- Published on Wednesday, 13 January 2010 04:10
- Written by Dru Anderson - Special to the Town Crier
The rural, pastoral scenes of 1950s-era Los Altos Hills seem light years away from today’s ultra-affluent community. It was a time when Maurice (Maury) and Helen Johnson began to make their mark as housing developers and civic leaders. Much of the history of early Los Altos Hills runs through them.
When Johnson and his wife of 70 years, Helen, both died last year, they left a 52-year legacy of community service, creatively designed homes and strong family ties. The Johnsons had lived in town since 1957.
Together, they worked side-by-side with their four sons to develop properties and homes in the Los Altos Hills area, including their first home on Moon Lane, as well as their last residence on Weston Drive.
Maury served as a director on the Purissima Hills Water District Board of Directors in Los Altos Hills, retiring in 2006 after 47 years of service. He saw the district grow from a small organization of middle-class residents, irrigating backyard fruit orchards, to a district providing water for some of the wealthiest households in Northern California.
“I came here (to his property near Fremont Road) because I heard there was water, and that I would have a water supply at the lot I had,” he recalled in an interview on file with the water district. “All the wells were generally not producing – people were running out of water.”
With Maury’s help, the district brought in pump stations, tanks and, finally, pipelines carrying quality water from the Hetch Hetchy system. He also helped establish the town’s first sewer lines.
Despite nearly 50 years on the water board, Maury said, “I wish I could be on the board again. … It’s interesting – you do some good, and you meet interesting people.”
Maury, born in Chicago in 1910 to Swedish parents, helped his father with their family dairy delivery business. Helen, born in 1918 in Youngstown, Ohio, spent most of her youth in Claremont, where she developed an early interest in land and home development.
Maury later attended Pomona College, where he earned a degree in economics and met Helen. They were married in 1939 and moved to Ontario in 1940, where they owned two large orange groves. After 14 years as a teacher in public and private schools, Maury started a construction business.
Helen, who had an eye for real estate, located all the properties they purchased and developed, and handled all the business finances. They built several homes in the Claremont and Palm Springs areas, then spent four years in the Bellingham and Waldren Island area of Washington state before relocating to Los Altos Hills.
Maury, a designer and builder of many homes in the area, was regarded as green builder decades before “green” became popular. The Johnsons constructed their home on Weston Drive, as well as a house they designed and lived in next door, out of recycled cedar salvaged from the old Yolo Causeway roadbed near Sacramento. The 3-inch-thick cedar planks were used in the ceilings. The wood was split to measure 1-inch thick for the exterior siding, lending a natural feel to the design.
“Like pioneers,” their son Tor noted, “they bought the land and designed and hand-built the houses. Between them, they touched just about every piece of history in the town.”
The massive redwood beams in the home were recycled from torn-down old buildings in the San Francisco business district. The style Maury admired and built was contemporary, influenced by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work he admired.
Inside the homes, Maury designed and handcrafted built-in drawers and doors. He even handmade the hammered-copper custom 2- and 3-switch wallplates.
Other homes were built on land they developed on Todd Lane, Weston Drive, Baker Lane, Aric Lane and Altamont Circle, where they developed lots. Weston and Aric were named after two of the Johnsons’ sons. Maury also developed plans for a housing development in Summit Woods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Tor recently toured the lots and homes he and his brothers and their parents worked on in Los Altos Hills, and he recalled the many features of contemporary design and creative use of recycled and unusual woods and techniques of post and beam construction.
The Johnsons designed and built their first home on what is now known as Moon Lane in the Saddle Mountain area.
Both Helen and Maury had a passion for the outdoors, nature and the arts, and they decorated their homes with art, sculpture and books from Japan, Sweden and other areas of the world. They had a special fondness for American Indian art, jewelry and culture. Japanese garden design is featured in their entryways, and plantings are accented with colorful maples.
Maury and Helen took pride in their respective Swedish and Polish heritages. Both were active members in the Swedish cultural fellowship of Lindbergh Chapter No. 494 of the Vasa Order of America, with whom they enjoyed dinner meetings at the American Legion Hall in Los Altos.
Helen was devoted to her family as well to music, organic gardening and cooking. Their kitchen had a full view of her beloved vegetable garden and the Japanese garden in the backyard.
Maury’s passions included architecture, music, literature, art, history, hiking in the mountains, skiing and working with his sons. Maury and Helen, members of the Sierra Club, were committed to conservation.
Note: Maury died Sept. 11, just shy of his 99th birthday. Helen died May 17 at the age of 91. They are survived by their four sons, Soren (Medford, Ore.), Aric (Oklahoma City), Tor (Los Altos) and Weston (Menlo Park); their grandchildren, Angelique, Greg, Toren, Lisa and Susanna; and their great-grandchild, Victoria.