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The Couple Who Single Handedly Saved The John Muir Mansion From Destruction

Plans were already drawn up for a suburban development on the John Muir and Martinez Adobe sites when Faire and Henry Sax bought it for restoration.

Editor’s Note:  This article first appeared in the September, 2008 edition of the Martinez Historical Society and was updated for the Patch.

On July 2, 2008, the Martinez City Council meeting was adjourned in memory of Faire Sax, a former Martinez resident unknown until then to the sitting Council members and most city residents.  But the John Muir National Historic Site would not be a Martinez icon and a popular destination to honor the nation’s premier early environmentalist if not for Sax and her husband, Henry, because it would no longer exist. 

The remodeled site Visitor’s Center now contains a wall display covering the 50 years between Muir’s death and the establishment of the National Historic Site including credit to the Saxs’ rather amazing financial and physical efforts to preserve the house and the surrounding land at a time when the push to build more and more houses and bigger and taller buildings seemed insurmountable.   

The full story is now known thanks to the efforts of her friend, Martinez resident Trina Harris who had interviewed Faire and allowed that information to be presented to the John Muir Association.

In 1955, the orchards filling in the valley south of the “Y” ( the intersections of Alhambra Avenue/Alhambra Way and H Street) were being put on the market for residential and commercial development with the planned extension of Alhambra Avenue to Highway 4/Arnold Industrial Highway and beyond already underway.  Catching the developers’ eye was the ranch and the decaying mansion built by Dr. John Strentzel in 1882 and lived in by his daughter and son-in-law from 1890 to Muir’s death in 1914.  Sold to a succession of buyers and uninhabited during much of the intervening 40 years, the “Muir Manor” was thought of by many locals by the early 1950s as a derelict standing in the way of progress.

According to a tribute article appearing the Martinez News-Gazette on July 3, 2008, Faire married Shell Refinery supervisor Henry Sax and moved to Martinez in 1939 where she became active in the Contra Costa University Women and other activities.  A late 1940s trip to Natchez, Mississippi inspired her interest in old houses and antiques so when the Muir Mansion went on the market amid rumors of plans for a suburban tract on the site, she and Henry bid on it.  When Martinez mayor and prominent realtor Cappy Ricks called to informed her she’d just bought herself a house (and the five acres it occupied) – it was news about which she admitted years later she had mixed feelings. She knew the restoration would be a huge financial and physical commitment.

And it was.  Sax reported to her family that 28 windows had been broken, the back porch was gone, the onyx fireplace façade chipped off and scattered around the orchard and massive amounts of debris was piled in every room.  There were burn marks in the center of the parlor indicating cook fires had been built there during the Depression by numbers of hobos and squatters who had turned the stately Victorian into a convenient flophouse near the Muir Station on the Santa Fe railroad tracks.  There were bats in the cupola and owls nesting in the upstairs rooms.

Over the next several years, Henry Sax devoted his retirement to restoration often being spotted by passing drivers high up on scaffolding making repairs.  And Faire, a trained teacher who accumulated a number of college degrees during her long life, developed another ‘career’ dressing in period fashions to conduct tours of the home, especially for children.  She often gave tours with the help of her friends in the local American Association of University Women and Soroptimist International groups.  She researched the home and the period acquiring whatever she could of original or period furnishings and décor .  Faire and Henry even traveled to Spokane, Washington to interview Muir’s daughter, Helen, learning about the type and position of the furnishings among other aspects of the Muir family’s life there.

Around the same time, A. F. Bray, Wakefield Taylor, Harriet Kelly and others formed the John Muir Memorial Association to protect the John Muir burial site about half a mile south on Alhambra Creek.  The Saxes’ enthusiasm, financial commitment and hard work on Muir’s home encouraged the Association to broaden its scope to petition the government to designate the mansion and surrounding ranch as a permanent memorial to John Muir as environmentalist and Sierra Club founder.  Finally, with the help of prominent Martinez attorney, Congressman John Baldwin, Congress set aside the funds and in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the bill creating the John Muir National Historic Site.  The National Park Service bought the site from the Saxes for $200,000 and set about completing the restoration they had begun.

The Saxes moved to Southern California where Henry died in 1987 and Faire completed yet another advanced degree and worked as a speech therapist in an Orange county school district for 17 years.  One of nine surviving charter members of Martinez Branch AAUW, she was too frail to attend the 60th anniversary celebration on May 31, 2008.  She died on June 29, 2008 just a week after her 100th birthday.  

But her dedication and determination are on view every day of the year for people from all over the world who visit the site. 

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Kristin Henderson December 20, 2011 at 05:23 AM
Harriet, in 1920's the oldest pear tree stand in California was on the Muir property (Strenzel Meadow--I think, I have the article). It is undoubtedly the oldest today. As with all great visionaries, what Muir foresaw plays itself out chapter after chapter through time: it is a now a documented conservationist practice, a.k.a. "green" construction behavior, to reuse existing buildings--for any purpose. Thanks for the good info. One person CAN make a difference for others, and thereby themselves.
Brian Walker December 29, 2011 at 08:24 PM
Harriet, Thanks for bringing this to our attention again. It is through the actions, and hard work, of a few stong-willed and visionary people over the last century or so that have kept the Bay Area from becoming LA north.

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