Article: Bought and Saved
Bought and Saved For Posterity:
Faire and Henry Sax and the John Muir Home
By Harriett Burt
Martinez Historical Society Newsletter
On July 2, 2008, the Martinez City Council meeting was adjourned in memory of Faire Sax, a former Martinez resident unknown until then to most current Council members and city residents. But the John Muir Home would not be on the upcoming Martinez Historical Society Home Tour if not for Sax and her husband, Henry, because it would no longer exist.
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 long unused mansion built by Dr. John Strentzel 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 most of the intervening 40 years, the mansion 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 seen 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 researched the home and the period acquiring whatever she could in terms of original or period furnishings and décor even traveling 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.
The Saxes’ enthusiasm and hard work encouraged community members such as A. F. Bray, Wakefield Taylor, Harriet Kelly and others to form the John Muir Memorial Association 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 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law creating the John Muir National Historic Site in 1964. 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 will be on view on October 11, 2008 as it is every day of the year for people from all over the world who visit the site.