State wavers on adobe remodel

After public outcry, state parks takes a harder look at the plan
for robotic animal models in historic San Juan Bautista
The folks in San Juan Bautista have Sacramento’s attention.
Well, maybe just a little.
After receiving a slew of irate phone calls and letters from
locals, the state parks department announced last week it would

most likely

eliminate

some

plans for talking animals in the historic Castro-Breen Adobe
museum.
After public outcry, state parks takes a harder look at the plan for robotic animal models in historic San Juan Bautista

The folks in San Juan Bautista have Sacramento’s attention. Well, maybe just a little.

After receiving a slew of irate phone calls and letters from locals, the state parks department announced last week it would “most likely” eliminate “some” plans for talking animals in the historic Castro-Breen Adobe museum.

“Some people had a hard time with that,” said California Department of State Parks spokesman Dave Schaechtele. “But we want them to know public input does matter.”

The announcement was made Friday, three days after locals crammed a San Juan City Council meeting to object to the idea of entertaining visiting fourth graders with animatronic “mischievous animals,” as they are called in the state parks’ Adobe Interpretive Plan for the $1.6 million renovation.

At the meeting, attended by many modern-day Breen family members, concerned residents voiced their disapproval of the plan, calling it “Disneyland-like.” Breen descendants likened it to building a McDonalds in the historic town that prides itself on having no chain stores or fast-food restaurants.

Whether the state also will cave to locals’ demands that cutout characters and interactive displays also be scuttled from the historic museum is still undecided.

“The state has no concept of what a museum of history is or can be,” said town activist Rebecca McGovern.

Schaechtele said state decision makers will probably cut plans for a whinnying horse, a purring cat, a flapping rooster and an annoyed raccoon, not just for the recent surge of public criticism, but also because the displays could divert children’s attention away from the historical significance of the Adobe, where General and Governor Jose Castro and then the Breen family resided during the 1800s. The Breens were members of the ill-fated Donner Party.

“The horse wasn’t appropriate,” said Schaechtele, adding that one of the criticisms was that a horse wouldn’t have poked her nose through a window in either the Breen or the Castro periods, or any period for that matter.

“Some of the kids might have gone from room to room just looking for the next animal,” he added.

No official decision on the final rehabilitation plan, written by The Sibbett Group of San Francisco, is expected before spring, said Schaechtele.

Georgana Gularte, a member of the SJB Historical Preservation Committee that led the public charge against the new plan, said she won’t be satisfied about the altered plans for the Castro-Breen Adobe until her group can sit down with the state park decision-makers and pin down exactly what they want to change.

“I just want to understand what they’re doing and have them understand our point of view,” said Gularte, who said she wants to see an official document about the renovations and wants to know if the state is going to do an Environmental Impact Report on the adobe, one of two buildings in the mission town registered as a National Historic Landmark.

“I want to see more details,” she added.

Gularte said she didn’t think anyone was informed prior to a public meeting the state parks department held in April, when only a handful of resident history buffs showed up to confer with park officials on the project.

“They didn’t give us any details,” said Gularte. “They just introduced themselves.”

McGovern was skeptical about the park’s intentions and was not pleased upon hearing that some of the animatronics could stay in the plan. She, too, is upset that the state didn’t publicize the original meeting.

“No one knew about it,” agreed McGovern. “But that’s typical of any bureaucracy that wants to omit the public. They can’t by law, so they keep it as quiet as possible.”

Schaechtele said that getting the word out about public input meetings was something his agency will try to improve upon.

Gularte said she saw the press release about the plan to eliminate the lifelike animals and described the statement as “the usual innocuous document.”

Schaechtele admitted the decision wasn’t set in stone.

“For example, perhaps the flapping chicken might work,” he said.

Schaechtele said that most of the artifacts in the current static adobe museum are not authentic, were not used by the Breens, and that the exhibit places too much emphasis on the Breen family period instead of a balance between the Breen way of life and the Castro era.

“A lot of the items were purchased at antique shops,” he said.

Schaechtele also said one of the problems is that after the current exhibit was installed in 1961, people became accustomed to it and didn’t question its validity.

“Some people think that it’s been there forever, so it must be right,” he said. “The Breens were a family of means, and the artifacts in there are old, tattered and chipped, like the mismatched plates. To look at it, most people would think the Breens were in pretty bad shape.”

John Breen, after surviving the Donner Party crossing of the Sierras, settled with his family in San Juan Bautista, then left shortly after to look for gold. He came back with $12,000, a tidy sum in that era.

One room, which currently displays the Breen kitchen, will be converted to a moment in time when the Breens became rich from the Gold Rush. If the plan is followed as is, life-sized cutouts will depict 16-year-old adventurer John and one of his siblings as they prepare to uncrate new household goods for their home. All the items will be touchable, and sealed crates will have peepholes that children can look through and view nesting mice. Period furniture will invite people to sit down and become part of the scene. A “mischievous” Bantam rooster model on top of one of the unopened crates will flap his wings when a visitor triggers a motion detector.

The spokesman said the state parks department is planning another public meeting in San Juan Bautista regarding the Castro-Breen Adobe plan, perhaps in January, and hopes this time they will get a better turnout.

“The people working on this plan really care about our mission, to make sure it’s accurate and engaging, and to look at today’s audience and what they’re interested in,” said Schaechtele. “The process is to get the message out there that we’re concerned about public opinion and to really make sure the final product is something that’s a good plan we can all be proud of.”

McGovern is not so sure of that.

“To us, putting cardboard cutouts in place of the real items is like taking the great paintings from the Louvre and replacing them with cardboard cutouts of Van Gogh and Rodin,” she said. “Children and adults don’t learn through this process of cheap entertainment.”

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