Preparing the Cooper-Molera Barns for Adaptive Reuse

By Special Contributor posted 12-21-2017 11:52


By Naomi Miroglio 

The Cooper-Molera barns are part of the Cooper-Molera Adobe complex located in downtown Monterey, California. This historic complex was developed by multiple owners, beginning with John Rogers Cooper and his wife, Encarnacion Vallejo Cooper, in the 1830s. Today it has nine buildings and roughly 2.4 acres of open space enclosed by adobe perimeter walls. Cooper-Molera is an important historic site that represents the rich history and origins of the state of California and contributes to the Monterey Old Town National Historic Landmark District. 

Exterior of the Cooper-Molera barns. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The complex was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1960s and had been operated by California State Parks (CSP) until 2016. A project is currently under construction to re-envision Cooper-Molera through a shared use agreement between the National Trust and private developer Foothill Partners Inc. The shared use program aims to create a revitalized site that will balance compelling historic interpretation and education programs with appropriate and complementary commercial uses—and the barns are a key component of that project. 

The Cooper-Molera barns are a unique assembly of structures and the last remaining barns within the Monterey city limits. Their wood-framed construction stands out against a setting of primarily adobe structures and against the adobe wall at the site’s west elevation. The South Barn was the earliest of the three structures, built in 1860 as a one-story carriage house and stable. The Shed Addition was appended to it in the late 1880s as a storeroom and carriage house and later used as a harness room. The North Barn, constructed around the turn of the century, is attributed to Andrew Molera, an avid sportsman who devoted much of his time to horse racing. The two-story structure provided shelter for his racehorses, jockeys, and stablemen. After Molera passed away in 1934, the barn complex fell out of use. Without proper maintenance, the buildings began to deteriorate and were in a serious state of disrepair by the time they were deeded to the National Trust in the 1960s. 

In 1979 the CSP embarked on an ambitious plan to seismically strengthen the historic buildings at Cooper-Molera and open the site as a historic house museum. This phase was initially meant to include the barns, but funds ran short, and the proposed strengthening was not fully executed. By 1987 the barns required emergency stabilization in the form of temporary shoring to prevent collapse. The buildings were closed to the public; they have remained closed due to their structural deficiencies. 


A 1977 axonometric illustration of the development at Cooper-Molera over time shows the barns in the southwest corner. | Credit: Hall Goodhue and Haisley with Will Shaw and Associates

Adaptive reuse of the barns as an event center is a significant component of the shared use program for revitalizing the entire Cooper-Molera Adobe complex. To make this possible, the project addresses significant deterioration issues as well as code upgrades that would bring the buildings in compliance for seismic strength. 

In order to preserve the historic character of these structures, the design and ownership team considered a number of options. The selected scheme retains the open character of the original barn spaces and includes:

  • Plywood sheathing on exterior walls, floors, and roof;
  • Select foundation work to supplement the concrete piers and perimeter footings installed in the 1980s; and
  • An interior steel moment frame to open the wall between the North Barn and the Shed Addition. 
Interior of the Cooper-Molera barns. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The most challenging aspect of the structural scheme has been the exterior wall sheathing. Recognizing the community’s attachment to the visual qualities of the original, aged wood siding, the initial approach involved dismantling the individual boards, installing structural plywood sheathing, and reinstalling the boards in their original locations. However, the exterior siding was in extremely poor condition. After qualified professionals conducted a thorough analysis, it became clear that that approach would not to be feasible. 

This led to an alternate scheme—one that is currently underway. The original exterior boards still remain in place, but custom milled redwood siding that matches their dimensions and configuration is newly installed on the exterior face, separated from the original boards by a layer of new plywood sheathing. This allows the original barn interior, which has a very high degree of material integrity, to remain intact. The exposed interior framing and the inside faces of the exterior boards are visible, including a variety of whitewash and unfinished surfaces and the original radial saw marks on the face of the boards. This preserves the essential character of the historic barns while providing a new exterior that will last for future generations. 


The 2012 site plan for Cooper-Molera Adobe. | Credit: Architectural Resources Group and the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Installing an interior steel moment frame facilitated opening up the wall between the North Barn and the Shed Addition. The wood framing along this wall was significantly deteriorated at the time of the 1979 project, and “temporary” shoring has held it in place since then. The event center design combines the floor area of the two spaces to accommodate weddings and other assembly functions, so the steel moment frame provides a 40-foot opening between them. 

The recent structural upgrade integrates with some elements of the 1979 strengthening scheme, most notably with the strengthening at the original adobe perimeter wall that supports the barn. The adobe perimeter wall features a stone foundation and base and adobe forming the upper wall, typically with a plaster finish. The 1979 work included building a new continuous concrete footing and beam along the wall’s length. Reinforced 16 x 16–inch concrete columns were recessed into the adobe wall at approximately 7 feet on center. This system, although heavy-handed by today’s standards, remains intact and visible to the interior space. 

The Cooper-Molera barn project ensures that this unique complex of buildings is seismically strengthened, rehabilitated, and made available for current and future generations to enjoy. 

Naomi Miroglio, FAIA, is a principal with Architectural Resources Group in San Francisco whose award-winning preservation projects honor the fabric and context of historic sites while infusing them with contemporary new uses.


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