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Los Altos' legacy: the homey beginnings of Los Altos historic resources


Photo By: Courtesy of the Los ALtos History Museum
Photo Courtesy Of The Los Altos History Museum Frank Marini, an undertaker in San Francisco, built the Italianate residence at 220 University Ave. in 1926. Its present owners decorate for Christmas with a dazzling display of lights.

Town historian Don McDonald sits in a comfortable chair in his living room, legs up on a footstool, leafing through “Images of America: Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills,” a book he compiled in conjunction with the Los Altos History Museum.

The challenge is to identify five “historical gems” among the more than 100 Los Altos properties that appear on the Historic Resources Inventory of the Los Altos Historical Commission. No easy task, because each has something to recommend it.

“This bungalow was the first house built downtown and the only one to be fired on in World War II,” said McDonald, pointing to a modest structure, now named the Los Altos Hills Heritage House. William Eschenbruecher built the house on Second Street in Los Altos in 1908, and it was moved to Los Altos Hills in 1985. In 1944, an errant shell from the Page Mill Army Camp firing range pierced the roof and damaged the plaster in several rooms.

McDonald flips through a few more pages, stopping at a photograph of Morgan Manor in Los Altos Hills, a near-replica of Liverpool’s Speke Hall and once home to the Ford Country Day School.

“When it was up for sale years ago, it was rumored that Father Divine was interested in buying it,” McDonald said.

Whether this was true or not, the price tag for the property escalated.

All the vintage photographs have stories to tell. But it’s decision time. Following are snapshots of five historical houses that McDonald finds noteworthy for their architecture and/or the civic leaders who built them.

 

762 Edgewood Lane

Known as the Winchester-Merriman House, this is the original farmhouse (remodeled, of course) purchased in 1888 by Sarah Winchester for her sister and brother-in-law, Isabelle and Louis Merriman. The sisters planned to establish a horse-breeding farm on the 140 acres and named their ranch El Sueño – “The Dream.”

They embellished and added to the redwood frame structure. It grew from four rooms to 12 and took on a Victorian look. They added a porch with a low overhang hemmed in by carefully milled spindles. Mismatched windows gave the house an asymmetrical look, the latest architectural fad at the time.

The Merrimans called it home from 1888 until 1907, when it became the Chandler School for Girls, one of the many assets of the area listed in early promotional materials advertising Los Altos.

The Merriman house and the Winchester House (aka the Winchester Mystery House), another of Sarah’s remodeling projects, share common design features such as the unusual seven-petal rosette corner block found in each. The Merriman stairwell balusters are similar in design to the decorative fretwork found in the reception room of the Winchester House.

Through the years, a succession of owners updated the 3,148-square-foot house. Today it boasts four bedrooms, 3.5 baths, a pool and a guesthouse. Owners Laura and Kevin Donnelly are very much at home in the Victorian, having previously lived in one of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies.

 

500 University Ave.

Tricia and Bill Jennings lovingly restored this Craftsman-style house, built in 1910 for Los Altos founder Paul Shoup and his wife, Rose, in time for its centennial in 2010. And, thanks to the Jenningses, it is now on the National Register of Historic Places, the first property in Los Altos to achieve such status.

Before beginning the 2009 restoration of the 4,500-square-foot house, the couple spent more than three years researching its history, drafting plans, securing permits and undergoing the lengthy architectural review process.

The original narrow-plank wood floors, which were sanded and refinished, were revealed after they removed layers of flooring throughout the house. In one room, for example, wall-to-wall carpeting covered a wood-veneer floor over the plank floor.

When they pulled up the veneer floor in the dining room, they discovered the original wiring for the call bell, which Rose Shoup would have pushed with her foot to summon the maid.

Another dining-room discovery – after peeling off some paneling, they found evidence that the fireplace had been moved. It is back where it belongs, along with the original mantel and a handcrafted tile surround appropriate to the period.

“The fireplace never worked well. Now we know why,” said Tricia, who likened the restoration to an archaeological dig.

The living-room fireplace now boasts the original mantel, which Tricia discovered in the basement. And the kitchen walls are covered in the original beadboard, another discovery that had been camouflaged.

 

220 University Ave.

Frank Marini, an undertaker in San Francisco, built this Italianate home on University Avenue in 1926 for his four maiden sisters and himself. And, for a while, it was a retreat house for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Its four levels (7,200 square feet) feature fine woodworking and special touches like beveled-glass French doors. It is surrounded by 2 acres of landscaped grounds spreading across Adobe Creek. McDonald refers to it as “a prime showcase estate of old Los Altos.”

At Christmas, the house, with its dazzling lights, is a gift to the community from Nan and Chuck Geschke, who are only the third owners. They haven’t changed the feel of the house since purchasing it from Tammy and Jerry Tossy, although they have upgraded the electrical and plumbing systems and combined two bedrooms upstairs to create a master suite.

“The fixtures are original to the house, and the foyer, living room and dining room are the same,” Nan said. “We have enjoyed owning it because people enjoy seeing it. It’s a pleasure living here.”

 

439 Rinconada Court

Built in 1895 as the centerpiece of Farnsworth Farms, the beautifully restored house is an exemplary mix of Queen Anne and Eastern Stick (Tudor) architecture. A Queen Anne L-shaped porch wraps two sides of the house. From the porch, you enter the past through the original oversize oak-and-glass front door. The doorknob has interlocking letter Fs (for Farnsworth Farms) and the date 1895.

The home’s first residents, the David Farnsworths, planted a row of Canary Island palms that led to the farmhouse. The eight that remain are Rinconada Court landmarks and have been placed on the city’s heritage list.

Landscape designer John McLaren laid out the grounds around the farmhouse. He is best known for landscaping Stanford University and Golden Gate Park.

Perhaps most noteworthy among the succession of owners was Judge Paul L. Myers Sr., who purchased the property in 1944 and taught his children to live off the land. When they left home to attend college, the “farm” part of the property was sold, becoming the present-day Rinconada Court and Dracena Lane.

 

39 Pine Lane

At one time, this was the “cultural center” for what became north Los Altos, according to McDonald.

Emma and Edward Carothers purchased the 1898 farmhouse and surrounding 15-acre orchard in 1905. Two years later, they formed the Music and Literary Club with 56 charter members who shared their cultural interests.

Later renamed the San Antonio Club, it took on civic causes, petitioning Santa Clara County for such amenities as bringing electricity into the area and improving Giffin (now San Antonio) Road by watering summer dust and spreading gravel on winter mud. The club met at the Carothers’ home until the new San Antonio Club was completed.

An excerpt from the Oct. 9, 1908, Mountain View Leader: “All the available men, big and little, worked at the clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon. … Merrily went the sound of many hammers, in a pleasant concord, as all worked together for the fulfillment of this project, which means so much in the community’s advancement and welfare. At dusk, the volunteer laborers trooped over to the great oak in front of the Carothers’ hospitable mansion where the ladies of the club spread a bountiful supper.”

It was this great oak that attracted Barbara and Tom McCarthy to the property.

“We bought the house because of the tree,” she said.

Sadly, they lost the tree last year after enjoying it for 30 years.

“Images of America: Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills” (Arcadia Publishing, 2010) is available at the Los Altos Library.

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