Restoration underway at Lairds Landing

David Briggs
On a Tomales Bay cove, the National Park Service is restoring a cottage first built by Coast Miwok between 1890 and 1910. Later additions have been removed.  

A restoration is underway at Lairds Landing, a remote spot on the western shore of Tomales Bay that teems with local history.

A Coast Miwok settlement and, more recently, home to late artist and fisherman Clayton Lewis, who altered many of the site’s structures, Lairds Landing presents disparate threads of history that Point Reyes National Seashore officials have had to sort in deciding how best to preserve it. 

“The spot is one of many locations where tribal people descend from,” said Buffy McQuillen, the heritage preservation officer for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. 

But, she added, “What’s significant is that, beyond property ownership, the tribe gets to participate in a process of decision-making about what needs protection and what stories are being told.”

Per the guidelines of the National Historic Preservation Act, the park consulted on an ongoing basis with tribe, a federation of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo groups. 

The landing was home to Miwok people who were employed at nearby dairy ranches until the last were evicted by ranch owners in 1956. In 1964, Mr. Lewis moved to the cove as a caretaker, transforming the property into a bohemian enclave. The site has sat abandoned since his death in 1995. 

In 2015, two of the buildings—the main cottage and a boathouse—were approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, providing guidance for the site’s restoration and maintenance. Both structures were built between 1890 and 1910 by Joseph Felix, whose mother, Euphrasia, was Coast Miwok and whose father, Domingo Felix, was Filipino.

Despite the belief among friends, family and admirers that Mr. Lewis’s additions and alterations to the structures also warranted preservation, the park’s application to the National Historic Register focused on the earlier history.

According to the park’s application, Lairds is significant “for its association with the development of California’s lucrative dairy industry during the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, specifically K Ranch, and for its association with the history of the tenants who worked on the Point Reyes ranches as laborers, specifically the Coast Miwok and their descendants.”

The site is eligible, it went on, “as a reflection of how native populations adapted to European cultural ideals and practices and for its association with the history of tenant laborers.”

Now, the park is planning to preserve the two approved buildings and one other, a small cottage. The other structures and additions built by Mr. Lewis have been or will be razed.

Work on the main cottage was begun a year ago by the park’s three-person historic preservation crew. That project has so far cost around $30,000, paid for with funds generated from visitor fees.

Mr. Lewis’s foundry was removed last November, along with his painting studio, and eventually the park plans to remove a stable and a chicken coop.

Stabilizing the outer shell of the main cottage is the current priority, said Paul Engel, an archaeologist with the park. The preservation crew replaced a roof that Mr. Lewis installed, converted a doorway back to a window and removed an enclosed section of porch. In some spots, workers also pulled off newer plywood siding and replaced or kept the redwood siding beneath.

Mr. Engel said ivy that was “kind of wild” was removed from the roof, along with a shed extension off the back end that he said was a completely “failed structure.” Last month, the team installed new windows and a door.

Next month, the crew will place a panel on the beach describing the site’s history, titled “Persistence of People, Place and Practice.” It reads, in part: “At Tomales Bay, Coast Miwok descendent families were able to maintain or reestablish connections to ancestral home villages despite successive waves of colonial intrusions, missionization, and European settlement.”

The sign includes a few photographs of the site, including of Victor Sousa, who fought eviction from Lairds Landing in court in 1956, arguing that his great-grandmother Euphrasia Felix had obtained title to the land by adverse possession, or what is colloquially known as squatter’s rights.

There are no words on the sign about Mr. Lewis, whose major architectural efforts—such as the foundry and tower—are less than 50 years old, the standard age at which a structure is deemed eligible under federal historic guidelines.

As a concession, in 2015 the park granted a request by Mr. Lewis's family and friends to remove and save the tower before bulldozers arrived. According to Mr. Engel, however, the tower is still there, and the crew may or not leave it on the building.

Dewey Livingston, who worked as the park historian for a decade in the 1990s, agreed that Mr. Lewis’s buildings presented a difficult case. “It opens up a lot of interesting conversations,” he said. “You would need to prove that he had some kind of influence, showing that he was significant to the world around him, rather than just the people who knew him. It’s a fine line between a beloved local person and technically fitting the requirements of historical significance.”