Isolated from other cities of similar size by hours of driving on tortuous, twisting roads — boxed in by the world's largest stand of lofty redwoods and washed by the chilly Humboldt Current — this northwestern California port is the envy of other towns across North America.

Why? Credit Eureka's fondness for historic preservation.

Old Town Eureka, with more than 150 impeccably restored late 19th- and early 20th-century commercial buildings and Victorian homes, is a remarkable 350-acre national historic district that extends three blocks deep for a full mile along the coast of Humboldt Bay.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a decrease in the demand for redwood lumber, things looked bleak for the remarkable structures of this neighborhood, some already a century old. Hotels were condemned and the entire precinct was eyed for urban redevelopment. Indeed, a freeway was plotted to run through the heart of the district.

It never happened.

“We make a big fuss whenever anything around here (is threatened) to be torn down!” exclaimed Ray Hillman of the Humboldt County Historical Society.

Today, Old Town — which runs along First, Second and Third streets between C and N streets — is the catalyst for a Humboldt County-wide movement that has seen scores of historical structures renovated, their “bones” intact while their facades take on new life. That, in turn, has sparked a creative movement that has given Eureka “more artists per capita than anywhere in the state,” according to the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Eureka was founded in 1850 as a transportation and supply center for gold mining on the nearby Trinity and Klamath rivers. Within 15 years, lumbering and shipbuilding had become the economic drivers.

The town grew slowly but steadily until the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Ironically, that disaster resulted in Eureka's biggest boom, as shipload after shipload of North Coast redwoods became the primary building blocks in the reconstruction of San Francisco.

Living history

By that time, downtown Eureka already had its share of vintage buildings, places like the Buhne General Store (423 First St.), a Greek Revival structure erected in 1869 by Captain H.H. Buhne, who brought the first large group of settlers into Humboldt Bay in 1850.

The wooden Vance Hotel (525 Second St.), built in Second Empire style in 1872, had the first electric lights in the region (1879); that it has survived 134 years is a testament to Eureka having avoided the destructive fires that ravaged many other communities in the 19th century.

The Louvre Cafe (1873) was a tough logger bar before it became Eureka Books (320 Second St.), specializing in antique and out-of-print books. The Italianate-style E.E. Janssen Building (422 First St.), built in 1875, boasted Northern California's first elevator; now it is an edgy gallery for Humboldt State University art students. At the Oberon Bar & Grill (1886), formerly the Oberon Saloon (516 Second St.), bartenders still tell of a fight that author Jack London picked with a logger in 1910 — and ended with him in jail for the night.

A Eureka classic is the Eagle House Inn (139 Second St.), which has been in continual business as a hotel and restaurant since it opened in 1886. In the 1892 Wave Saloon, now the Cafe Waterfront (102 F St.), women entertained gentlemen in second-story “bluebird rooms” that have since been converted to bed-and-breakfast use.

The Bank of Eureka, built in 1911 at 240 E St., is now the Clarke Historical Museum, its specialty a renowned Native American collection of basketry, stoneware and other crafts.

Throughout Old Town and beyond, guided and self-guided walking tours lead past cast-iron storefronts and buildings with classical Greek columns, gabled roofs, glazed terra-cotta moldings and scrolled parapets.

“Back in their day, First and Second streets were pretty wild,” Hillman said. “Between the lumber camps, the sailors, the fishermen, and railroad men and the guys who came here on 'conventions' with their fraternal organizations, the bars, brothels and gambling rooms did good business. Police ignored what went down on 'Two Street,' which they called 'The Deuce.'”

While the 1960s invited those who wanted to raze downtown and start fresh, it also inspired preservationists to mobilize. Within a year of one another, in 1973 and 1974, Old Town was declared a National Historic District and the Eureka Redevelopment District was created.

“By the late 1970s, most of what you see today had been accomplished,” said Hillman. “The attitude toward the district really changed with the (historic) designation. Today, very little is decrepit. It's hard to find any buildings that need work.”

Carson Mansion

Eureka's best known building, ironically, stands just outside of the National Historic District, on a low hill just a few blocks from Humboldt Bay. This is the Carson Mansion, built in 1884-86 as the home of pioneer timber baron William Carson (1825-1912). Designed by San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph Newsome, the three-story, 16,000-square-foot manor is widely regarded as the single finest example of American Queen Anne residential architecture.

Lime green in color, with several fanciful peaked roofs, the picturesque mansion — constructed mainly of redwood, but also Central American mahogany and other exotic woods — is a tribute to the country's Gilded Age, blending Eastlake and Italianate styles into a grand Victorian showcase.

But the building should not even be called the Carson Mansion; it is the Ingomar Club (143 M St.). When the Carson family sold off its holdings in 1950, the building — constructed at a cost of $80,000 — was purchased as a private men's club for just $35,000 and renamed for William Carson's own Ingomar Theatre, a popular Eureka entertainment venue from 1893 to 1923. It remains a private club today, and as such, the building and grounds are not open to public tours.

Soon after his own estate was completed, William Carson honored his eldest son, Milton, with another Victorian home across the street from his own. Forever known as “The Pink Lady” for its exterior paint, it was not maintained as well as its parent mansion.

When its restoration was undertaken in 1964, Hillman said, “People saw what could be done.” That led to the creation of the redevelopment district, he said — and to ongoing restoration work.

Across Fourth and Fifth Streets (U.S. Highway 101), for instance, is the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts (412 G St.). Built in 1920 as the Richard Sweasey Theater, a vaudeville and silent-film playhouse, it later became a department store before a local family purchased it in 2003 and undertook a four-year restoration.

“It had been in desperate condition,” said Hillman. “I never thought it could be a theater again.” Now it is the permanent home of the Eureka Symphony Orchestra, although it is closed until next spring for ongoing maintenance work.

Nearby, the 1902 Carnegie Library was repurposed between 1996 and 2000 to become the Morris Graves Museum of Art (636 F St.), honoring a famed Northwest painter with several revolving exhibits and a gorgeous performance rotunda.

The Blue Ox

It would be hard to imagine the success of the preservation arts in Eureka without the presence of Eric Hollenbeck.

The epitome of a self-made man, Hollenbeck, 66, dropped out of school and went to work as a logger at the age of 16. Two years later, he found himself in the jungles of Vietnam, working for the U.S. Army as a front-line radio operator. When he returned to California, he found a secluded property beside Humboldt Bay and built an architectural mill shop.

Never mind that Hollenbeck didn't know how to lathe wood, let alone how to operate a table saw. He taught himself.

Over the next four decades, he built the Blue Ox Millworks into one of only eight working architectural job shops in the United States. The Blue Ox produces custom-made wooden house fittings — windows, doors, cabinetry, decorative items, wrought ironwork and more — on hand-operated antique machinery, none newer than 1948, some dating all the way back to 1866.

Over time, the Blue Ox grew to encompass a sawmill, blacksmith shop, pottery kiln, spinning-and-weaving studio, even a domestic farming area. There's a craftsman's apothecary where Hollenbeck boils the essence from redwood, black walnut, amaryllis and iron oxide to make his own varnishes, stains and paints.

An old-time printing and bookbinding shop, its elements dating from the first decade of the 20th century, was crucial in its owner's quest to learn to read — at the age of 50!

“Life gives you a gift to compensate for your handicaps,” Hollenbeck said. “Become the best you can be at your gift, and don't play to your handicap. That's what I tell the kids.”

The “kids” are students, ages 14 to 18, going to school at the Blue Ox. Rather than dropping out of high school, the teens spend two hours a day in a classroom, then immerse themselves in the various trades taught by Hollenbeck at his School of Traditional Arts, a joint venture with the California Department of Education. Five new students rotate through each year, with 20 in the program at any given time.

Hollenbeck refers to the Blue Ox as a “historic park.” It is ramshackle, to be sure — but it is also fascinating. Visitors are invited to pay $7.50 for a self-guided tour of the facility, which often may include an encounter with Hollenbeck himself.

The arts scene

Eric Hollenbeck is a unique individual, but I wouldn't describe him as quirky. There have been plenty of others in the local arts scene who might qualify, not the least of whom was folk artist Romano Gabriel.

Italian immigrant Gabriel (1887-1977) used to say that Eureka, with its heavy rains and blinding winter fogs, was “a bad place for flowers.” So he made his own. He filled the 30-by-60-foot front lawn of his Pine Street home with hundreds of wooden blossoms and trees that he sculpted and painted. He added faces and figures, some real, some imagined; after 30 years, it looked like something from Disneyland's “Small World” exhibit, but much more elaborate.

After Gabriel's death, the Humboldt Arts Council relocated the Sculpture Garden of Romano Gabriel to a unique storefront at 315 Second St. Dedicated during Eureka's monthly First Saturday gallery open house, it has become a popular tourist attraction. More of Gabriel's work may be seen, on smaller scale, at the Morris Graves Museum.

Murals adorn the walls of many downtown Eureka streets. Duane Flatmo's whimsical animals and plants, and Randy Spicer's tribute to Louis Armstrong facing the Arkley Center, are particularly notable. Best of all, perhaps, is Flatmo's trompe l'oeil “Tribute to Architecture and Performing Arts” (2007). It stands 70 feet tall on the F Street wall of the Arkley Center.

My favorite city exhibition is the Sewell Fine Art Gallery (423 F St.), where owner Jack Sewell presents the works of several dozen painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, fabric and glass artists and jewelers, all residents of the Humboldt region.

Sewell himself is a remarkable artist who specializes in representational human figures in a wide range of media: He casts bronze, fabricates steel, carves wood, sculpts concrete and ceramic. And I was fortunate while at this gallery to meet Orr Marshall, many of whose acrylic paintings and mixed-media sculptures reflect his years of residence in Japan.

Taste tourism

On a previous visit to Eureka, in the spring, I met Sergio Herrera just as he was opening his new Humboldt Bay Tourism Center in the heart of Old Town. On my recent visit, seven months later, he was up and running — and doing very well, to hear him tell it.

The Tourism Center, a private business, is designed as a place from which visitors can book all manner of regional tours — to Redwoods National and State Parks, to a variety of adventure sports venues, to see such local attractions as the Sequoia Park Zoo. (Established in 1907 as the oldest zoo in California, the seven-acre park is now developing a new showcase for regional wildlife.) In all, said Herrera, the Tourism Center offers 30 different tours, including historical and architectural walking tours, gallery tours, factory tours and bicycle tours.

A key element of the Tourism Center is taste, which shows off the region's outstanding wine, beer and food products, such as Humboldt Bay oysters and Cypress Grove cheese. I indulged my curiosity about the local shellfish on a short skiff cruise from Woodley Island marina with Sebastian Elrite, who has farmed his self-branded Bucksport oysters for some two decades.

“Seventy percent of California oysters are from Humboldt Bay,” he said, noting that the Point Reyes region is a distant second. “That's because in this bay, there is no evidence of pathogens or parasites. In fact, Humboldt has a high health certification for all sea products.”

Dungeness crab, tuna, black cod and sole are the primary fish harvested here, along with oysters and smaller amounts of mussels and manila clams, Elrite said.

And he noted that redevelopment is continuing in the harbor area as well as in town. Along the shore, a former factory has been removed, its footprint now being prepared for an inviting greensward. And on a finger of the harbor, a former Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill is being converted to support an aquaculture business with a system of floating upwell systems. “It should be fully functional in five to 10 years,” Elrite said.

His oysters, by the way, were delicious.