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Repurposing history: Transplanted houses bring a feel for the past as they travel the terrain


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier 
Residents who attended the Jan. 22 Los Altos Hills Planning Commission study session about a potential town hall remodel advocated for preservation of Heritage House, above, a 1909 home moved to town from Los Altos in 1985.

Newcomers could be forgiven for assuming they’d stumbled across a historical home that survived in situ as they stroll past Heritage House in Los Altos Hills or the Neutra House and Los Altos Community Foundation buildings, side by side in Los Altos on Hillview Avenue.

The homes, all tucked beside more modern developments, are original, but they’ve been lifted from their foundations and trucked across town as development deals and community interests evolved.

Private funding and public interest drive this preservation process, as cities often provide the land but not the money for re-homing a home. The Community House that now houses Los Altos’ Community Foundation, built in the early 1920s, used to stand at the corner of Edith Avenue and San Antonio Road. As the Parc Regent housing development rose in the late 1990s, its developers offered the house as a gift - if someone would take it. The foundation moved and renovated the cottage in its new location at 183 Hillview Ave.

A 940-square-foot cottage architect Richard Neutra designed in the 1930s left Marvin Avenue in 2005 for a new perch on the edge of the Los Altos Civic Center. The property’s owner wanted to build a new, larger home on the original site. The city provided the land but looked to local community boosters led by the foundation to raise more than $300,000 for the move and renovation.

A house for the Hills

When Abigail Ahrens and her business partner Frank Lloyd purchased a property on Second Street for redevelopment, it included a modest house with a long Los Altos history. A wood bungalow, the home is thought to be the first built in downtown Los Altos - and certainly the only one fired on in World War II.

Billy Eschenbruecher built the single-story, two-bedroom house in 1909. He ran the local hardware store, a crossroads for the "cracker barrel politics" of the era, based on stories Ahrens heard, as well as serving as postmaster. Lillian, Billy’s wife, took over as postmistress after his death, and their son Roy ran the store.

When the Ruble family purchased the house, they lived a relatively tranquil life on Second Street, with the exception of one day during World War II, when a shell from the Page Mill Army Camp firing range pierced their roof and tore into part of their kitchen.

When the Ruble family received city approval for the home’s demolition decades later, Ahrens said, that wasn’t anyone’s preference.

"To me, historical houses are few and far between in California, and it broke my heart to think of tearing it down," she said of their shared sentiment.

Ahrens knew that Los Altos Hills didn’t own a historical home like the J. Gilbert Smith House, which sits beside the Los Altos History Museum. And city staff were notoriously cramped in the town hall that served Los Altos Hills in the 1980s. Ahrens pitched a move up the hill for the Eschenbruechers’ house - and offered to pay for the transfer to the Fremont Road civic property just north of town hall.

Ahrens said it was "a major experience" to coordinate with the police and sheriff’s departments as well as Santa Clara County to temporarily shut Foothill Expressway for the house crossing in 1985. Local history enthusiasts raised money for a new roof, foundation and electrical system for the structure, now known as Heritage House, with volunteers providing much of the work.

Original plans to refurnish the home in turn-of-the-century period furniture and artifacts didn’t materialize. Although it was originally put to use by the town historian and committees in search of meeting space, its use was greatly constrained when the town’s Emergency Communications Committee began using the home as storage for emergency response equipment.

Friendly fire

Ahrens recalled speaking with family members about the 1944 artillery incident that brought Heritage House its first fame. An officer from the nearby military proving grounds came to the house after it was accidentally shelled by a .50-caliber machine gun round, she was told.

"He showed up with two very young-looking, shamefaced recruits who had fired off whatever it was they fired off, which had made it all the way from Page Mill Road to Second Street in Los Altos," Ahrens recalled.

Apparently, the Ruble family was good-humored about the incident, as the daughter of the family recalled offering them the apple pie that had been baking at the time of the shelling.

Discussion of demolishing the house emerged almost as suddenly this winter, when its removal figured as one option in a staff presentation envisioning how the Los Altos Hills Town Hall property might evolve. A new Town Green could replace the current location of the native plant garden, antique farm equipment and Heritage House. The concept was only one aspect of a preliminary conversation, Los Altos Hills Mayor Roger Spreen said, as the town tried to define the style and scope it wanted in a renovation. But for some of the town’s history buffs, even the suggestion came as a surprise.

The mention of a new use for the space sparked unanticipated enthusiasm for Heritage House, whose use has diminished over the years as it became largely relegated to storage. The emergency response equipment currently stored there will likely be moved to a new, mobile setup more like the trailer operated by the city of Los Altos.

Could the petite, one-story home then serve a new community purpose in keeping with the "passive, quiet, natural" style of the town’s property? Spreen said the community is interested in gathering spaces, but only on a scale that fits the "character of the town." Whether Heritage House could be updated in a cost-efficient way remains to be seen - but even then, its capacity would be best suited to small committee meetings or other limited work.

"We’re not trying to turn Heritage House into an activity center," Spreen said, noting that the town’s limited needs might not justify the expense of refurbishing the structure. "It is a charming little building. In an era where things get bulldozed and rebuilt without a thought, I completely understand people wanting to say, Let’s not be hasty about losing a piece of history, even if it has no historical connection to us."

According to Spreen, Heritage House doesn’t necessarily have meaning to Los Altos Hills beyond underlining that "we value historical things."

"We took the sofa that had been put out on the curb, we liked it - (but) is it worth reupholstering?" he asked.

New uses for an old house

Carol Gottlieb, co-chairwoman of the Los Altos Hills History Committee, said they were testing out the house as a meeting place for themselves and other committees. Documentation and maps used by the groups could also potentially find a home there - wildlife corridor and open-space agreement maps require regular consultation and large display space.

"We might be able to do history displays, maybe we could keep it open once a week - we could never compete with the Los Altos History Museum," she acknowledged. "But it is a quite charming little house. It could be used by the seniors for meetings or small gatherings."

Gottlieb said Heritage House is small, done in the style of the period, with lots of wood framing.

"It’s cute, it’s warm, it’s friendly - not the way it is decorated now, but it has that old charm to it," she said. "I grew up in a home that had a lot of the redwood paneling and the wood-frame doors. (But) if you like the modern and don’t like the old, you would think, Why do we want to keep it? - it is a matter of taste."

The fate of peer houses in the area gives some sense of Heritage House’s possible future. The Community and Neutra houses found local fundraising support from volunteer advocates.

The closest comparable historical house on civic property in Los Altos, the J. Gilbert Smith House behind the library, was restored and fully furnished in the style of an orchardist’s 1930s home, complete with surrounding apricot orchard. The effort required substantial funding and support from the Los Altos Historical Society, which had maintained the house since 1977 and debuted the new interior in 1989, and a devoted auxiliary that raised money, planned tours and events, and collected memorabilia.

Another historical home in Los Altos Hills, the 1901 Willard M. Griffin House located on Foothill College’s campus, became a contested site after no restoration plan was deemed financially feasible. The school attempted to demolish the house but was halted by a court order in 2006.

Meanwhile, the city of Sunnyvale donated land at Orchard Heritage Park and $500,000 in grant funding to rebuild a near-exact replica of the historical Murphy House, which had been torn down 40 years earlier. The Sunnyvale Historical Society and Museum Association reconstructed the home as a new museum site.

The Murphy family, early settlers in the Santa Clara Valley, had shipped their home in pieces around Cape Horn to San Francisco Bay. Sunnyvale was originally called Murphy Station because the family donated land to extend the railroad and create a train stop where the city now stands. The original house was torn down in the 1960s to make way for Central Expressway. ◆

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