Open Minded: Cooper Molera Adobe Pioneers a New Model for Historic Sites
Piano music fills the air, and I feel myself stiffen. I’m standing in one of the original rooms of the Cooper house at Cooper Molera Adobe, a National Trust Historic Site in downtown Monterey, California, that dates to the 1820s. Meg Clovis, the site’s co-director and my tour guide for the afternoon, has just mentioned that the Steinway piano has been on the property for more than a century. In other words, it is old. And, I figure, not to be touched.
I turn to Clovis to see her reaction to the gentleman playing the piano, his knapsack tucked underneath the bench. But she doesn’t flinch. She continues to point out details of the house to me: a large crack in the wall from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; original wallpaper; a black-and-white, panoramic photograph of the Salinas Valley that once hung in the office of Andrew Molera, one of the house’s later residents. The music continues.
Later, I mention the piano-playing man to Clovis and the site’s other co-director, Susan Klusmire. “Oh yes, people come in and play from time to time,” Klusmire says. That visitors feel comfortable enough to sit down and play the piano is exactly the point of the museum at Cooper Molera Adobe. It’s a museum with no admission fee, no velvet ropes, and no “do not touch” signs.
Like the museum, the entire 2.5-acre property is there for anyone to enjoy. A bakery and cafe in another adobe building serves mouth-watering pastries, coffee, and a full breakfast and lunch menu. And a farm-to-table restaurant inside a long adobe warehouse will open later this year. A two-story wooden barn complex at the south end of the property is now a gracious event space. There are also lush gardens; a small orchard containing pear, apricot, and fig trees; and a smattering of benches where, at any given time, people are sitting with a cup of coffee, a book, or a friend.
This wasn’t always the scene at Cooper Molera Adobe. The thick, 19th-century adobe wall around the property had long obscured it from the public as it went through different uses as a family home, a series of businesses, storage space, and a museum before undergoing a $6.5 million rehabilitation, completed in 2018, and becoming the bustling downtown hangout that it is today. Says Klusmire, “For a long time, I think a lot of people had no idea what this was.”
The story of Cooper Molera Adobe starts with John R. Cooper, a sea captain and merchant who came to Monterey in 1823, when it was part of Mexico, to trade hides, tallow, and furs. He became a Mexican citizen and married Encarnación Vallejo, the sister of a prominent Mexican general. Cooper took possession of a property at the center of town, but he soon began subdividing much of it to other owners and tenants who added to and subtracted from the site over the years. An adobe warehouse built in the 1830s is believed to have became a fonda, or public inn. Another adobe house on the property was bought by Manuel Diaz, who lived there and operated a dry-goods store in an adjoining corner structure. In 1869, Honoré Escolle, a French émigré, took over the store, opening Pioneer Bakery. Diaz had died by that time, but his widow, Luisa, continued to live in the house until about 1900, and it became known as the Diaz Adobe.
In the meantime, John Cooper went on to expand his own adobe house on the site, adding a second story and building a small barn at the back of his lot. After he died in 1872, the property passed to his wife, and then to their oldest child, Anita Wohler. Wohler eventually purchased and updated the rest of her father’s original property, including the Diaz Adobe, the corner store, and the warehouse. Wohler died in 1912 and left the site to her niece, Frances Molera. Frances and her brother, Andrew, lived there part-time for many years, renting out the corner store and warehouse to various local businesses. Andrew Molera, a rancher and businessman who is credited with introducing artichokes to Monterey County, built a larger barn, where he kept his prize racehorses. But over time, the Molera siblings spent less and less time at Cooper Molera, using it primarily for storage.
Frances Molera died in 1968 and left the entire property to the National Trust. By that time, it had begun to deteriorate from years of disuse. The various buildings were connected by simple wooden storage buildings and passageways that sheltered the family’s discarded furniture and knickknacks. The grounds were completely overgrown.
The National Trust’s then-president, James Biddle, worked out an agreement with California State Parks’ then-leader, William Penn Mott Jr.: The National Trust would lease the property to California State Parks, which would restore the site and operate it as a museum.
It was, for years, a great solution. California State Parks conducted an archaeological excavation of the site and then rehabilitated it in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Cooper Molera Adobe opened to the public as a museum in the mid-’80s. And it functioned that way for decades, with events hosted in the barn complex for additional revenue and a souvenir shop operating out of the corner store building.
“We really started looking at how we could do things differently.”Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer, National Trust for Historic Preservation
In 2005, California-based developer Douglas Wiele discovered Cooper Molera. Wiele’s company, Foothill Partners, was redeveloping the shopping complex next door, and he wandered onto the grounds one day, enchanted.
“It was nice and quiet and beautiful,” he says. “It was a great place for me to organize my thoughts, sort through my notes, make a few quiet phone calls.” For years, he used it as a makeshift office, spreading his paperwork out across a picnic table under a shade tree and observing the site. Beautiful as it was, he noticed it had significant maintenance issues. And it brought in only a modest amount of foot traffic. “Sitting there, I felt like I also began to watch it decline,” he says.
In 2010, the situation grew dire. That year, the barn complex was closed by the state because it did not meet revised seismic codes. Its doors were padlocked. Not having the barns available for event rentals dealt a sizable blow to the site’s budget.
“You could see it go in this downward spiral after that,” Wiele says. “It was sad. This incredible asset in the middle of Monterey, and it was coming apart.”
Later that year, California State Parks alerted the National Trust that it was not likely to renew its lease in 2016. Soon after, Wiele picked up his phone, called the National Trust, and shared his vision for bringing commercial activity to Cooper Molera, which he believed would help integrate the site into the fabric of downtown Monterey.
The timing, he notes, was serendipitous. The Trust had already started reimagining the traditional house museum model for historic properties to make them more financially sustainable.
“Here we’ve got a National Historic Landmark district, and the National Trust owns this property that sits at the most important intersection in that district, and it’s not contributing in all the ways that it could,” says Katherine Malone-France, now the National Trust’s chief preservation officer. “We really started looking at how we could do things differently.”
The National Trust and Foothill Partners took their ideas to the community. But their initial proposal to adapt Cooper Molera Adobe into a small group of restaurants and other commercial spaces, presented to community stakeholders including California State Parks, the Monterey State Historic Park Association, and the Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists, was met with strong pushback. Many local preservationists feared commercializing the site would ruin its historic integrity—especially if a restaurant were to open in the Cooper Adobe, as originally planned.
“People were angry,” Malone-France recalls.
So she and Wiele, along with the National Trust’s current president and CEO, Paul Edmondson, spent a year and a half in discussions with the community to come up with a plan that honored Cooper Molera’s past, but ensured a financially viable future.
“We didn’t all agree on what the site should look like,” Malone-France says. “But we all agreed that Cooper Molera was incredibly significant, and it needed to serve its community.”
Eventually, a new vision began to emerge, one that kept the Cooper Adobe as a traditional house museum and the barn complex as an events venue, as they were during California State Parks’ tenure, while returning commercial activity to the two buildings where commercial activity had almost always been present—the warehouse and the corner store. The different entities that operated there would share the gardens and outdoor spaces, and they would work together to preserve the site and tell its story.
Wiele suggested the term “shared-use” to describe this type of development. “This wasn’t quite mixed-use. That already has a specific definition in the real estate industry,” he says. “Here, we were thinking, ‘Let’s share the grounds, let’s share the infrastructure, let’s share the environment, let’s create spaces for merchants and spaces exclusively for preservation, and let’s set up operating rules, and everyone benefits.’”
It felt like a natural solution—one that many in the community grew to embrace. The California Preservation Foundation even gave Cooper Molera Adobe a prestigious Preservation Design Award this past August. “We came to realize that Cooper Molera had always been a place of shared uses,” Malone-France says. “So in a lot of ways, our idea wasn’t really new at all. I’m a huge believer in the idea that the clues for how to sustain historic sites are in their past, long before they were frozen as house museums.”
To get this not-so-new idea in place, Wiele approached Architectural Resources Group (ARG), a San Francisco–based preservation design firm. ARG had long been involved with Monterey’s historic sites, including Cooper Molera Adobe, where it had worked with California State Parks to repair the adobe walls and create a detailed report on the site’s condition.
“Doug [Wiele] loves to tell the story about the expression on my face when he told me his plan, but I thought I was pretty measured,” says Naomi Miroglio, principal with ARG. Wiele’s vision was a bold one for Cooper Molera, Miroglio agrees, and she notes that, from a historic preservation standpoint, the site is a complicated place. Because California State Parks had to rehabilitate much of it in the 1970s and ’80s, its fabric was a mix of original and newer materials.
The main goal, Miroglio and Malone-France say, was to keep Cooper Molera Adobe looking like Cooper Molera Adobe. “We wanted people to come in and feel like they were at the same place,” Miroglio says.
Luckily, the existing adobe buildings were mostly in good condition, so adapting them for their new uses under the shared-use model required minimal intervention. The Cooper Adobe remained a historic house museum. The corner store and the Diaz Adobe were transformed into the new bakery and cafe space, and the warehouse was converted into the restaurant. A tiny red caretaker’s cottage on the property was repainted and turned into a single-room office for the National Trust.
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The barn complex, however, was fully retrofitted to bring it up to code. Its deteriorated wooden walls were left in place and covered on the exterior in a layer of structural plywood sheathing. On top, crews placed new redwood siding, custom milled to the original dimensions. On the interiors, though, the old wooden walls remain intact. Look closely, and you can still see the saw marks on some of the boards from when the barns were built.
One of the biggest challenges, Miroglio says, was figuring out how to add three new commercial kitchens to the property to accommodate the bakery and cafe, the restaurant, and the event space without disturbing the site’s historic fabric. ARG identified unobtrusive places on the property to build them: The restaurant’s kitchen is tucked between the warehouse and the barn complex, and a catering kitchen is integrated into the south end of the barn complex, where a non-historic structure had previously stood. A 1979 addition to the corner store was reconstructed to hold a kitchen for the cafe and bakery. In each case, the architects carefully followed Cooper Molera’s original pattern of development. “We put a lot of consideration into keeping these structures compatible with the rest of the complex,” Miroglio says. “The siting was really important.”
As for the grounds, the team addressed longstanding drainage issues and created wheelchair accessibility using sloped walkways that blend in naturally with the landscape. Local gardener Isabella de Sibert planted a mix of flowers and herbs—creeping thyme, English lavender, lemon verbena, rosemary, oakleaf geraniums—in the garden beds throughout the property.
In September of 2018, Cooper Molera officially opened its gates to the public once again.
A year later, you can walk inside Alta Bakery + Cafe and see a pastry case filled with picture-perfect croissants, scones, strudels, cakes, and chocolates. They’re the creation of Ben Spungin, a Monterey-area pastry chef who serves as the culinary director and a partner at Alta Group, the company that operates the bakery/cafe and the restaurant at Cooper Molera.
Spungin’s memories of Cooper Molera Adobe, pre-rehabilitation, echo those of so many others: “I remember seeing it, but I never thought to go inside,” he says. “I don’t know if I even realized I could.”
When he finally ventured inside in 2016, after local restaurateur and realtor Kirk Probasco approached him about opening Alta in the soon-to-be-rehabbed space, he saw his future. “When I learned that the corner store was a bakery back in the 1800s, I thought, ‘How cool would it be to bring a bakery back to the space?’” he says.
Probasco and Spungin opened Alta Bakery + Cafe this past April, and though it’s filled with the sounds of an ultra-modern espresso machine, you can still catch glimpses of the building’s history. Branding irons once used on the Cooper family’s cattle hang on one wall. Dusted in flour on the top of the sourdough bread loaves is a pattern based on one of the irons, which Spungin had made into a stencil. Alta’s baristas sprinkle the same pattern in cinnamon on the foam-topped cappuccinos.
During my visit on a sunny Wednesday morning, I grab one of the cafe’s few empty seats at a community table in the room now called the Diaz Gallery. This space used to be where Manuel and Luisa Diaz lived, and today it functions as cafe seating and a rotating gallery featuring work by local artists, curated by Clovis and Klusmire.
I finish my blueberry muffin, walk outside, and follow the same path I see many other customers take: toward the back patio, with its additional cafe seating, and past the warehouse, which will hold Cella restaurant when it opens in November.
Visitors stroll past the lush garden beds into the museum, where the rooms are furnished with pieces that belonged to the Cooper family. All the interpretive placards are in both English and Spanish—a nod to the site’s beginnings in Mexican Alta California, and another step Cooper Molera takes toward being welcoming and inclusive. One room highlights Andrew Molera’s contributions to the region’s artichoke industry. Throughout the house, dedicated wall space showcases work by local artists, which will rotate on a regular basis. Hanging in the dining room is a life-size photograph of Lazaria, a Native American girl who worked for the Coopers, likely under a system of forced servitude that existed locally at the time. Her story is one of the many previously untold stories that Clovis and Klusmire are bringing to light.
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A man walks out of the museum and tells his children that he’s heading back to the cafe for a coffee. It’s just what Wiele told me he envisioned in the early stages of planning: “You go there and you think, ‘I had no idea I was at a museum; I thought I was out to lunch.’ Or ‘I thought I was out seeing a museum; how did I end up with a glass of wine in my hand?’”
Malone-France calls it “accidental interpretation.” If someone comes to Cooper Molera for a latte, the scent of the garden’s heritage roses will draw them further into the site, or they’ll notice the only historic barn complex left in downtown Monterey and step inside to learn more. Completely by accident, they’ll feel a connection with history. “We didn’t want Cooper Molera to be a museum you only come to once and never again. Or you only visit when you’re bringing someone from out of town,” she says. “We wanted Cooper Molera to become a part of the fabric of people’s daily lives.”
As I wander the orchard, I eavesdrop as a 20-something man with a skateboard tucked under his arm shows his friend around the grounds. “I come here all the time,” he says. His friend asks him what he does there. “I don’t know,” he says. “Eat lunch. Think. Call my mom.” It’s proof that there are many ways to experience Cooper Molera.