On the rooftop of an old two story colonial revival house in Eureka, missing shingles threaten the preservation of Humboldt County’s history.
During a late September rain, water spills over the building’s unique barrel-roofed dormer and trickles down toward a recessed second story balcony of the Gross-Wells-Barnum House, the current home of the Humboldt County Historical Society. Although the roof is not currently leaking, the damage has been done. Coffee-colored stains spoil the floral wallpaper of several rooms, rooms packed wall-to-wall with binders full of historically materials.
With more than 70,000 historical photographs, hundreds of maps and countless categorized documents, the continuing preservation of one of Humboldt County’s largest historical collections is in danger.
Sitting in her office, Lora Ryan, the Society’s office director takes her gaze away from the brown stain on the ceiling above.
“As you can probably tell, we need a new roof,” Ryan said. “But not just for the general upkeep of the house, our main concern is securing the safety of all of our documents.”
Since 1947 the Humboldt County Historical Society has been acquiring, preserving and interpreting historical documents specific only to the North Coast. And it’s collection is extensive. High School yearbooks, city maps, leather-bound police dockets, all housed under the same weathered roof of the Gross-Wells-Barnum House.
As a non-profit organization, the Humboldt County Historical Society relies heavily on volunteers, membership fees, bookstore sales and special fundraising events in order to continue its existence.
On Dec. 6, the historical society will hold its first annual holiday gift auction to fundraise for a roof estimated at $50,000. The event will offer a historical presentation, live music and a silent auction of holiday gift baskets at the Eureka Inn Ballroom, the same inn Helen Wells Barnum helped restore in 1960.
Built in 1902 for Helen’s grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Reuben Gross, the Eureka home at 703 Eighth St. was inhabited by the family for generations. In 1993 the house was donated to the Humboldt County Historical Society through Helen’s will.
“Helen was a history lover,” Ryan said. “The house was her legacy.”
For the past 21 years, the historical society has honored Helen’s legacy by making the Gross-Wells-Barnum house a place for researchers, intrigued out-of-towners, curious locals and, more generally, history lovers.
Library Assistant Stefanie Baldivia has only been with the historical society since January. But arguably nobody knows each room of the house better than she does. Whether it’s helping a patron track down a family relative’s history or sitting behind her computer sifting through paperwork, Baldivia has spent enough time in the house to know it has something different to offer.
“The value of this house lies in its beauty,” she said, staring up toward the stained glass window in the research library. “On a sunny day when the light shines through this room, it’s like sunning a warm cat.”
For Baldivia, the decorum and unique architecture of the house make for a respectable atmosphere she likened to “leather armchairs and smoking jackets.”
The Humboldt County Historical Society, with more than 3,000 members worldwide, is currently working toward putting the house on the national historic registry, a move that could secure federal funding for general maintenance and upkeep.
In the meantime, the society continues to seek donations and volunteers to support the preservation of the house and its contents.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated from a prior version.