Stegner studio project put on hold

Photo By: Town Crier file photo
Photo Town Crier File Photo

The leader behind a plan to salvage the late author Wallace Stegner’s Los Altos Hills writing studio from demolition appears to have put his proposal on the backburner for now.

Resident Les Earnest wrote in an email to the project’s donors last week that because “the Town of Los Altos Hills has not even begun to consider our August 22 request for approval of a destination site” to relocate Stegner’s studio, he could begin refunding donations soon.

“If a decision is made to preserve the structures in place, that would be great, but it appears to me to be very unlikely,” Earnest wrote in an email to the Town Crier.

Earnest and members of the town’s Historical Commission were scheduled to meet Jan. 17, after the Town Crier’s press deadline, to discuss future plans.

Several city councilmembers interviewed agreed that prospects for repurposing the studio as a museum appeared dim, but they didn’t see their inaction as the reason for the delay, which has proven costly for the homeowners.

The structure, in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stegner wrote several of his novels, sits on a private hilltop property on South Fork Lane. The homeowners, Yew-Nam and Wan Lei Yong, purchased the home for $2.2 million in 2005 and submitted plans to town staff that called for razing the existing home and building a 7,323-square-foot residence.

Town officials were ready to fast-track the project midway through last year, but a late complaint filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) over Memorial Day weekend alleging that the town hadn’t undertaken proper historical review of the structure required them to hire a consultant to evaluate the claim.

A report is due next month.

Because the town restricts lot grading from October to April, the Yongs’ architect, Ray Neal, said they had missed their window last year.

Earnest’s suspension of the project came well after the town retained the consultant, so it doesn’t affect whether or not the Yongs can proceed with their home construction.

The homeowners did not respond to an email requesting comment on the matter.

Several city councilmembers have called the push to relocate the studio and refurbish it as a Stegner museum with a robotic docent a “surprise” and a financial boondoggle.

“There was a lot of notice for people that if they wanted to do something, the property was on the market,” said Councilwoman Ginger Summit. “This is putting an unnecessary burden on the property owner.”

Councilman Gary Waldeck said the city council could have overridden the requirement to review the property’s historical significance but chose not to because of the potential threat of a lawsuit from the NTHP.

“I thought it was unfair, a big surprise,” Waldeck said of the effort to save the 13-foot-by-20-foot structure. Earnest “acted unilaterally. … There’s a list out there of historical properties. This is not on that list.”

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