NEW ALMADEN -- As the tale goes, it was a brawl between two boys over minibike riding rights in the late '60s that led to the christening of the Cactus House.

The boys took to hurling spiny chunks of prickly pear cactus at each other and a piece that landed on a century-old miner's cabin took root there, eventually growing into a sprawling, eye-catching example of nature's adaptivity.

The cacti are still there today -- albeit in a planter. But it's not the most prickly thing related to the property on Old Almaden Road, the main drag of a National Historic District that includes the Casa Grande and Almaden Quicksilver County Park.

It's the new owner's plans to tear down the rotting rear addition to the building and replace it with a two-story, three-bedroom home that has raised the hackles of some historic-minded residents. They fear the plans, which go before the Santa Clara County zoning board Tuesday, will not only create an out-of-place eyesore but be a precedent for future construction that could ultimately get their beloved hamlet taken off the historic registry.

"I have no disagreement with rebuilding the house so that it's livable and nice and modern and brought up to normal living standards," said Kathy Wolfe, who has lived in New Almaden for four decades. "That's all fine with me. It's taking the project to a level that's so far beyond the scope of a miner's cabin that is a direction we would all regret."


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New Almaden is a former mining town tucked into a canyon south of San Jose where riches were made by breaking hunks of cinnabar out of the ground and blasting the red rocks in a furnace to extract the precious mercury contained within. That, in turn, was used in gold and silver mining operations. All told, $75 million worth of minerals were pulled from the mines from 1845 until the late 1960s.

In addition to the national registry designation -- which does not carry restrictions on construction unless tied to a federal grant -- period buildings in the area are protected from alterations by a Santa Clara County zoning ordinance related to historical sites.

While Cactus House is a fine example of a miner's cabin that was relocated from the old English Camp higher up the hill, it is not one of the structures that comes with strict guidelines for renovation. The buildings that do have the higher status are generally larger structures or tied to a specific purpose or historic person. But Wolfe said that list should be updated to include all old buildings such as the Cactus House.

"When the list was made, there was more urgency to save the best of the best," she said. "But what ends up happening is it represents New Almaden management but not the workers and doesn't tell the complete story."

But "because it's not one of the listed properties," said Santa Clara County planner Robert Salisbury, "the zoning ordinance says it shall be designed with an appearance as compatible as possible to the historic area." Complete conformance to the guidelines, he said, is not required.

And that, said contractor and New Almaden resident John Rovedo, is what he's trying to do with client Trevor Gabriel, who bought the property last year.

"The design is not intrusive," he said, adding the 1,250-square-foot addition to the 200-square-foot cabin abides by guidelines that make it complement the original structure's style without appearing to be historic on its own. "People have been adapting these homes for 150 years. It's nothing new to make the house livable."

Keeping the old 570-square-foot addition to the cabin, which is not historic and was built atop dirt sometime before 1947, is not an option. Rovedo said when he was going through one of the rooms, his foot actually broke through the plywood floor. Lifting up panels revealed dry-rot and mold.

Gabriel, 24, said that was when he "had a sinking feeling that maybe we made a huge mistake."

"But after meeting with John, I realized that we can come out of this with something better," said Gabriel, who paid $410,000 for the house with assistance from his parents. "It gave my family hope and motivation to stick through this."

Rovedo said that given the footprint of the property, the only way to get the desired square feet is by going up.

And that's exactly what opponents have a problem with. While there are some two-story homes on the stretch, none of the single-story cabins has ever had a second story added.

It's not as if existing homes haven't been renovated to some degree. Guidelines state they should preserve the correct structural frontal view as seen from the street, but what happens behind it is fairly flexible.

But opponents say that's not the case here -- the second story looms above the historic structure and if Rovedo and Gabriel get their wish it's not going to stop there.

"We're trying to keep this area more rural," said longtime resident and historian Kitty Monahan. "You build a home like that and everyone else around is going to want a home with a second story on it."

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.