I enter the [Cooper-Molera] estate and get lost in the archives for what seems to have passed in just a couple of minutes but has elapsed over hours. By midday the sun has evaporated the marine layer and the quaint recreation of a sunny Victorian garden replete with adobe horno and artesian well beckons curious glances from a few lost Japanese tourists. But the house remains locked, and the curious painted plaster volumes of various geometric shapes that together form the homes of three families over three generations remains unseen, untouched, inaccessible. I’m about the only one with a key, alone inside and left to sort through this bric-a-brac. As quiet as a tomb ...
So writes Christian Larsen, a Bard Graduate Center student who worked as the National Trust’s scholar-in-residence this summer through a partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC). In particular, he spent time at Cooper-Molera Adobe, a National Trust Historic Site that preserves life from the era when Monterey was part of Mexico to the beginnings of California statehood.
The three-acre site in Monterey, Calif. -- which includes a house built by several generations of the Cooper and Molera families, historic barns, vegetable and flower gardens, and an extensive museum store -- tells the story of ship captain John Rogers Cooper, who immigrated to California in the early 19th century and married into a prominent Mexican family.
But equally important are the stories of his wife Encarnación Vallejo de Cooper; the Diaz family, who owned a portion of the property and had their own home and dry goods store; and the broader hybridization of families, cultures, and styles.
This showpiece saddle from Mexico (c. 1880) is decorated with silver thread embroidery, silver mounts, and intricate stamped leather designs. It was exhibited at the New Orleans World’s Fair (Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition) in 1884-5 and the Paris Exposition Universelle 1889.
Larsen’s assignment at Cooper-Molera was to help catalog the materials that have accumulated since the 1820s when Captain Cooper first moved to the property. He ended up sorting through thousands of articles in the collection. “It was a big puzzle for me to sort out what’s what, from when, and date things, identify the manufacturer, and give them more backstory,” Larsen says.
Before Larsen wrapped up his residency, we sat down with him at National Trust headquarters and asked him about his experiences, discoveries, and hopes for the site.
How did this project come about?
This project comes out of the National Trust’s attempts to uncover stories that have not been told at their sites. They realize that a lot of the sites have had a traditional and/or static story line going on, and that there are sites and objects related to Latino culture they should probably be telling. And the best way to find those story lines is through objects and collections, because they do have intimate connections to Latino story.
What did you hope to achieve through the cataloging process?
The National Trust sent me out there to identify what objects in the collection had any relevance -- what was made locally or made in Latin American countries, as well as what materials, craftsmanship, and techniques from those areas might have contributed to the objects and been part of these people’s daily lives.
I wanted to answer: How did the families express their Latino identity through the things they owned? What kinds of things would speak to that relationship of a hybrid family? And you see it in the collection itself -- Victorian-looking East Coast furniture, right next to stuff from China, right next to stuff from Mexico.
It’s a very cosmopolitan, global perspective … and this is in 1820s California. Most Americans think of California at that time as a western backwater, but it wasn’t at all. Even at that time, they were globally connected. This house reflects the glory days of Monterey.
Where do you even start on a project of this scale? Who helped you ‘crack the case,’ so to speak?
I worked with a number of different people, but two groups stand out. I talked to many of the volunteers; they’re the nice little old ladies from the community who sell items at the gift shop. But they have heard many stories over the years and become repositories of the history of the place. Some of it is accurate, some of it is totally mythologized, but it’s interesting to get their perspective, and their thoughts, ideas, and stories gave me leads on where I should be looking.
I also worked with California State Parks, who is the state steward and operator of the site. The rangers have been working with the collection for decades. They don’t necessarily know all the objects’ histories, but they know the conservation history and they have inklings about where to start.
The biombo folding screen is an artistic and decorative form that originated in Japan but took root in Latin America. That the Cooper or Molera families would have such a screen in their collection speaks of continued cultural ties to Mexican traditions and a much more marked taste for oriental wares in California than seen in other regional American households at the time.
You focus mainly on objects and material cultures. How do objects relate to the places they reside?
While we occupy houses, they’re more the repository for our experiences and the things that we live with. But they’re all part and parcel. I don’t distinguish that much between the building and the things in it; I think the building is equally important, and I look at it as a whole, as a complete experience. They all reflect changing tastes and styles change over time.
What do you hope visitors to Cooper-Molera will learn?
I would love visitors to understand the history of 19th century California -- this really crazy time when there are a few different sets of governments, who’s in power, what’s going on, and what daily life was like. It was really different.
You have to make history come alive. You can intellectualize it all you want, but the best way to reach people is through visceral sense. And that’s what sites do for you: You’re in the space, encountering it visually and through all your other senses. How can we give them the smells, the music, the dances? A place should evoke that feeling and give the visitor an intuitive sense of what it was like to live there.
Now the National Trust is re-imagining how to make the site more vibrant and more of a living place with better access to visitors and programming that keeps people coming back. If they can convey a sense of what daily life at that time was like, that would be the biggest takeaway.
Read more about Larsen's work on NBC Latino.
The archeological dig in the Diaz privy/trash pit uncovered shards of this British transfer-printed earthenware. This English Staffordshire ceramic pattern was produced between 1845-51 by Thomas Walker at the Lion Works in Tunstall.
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