Other Voices: The evolution of the Los Altos History Museum


I was recently asked, “How did the Los Altos History Museum get land in the middle of the civic center?” This is a very relevant question amid all the happenings on the civic center campus.

The demolition of Hillview Community Center and construction of a new community center has meant the displacement of other good nonprofit groups like Friends of the Library. How public land is allocated is always of community interest.

To answer this question requires a bit of a history lesson, however.

From the 1880s until the 1930s, the people living in this area were primarily orchardists, using the sun, soil and available water to grow fruit crops such as plums and apricots. Large plots of flat, arable land meant local dried and canned fruits could be exported all over the world. Eventually, however, the economics shifted, as the Central Valley became more productive, and more people were lured by jobs in the Bay Area. By the mid-1940s, it was more profitable to sell land to housing developers than to grow crops.

J. Gilbert Smith lived through all this change. He purchased land along San Antonio Road in what was unincorporated Santa Clara County in 1901, and planted more than 10 acres of apricot trees. But by the 1940s, the town of Los Altos had grown up around him. In 1952, the town incorporated, and it was looking for somewhere to locate city hall and other civic buildings, preferably near the commercial shopping district.

Smith and his wife, Margaret, who had been active volunteering in town and had no children of their own, had not been willing to sell their land to any private developer. But they did agree to sell a portion of their land to the new city of Los Altos, while they retained 1.3 acres and their house at the back of the lot.

So while city hall was being built, as well as the library, police station and youth center, the Smiths lived in the redwood home Smith had built. After he passed away, his wife wrote a letter to the paper, explaining that she intended to gift the house and surrounding acreage to the city of Los Altos, and hoped it would be used to educate people about the history of the town.

When Margaret Smith died in 1973, the city debated what to do with the Smiths’ generous donation. The county had listed the home and apricot grove as a Historic Landmark in the 1960s, so the city’s Historical Commission recommended turning the home into a local museum, which opened in 1977.

For many years, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department oversaw the museum and a group of active volunteers. When a large oak tree died behind the J. Gilbert Smith House, the volunteers organized into a nonprofit association and started fundraising to expand the museum. From 1989 until 2001, the association raised more than $3.5 million to build an open, free, public educational institution on the land the Smiths had donated to the city. When the building and exhibits were completed, they were gifted to the city by the nonprofit association. The city’s Parks and Rec Department continued to operate the museum from the new building until 2005, when the association agreed to completely take over management and operation.

So that’s the story of the Los Altos History Museum and why it is located on city property. It started with the donation of a building that needed to be put to good use, and a nonprofit association that grew up around that building to create a free public asset for all the citizens of Los Altos to enjoy.

Elisabeth Ward is executive director of the Los Altos History Museum.

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