The gardens behind the Cooper Molera adobe in Monterey are quiet on a weekday afternoon, save for a small group eating sandwiches at a picnic table.
The thick walls were built to keep out grizzly bears in the days they roamed the Monterey Peninsula, but now they keep out passersby. Developer Doug Wiele of Foothill Partners, who built the Trader Joe’s shopping center next door and leases the parking lot from Cooper Molera’s owners, unfurls plans to commercialize the space.
“What if we opened the gates?” he says. “What if it was like Asilomar or the Ahwahnee Hotel?”
Wiele approached the property owner, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, about three years ago to pitch his idea: restaurants, shopping and events.
Considering Frances Molera willed the property to the Trust with just $50,000 and no endowment, that sounded like a great idea.
“It’s not what we would consider to be a successful historic site at all,” says Paul Edmondson, chief legal officer for the National Trust. “Visitation is down. Sites have to be creative to ensure their long-term sustainability. We saw this as an opportunity to really explore new uses in a different way.”
The two adjoining barns are red-tagged, and require more than $1 million in restoration to be usable. Wiele envisions event space for concerts or weddings there. Spear Warehouse would be a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. In the existing Cooper Store, he sees more contemporary retail.
A small red house, perhaps old servants’ quarters, will become the new interpretive headquarters. One big change: It will be staffed by the Trust, rather than State Parks.
“With State Parks really distancing itself from the likely future operations, we eventually decided it should be us,” Edmondson says. “It made sense for the National Trust to take that on.”
Monterey State Historic Parks Association has been on board ever since Wiele and the Trust backed off plans to build a second restaurant in a historic home on the property. But the scaled-back version isn’t resonating well with some family descendants, who have also been meeting with the trust.
Betsy Griffin is a fourth-generation descendant of John Bautista Henry Cooper, who first opened the general store in 1826. She met Jan. 8 with Edmondson and Katherine Malone-France, director of outreach for the Trust, to hear about the scaled-down plans.
“I think it’s wrong,” she says. “I think it’s going to ruin the ambiance forever.”
As the Trust prepares to go to probate court in San Francisco – the plans will require some tweaks to Molera’s will – Griffin says she and family members may show up: “I want to save the Cooper from commercialization,” she says.