One of the 20th century’s most famous architects paid a visit to Los Altos in 1954 and helped city officials pick the site for the civic center. It is a little-known tale, first uncovered by reporter Robin Hutchings in a 1977 Town Crier article.
Buried in the article about the upcoming dedication of the Los Altos History House, former Mayor George Estill Sr. and historian Joseph Salameda reminisce about how the civic center property was chosen.
It happened, they said, with the help of Frank Lloyd Wright.
“We were fortunate enough to have him tour the sites under consideration and give his thoughts,” Salameda said.
Quite a good day’s work for officials of a tiny San Francisco suburb. The article, unfortunately, supplies no further details.
We do know that Wright paid a well-publicized visit to the region in February 1954, just as Los Altos was searching for a place to build its city hall. Stanford University played host, and Wright stayed on campus with Dr. and Mrs. Paul Hanna in a house he had designed for them in 1936. By 1954, his interests had grown, as the Stanford Daily noted: “He has extended his originality to commercial and industrial design and has also been concerned with community planning.”
Flying in Feb. 10, 1954, Wright was feted at a Stanford dinner and then at a public lecture where Dean Ray Faulkner introduced him as “America’s greatest living architect.” According to the Palo Alto Times, “The audience jammed Memorial Hall and filled the Little Theatre for a broadcast of his talk.” The next morning Wright met with reporters, held a seminar, ate lunch with students and then, the Times reports, planned to leave the campus.
Sunset Magazine publisher Bill Lane wrote in his autobiography that it was that same day, Feb. 11, 1954, that Wright toured Sunset’s new Cliff May-designed headquarters in Menlo Park, noting that “Sunset Magazine is the best building I have seen all day!” No wonder Lane recorded the date.
Small town, big dreams
Because he was scheduled to depart the next day, it may have been just afterward that Wright came to Los Altos. The city had several sites in mind, including one near El Monte Avenue at Foothill Expressway (then still railroad tracks), in addition to the J. Gilbert Smith property on San Antonio Road.
“He decided the Smith place was the best for several reasons – the trees, the heritage of the Smiths and the fact that it was one of the earliest houses,” Salameda said. “It was rather apparent this was the spot.”
Los Altos resident George Estill Jr., 79, the son of the former mayor, said his father first met Wright when they helped defeat a 1953 plan to put Interstate 280 along the Foothill corridor, which would have demolished downtown Los Altos along with the Hanna House at Stanford. He thinks that his father may have hoped Wright would design the new Los Altos City Hall. But the city treasury was so bare in those days, officials had to pay for their own postage. And time was running out. Although Wright told reporters he was 84 during his visit, he was nearly 87. Three years later, he designed the new Marin Civic Center but did not live to see it built. He died in 1959 at the age of 91.
Yet Wright took time during a busy trip to help leaders of a brand-new city make a big decision, and that was quite a gift.
Today, the site is the Los Altos Civic Center, the place where a white-haired genius joined young city officials in Smith’s orchard to dream big dreams one February afternoon.