The local nonprofit Friends of the Roswell Butler Hard House has been battling the city over ownership of the downtown property, built by and named after the city’s first mayor. Last year, members of the group tried to persuade Antioch’s City Council for outright ownership of the house, located at 815 First St., so they can fix it up. But the council preferred waiting until after the election so that the new council could tackle the issue. Budget problems pushed it back further.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, however, councilmembers were impressed by the group’s effort to address lingering concerns regarding fundraising. Both sides appear to be moving toward a resolution that would transfer the property, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, from the city to the Friends of the Hard House. The nonprofit plans to restore it to as close to original standards as possible and open it to the public. The process, Friends secretary Elizabeth Rimbault estimated, will take roughly seven years.
“A lot of people in this community are getting depressed, especially when Antioch keeps getting a bad rap,” Rimbault said. “The citizens of Antioch need a project, a positive project they can participate in as citizens and feel that they are contributing to a forward-moving effort in the city. That’s what the Hard House and the Friends represent.”
Roswell Butler Hard, Antioch’s first mayor and one of its most influential citizens, built the house in 1869. It was considered one of the finest homes in the area. After Hard passed away, the house was converted into apartments. Antioch purchased the property in 1979, but it has remained unused.
Though councilmembers didn’t feel comfortable declaring a transfer on Tuesday night, the prospect looks promising. The issue will be brought back to the dais, likely in September, as city officials work with the Friends group regarding the value of the property and how it will be utilized as an open-to-the-public facility.
“I think it would be a great jewel downtown,” City Councilmember Gary Agopian said. “I’ve often wondered, as I’ve been by the area, why nothing was being done. I’m sure many others have wondered as well. I think the fact that there seems to be an energy and a passion about doing something good and right and positive in our community is important.”
Rimbault, who has a successful history of grant writing, noted that the nonprofit has waited until it secures complete ownership of the Hard House before soliciting donations from the public. Rimbault said that many private donors are leery of donating money to a government-run facility, and putting it in the hands of a nonprofit should make donations easier to come by. The former city councilwoman spoke passionately about the Hard House and what her organization could do to make it shine once again.
If this goes through, members of the Friends of the Hard House will own the property, which cannot be given back to the city should the nonprofit dissolve. According to Rimbault, if the Friends of the Hard House fails, the property and any funds left over would be given to another nonprofit with a similar aim – in line with IRS rules. That nonprofit would likely be the Antioch Historical Society, which launched the Friends group but is an independent organization.
A major X-factor that could derail the entire transaction, however, is redevelopment. In April, as Gov. Jerry Brown threatened to nix funding for redevelopment, the city transferred several properties from its redevelopment agency to general funds. The current offer on the table, according to City Manager Jim Jakel, is for the state government to void all redevelopment transactions that took place after Jan. 1, holding the properties as ransom. The city would be required to pay $3.1 million to keep the properties as-is, but terms are still being worked out in Sacramento. If that happens, the Hard House would become the property of the state.
Rimbault and Friends of the Hard House president Dave Brink said that since they wouldn’t have any control over a potential capitol takeover, they won’t worry about it.
Brink and avid supporter Fred Hoskins have been saddened by how the property – home to random transients and feral cats – has deteriorated. Windows are boarded up, and an addition to the house in the rear is in danger of collapsing.
With all that in mind, Brink was pleased with the direction the City Council appears to be headed. “Even though it wasn’t official, it was semi-official,” Brink said. “I believe that now we’ll be able to proceed with staff and with the subcommittee and get down to all these little details that they’re interested in.”