Work underway to renovate Contra Costa County’s oldest house

ORINDA — Most home renovations modernize. Supporters of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe have a different aim: Return a shaky structure to what it was in 1841, when rancheros herded cattle not far from its front door and California was still nine years from statehood.

Back then, ranch hands danced a fandango and their boots pounded the redwood floor planks of the mud house as they hoped for a kiss from a señorita.

Now there are plans to restore the home — Contra Costa County’s oldest — and make it a place where visitors can step again onto a redwood floor, this time to learn about our state’s history, especially school kids on field trips.

“I grew up in Orinda,” said Kent Long, president of Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe, the group striving to transform the place into a museum. “Even as a kid, I was wondering: ‘Why can’t you go up there?’ I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ I want to make that happen.”

So far, things are looking good for the nonprofit, which has raised about $275,000 toward the $500,000 needed to purchase the house.

The property at 24 Adobe Lane in Orinda sits on a knoll within 20 acres, near the Moraga Country Club, Del Rey Elementary School and Miramonte High School.

Branagh Development is building a 13-house subdivision called J&J Ranch on the site, and owns the building, but it has agreed to sell the house to Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe.

The developer’s crews are already working to return the house to more closely resemble what it looked like when it was built.

CLICK HERE if you’re having a problem viewing the photos on a mobile device.

The purchase terms for the house and about two surrounding acres require the nonprofit to pay $450,000 in installments and show that it has an extra $50,000 in reserves. Deadline to complete the transaction is September 2021.

That means time is ticking for gathering donations.

The group, formed in 2010, also wants to raise an additional $500,000 as an endowment to provide for ongoing costs after the museum opens.

On Thursday, the Orinda Theatre marquee bore the announcement “Save Our Adobe!” and included the Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe’s website.

“We are getting some great excitement, and the community is responding,” said Jeff Boero, the group’s secretary. “I really think we will be able to do it.”

The old house was built by Don Joaquin Moraga.

The Contra Costa County town near the house was named after him. He was a descendant of Jose Joaquin Moraga, a leader of the DeAnza expedition to colonize and explore what was then known as Alta California in the 1770s.

Jose Joaquin Moraga is credited with founding San Jose, as well as San Francisco’s Presidio.

Don Joaquin Moraga and his cousin, Don Juan Bernal, received a 13,316-acre land grant from the Mexican government in 1835 that included what is now Moraga and portions of Lafayette and Orinda.

They called their property Rancho Laguna De Los Palos Colorados, or “Ranch of the Lake of the Redwoods” in English.

Moraga built the five-room adobe house in 1841.

Oakland resident Katharine Brown White Irvine acquired the home a century later and renovated it before she bequeathed it to her grandson.

The changes, which included work done in the 1940s, featured adding wood-framed bedrooms at the property’s rear and covering the adobe walls with stucco.

The state recognized the Moraga Adobe as a historical landmark in 1954. Orinda designated it a landmark in 1995. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A family was living in the house until about 15 years ago, but after they moved out and it was sold, the place gradually fell into disrepair and became a magnet for kids to party, the friends group’s president Long said.

If the group can’t acquire the house, Long said, future residents of the new houses being developed nearby will likely use it as a clubhouse or meeting space.

But if supporters of a future museum can raise the money, they will construct a building with restrooms outside the adobe and possibly a small storage area.

Upgrades have been done already, including to the home’s roof.

Recently, the house’s windows were boarded to prevent vandalism.

Spray-painted graffiti remains inside the building, where crews have removed some portions of a wall to reveal the adobe bricks behind it.

A GoFundMe page to create the museum, which kicked off in October, brought in $2,115 as of Friday, money in addition to what already has been raised.

An anonymous donor has pledged to match all donations made through December, up to $20,000, according to the website.

Meanwhile, work to preserve the house and its history goes on.

“They are actually doing the renovation work now,” Boero, the group’s secretary, said about the housing developer, which has been tearing out the bedrooms added at the rear of the property.

The effort is being done in accordance with the U.S. Interior Department’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, according to the city.

Plans are underway to have archaeology students from St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga study the grounds around the old house, Boero said.

“Who knows?” he said. “Maybe we will find some artifacts.”

For information about Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe, go to moragaadobe.org.