sold, upgraded and converted into three smaller units. But by 1979, when the City of Antioch purchased the property at 815 First St. (a scenic area along the San Joaquin River next to the Lynn House art gallery and across the street from the Cannery Lady statue), the house had fallen into disrepair. Now boarded up, occasionally occupied by the homeless, it’s become a weedy eyesore that might be in danger of collapsing.
To prevent that from happening, a nonprofit group has formed, Friends of the Roswell Butler Hard House, which seeks to purchase the house from the city for $1 and raise funds to rehabilitate and restore it. The group, consisting of members of the Antioch Historical Society and headed by David Brink, made its pitch to the City Council last week.
While city officials are glad that a group wants to save and restore the house, some were concerned about simply handing it over. “We should see some actual accomplishments by the group before we turn the property over to them,” said Arlene Mornick in presenting her staff report to the council. “The transfer would happen after phases of the (rehabilitation) work are done.” She also wants the group to obtain a $5 million insurance policy and absolve the city of liability in the event of a lawsuit.
Brink said his group could agree to the insurance policy (although they were prepared to take out a $1 million policy), but the deal killer would be not getting possession of the building from the get-go. “We are convinced that we cannot raise the funds to do this if the city retains ownership of the property,” he said. “Not all of our money would come from grants. The Sports Legends Committee raised $300,000 out of the community. If you asked (private donors) to give to the city, they would probably be more reluctant than to give to the nonprofit itself.
“We believe if the city retains ownership it will drive the cost of the project up as well. It’s a bad deal on both sides: we don’t believe the city will get enough money, and the project will be more costly. I think we have the people in place to make this project happen. The city has owned this for 30 years. I guarantee you we will do a better job at it than the city has done in the past 30 years. If we mow the lawn, we will have done a better job. We are not willing to take on this job if the city requires that they have to keep ownership of the project.”
Councilwoman Martha Parsons made a motion to hand the house over to the nonprofit group along with the provision that the city would not accept the house back if the group disbands in the future. Instead the house would belong to the Antioch Historical Society. But the motion failed when only Councilwoman Mary Rocha voted for it. Instead the council agreed to form a committee of Parsons and Rocha to work out the details with Brink.
Councilman Brian Kalinowski suggested the formation of the committee due to concerns about the fate of the house and possible costs and liability to the city if the nonprofit group disbands or is unable to rehabilitate the house. “I have some concerns that we simply turn over a building, that we don’t want it back at all and it becomes a burden on the Historical Society going forward,” he said.
“It concerns me a little bit that we don’t have a final vision of what we expect to get from this project. If I was a grantor, what is it going to bring to the community? We don’t have any of those concepts firmed up. It needs to be a cooperative between the council and the Friends in terms of the collective vision of that. Ten years ago the thought was it could be the mayor’s office, even if it’s only ceremonial.”
Brink responded, “The most important part of this project is to save the building. Second most is make it look nice for the downtown. The least important part is the actual use, because it is a small building. It will never have more than 20 people in it. It’s not going to be a big boon to downtown.”
The one thing everyone agreed on is that the City of Antioch has no money to help save and rehabilitate the building.