History Museum marks 40 years

Courtesy of Los Altos History Museum
Los Altos History Museum supporters attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new museum building in March 2001.

The Los Altos History museum celebrates its 40th anniversary Friday.

To commemorate the milestone, museum officials have scheduled a “Keep the Lights Twinkling” event, 5-7 p.m. Friday on the porch of J. Gilbert Smith House, 51 S. San Antonio Road. The special event is for museum members, Los Altos residents and couples who have been married at the venue.

Dec. 1, 1977, the Los Altos Historical Association held a party on the porch of the J. Gilbert Smith House to formally open the Los Altos History Museum. Museum founders selected the date because the city of Los Altos was incorporated 25 years earlier, Dec. 1, 1952.

Historical background

In 1905, J. Gilbert Smith completed his redwood-shingled Craftsman-style house on his San Antonio Road property, where he planted 5 acres of apricot orchards. His holdings grew to 10 acres, and his orchard became one of the Santa Clara Valley’s finest. Smith and his wife, Margaret, nurtured the home while cultivating not only their orchard, but also the cultural, social and civic life of early Los Altos.

In one of “most significant city actions since incorporation,” according to the Los Altos News, the newly established city of Los Altos in 1954 purchased 10 acres from Smith for the civic center site. By 1966, the orchard and house appeared on the Santa Clara County Register of Historic Places. When Margaret died in 1973, the house and remaining 1.36 acres were gifted to the city.

The Los Altos City Council created the Historical Commission in 1974 to plan the transformation of the Smith home into a museum to preserve the history of Los Altos. The History House launched in 1977 with an exhibition chronicling the Spanish Mission period.

The J. Gilbert Smith House and adjacent apricot orchard were designated local Historical Landmarks in 1981, and as a California State Point of Historical Interest in 1987.

Today, the apricot orchard is one of the few working orchards still intact in northern Santa Clara County, and it continues to thrive among the buildings on the civic center site.

The Historical Association began collecting artifacts and oral histories even before the museum opened to the public. The first artifact catalogued in the museum records is a black-and-white photograph of the front of a small building located on Main and Third streets. The caption reads, “Loaned at no charge to the City in 1953 by merchant Larry Payne, it was used as the first City Hall. Photograph circa 1956.”

The first oral history taken by the association was of Helen Furuichi Miyake in 1976. The Furuichi family story is also highlighted in the current exhibition on display at the museum, “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story.”

Current uses

Today, the Smith House is open for docent-led tours at no charge noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Highlights of the house include period furnishings, toys and decorative arts that evoke memories of a simpler time. Children especially can gain a new perspective and appreciation for present-day conveniences.

Volunteers decorate the house in accordance with the seasons, as the Smiths would have done. At this time of year, it is decked out with a tree and holiday trimmings.

In 2001, the Los Altos Historical Association opened a second building on the museum grounds, known originally as the Education Center but now referred to as the Los Altos History Museum.

The three-level, 8,200-square-foot building was constructed entirely with private donations. Ownership of the building was transferred to the city of Los Altos in 2002.

Popular features include a model of downtown Los Altos circa 1932, complete with model train, on the third floor of the museum. The building also boasts a changing exhibition gallery, an agricultural display, a museum store and a permanent exhibition surveying all of the people who have called Los Altos home through the centuries.

Admission to Friday’s special event includes music, food and wine tasting. Tickets are $20 each, or $30 for two.

For tickets and more information, visit

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