Monday, January 30, 2006

Cherishing Its Roots
Nut Tree Embraces Past, Moves Forward
By Tom Hall/Staff Writer

Work continues on the retail center for the Nut Tree Family Park which will feature a restored Harbison House as its centerpiece. (Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)

The foundation is in place. The landscape is changing. Electric power is almost there. Money, hopefully, won't be long in coming.

Its been a long time since the Harbison House has been at the center of this much action.

As the walls of the new Nut Tree

Village project continue to go up around the near century-old colonial revival home, work to transform the historic landmark into a living museum is getting closer.

Shawn Lum, the director of the Vacaville Museum, said a preservation architect to lead the project will be hired

Monday. Lum interviewed candidates Friday, and said getting an architect in place has been a priority.

"We're putting one foot in front of the other, and we're finally stepping out," Lum said.

The Harbison House, built in 1907 by renowned homebuilder George Sharpe for Luther and Hester Harbison, is owned by the Vacaville Museum. It was donated by members of the Power family, the clan who ran the Nut Tree for 80 years.

The house will be restored to its original grandeur and converted into a museum, showcasing the history of the Nut Tree and Vacaville.

The original Nut Tree closed in 1996. Work on the new Nut Tree project, which will include some 300,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space along with a 3.7-acre family park, began late last summer.

The park is expected to open in July, with Harbison House as its focal point.

"I'm really happy that the house is the centerpiece now," Lum said. "I think there's some dignity around it."

The white-painted home originally sat just north of where Interstate 80 runs now. It was there, in front of the house and under a massive oak tree, that Helen Power first set up a fruit stand in 1921 for travellers on the old Lincoln Highway.

The fruit stand eventually grew into the world-famous Nut Tree, with its restaurant, miniature railroad, hobby horses and, eventually, airport and post office.

The restaurant closed in 1996 amid financial troubles. The post office was moved to a storefront in an Orange Drive shopping center, and all the familiar buildings were torn down ...

Except the Harbison House.

Last October, movers jacked up the 99-year-old house, put wheels under-neath, and hauled it to a location several hundred feet north of the freeway.

Lum said it was set into its new foundation two weeks ago, and temporary power will be patched to the house sometime this week.

With electricity, and an architect nearly in place, financing for the massive renovation project ahead is next on the list.

Lum said she's in the process of completing a state grant application, which she said is the project's best funding opportunity.

"It's really a big opportunity for some matching funds from the state," Lum said of the 80-page California Cultural and Historical Endowment application. "But right now, I look like I'm writing a thesis."

The museum applied for the grant last year, as well. The Western Railway Museum east of Suisun City was the only group in Solano County awarded money a year ago through the grant program, which is funded through Proposition 40 park bonds.

Lum said she thinks Harbison House has a better chance this time around, thanks to a full business plan and cooperation from Snell & Co., the family park developer, and the city

"We're much more prepared this year," she said.

Meanwhile, permit applications for the Nut Tree Family Park are in the city's hands. Matt Sharkey, Nut Tree's director of marketing, said the design of the park will lean heavily on the site's past.

"We're definitely not abandoning what it was," he said. "We're moving forward with something new while embracing the Nut Tree's place in history."

Sharkey said the park plans to use images of the old Nut Tree and the old Vacaville in all its marketing efforts and within the design of the park itself.

He added that the presence of the Harbison House will be a great tool in working with schools to provide a fun educational experience for students around the region.

Lum said everything she's seen about the park shows it and Harbison House will complement each other well.

"I think the history will be well-represented in the family," she said. "The house will always be there, as a reminder."

Tom Hall can be reached at

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