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Hidden treasures: Historical home reveals secrets to the past

Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town CrierNick Tanner and Dr. Jill Hagenkord’s home on Formway Court in Los Altos boasts a colorful history dating from the early 1900s.

Nick Tanner always has loved historical houses and thought it would be cool to own one with a hidden passageway and secret room.

He got his wish – and then some – when he and his wife, Dr. Jill Hagenkord, happened upon the house on Formway Court in Los Altos built by Mary Jane and William Lee Formway at the turn of the century. The name Formway is familiar to many because of the Formway Machine Shop, which gained worldwide fame. The house was passed down to second-generation owners William E. and Myrtle Formway.

Tanner, Hagenkord and their two young children, transplants from Nebraska, were biding their time in a rental while searching for a house in a tight market.

Then one day last year, by chance, Tanner spotted a “For Sale” sign on Formway Court as he was rehearsing a “Gangnam Style” dance with a group of Almond School fathers who literally danced their way there. A fence separates the school and the homes on Formway Court.

Tanner, a connoisseur of history, fell in love with the house – not to mention the three-car garage with a casita above it. His wife liked the deck and backyard with its towering redwoods. And Catie, 9, and Mark, 6, could play on a quiet cul-de-sac adjacent to their school.

“I literally drop Mark over the fence when I take him to school,” said Tanner, a stay-at-home dad. Hagenkord, who graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine, is a molecular genetic pathologist and chief medical officer at InVitae.

The family moved into the home five months ago and are on a voyage of discovery.

“I go around the house and look for treasures,” Tanner said. “You never know what you’re going to find, and what you do find is not around anymore.”

Just the other day, he discovered a hidden room behind a wall in the upstairs master bedroom.

Best of both worlds

The two-story clapboard Period Revival farmhouse, which boasts a hipped roof and small hipped-roof dormer, was built between 1905 and 1910, surrounded by 10 acres of apricot, peach and prune trees.

In 1921, Formway established the Formway Machine Shop, located on 1.5 acres at 514 Almond Ave. It began as a Model T garage before becoming a manufacturing firm for walnut hulling equipment, notably the Wizard Walnut Huller. The first Formway Wizard machine is still on display at the Los Altos History Museum.

The orchards vanished and, in 1971, Formway Machine Shop pulled up roots and moved to Sunnyvale. But the farmhouse survived and has been well loved.

“I think it takes a special kind of person to own this type of home because of the work that needs to be done,” Tanner said. “The previous owners did a great deal to improve the property. Much like they did, we, too, are doing our best to add value.”

For instance, Tanner just redid the uneven and distressed driveway, removing 7,000 bricks and replacing them with concrete pavers.

“Because I’m a one-man show, I have yet to start on the pathways,” he said.

The bricks are part of the property’s history, so he managed to recycle some of them in the neighborhood.

“History is what makes the house special,” he said. “Inside, you can see the transition from old to newer style of architecture. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Previous owners Bill Heenk, owner of Sequoia Landscape & Construction in Los Altos, and his wife, Doreen, lived in the home for 10 years.

“My wife and daughter found it on the market back then, and we couldn’t turn it down. It had so much character,” said Heenk, who was familiar with remodeling older homes.

He renovated the kitchen, moved the stairs to create more space, repiped with copper, installed a Trex deck and putting green and added “little things to be comfortable.”

Toward the end of their occupancy, the Heenks added a family room because rooms in older houses are typically small.

“It was to welcome new grandkids. We made sure the new exterior matched the rest of the house,” said Heenk, adding that it “was fun living there and we really miss it.”

Hidden treasures

Meanwhile, the new owners are adding their stamp to the house, which is a historical gem. Doors have Tiffany-style stained-glass panels and glass or brass doorknobs. The original built-in sideboard (minus the doors) graces the dining room, which is encircled by a plate rail and illuminated by a Venetian glass and crystal chandelier. A half-bath has a pull-the-chain water closet and pedestal sink.

Off the foyer to the left is a sitting room with a window seat. Next comes a small bedroom with its adjoining bathroom. To the right, next to the dining room, is a bedroom paneled in redwood. At the rear of the lower floor are the family room, open kitchen and old walk-in pantry.

Upstairs is really one big master suite, complete with his-and-hers opposing sinks set in antique sideboards. The taps were made by Herbeau, a French company that makes new faucets that look like old ones.

At one time, the upper floor was divided into three small bedrooms. Perhaps that accounts for the hidden room Tanner discovered.

“This house has lots of character,” he said. “It’s a mystery house that keeps revealing itself.”

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