Preserving and Honoring Palo Alto’s Past

Preserving and Honoring Palo Alto’s Past

By Ken DeLeon and Rob ParishJune 25, 2014

There is one question that every Realtor has been asked in the past 20 years:  “Do you think there is hardwood flooring under that carpet?”  While that question is usually simple to answer, it is symptomatic of a larger, and far more challenging, trend.  As people’s lifestyles and families change, their homes and neighborhoods must do the same thing. 

This is especially true in Palo Alto, where robust demand is driven by the unique combination of great schools, charming neighborhoods, technological innovation, and the proximity to Stanford University, the city’s largest employer.  However, the City of Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan reveals that less than one percent of Palo Alto’s land area remains vacant and developable.  Consequently, people are competing fiercely for existing properties and then must consider how to make those single-family homes adapt to the needs of their families.  

In the past five years, there have been more than 1600 sales of Palo Alto homes that are more than 50 years old.  It is hard to drive down any block in Palo Alto without seeing a construction project.  Consequently, community appreciation of the area’s architectural heritage is essential.  Indeed, to honor its past, Palo Alto will celebrate the local homes that have reached their 100th birthday this Sunday, May 4th.  For the past 19 years, Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) has presented centennial plaques to venerable Palo Alto and Stanford homes.  This year, 13 Palo Alto homes from 1914 will be honored, as well as four earlier ones. 

In addition, PAST has created a series of informative walking tours that help people learn about this vibrant history.  Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Pedro de Lemos, and Arthur Clark are just some of the featured architects that helped define Palo Alto’s cosmopolitan style.  The next generation included Birge Clark and Joseph Eichler, two of the many inspired architects and builders who continued that tradition while adapting to changing needs and new building materials.  Here are the addresses for four properties that helped create this legacy:

25-27 University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA - Currently the site of McArthur Park Restaurant, this building once sat in Menlo Park as a visitor’s center at Camp Fremont.  Designed by Julia Morgan in the Craftsman style, it was built in 1918 and originally called the “Hostess House.” 

1061 Bryant Street– “The Sunbonnet House” was the second house on this site designed for Emma Kellogg by Bernard Maybeck in 1899.  The distinctive gambrel roof over the front porch gave rise to the home’s name. 

1305 Middlefield Road – “The Lucy Stern Community Center” was designed by Birge Clark, built in 1934, and donated to the city by Lucy Stern.  The Spanish Mediterranean-style complex is the home to the City of Palo Alto’s Recreation Department, two theaters, the children’s library, a boy scouts fire circle and a number of event spaces. 

1101 Embarcadero Road – This was the original office of Eichler Homes.  Between 1950 and 1974, Joseph Eichler's company built over 11,000 homes in California.  As in Levittown and other great suburban developments of the period, Eichler commissioned designs using affordable materials primarily for middle-class Americans.  One of his stated aims was to construct inclusive and diverse planned communities.

Palo Alto is lucky to have citizens interested in preserving the city’s rich architectural history.  From a purely practical standpoint, numerous studies have assessed the strong link between historic preservation and property values in both large and small cities.  This is especially relevant since the desire to live in Palo Alto shows no signs of abating.  North Palo Alto home prices have been rising 36% since the beginning of 2012.  Moreover, California Department of Finance statistics released in December 2013 confirm that Santa Clara County is the second fastest growing region in the state. 

What better way to celebrate Palo Alto’s 120th birthday than with 17 more centennial plaques.  PAST’s celebration will be held this Sunday, May 4th, at the Lucy Stern Community Center.  The afternoon begins at 2 p.m. with a talk about Jungianism in Palo Alto and continues with the centennial home birthday celebration at 3 p.m.  Check out the PAST website for a master index of historic homes, or to RSVP for the event:  http://www.pastheritage.org/plaques.html.