President's Note: Preservation, Transformation
This issue’s feature on the transformation of Monterey, California’s Cooper Molera Adobe from a mostly shuttered historic site to a thriving community asset is a sweet reward for the team of people who worked on this project for more than eight years. And for some of us, it was even transformational in a uniquely personal way. As the National Trust’s chief lawyer for most of that period, I had spent much of my career fighting developers, and yet here I became one, joining forces with a developer turned preservationist.
For our historic sites staff, this became an on-the-ground opportunity to break all the traditional rules of a house museum and find common cause with commercial businesses, working creatively with them to incorporate the stories of Cooper Molera’s rich history into their operations. Through these rewarding partnerships, we have created a distinctive destination, attracting people who never would have visited in the past.
Several local stakeholder groups initially opposed changes at Cooper Molera, but later became strong partners as we each made compromises towards a shared goal of preserving and sustaining this special place. As a result, we retained and reimagined the museum spaces in the site’s oldest adobe residences and found commercial partners who embraced our vision for making the property’s history and preservation a part of their own stories. The plan we developed also reflected best practices in adaptive reuse and infill construction, as recently recognized by the California Preservation Foundation with a 2019 Preservation Design Award.
But, ultimately, the real transformation here lies in the relationship between this historic place and the community that surrounds it. Every Tuesday afternoon the city of Monterey hosts a lively farmers market on Alvarado Street, Monterey’s version of Main Street. For years, throngs of people enjoyed the market but stopped short at the end of Alvarado, where Cooper Molera stood, boarded up and uninviting. Today, the doors are open and Ben Spungin’s sweet baked goods and chocolates beckon at Alta Bakery + Cafe. Crowds of locals are rediscovering part of their own history and eating well while doing it! At other times, hundreds of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds attend events in The Barns at Cooper Molera, while others enjoy the free museum exhibits (no velvet ropes here) or simply walk the beautiful grounds.
The “shared use” model at Cooper Molera is not simply a case of adaptive reuse; it involves a unique legal framework that ties all the activities at the site into a common purpose. The goal is to breathe life back into the property in a way that not only honors its history, but also serves the community that surrounds it. While it won’t work at every historic site, it’s a model that we hope other house museums might consider: finding creative partnerships to innovate and transform their operations, and to better engage their own communities.