OAKHURST – Anyone driving by the Mountain House Restaurant in recent days may have noticed the activity in and around the property.
“The demo work is underway,” says North Fork resident and project coordinator Vince Smith. “This is a major rebuild, and the Mountain House is on its way back.”
When the restaurant closed in late 2009, the area lost about 20 jobs, and an area landmark. So news of the purchase of the historic business in the summer of 2012 had people anxiously awaiting its reopening.
“We are going to completely restore it to the way it was in its heyday,” new owner Harold Rothman told us last year. “We have very good designers working with us, and we’re most excited about keeping this motif we think of as ‘chic lodge cabin.’ It’s kind of an historic building to me, and we love it.”
Before the work could begin, permits had to be obtained, and inspections passed. Plus, a new well had to be drilled.
“The old well didn’t meet California standards,” said Smith, “and before we could start any work, we had to have water.” The new well, some 60 feet from the old one, is producing about 100 gallons per minute.
With a building this old, and the rather sketchy way in which it was upgraded and added on to throughout the past nearly 80 years and its various incarnations, the challenges of refurbishing the structure are monumental.
Smith says this is a major rebuild, and that the building for the most part is going to be the outside shell and the north end. “We just have to take it from ground zero and start over.”
They’re starting with the floors. Those who have frequented the Mountain House are familiar with the “downhill” slope to the dining room on the south side of the building.
“There was no foundation in certain areas,” says Smith. “The south portion of the building was set on pier blocks, and the boards from the piers have degraded, allowing the building to sag.”
Daniel Baggs, who is working on the project for general contractor Steve Gabbard, owner of Oakhurst-based Sun Construction, took the time for a tour of the project on Thursday afternoon. He is very excited about the prospect of refurbishing of the historic building, and is also well aware of the challenges.
“There are about three layers of flooring,” said Baggs. “They just kept putting band-aids on it over the years, adding more layers as the building began to sag. We’re removing them one at a time, right down to the joists, and then we’ll see what we’re really dealing with.”
There will be new plumbing and wiring, and new handicapped parking on the south side. To meet ADA requirements, there will be a lot of grading and moving of dirt. The lower parking lot will have to be reworked and probably raised in order to create a slope in compliance with ADA regulations.
To make room for those renovations, the old outside bathroom building is being removed. That in itself has been a challenge, as the building seems to have been built like a bunker.
“This thing had grass and dirt covering it, and we thought it had some old roof that was just going to fall in,” says Baggs. “They were beating on the top with a backhoe and it didn’t even crack.”
That’s when they discovered the steel railroad rails throughout the concrete, along with “any other piece of metal they could find to put in there.”
At least a portion of the upper parking lot will be improved, “but we haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” says Smith. “Right now we’re concentrating on the building.”
As for the interior, the plan is to have booths, as opposed to tables, to give the feel of a mountain diner. The menu will be along the same lines as folks are used to at the Mountain House.
While peeling back the layers exposes new challenges for this major renovation, one goal is always front and center – to keep the character and ambiance of the Mountain House, and do top-notch work.
“Quality – that’s our whole goal,” says Baggs. “This is a piece of history, and it will be great for people to see the custom, very cool, very quality work we will do on this property.”
For everyone wondering just when the Mountain House will reopen, Baggs says there’s really no way to give a timeline.
“Until we can get a better look at everything, it’s really hard to say. Things change every day as we dig deeper into the project, and this will probably take up to a year.”
Owner Harold Rothman and his group, the Yosemite Forks Hospitality Group, will not be running the restaurant themselves.
“We are basically restaurant property owners who seek out good properties, unique and older historic buildings, bring them up to standards and then lease them out,” he said. “We will search for just the right operator.”
For those who have sentimental feelings about the Mountain House, the new owners promise to keep the flavor of the place as it has been for many decades, along with the same type of menu and even the old bar.
“The old Mountain House is on its way back,” says Smith. “The same kind of restaurant, and the old sign out front stays!”