An old Murphys home with a storied past has found a new lease on life as a foothill venue.
About two years ago, Michael Ninos took over the operations and management of the Dunbar House in Murphys with an understanding of its history and a grasp on its future.
Ninos also runs the Victoria Inn and V Vacation Rentals, which manages 14 vacation rental properties in town, including the Crestview Pond Estate.
Ninos recently met with the Enterprise for an interview at the historic Dunbar House.
“This was the home of the Dunbar family. It was built in 1880,” Ninos said. “The Dunbars were lumber people, and they had operations up the hill – Avery, Arnold, that area. They actually built two homes, one here and one up the hill, but the one up the hill burned down.”
Where the Dunbar House now stands was once the site of a lumberyard owned by a man named Albert Sleeper. In January of 1860, Freeman Dunbar purchased the lumberyard from Sleeper, and it became known as Dunbar’s Lumberyard.
In 1879, Freeman Dunbar’s son, Willis, was made a partner in the enterprise, and the company became known as Dunbar and Dunbar. It was Willis who built the Dunbar House for his bride in 1880. It remained in the family until 1930.
The Dunbar family also owned an 880-acre ranch up the hill that encompassed much of the modern town of Arnold. There they produced meat, hay, vegetables and fruit for nearby resorts and communities. The family ran extensive lumber operations, which included a sawmill to provide timber to their lumberyard at the Dunbar House. For several years, Willis Dunbar also served as the superintendent of the Union Water Co.
“(The Dunbar House) had been in various hands after the family sold it, and ultimately ended up in the hands of a lady by the name of Barbara Costa … She operated it as an inn in the late 1980s, and it’s been an inn ever since then. We are the first people to approach this from not only the inn-keeping side and hospitality side, but also from an event side.”
Ninos is working to maintain the historic feel of the building while also providing a comfortable experience for guests.
“A lot of this property is original. We find ourselves doing repairs and maintenance and trying to keep the place consistent,” Ninos said. “So we have six rooms, and they are all done in slightly more historic ways, with an eye to comfort, but at the same time trying to keep some level of consistency with the look and feel of the building.”
Ninos said that his decision to operate the Dunbar House as an event property had much to do with the direction that Murphys has taken in recent years.
“A lot of that is because the organic direction that the town itself has taken, from a hospitality perspective, has moved in that direction. So you ended up with places like Querencia up the hill, and the Garden, and Union Hill, and some of the other places around that have started to do destination weddings, which have always been popular in Napa and Sonoma and have now become very popular here,” he said. “So we’ve taken this property and have tried to convert it into something that functions in that genre. So we’ve done weddings here, up to 140 people, and we’ve also done corporate retreats for companies as big as Cisco, and smaller marketing firms, and doctors’ offices and lawyers, and that type of thing.”
Between the Dunbar House and the Crestview Pond Estate, the company can hold a total of 46 outdoor events in the space of the 23-week outdoor event season. A greenhouse in the backyard, and a large tent that connects it to the Dunbar House, allow indoor events for up to 100 people to be held year-round.
Ninos discovered Murphys while visiting on vacation.
“I came here in the late ’80s. I had developed a group of gourmet food and wine stores around the country that I had sold, and one of my favorite people in the industry was Barden Stevenot. So I used to come out here when I had vacation time, and we would go skiing, or we would go fishing, or we would go horse packing. So at a moment in time when we sold all of the stores, he said, ‘Why don’t you come out for the end of ski season and the beginning of fishing season and just hang out?’ So I did. And I thought, ‘You know, I could do this,’” he said.
“So I had a place in Pacific Heights, and I was living here at Stevenot Winery, and that’s how I ended up here. It was very unplanned. It just seemed to be the right thing at the right time. And then the Victoria Inn, and all of those buildings down there – Grounds, and the V Restaurant, and all of those – came up for sale, so I bought them in 2000,” Ninos said.
Ninos said that Murphys has been lucky to have maintained its historic look and feel.
“That was very serendipitous, and I can tell you for sure that that came about without any influence at all from anyone. Steve Drammer built those buildings down there where the Victoria Inn is just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He hired Rudy Ortega to design these buildings (on the southeast portion of Main Street across Jones Street from the Dunbar House), and Rudy’s design was to incorporate the look and feel of the town into these new buildings. But there was no one who said, ‘This is the way we’d like it to look.’ It just happened to be that there were some folks at that time with some foresight, and it didn’t turn into the hodgepodge of structures like some of the other foothill and Gold Country towns have fallen into,” Ninos said.
“We’re lucky here in Murphys, because we have this boutique setting.”
Ninos said that he felt lucky to live, work and raise a family in Murphys.
“(Murphys) will become more and more popular, I think, but I think that it adds to it … It has a way of drawing interesting people here, and those interesting people become part of the community … and then they make the whole community more interesting, and I really like that.”