Thursday, August 25, 2005

Rebirth of a landmark: Nut Tree to be revived in Vacaville

August 25, 2005

Rebirth of a landmark: Nut Tree to be revived

By TOM HALL, The Reporter, Vacaville

A DESIGNER'S DRAWING shows the grounds of the planned Nut Tree complex. Courtesy art

VACAVILLE - It began as a fruit stand. It grew into one of California's favorite roadside stops with a famed restaurant that hosted not only Vacaville's children and farmers, but world leaders and celebrities.

It fell apart, reportedly losing bushels of money before closing.

Then, idea after idea popped up, and each in turn was punctured. A facade was torn down. A train was taken off the tracks. Finally, a landmark was gone.

Now, however, the Nut Tree is poised to rise again.

Golden shovels will dig into the fallow dirt of the grounds today as work begins on a project promising new glitter for Vacaville.

If all goes according to plan, next summer will see completion of the first phase of a new Nut Tree, with a family amusement park, specialty retailers, a court for bocce and several eateries.

Roger Snell & Co. of Greenbrae is the master developer of the project. Snell first began working with the city on the project in 2001, developing a plan of how to resurrect the landmark.

The city purchased 80 acres at the old Nut Tree site for $7.5 million in 2000 after numerous development plans for the site had fallen through. Now it's selling the land to Snell & Co.

A major component of the $75 million first phase is the Nut Tree Family Park. Within it, a roller coaster - the Harvest Express - is planned, along with bumper cars and a couple of old favorites - the Nut Tree Train and the Nut Tree Hobby Horses.

The Nut Tree Village - 300,000 square feet of retail outlets and restaurants - also will be built in the coming year. San Francisco's Westrust Ventures will develop that component of the project.

Five retailers are locked in to anchor the village: Best Buy, a consumer electronics chain with 830 locations in the United States and Canada (the nearest of which is in Fairfield); Borders, a major retailer of books, music and movies with 1,200 locations around the world; PETsMART, a pet supply retailer with 700 locations in North America; Sport Chalet, a small chain of specialty sporting goods stores just breaking into the Northern California market; and HomeGoods, a chain from the same corporate family as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, selling "off-price home fashion."

Yet-to-be-named upscale eateries are also planned for the village. A "market pavilion" will feature fresh produce, specialty fare and locally-crafted artwork.

The famous Harbison House - a century-old relic of the founding Power family - will be restored and kept at the Nut Tree. The house is scheduled to be moved a relatively short distance.

The Vacaville Museum, led by director Shawn Lum, then will dig into a comprehensive restoration of the house, which will serve as a visual history of the Nut Tree and the Power family.

The old Nut Tree first opened as a fruit stand in 1921. Helen Harbison Power sold goods to travelers making their way down the old Lincoln Highway.

A year later, the Nut Tree Restaurant opened. In later years, the famous dinner spot hosted both a pre-presidential Richard Nixon and a post-presidential Gerald Ford. The Western-style fare was so revered that the Nut Tree catered parties for Hollywood glitterati at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and for the Queen of England in Sacramento.

In the early 1960s, Edwin Power Jr. - the son of Helen Harbison and Edwin Power Sr. - built and opened the Nut Tree Airport, bringing a whole new clientele to the restaurant complex.

Through 25 years of Rotary Fly-Ins hosted at the airport, aerospace luminaries like Neil Armstrong and Jimmy Doolittle visited Vacaville.

The airport was given to the county in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, the restaurant reportedly began losing money. It closed in January 1996, amid reports of a family dispute.

Several developers tried to purchase the property in the ensuing years, but no plans ever took hold. The city stepped in to purchase the core of the Nut Tree area in 2000.

Jill Katz from Snell & Co. said the site was tough to plot, partly because of what's around the property. The airport to the north meant strict Federal Aviation Agency height regulations. The Putah South Canal and Interstate 80 also served to decrease design flexibility.

"It's a site that needed to be planned and designed carefully," Katz said.

Sausalito-based April Philips Design Works tackled the master site plan design and landscape architecture for the project. The Cunningham Group from Marina del Rey was the architect for the family park, and MCG Architecture out of San Francisco did the retail portion.

Katz said building the right team to get the project right was the most important task.

"There was some excellent design work from April Philips, and everything really came together well," Katz said. "And the city has been very cooperative."

- Tom Hall can be reached at

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