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Rediscovering Phillips House

A walk through Arcata history, one room at a time



Arcata's Phillips House is the oldest building standing in Arcata and it has lasted longer than is likely for any structure in a culture that prioritizes change. Built between 1850 and 1855, it stands today as both outlier and relic, having outlived all of its local contemporaries. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and has been open to the public as a museum of local history since 1992.

It is still young in comparison to the surviving old growth redwoods that dot the hillside, trees like the ones logged on-site from which the boards that shape the house were hewn. Those are estimated to have been some 2,000 years old.

Greek revival details set the house apart. The facade is articulated by a divided frieze band above square piers. Symmetry is imposed through matched central entrances and paired porches, inset beneath the roof. It is strange to encounter this 19th-century building speaking a frontier dialect of Greek here on the Pacific coast, a world away from where these architectural principles were first articulated during the first millennium BCE.

The original Settlement-period farmhouse was a solidly built structure knocked together from clapboard siding and square-cut nails. The rough-hewn planks that lined its interior began to get plastered with print matter pretty much immediately upon completion; over the next one-and-a-half centuries, superimposed layers of plaster, wallpaper, newspaper, wheatpaste and cheese cloth would eventually form a thick crust over the paneling.

Upstairs, where four small bedrooms open on a central landing, layers of wallpaper have been removed to show the house's bones. Note the extraordinary mass of the rough-hewn redwood planks that form the house's frame, and the feathery scars left on the surface of the wood by a hand planer.

The house is furnished with pieces dating from the 1850s through the 1960s, some of which were originally used in other old Arcata homes. On my visit, the docent explained that the lathe-carved spool bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms, dated 1854, was more elaborately styled than the rustic furniture that would have likely furnished the house at the time of its construction.

Rooms are decorated in various styles associated with different moments in the house's history. The kitchen dates from the 1930s. One of the bedrooms is decorated with furniture from the 1850s, while another shoots viewers forward in time to the house's days as a student rental in the 1960s, with a spray-painted peace sign overhead to set the tone.

Layers of stenciled wallpaper have been removed in some areas and the yellowed sheets of 1850s and '60s newspaper layered beneath, pasted there by some of the house's original occupants, have been preserved under glass. Newspaper was commonly pasted up like this as insulation at the time; judging from the way thematically linked articles appear pasted side-by-side in places here, content must have also been at least an intermittent concern for the readers living within.

Whoever occupied the house during the 1860s appears to have been particularly engrossed in news of the Civil War, judging from the way an anonymous hand pasted articles describing Lincoln's preparation for the Gettysburg Address and Sherman's march through Georgia alongside portrait engravings of Union and Confederate generals. It speaks to the way this distant conflict captured Arcatan imaginations back when this house was new, and even the name Arcata itself the product of recent change.

The Phillips House remained in position overlooking the bay while change happened around it. It endured while trees were felled and sloughs drained and pastureland established, suffering only the remove of what had once been a prime harbor view when the bay receded. Originally built to face the bay, the house later reoriented to face the twentieth-century homes built on the hill's upper slopes. In its present configuration, the former back door has been elevated to the status of main entry while the original front door, with its handsome band of transom lights, opens onto a grassy field. On a recent visit, the docent pointed out that only one of these panes was original; check for the bubble trapped inside the glass, the tell-tale sign that the pane was shaped by human hands.

The Phillips House Museum is administered by the Historical Sites Society of Arcata. It is located at Seventh and Union streets and offers free tours Sundays between 2 and 4 p.m., and by appointment. For more information, call 822-4722 or visit

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