Remembering the priceless landmarks lost in Sonoma County fires
Among the untold losses from wildfires that have devastated the North Coast are priceless cultural and historical landmarks.
Santa Rosa's Round Barn stood prominently on a hillside at the northern approach to the city for 118 years. Paradise Ridge Winery, for nearly a generation, has been one of Santa Rosa's most cherished gathering spots for the arts and celebrations. Bouverie Audubon Preserve in Glen Ellen is a nature sanctuary and learning center, with historical and important literary connections.
They are all compelling symbols of our identity, our community and shared heritage. With breathtaking speed this past week, we lost all or parts of them.
Bouverie Audubon Preserve, Glen Ellen
“I found the Sonoma Valley and knew it was a part of my destiny to save and nurture this land”
- David Pleydell-Bouverie, 1938.
The Bouverie Audubon Preserve, a sanctuary for plants and wildlife set against a flank of the Mayacamas Mountains in Glen Ellen, lost every building and bit of infrastructure when the Nuns fire ripped through the upper Sonoma Valley early Monday.
It's a profound loss for the nonprofit refuge, run by the Audubon Canyon Ranch as a preserve and educational center for schoolchildren and the community. But thanks to the unrelenting efforts of a 28-year-old employee, the historic home of founder and British-born aristocrat David Pleydell-Bouverie, filled with precious antiques, including a letter from George Washington, was spared.
After hours of effort, when the flames died down and the sun rose through a red haze on Monday morning, the famed “Last House” of internationally known author M.F.K. Fisher, who spent the last 21 years on the preserve, also was miraculously still standing.
“She would be so pleased it survived, not because it was her house, but because it's a place that can serve as a springboard for Bouverie to come back to life,” said Kennedy Golden, Fisher's daughter. “It's going to take time and it's going to take money, but I'm deeply grateful David's house and Last House survived.”
She called the forested preserve, once home to more than 130 species of birds, as well as wildflowers and large animals from bobcats to bears, “a beacon of specialness.”
Fresh from a summer spent with a “hot shot” crew out of Redding fighting wildfires, Sasha Berleman, a recently hired fire ecologist for Audubon Canyon Ranch - she has a Ph.D. in wildfire science - arrived at the preserve in the middle of the night Monday to see what she could save. Virtually everything was gone, including Gilman Hall, a beautiful converted barn and educational center filled with art of the flora and fauna of the preserve. Bouverie, who was an architect, designed the barn, with its distinctive end arches and swoopy roof.
Bouverie's own home was still standing but had started to burn. Aided by a retired Cal Fire training chief and a neighbor, she toiled the night to keep the fire from taking the house, parts of which date back to the 19th century. They knocked down an arbor connecting the house to a burning guest house, and formed a bucket brigade to douse flames with water from a swimming pool.
Anticipating potential fires, Berleman had ordered a controlled burn on the property earlier this past summer, leaving little to burn and threaten Fisher's small adobe style home in the middle of a pasture visible from Highway 12. Berleman spent a fitful night camping on the grounds and putting out spot fires around Fisher's house, which contained keepsakes, like her typewriter, that had recently been returned to the cottage as part of an ongoing push to restore the house. Author of books like “The Art of Eating” and “How to Cook a Wolf,” Fisher wrote 13 books at Last House before her death in 1992.
The great poet W.H. Auden called Fisher, whose prose was as lush as the food, places and experiences that inspired her writing, “America's greatest writer.” She broke bread with people like Maya Angelou, Julia Child and Bill Moyers, at Last House, which her friend, David Bouverie, built for her in 1971 and where she died in 1992.
Wendy Coy, a spokeswoman for the preserve, said Bouverie's staff and volunteers are both heartsick and heartened. There are signs of wildlife, everything from tiny voles to pings from tagged mountain lions on the other side of the valley. A stone belltower Bouverie had built is still standing. So is a sculpture of a great egret, with wings outstretched, that stood outside Gilman Hall.
“One of its wings is melted metal,” said spokeswoman Wendy Coy. “But we look at it and we immediately think, ‘That's our phoenix.'”
–– Meg McConahey