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'Modest mansion': Spacious atmosphere marks historic Los Altos Avenue home

At 125 Los Altos Ave., you can feel the force of time and changing families keeping a gentle balance. Walking from one room to the next in this home, you can see the rapid progression of several generations.

The five-bedroom house was completed in 1927, four years after naval architect Albert Diericx and his wife, Essie, contracted with the Minton Co. to build them a two-story home. The Mountain View Register-Leader celebrated completion of this "modest mansion" and heralded its "wide, dustless driveways" and 'Oil-o'matic heat.' " Modern visitors can still understand why the Register-Leader remarked: "Do you wonder that Mrs. Diericx always wears a smile?"

Over the years, three more families lived in the house - the Betons, the Gilberts and the Finnigans. The two families who lived there the longest were the Betons with 17 years and the Finnigans, who remain there after 41 years.

Sue Beton Smith of Sunnyvale could hardly believe her eyes when she recently came upon the bill of sale from July 31, 1939, for … $14,000! Her father, Billy, was a San Francisco importer-exporter who moved the family south after his wife, Eleanor, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Doctors thought the dryer air would help. Smith and her sister, Muriel, had the run of the place and its acres of plum, apricot, almond and peach trees.

"We'd just say to our mother, 'We'll see you later,' and off we'd go," she said. They would be gone all day, visiting town and "hiking all over the hills," she said.

In those days, the front door opened into a sunroom. "There were sliding doors from the living room into the dining room and sunroom that were like the doors on a ship,'' she said, "with beautiful beveled glass."

There also was one downstairs bedroom with an adjoining bath for the maid, a kitchen, pantry and an open closet in which Smith's father hung his air raid mask during the war. And there was a built-in refrigerator, quite a luxury in its day.

Upstairs was a set of two bedrooms with an adjoining bath in the middle, one on either side of the hallway. There was also a gardener's cottage, a roost for chickens and pigeons and a hothouse where seeds became plants for the extensive flower and vegetable gardens and her father's prize-winning chrysanthemum beds.

But the piece de resistance was what the Bretons called the outdoor dining room - a freestanding structure made mostly of windows where guests for their many barbecues enjoyed Billy Breton's roast lamb.

After moving in to the home in 1964, Bette and Robert Finnigan built a swimming pool used the building as a pool house. By then the acreage had been subdivided, yet still leaving the Finnigans and their six - soon to be seven - children plenty of growing space.

"We looked for a long time,'' Robert Finnegan said. "It sort of fit us."

The Bretons had kept chickens for fresh eggs and some pigeons for eating. The Finnigans' second son, Patrick, filled up the backyard with more chickens and pigeons, roosters and peacocks. The family always had a dog and a couple cats. All the children learned to swim in the family pool. The house was close enough that the kids could bike to school in junior and senior high.

Just stepping through the door of the Finnigans' 5,000-square-foot home quickly shows why their 41 years there have seemed like a blip in time. The front rooms glow with the warm colors and the antique scent of original gum woodwork, and panes of original glass shimmer in the light. The old wood surrounds the fireplace and adjoining built-in bookcases with beveled glass.

Today, the curves of the hardwood floors and plaster archways show little hint of the adventures such a large family had in its day. But Patrick Finnigan has definitely left his mark. Now a Portola Valley architect, he expanded the back of the house while preserving the pristine charm of the original 1920's building. For the most part, the house is as it was. But on the back wall of the fireplace an entirely different home emerges - the bold geometric shapes of a long gallery, done up in distinctly modern shades of chestnut, green and red, and luminous with recessed lighting.

Patrick Finnigan tucked the new kitchen and family room together in a profusion of sleek lines and yellow, moss green and brick red paint. He also built one of Los Altos' first solar-powered heaters for the swimming pool, in 1975.

Next to that weathered-wood structure stands an oak that has grown with the Finnigan family from waist-high sapling into a towering, wide-girthed presence in the yard. The oak has watched over three Finnegan weddings, and has been watched over diligently in return.

A line of tall, ancient pines along the edge of the property seems as beloved as another child. "We've taken care of them over the years," Bette Finnigan said, recounting the family's loss of just one pine, which fell several years ago. "It's like you're out in the forest." And indeed, the lazy scent of pine follows a visitor around the home. Wisteria and cedar, oak tree and pine, the natural world cradles this house in a riot of green.

The Finnigans' six grandchildren who live in the area enjoy the pool, and family still fills up the huge dining room and living room on holidays. None of the children is eager to take on the expense of running the home, Robert Finnigan said, so he and Bette Finnigan haven't made any decisions about their home's future.

"The property is subdividable," he said, "but we would hate to ever see that because it's like a park in here.

"It's taken a lot of upkeep, but we think of it as sort of a trust."

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