St. Helena is a prosperous community that values its rich history, so it’s a bit odd that the St. Helena Historical Society has had to spend its first 17 years essentially crashing on a friend’s couch.
We’re happy to learn that the historical society’s days of being relegated to the cramped second floor of the St. Helena Public Library are now over. The nonprofit has signed a three-year lease to occupy part of the former St. Helena Catholic School at Oak Avenue and Tainter Street.
It’s a great fit for the society: 5,000 square feet, close to downtown without the astronomical rent of a Main Street space, ample space for indoor and outdoor displays, plenty of parking and — perhaps most crucially — already built.
There is a catch. The society sees this as a temporary space while it pushes for a heritage center on the city-owned Adams Street property next to the library and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. (The Carnegie Building, which they were eyeing a few years ago, has since been deemed unsuitable.)
In August, boardmembers Kathleen Coelingh and Susan Veresh and office manager Bonnie Thoreen briefed us on the society’s ambitious dream. They envision a 15,000-square-foot, two-story, LEED-certified facility that would take up about 1 acre of the 5.6-acre Adams Street property.
They’re willing to mount a major capital campaign to build it. All the city needs to do is end two decades of debate and set aside part of the most valuable, scenic, beloved and controversial piece of property in St. Helena.
That’s a tall order.
The historical society has developed a strong track record of preserving and promoting local history, and supporters say the heritage center would contribute to St. Helena’s economic vitality by celebrating the town’s unique story. But it’s impossible to overstate how politically sensitive the Adams Street property is, especially when a hotel is on the table.
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Without a commitment from the city, the society’s plans are necessarily amorphous. Their annual History Becomes Art auction and Spirits of St. Helena cemetery walk (held annually in September) are moderately successful fundraisers, but they’re not going to pay for construction and ongoing maintenance of any state-of-the-art building.
Supporters talk about launching a capital campaign and attracting seven or eight million-dollar donations. That’s probably possible in St. Helena, but it’s no slam dunk.
That’s why the Catholic school lease is such great news. It gives the society a chance to provide proof of concept, consolidate and display its vast collection, and just maybe inspire community support for something bigger and better on Adams Street.
As we put it in a 2014 editorial, Napa has the Goodman Library, Yountville has the Napa Valley Museum, Calistoga has the Sharpsteen Museum, and St. Helena has a bunch of treasures scattered around town in storage containers and garages.
“That has to change,” we wrote then.
Five years later it finally has.
We wish the St. Helena Historical Society all the best in its new space, even if it proves to be only temporary. Our history deserves a home.
The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.