Monday, January 12, 2009

Benicia Jewel Glistens Again

Benicia Jewel Glistens Again
Public invited to weigh in on future use
By TONY BURCHYNS/Times-Herald staff writer
Posted: 01/12/2009

The historic CommanderÕs Residence in Benicia is being renovated, and the city is holding a series of public meetings to discuss the elegant buildingÕs future. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

BENICIA -- Rehabilitation work is moving ahead of schedule on one of the city's historic jewels. But no one has a clue as to how the Commanding Officer's Quarters will be put to use once it's fixed up.

This week, to shape that vision, city officials will host the first in a series of meetings to capture public input about the future of the nearly 150-year-old building, also known as the Commandant's Residence.

"The bottom line is, this is one of our historic jewels, and it's a rare opportunity for the public to weigh in with comments to decide the future of that building," said Mario Giuliani of the Parks and Community Services Department.

City officials and residences have struggled for years to come up with money and suitable ideas to give the 20-room mansion new life.

Built in 1860, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It is certainly deserving of restoration, and it's important good use is made of it," said local historian Harry Wassmann. "I'm glad they are having meetings on that subject."

The first hearing is at 6 p.m. today in the Commission Room at City Hall, 250 East L St. Another will be held Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the same place.

The stucco-covered brick mansion on the grounds of the Benicia Arsenal was home to 35 U.S. Army commanding officers and their families. The arsenal closed in 1963.

From 1976 to 1986, the building housed the Commandant's Residence Restaurant. An electrical fire revealed safety problems that forced the restaurant to close.

Over the years, volunteers have tried to preserve the city-owned building, but windows had to be boarded up after a string of break-ins and vandalism, said Beverly Phelan, curator of the Benicia Historical Museum.

"I'm overjoyed (about the renovations)," Phelan said. "I love that building. It's elegant. ... It's in a wonderful spot across from the Clock Tower. It's important for the public to preserve it."

At tonight's meeting, city officials and representatives of the architectural firm Cary & Company Inc. will outline remodeling work completed since last summer. The estate is getting a complete seismic upgrade, an elevator, a new roof, window restoration and new and repaired flooring, among other improvements.

So far, the porch has been rebuilt, rotted window frames have been replaced and the elevator has been installed.

The initial phase of the rehabilitation and reuse project will cost $3.6 million. The city secured two state grants totaling $900,000 to help pay for it.

Future tenants may be required to pay for new wiring and additional touch-ups, said Rick Knight, city supervisor of parks and community services, who is overseeing the project.

After the tenant-improvement phase, the outside area will be landscaped, officials said.

"Finally we're doing something," said Knight, who boarded up the building 18 years ago as a city maintenance worker.

The goal is to complete the reuse study by April for the City Council to review.

E-mail Tony Burchyns at or call 553-6831.