Conceptual drawing courtesy City of Eureka. (Click for a closer look.)

One of Eureka’s most prominent crumbling beauties just got a big chunk of money for a much-needed facelift. The Carson Block Building, which sits on the corner of Third and F streets in Old Town, will be the beneficiary of a whopping $5.3 million community development block grant awarded to the city by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

City officials got the good news Friday, and while they had been optimistic, the funding was far from a sure thing.

“The state representative told us [the grant application] was the most difficult program his team had ever worked on,” said Eureka Economic Development Coordinator Judy Harrison. The project doesn’t perfectly match up with the standard criteria for community development grants — notably it doesn’t directly create any long-term jobs. But the building has historical and aesthetic significance, and it’s in seriously bad shape.

“The building is literally falling down around itself,” Harrison said. “The roof is collapsing, the façade is falling off — it’s dangerous, let’s say that.”

When the ornate, three-story behemoth was built back in 1892, it was not only California’s largest coastal office building north of San Francisco; it was also, by virtue of its size, expense and conspicuous architecture, a testament to the city’s aspirations (or those of lumber baron William Carson, anyway).

Back then, Eureka was still pretty rough and tumble. “The notorious waterfront was a haven for boisterous sailors and lumbermen lured by cheap hotels, saloons and prostitution,” according to the Eureka Heritage Society. The Carson Block Building, which included an opulent theater on the second and third floors, was intended to anchor a more respectable future for the county seat.

The building and theater certainly had their glory days (that Heritage Society link above give a good gloss on the history), but the last 60-odd years have not been kind. An unfortunate late-‘50s renovation removed the corner turret to make way for a tacky neon sign. And years of neglect have allowed the building to erode to its current state.

The Northern California Indian Development Council purchased the building in 1986, and Terry Coltra, that agency’s executive director, said he was hopeful about restoring it. But the state legislature passed legislation shortly thereafter requiring earthquake safety retrofits for unreinforced masonry buildings. Funding for those retrofits dried up before reaching rural regions like Humboldt County. “So we ended up with a much larger task,” Coltra said.

The current funding effort is the result of many years of effort from several local groups. Retrofits to the roof have already been made thanks to a collaboration between four agencies: the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, the Humboldt Area Foundation, the Arcata Economic Development Corporation and the county’s Headwaters Fund, which together provided a $1.5 million loan to get the project started.

“That was really critical and very community minded,” Harrison said.

The California Cultural and Historical Endowment is providing another $1.5 million in matching funds, which would have been lost if the latest grant hadn’t come through. The total project cost is expected to be at least $8.6 million, though city officials are predicting it will be closer to $10 million before all is said and done, Harrison said.

She added that the Indian development council will likely be paying off debt on the project for the next 50 years. “What they’re giving is a gift to this community,” she said.