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Pioneer home: 1909 Craftsman one of earliest LA homes


The dark exposed wooden beams, fireplace surround and window trim of this classic Craftsman are brightened by light streaming through four large front windows and two smaller leaded glass windows in the living room.

It was 1909 when the Altos Land Co. distributed an illustrated brochure advertising "the Loveliest Place on the Peninsula" as an Eden for new homesteaders.

"The town bears the surname of the Crown of the Peninsula," the brochure reads. "Whether or not it is the most beautiful townsite in California, is left confidently for the reader to decide after viewing it."

Lots with 50-foot frontages could be had for $400 to $450 (more for corners), at 20 percent down and five percent per month. Telephone and electrical service was being installed. And the water supply, "pumped into a 60,000 gallon steel tank, gives exceptional pressure for fire and domestic service."

As proof, a photograph shows one lonely stucco house sitting in a recently reclaimed pasture with the giant water tank in the background.

That house, at 580 Orange Ave., is now for sale for $1,725,000. It has been added to and updated since 1909, of course, yet retains a primary place on the historic register of early homes in town.

It was built for city father Paul Shoup's sister Faith and her husband, Al Robinson. While it was being built, the Robinsons lived in a cottage at 626 Palm that was later moved to Shoup Park. Shoup gained fortune as president of one of the rail companies that began Los Altos as a depot stop between San Jose and San Francisco.

He also was part owner of the land company. One of his properties in the nascent downtown was a two-story building at Second and Main streets, now a bank. Robinson ran a grocery store on the first floor.

The Orange Avenue home's current owners don't want their names used, but they have lived there for 26 years, enjoying their own period of relatively unspoiled natural beauty. With Adobe Creek and acres of pastureland nearby, the couple's three boys spent most days outdoors just being kids. The owner built a high plate rail in the first-floor half-bath to display the kids' collection of old bottles and insulators discovered during their explorations.

When the current owners moved in, the house was a rental and many of its charming Craftsman characteristics were obscured by modern additions. White shag carpeting hid beautiful natural wood floors. Much of the dark exposed wood beams, built-in cabinets and buffet was covered with layers of white paint. The kitchen walls were "a mucky yellow" with salmon-colored Formica countertops and an old linoleum floor, the owner-husband said.

As built, the house had one bedroom, a bath, kitchen, living room and parlor. A large enclosed sleeping porch occupied much of the back of the house. Subsequent owners replaced the sleeping porch with a master bedroom and bath. The current owners put up a wall to divide the original bedroom in half to give their boys some privacy and bit-by-bit began bringing the home back to its former glory.

The second floor was a big, open attic under a gabled roof, and the owner wanted to put a couple of dormers up there and turn it into living space. But the city decided that would harm the historic look of the house, so a second story was added instead. To prepare for that, the house had to be nearly support to gutted, the enormous redwood beams taken out and a stronger foundation for a top story added.

Today, the new second story is much in keeping with the home's historic look, with a master bedroom and bath, a vestibule with window seat and guest room with bath.

The master bath is an example of the detail orientation that makes the new parts of the house mesh so beautifully with the old. It is white, with two pedestal sinks and identical mirrored cabinets above both. Between the cabinets are vases attached to the wall, filled with fresh flowers.

The owners knew they wanted a subway tile look in the master bath, but could not find the right tile. A daughter-in-law hand-cut the pattern herself, and inlaid the white tile with groupings of black hexagons. All the hardware is brushed or police nickel. And several workmen wrestled a 600-pound cast iron tub with claw feet up the stairs as the room's piece de resistance.

Downstairs, the parlor, where youth dances were held when the home was used as an Episcopal parsonage, has a large built-in buffet occupying one wall. One of the owner's sons, then 10, was given the task of stripping the layers of white paint off the wood and hardware. It took several weeks. Now the buffet is the star of the room that is used as a dining room. It retains a mirrored panel that can be removed for use as a pass-through for food coming from the kitchen on the other side.

The owner put in new wood plate and picture rails to continue the decorative theme from the living room.

Much of the living room is original to the house, including a stained glass window in a vestibule and two leaded glass windows on either side of the marble fireplace. Transom windows ran side-by-side in the front of the house, but they became a casualty of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The owners installed four large windows, surrounded by the old dark wood, that bring light flooding into the room.

A period archway leads from the small foyer into the living room - a feature so unique that builders and friends have examined it in hopes of copying it for their homes.

When the boys grew up and moved out, the owners removed the wall in the middle of the first-floor bedroom and turned the room into a study. They put up high wood wainscoting and trim so that most of the room is wood.

Of all the projects involved in the home's renovation, it was staining the wood in the study that really got under the owner's skin, he said. When he was done, he told his wife, "Don't ever let me stain again!"

The owners turned the backyard tumble of weeds into a lawn and flower beds. A large wooden trellis covered with wisteria vines shields a hot tub below. The garage, larger than most, includes a small shop and place for a car. It exits onto a backyard alley, a selling point of the homes advertised in the 1909 brochure.

The 62-year-old husband and 58-year-old wife also have a 1,600-square-foot cedar cabin and were finding that keeping up both it and the house was too burdensome. So they are selling their lovingly restored house to move into the cabin.

Now that they have retired, they spend most of the year traveling the country and applying their considerable homebuilding skills to Habitat for Humanity properties. They are Habitat Caravaners, and will spend the fall in Taos, N.M., helping build a home for a low-income family.

The house isn't the only antique on the property. Chelsea the cat, a fat, orange tabby, lounges in the backyard. Deaf and not too quick on her feet, she is 20 years old. The owners hope that buyers will let her stay with the property.

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