Take Marsh Creek Road west from John Marsh Historical Highway (formerly known as the Bypass), head southwest just past Vineyard Road and you’ll see the glint of a tin roof. Beyond the trees lies Contra Costa County’s first European-style house. Its three stories come together in gothic gables. When the house was first built, its outer walls were covered in limestone slabs supported by interior walls of adobe bricks fired on the property. Large French-door windows offered an entrance onto a wraparound porch and the veranda on the second floor. The roughly 7,000-square-foot house featured built-in closets – a highly modern feature in that day. Upon completion, the house was described as the finest ranch home in California.
Historians and a collective of concerned residents have joined forces to save what remains of the John Marsh House, which has decayed over the years as weather and gravity chisel away at the stone. The John Marsh Historic Trust, formed in 1994, is dedicated to preserving the Marsh House. Since the Trust’s inception, the house has undergone nearly $2 million in restoration renovations, but the process of completely restoring the house to its former glory is expected to cost another $5 million.
“I’m really surprised that more people haven’t rallied to save this beautiful house,” said John Marsh Historic Trust board member Alexandra Ghiozzi during a recent visit to the house. “It’s miraculous that someone could build a three-story mansion, including a watch tower, in the middle of the wild in the 1850s. It’s a gorgeous house, but there are so many people who have no idea that it’s here.”
It will take years, possibly decades, to find funding to restore the house so that it’s safe for public tours, but members of the historic trust are on a mission to save history with the same eagerness that Marsh himself used to make history.
Who was John Marsh?
Thousands travel along the John Marsh Historical Highway, the commemorative name of the new Highway 4 extension, but few know why the name holds such significance. Marsh has a creek and schools named after him, and there is a plaque in Martinez to mark where he died, but his story, as rich and wild as it is, isn’t common knowledge to the generation that has moved to East County in past 20 years.
A Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate, Marsh is widely regarded as the first American to settle in what is now Contra Costa County. During his travels through California in 1836, he became fond of what is now Brentwood and decided to settle there. He purchased Rancho Los Meganos, a 17,000-acre plot of land, from Jose Noriega for $500.
According to historian Kathy Leighton, who often wrote about Marsh in her “Footprints in the Sand” columns, Marsh mingled with the Native Americans who lived on the land and became accustomed to their culture. An informally trained doctor, Marsh offered free medical services and in return, members of the tribe built him the adobe house where he lived for the next 15 years.
Marsh wrote to friends living on the east coast, boasting the successes he’d achieved in the West and urged others to join him. In 1841, he played host to the first group of Americans to come to the area in the Bartleson-Bidwell Party. Later, other California icons in the making such as John Sutter, Kit Carson and John Fremont would also visit.
When he married in 1851, Marsh decided to provide bride Abigail Tuck with a worthy home built of stone. But Abigail died before the house was complete, and Marsh would be slain just weeks after moving in. His life came to an end in 1856, when he was accosted by three of his workers who felt they were unjustly undercompensated. Marsh put up a fight, but died of stab wounds. Following Marsh’s death, the house fell into disuse, passing through various hands of ownership, but eventually was donated to the county in 1960 by its last owner, Henry Cowell. The county transferred ownership to the state in 1981.
The Marsh Legacy
The Marsh House suffered its first structural setback in 1868 when an earthquake knocked the stone tower off the roof. The tower was replaced with wood, but the building’s precarious condition remained. The tower collapsed again following the great 1906 earthquake. Years have slowly picked away at the house, and eventually the south wall all but collapsed in the 1980s.
With the aid of the John Marsh Historic Trust, the south wall has been replaced and the state paid for steel beams to be placed inside the house to hold it up, but much needs to be done to restore the house so that visitors may casually wander its halls and explore this state treasure.
Though the house was already in the throes of decay when John Marsh Historic Trust President Gene Metz laid eyes on it, he was immediately struck by its beauty.
“This house is a real jewel,” said Metz, a former architect. “I’m not a historian, but when I first saw the house, I said ‘this house is something that has to be restored.’ I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a shame what time and Mother Nature have done to it, but this place is going to be beautiful once again. It has many years of history yet to be written.”
While the John Marsh Historic Trust’s main goal is to restore the house and the surrounding area, the state has even bigger plans. Earlier this year, the state parks commission approved a general plan for what is to be known as Marsh Creek State Park. The park will occupy a 3,659-acre parcel of land surrounding the Marsh House, which will serve as the park’s centerpiece. When complete, the park will be the largest in the state.
Part of the park’s new trail system could open as early as next year, but in the meantime, members of the John Marsh Historic Trust remain hard at work to raise funds to stabilize the house. In the past two years, the Trust has worked with engineers to develop a foam that hardens and bonds the stones together to form a stable surface that can resist up to 30 pounds of pressure. Metz said the closed cell polyurethane spray foam will help make the house structurally sound. A test area performed on the west wall delivered promising results, but the Trust doesn’t have the funding to do the whole house, which will cost about $600,000. The Trust recently received a $200,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment.
Brick by brick
One way the Trust raises funds is by selling pieces of the broken brick that has fallen from the house. Anyone can purchase a Marsh House brick, stamped with the John Marsh Historic Trust logo, for $40.
“It’s a really special piece of California history,” Ghiozzi said. The state gave the broken bricks to the Trust and has saved any of the intact bricks to be used later in the restoration process. When the restorations are complete, the Marsh House should look as it did when it was first built. The Trust has a series of pictures of the house in its original state, plus blueprints to help planners restore the rooms to their original dimensions.
“Our hope is that when everything is done and the house is open to the public, we can host community events here, field trips for the kids, even weddings,” Metz said. “The state has even told us that some of the park rangers may use some of the bedrooms as living quarters. This house has three stories. There’s plenty of room.”
Partying to protect the past
In recent years, the John Marsh Historic Trust has hosted an annual gala to inform the public about the newest developments, and since the state recently approved the park’s general plan, there will be a lot to talk about at this year’s gala, scheduled for Oct. 14.
“There have been a lot of developments this year, and we can’t wait to share the news about the Marsh House and all of the wonderful things that will be coming to the area when the park opens,” said Metz.
Tickets are now available online at www.johnmarshhouse.com for the gala, held at Hannah Nicole Vineyards in Brentwood. Advance tickets cost $35; tickets at the door $40. For more information about the gala or how to buy a Marsh House brick, call 925-303-5248 or 925-240-0932.
For a video about the John Marsh Stone House, click here. For a slideshow, click here