Owned by a popular local hostess, this historic Nevada City farmhouse is in the prime of its life.
By Katrina Paz
Photography by Kat Alves
There’s a house on a hill in Nevada City. At one time, it stood alone on that hill—on the outskirts of a soon-to-boom mining town. Through its many lifetimes, it witnessed the rise of the small town around it. Today, it’s nestled among charming intimate neighborhoods that sprouted up through the decades—its modest tower a reminder that it’s one of the oldest homes in Nevada City.
Like many pre-Victorian homes in the Sierra foothills, it likely began as a simple farmhouse, enhanced and renovated time and again, until it achieved its current stately appearance with an authentic historic air.
But it has a modern purpose too: It now serves as a beacon for social soirees that locals hope to be invited to and are thrilled to attend.
Owner Hazel Shewell, who purchased the property with her husband, Paul, in 2001, is known for her stylish and neighborly gatherings.
The home has been featured a number of times on the Music in the Mountains Home Tour (an organization in which she was actively involved for many years). However, Hazel and her home might be best known for her annual Gin Fizz parties and B&T events.
“Hazel does a lot of parties because she loves to entertain,” says longtime friend Desmond Knox Gallagher. “She’s a really positive and spirited person. She’s been a very good part of the neighborhood, and when we say neighborhood, we mean a good part of Nevada City.”
Scores of friends and neighbors attend the popular New Year’s Day Gin Fizz Party. “Otherwise known as a recovery party, because you need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you,” says Hazel.
Her love of entertaining also spurred her involvement in the B&T social club. The informal group, whose name is derived from an anecdote about beer and ice tubs, is comprised of revelers from throughout the county. Her home is a favorite venue for the group’s fashionably themed parties.
“Her home is just absolutely fabulous,” says club member Cece Royal. “Her yard is very conducive to entertaining.”
The yard, like the home, was not originally a haven for garden get-togethers of any type. Before the Shewells moved in, the house underwent a complete overhaul and redesign. In addition to securing the home’s structural integrity and incorporating modern amenities, the couple had very specific ideas for the design of the property.
During the renovations, several patios were created around the house and yards. Possibly the most festive elements are a wraparound porch (complete with ceiling fans and shades for rain or excessive heat) and a petanque court (the French version of bocce). The court sees more action, however, as an alfresco dining area, often adorned with strands of industrial or twinkling white lights.
The house was built sometime around 1850 (the exact date of original construction is unknown) and the Shewells’ renovation was one of several throughout the years, says architect Brent Daggett, who worked on the project 16 years ago.
Due to Paul’s failing health, all the main living areas needed to be located on the main floor. This included reconfiguring rooms and spaces to create a master bed and bath, as well as opening the dining and living areas for flow and accessibility. The design also completely updated and expanded the kitchen, leaving ample space for the Gin Fizz parties and to accommodate an assortment of blenders.
The front door was moved, and now opens up to what Hazel refers to as “the lobby.” The lobby is a light and airy foyer with an open stairwell and soaring ceilings, allowing for the vertical display of several of her father’s paintings and historical photos. In fact, personal touches and elements can be found throughout the home, like the grand piano that sits unpretentiously in a second floor “multipurpose” room, used mainly by her visiting son and granddaughters.
Very little wall space is left unadorned, but this creates coziness rather than clutter. Wandering through the house, guests will find a painting of the original home surrounded by nothing but scattered pines and rolling hills, photos of Hazel’s grandfather in the Royal Irish Rifles, and memorabilia from color guard shows at the Cow Palace. Also featured prominently are paintings of Hazel’s dogs, gifts from a friend. As polished as her home is, it is dog friendly, with her newest rescue, Dodger, eagerly and politely greeting friends at the door.
The major renovations and additions proved to be more complex than originally anticipated, but Hazel was most involved in—and is most proud of—the smaller details. Garnering many of her ideas from home shows and TV programs like “This Old House,” she incorporated a number of unique elements.
For instance, her living room television is concealed behind one of her father’s paintings that can be raised and lowered by the flip of a switch. In another part of the house, a TV sits discreetly in a recessed nook. Wall spaces and cabinetry were specifically measured and positioned to accommodate various antiques and favorite furnishings, including the couple’s larger armoires and desks, as well as smaller vintage chairs. “Everything had to be placed exactly—not be all mixed up,” she says.
She and Paul actually moved from a larger and equally exquisite house on Quaker Hill because it was too big (it too was featured on the home tour). So as the renovation on their new home evolved into a complete overhaul, their ability to create custom features and maximize space was very deliberate.
“When you start from scratch you can add little broom closets and pantries,” she says. “I’m a big user of space. I couldn’t waste any space.” Discreet storage areas in the kitchen, banquette dining area, and oversize mudroom prove her point. The second floor includes an incredibly well-planned gift wrapping/sewing/craft counter (complete with a sink).
Her husband passed away several years ago, but Hazel keeps herself busy with her home, her entertaining and her hobbies. She’s created studio space with a kiln to work on her pottery, and her impressive creations are displayed casually throughout the home. She also recently took up painting, and may eventually showcase her works next to her father’s—he also pursued art later in life.
Most days she walks Dodger the few blocks into downtown Nevada City, where locals and proprietors greet them with affection. It’s not uncommon for everyone to know everyone in a small town, but Hazel’s spirit and generosity are renowned. “I have to say she is the most gracious hostess I’ve ever encountered,” Royal says.
HISTORY OF The House on Lost Hill
There are no exact records of when the Shewell Home was originally constructed, but local historians estimate that it was built in 1850, making it one of the oldest homes in Nevada City. It sits in a neighborhood loosely referred to as American Hill, but in the mid-1800s it stood in solitude on a location then called Lost Hill.
Before the Shewells purchased the home in 2001, the most noteworthy owners were Nora and Willard Austin in the early-to-mid 1900s. According to architect Brent Daggett, who oversaw the Shewells’ extensive renovation, the home had obviously undergone various upgrades and additions over the years. He describes the style as pre-Victorian.
In 2002, the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce awarded the Shewells with the Stan Halls Architectural Award for their renovation of the home, with the assistance of Daggett and a local design firm.
Desmond Knox Gallagher, who is active with the Nevada County Historical Society and is a friend of Hazel Shewell, says the home is often referred to as the Austin/ Shewell Home and is documented in several historical books. A painting of the home prior to the development and growth of the town is displayed at the historic Firehouse No. 1 Museum in downtown Nevada City.