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The Miller Mansion: Its history and its future

Steeped in mystery, and part of Chico's unique history, restoration of the Miller Mansion has begun. However, the future of this property is not yet secured.

Posted: May 2, 2019 11:38 AM
Updated: May 2, 2019 1:20 PM

CHICO, Calif. - The historical Miller Mansion on the Esplanade has been bought by Wayne Cook, the owner of the Hotel Diamond. 

Action News Now delved deeper into the history of the mansion and its future now that it has a new owner. 

History

Set back on a beautiful property of giant oak, cypress, palm and magnolia trees, the Miller Mansion has fascinated people driving by on the Esplanade for decades.

The mansion has been privately-owned since it was first built, which was between 1955 and 1957.  But what many people don't know is that this property used to be home to a much older and fascinating piece of Chico history; a Bidwell Mansion. No, not the mansion that John Bidwell built, but a second mansion, built by his brother, Daniel Bidwell.

Constructed in and around 1871, the original Daniel Bidwell property was called 5 Oaks and included roughly 1,000 of acres of lush land. It was a well-built home that had fallen into disrepair.

In 1955, Roy Miller, who owned Miller's Markets, purchased the property. He and his wife Artie loved the home, and, according to longtime friend Charlie Carroll, Artie was hoping to save the 5 Oaks mansion, but it was deemed not salvageable. The Millers made the decision to dismantle it. 

"In 1946, it [the Daniel Bidwell Mansion] was overgrown with unkempt leaves and ivy," Caroll said. "It was very ornate on the exterior, but the interior was very dreary and dark."

Carroll said 5 Oaks, later known as the Reed Mansion, was still beautiful.

"It was very well-done, but it wasn't restorable," he said. "It had mostly termite infestation, and a lot of the walls were not drywall, and were solid-about 4-inches thick. Mrs. Miller didn't want to let it go. She wanted it restored. They assessed the entire building, and determined it was not restorable."

Over the years, many people believed that there was a fire at 5 Oaks that destroyed the building, which led to the decision to build the Miller Mansion in its place. Carroll said that is not true. 

"There was a fire on the front porch and a small fire on the interior," Caroll said. "But it never burned down as has been reported."

Carroll, now 84, has a vivid memory of 5 Oaks, the Miller Mansion, and the Millers.

He worked at Miller's Market as a bag boy when he was just 14. Eventually, he became close friends with the Millers and he and wife Loretta developed an even closer relationship with the couple. In fact, in 1955, Carroll helped disassemble 5 Oaks, and saved much of the interior artwork, like the entryway's bronze sculpture of a dancing female called "le temps des roses," the wooden banisters, and staircase. 

The Miller Mansion features several original marble fireplaces, and the ornate rosettes in many of the rooms' ceilings were taken from 5 Oaks, as were most of the Miller Mansion's doors, hinges, doorknobs, bathroom faucets, sinks, and at least one toilet.

The future of the mansion

Wayne Cook, who recently purchased the mansion, is a well-known Chico developer. He is perhaps best-known for owning and operating the Diamond Hotel. 

Cook also bought and restored what are referred to as the "Language Houses," a row of high-end student housing in the South Campus area on West Third Street.

Cook said he has the knowledge and experience needed to undertake a big project like this one. 

"I would like to break even and be able to let the whole public enjoy it," Cook said. 

Cook, 76, purchased the Miller Mansion for $825,000 last Fall. But within months, he got sick and was hospitalized for several weeks. Now he said he's not sure he's going to have the energy to see the property through to completion. He plans on spending roughly $500,000 restoring the property.

Cook bought the property as part of a 1031 exchange when he sold an apartment complex last year. It's a move that allows investors to avoid capital gains taxes when selling a property, as long as the purchaser buys a similar property with the profits.

When he purchased the rundown mansion, he had no idea of the property's rich history.  Says Cook, "The deeper I get into rejuvenating the property, the more I learn about the history, and what was there before the mansion was built. I learned that this property isn't nearly as old as most people think it is."

He understands that there is a huge amount of public interest in the mansion. His goal is to preserve it for the community.

"I would like to break even and be able to let the whole public enjoy it," he said. 

Cook had planned to open it up as a special events venue, but he said there may be too many building restrictions to make that feasible. Another option, he said, is to put the property back on the market as a single-family dwelling. 

He also said he could lease it to someone willing to run it as a business. There is enough parking on the sides of the building to accommodate 150 guests at the most, he said. 

The mansion's connection to the community

While the future of this historic home may be uncertain, its link to Chico's past is solidified. 

People who grew up in Chico say they remember fondly the many holidays they spent driving by to look at the memorable decorations. On Halloween, the Millers were well-known for handing out full-sized chocolate bars to trick-or-treaters, and each December, the Millers thrilled visitors with their elaborate Christmas displays.

Charlie, and later Loretta Carroll, donated their time and talents to create the original and colorful holiday displays that adorned the front lawn of the mansion each year. These Christmas displays attracted crowds from 1959 through 1995.

Robert Smith grew up in Durham. He now works for Wayne Cook and has been helping to restore the Miller Mansion in recent months. Smith said the mansion brings back many fond memories and he's excited to see it restored to its former glory.

"It was something special to go out at Christmas time, especially on a foggy night, because the lights take on a halo effect, and it's very pretty," Smith said. "It's a childhood memory that ties me to my mom and dad, because we'd always go out looking at the lights, and we'd always come by the Miller Mansion, because they had a wonderful display every year, and it changed every year."

Smith said he always enjoyed looking at the mansion. 

"Sometimes ornate, sometimes simple," he said. "But always tasteful, and always a nice thing to see."

Smith said given his experience, vision and know-how, Cook is the best person to restore the mansion. 

"To lose this house, we'd be losing a part of Chico, a part of history, a part of what ties this town together," Smith said. "It would be losing a link to the past."

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