A look back in time

Power Mansion an Auburn icon for more than a century

By: Al Albertazzi/ For the Auburn Journal
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The Power Mansion still rises above High and Cleveland streets as it has done for so many years. In the past it dominated the area, but today it stands behind the Livingston Building, a bar and a bank — all built on land that was once the mansion’s manicured grounds. The land has been sold off piece by piece over the years.
Luckily, the old Victorian survived and is being carefully restored as a bed and breakfast inn by its present owner, Alfred Lee.
It all began back in the 1870s when Michael Power and a group of investors formed a company to mine for gold on the Foresthill Divide.
Their first venture failed when the lower section of their mine shaft filled with water, but they tunneled higher and in a different direction and hit an ancient streambed rich with gold.
They reaped millions of dollars from what they named The Hidden Treasure Mine. Power became superintendent and built a fine house in Sunny South, a town of some 500 people that served the mine.
His son, Harold Power, was the treasurer of Hidden Treasure Mines and also lived in Sunny South. But he and his wife wanted better social and educational opportunities for their six children and moved the family to Auburn in 1901.
According to Auburn historian April McDonald, they purchased what would become known as the Power Mansion from Asahel Huntley, who was a notable Auburn figure, having served as county clerk, postmaster, sheriff and land developer.
The grounds occupied a full city block, and the house was an imposing two-story Victorian built in the East Lake style.
According to the Placer Herald, it had “10 rooms besides the bathroom.” The rooms on the first floor were 12 feet high and “supplied with fireplaces.” A large piazza afforded shade on the southwest side.
The Powers led an active social life, and the mansion was frequently the scene of parties and gatherings, as well as business meetings connected with the mine.
Two of the visitors to the house were men who would later become important political figures. One was Hiram Johnson, who would become a trust-busting governor of California, and the other was a young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover, who would one day be president of the United States.
The heady days lasted for almost 14 years, but the flow of cash from the Hidden Treasure slowly dried up, and funds from other business ventures were not doing well. In 1917, Power lost the mansion to foreclosure.
The house was purchased by Dr. Gordon Mackay (pronounced “Mac-eye”), a prominent surgeon, who managed the County Hospital and was instrumental in founding the (now gone) Highland Hospital. He was a community leader and a generous man who put his patients’ welfare first.
According to his granddaughter, Anne (Mackay) Freed, he would sometimes accept poultry or fruit in lieu of money from patients who were short on cash.
Mackay had his office on the ground floor of the mansion, and the family lived in the upper story. The downstairs was a full doctor’s office, including a reception room, examination room, room for minor surgeries and even a small room equipped with an X-ray machine.
One of his colleagues said that he “was a top surgeon admired and respected by the internists of the area ... He had a sixth sense of when to go in and when to stay out. He could take out an appendix in 14 minutes.”
Mackay died in 1954, but his son, John Gordon Jr. and John’s family — wife Bernice and four children — continued to live in the mansion. In fact, the Mackay family lived in the house for so many years that local people began to refer to it as “the Mackay House” rather than “the Power Mansion.”
John passed away in the early 1960s, but Bernice stayed on for another 20 years. By then the children had grown up, and the mansion was just “too much house.” So, Bernice decided to sell.
In 1982, the mansion was purchased by an investment group who did some renovation and operated it as a bed and breakfast for two years.
Evidently that didn’t work out, for the property went up for sale again and was bought by Alfred Lee, who maintained its use as a bed and breakfast and worked to restore the Victorian atmosphere of the old mansion.