The almost 80-acres historically known as The Hawthorns lies along Alpine Road in Portola Valley from the border of Portola Valley Ranch to Los Trancos Road and up the hill toward Los Trancos Woods. It has been held in only two families’ ownership since rancho days, some one hundred twenty five years, an amazing statistic. In 2007, it entered the public domain as a bequest. It will remain in open space in perpetuity, an unbelievably wonderful gift. Here is its story.
Of course it was Ohlone territory at first. Although no documented proof that they wandered this specific land has turned up, Ted and Rosie Luce discovered a pestle in the creek on their property, immediately across Los Trancos Road. And all early documents record that the Old Spanish Trail, on the other side of the property, was originally used by the Ohlone to walk to the coast for shellfish. So, surely the land between these two locations has born witness to an Ohlone presence.
In 1834 Maximo Martinez and one Juan Peralta gained ownership of the 13,000 acre Rancho el Corte de Madera from the Mexican government, all of Portola Valley and more. Peralta shortly left for family land in the East Bay, but the Martinez family held on to large portions until Maximo’s death in 1863. Most likely the Martinezes used it for grazing. There is a large barn on the property that allegedly dated from 1867.
Maximo’s son Antonio inherited what has come to be known as The Hawthorns. In time, Antonio put this portion of his inheritance up for sale. Louis Nissen bought it and immediately sold it to James and Ida Davis Allen in 1886. Perhaps Nissen was a realtor, or perhaps he was an agent of the Allen family.
James Monroe Allen was born in Ohio in 1844, graduated from Yale in 1867, studied law, and came to California in the 1870s, for reasons unknown. By 1879, he was voted a Superior Court judge. Although he didn’t sit on the bench for long, he was forever after referred to as “Judge.” He married Ida Davis in 1881. Ida too was from Ohio and the niece of US Senator from Nevada William Sharon. [NB: It was Sharon’s son Frederick who owned what became Sharon Heights in Menlo Park.]
The Allen Era
The newspapers of the time immediately began to report that Judge Allen was creating a gentleman’s farm, in the tradition of wealthy San Francisco residents seeking summer homes.
San Mateo County Times Gazette, Jan. 23, 1886: [Judge Allen] is busy putting the ground in proper condition for vines. …also intends to engage extensively in the culture of fig and olive trees.
San Mateo County Times Gazette, Dec. 25, 1886: …Seven acres were set out in grapes and about 500 olive trees were planted. The olives have thrived splendidly. About an equal number will be planted in the spring.
The newspapers also reported on the residence and outbuildings, announcing the arrival on the property of several thousand feet of lumber for a residence, a large barn and several outbuildings. Once again, the San Mateo County Times Gazette August 1887: On Judge Allen’s place, Mr. James Tannahill, [the contractor] has put in a ram, which pumps from the Trancos water enough to supply all the needs of the place…He has nearly completed the outside framework of Judge Allen’s fine residence Architect W. F. Smith says the carpenter work on this house is the best he has ever done on this coast.
By 1887, the Allens’ two-story house was ready for occupancy. The family, which included three children at that point, Harriet Elizabeth, Ruth and Frank Francis, moved to the country. The arrival of James Kirk and Clara Adelaide completed the family. The one known surviving photo of the house and children is dated 1893. Included in the photo are the five children, nurse Bridget Cox and a Chinese cook peering out an upstairs window. The judge commuted to the city for business. At times he apparently rented hotel rooms in San Mateo near the train station.
Daughter Ruth recalled her childhood at The Hawthorns as a “most perfect childhood” with ponies, dogs and horses. She recalled that her father planted every type of tree and that there were wonderful orchards and large expanses of lawn. Lining the edge of the property along Alpine Road was a hedge of hawthorn trees, brilliantly colorful in spring bloom and also in fall berries. Folks would come by surreptitiously to cut branches of flowers, and young boys with guns would shoot the birds attracted by the berries. The Allen place became known as The Hawthorns; mail could reach them addressed to: The Hawthorns, Redwood City, California.
The children had governesses rather than attend local schools, and when the children reached high school age, the family moved to the city and ever after used the Hawthorns as a summer place. Newspapers continued to report on the activities of the family with accounts of the judge’s business and social affairs and elaborate recounting of the engagements and weddings of Elizabeth and Ruth, as well as information about Clara’s attending school in Santa Barbara, being presented to society, and later deciding to enter a convent in Paris to become a nun.
Judge Allen died in 1913. In July 1916, Ida Davis Allen sold their beloved country place to Frances Newhall Woods and Frederick Nickerson Woods. The two families had had several connections over the years in San Francisco. The judge and Fred Woods, JR. had involvement with the Bank of California. Clara Allen had been a bridesmaid in the 1912 Newhall-Woods wedding.
The Woods Era
The Woods story at The Hawthorns begins with Henry Mayo Newhall. Henry came to California from Massachusetts in 1850, via Panama, with the intention of striking it rich in the gold fields. However, he got sick crossing Panama, and by the time he recovered, caught a ship to San Francisco and headed for the Mother Lode, it was too late. Discouraged by his lack of finding ‘color’ and running out of money, he determined to return home.
However, he was reluctant to show up at home with less money than he had when he left, so he put to work the auctioneering skills he had learned in the East. Successfully selling spare clothes, he then sold his ticket to Panama and decided to stay for a while. He caught the eye of a local auction house, was very successful at finding buyers for their wares, and in short order bought out the older owners. The H. M. Newhall Company was in business and doing well.
Thus, Henry was one of those men who came West with virtually nothing in their pockets and struck it rich, not in the gold fields but by providing services the miners needed. Like these men, he was smart, perseverant, far-sighted, and lucky. With a little surplus money, he began to buy up property in San Francisco. Eventually his purchases extended to the peninsula. Stagecoach or horseback travel down the peninsula was uncomfortable and time-consuming, and Henry realized that the area needed railroad service. And so, with two partners, he built the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad in the 1860s. An entrepreneur, indeed.
And on he went. He began to buy rancho property, up and down the coast, eventually accumulating some 150,000 acres from Monterey to Los Angeles counties. He ran cattle, figured out how to create irrigation, and planted orchards of various fruit trees. He was making a fortune. He married along the way, at first to Sarah Ann White, with whom he had 3 sons, Henry, (1853,) William Mayo (1854,) and Edwin White (1856.) When Sarah died in 1858, he married her sister, Margaret Jane, the next year, and they had two more sons, Walter (1860) and George (1862.) In time the five sons all went into business with their dad.
When Henry Senior died in 1882, the five sons and Henry’s widow Margaret incorporated the Newhall Land and Farming Company and divided up the many responsibilities. The company exists to this day, further expanded into the Central Valley and diversified from farming to town planning and more.
The son who is important to The Hawthorns story is Edwin, who was 21 when his dad died. He married Fannie Sillman Hall; Almer Mayo Newhall was born to them in 1881. When Fannie died, he married Virginia Whiting. They had two daughters, Virginia (1889) and Frances, (1891). Active in the city’s most important clubs and societies, the Edwin Newhalls traveled in the highest circles of San Francisco society. They lived in a fine house at 2950 Pacific Avenue and regularly cruised the bay in a palatial yacht similar to those in the earliest America’s Cup races. As was common in the era, newspapers provide glowing accounts of the high society set, including Virginia and Frances, their friends and cousins.
It was a storied lifestyle for Frances and her sister. Elaborate parties of the debutante season were one part. Both were active in the Cinderella Dancing Club and the Green Way Assembly although charitable work and athletics took priority. Both were splendid equestriennes. They belonged to the San Francisco Riding and Driving Club where they participated in tournaments. Both musical, they organized a fortnightly music club that met in homes of members. Visits to Martha’s Vineyard and their mother’s family there were regular summer events. One newspaper account reports of the sisters and their mother spending several months in the East, returning home with stunning gowns for the many parties planned for the social season.
When Frances and Fred Woods Jr. were courting, horseback rides in Golden Park were regular occurrences. Fred’s parents, both deceased by the time of their wedding, were Frederick Nickerson Woods, Sr. and Josephine Gertrude Tozer, also prominent and well-known San Franciscans. Josephine had a summer residence in Cupertino, “”Dell of the Woods.” Fred had three sisters who never married and lived together for fifty years in a house they bought in 1921. His two brothers were Herbert and Frank. Frances and Fred Jr. married in an elaborate wedding ceremony on June 1, 1912. Clara Allen, youngest daughter of James and Ida Allen was a bridesmaid.
Their first child, Virginia, was born in February, 1913; Frederick Nickerson Woods III came along on May 30, 1914 and Edwin in 1917. The young family lived in a Pacific Avenue apartment above a garage that Julia Morgan had designed for Frances’ parents next door to the Newhall residence. It was in 1916 that the Woods purchased a summer place, perpetuating the family tradition. They immediately began to make changes to the house at The Hawthorns.
The Woods were not as interested in horticulture as the Allens had been. Rather they focused on animals, horses of course, and for a time hogs. They added corrals and fencing and removed the Allen apple orchard in about 1918 to make room for pasture. However, their main residence continued to be in San Francisco until about 1940 when they moved to The Hawthorns permanently.
Life there seems to have been different from that of the typical country home for wealthy San Franciscans. The Woods lived simply. Remnants of outbuildings are the only indications of ranch life in which animals rather than orchards predominated. Various sheds with corrugated iron roofs, many dating from the Allen era, seem to have been used for various kinds of storage.
Frances, who had been educated at Dana Hall in Boston, continued to focus on horses. She had a riding ring around which she would drive her sulky. She provided a home for retired horses and donkeys from the San Francisco police department here and on family property in the east bay. In the 1930s, she packed up her three children and drove across country to spend the summer on family property on Martha’s Vineyard, with a chauffeur accompanying them in a second car. A bold woman, she was.
Frances’s husband Fred Jr. died in 1954. After his death, the property began to deteriorate from lack of care. Frances continued to live in the house with her daughter until she married in 1972 at age 59. From then on, Frances lived in the house alone until her death in 1978.
The Woods had apparently deeded some of the property to their son Fred III around 1952. He had married Harriet White around 1948, and they build a 1950s-style house on this property (4411 Alpine Road) and lived there until their deaths in 2005 and 2008. Fred III was a vice-president of the California Building Materials Supply Company. He and Harriet had two children: Fred IV, born in 1951 and sometime later a daughter, born with Down Syndrome and institutionalized her entire life.
This was the era of the old cars. Fred III collected them in quantity. They littered the property. At one point a caboose was a part of the collection. Fred IV roamed the 80 acres, as boys will, and followed his father’s interest in cars. For a time had a little business buying and selling them.
It all went terribly wrong in 1976. Fred IV and two friends, James and Richard Schoenfeld, high-jacked a school bus filled with 26 Chowchilla school children and their driver. Thinking, presumably, to obtain a large random, they imprisoned them in a truck buried in a quarry owned by the Woods family. The captives managed to get free, and the kidnappers were quickly apprehended, tried and sentenced to prison. Fred IV remains in prison at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
Frances died in 1978, shortly after her grandson was sent to prison. The house was little used after that. Fred III and Harriet retired to a quiet life in their house on the property. The Allen-Woods 80-acre estate could have been sold to a developer for multi-millions of dollars. However, it was bequeathed to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District with the Peninsula Open Space Trust holding a conservation easement over the property in perpetuity. Accompanying the bequest was a two million endowment for maintenance and improvements. It was the largest gift in the open space district’s history.
One further chapter remains to the Woods era. A portion of the property had been left to Fred IV for his lifetime, then passing into the public domain. Whether because of tax implications, a wish to make amends for his grievous mistake, or for some other reason, Fred IV ceded his rights, and the entire property became publicly-owned immediately.
The Public Era
This part of the saga is just beginning. Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) holds a conservation easement over the entire property, which is owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) in stewardship for the public. The Allen-Woods property is considered to be a part of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. In 2015, seven years after Fred III’s bequest, the property is still closed to the public.
The big house that the Allens built and that the Woods remodeled in 1916 instantly became a target of vandals who broke nearly all of the old windows which had to be boarded up. Rats ran wild inside and out, and that problem had to be dealt with. The walls were full of bees and honey; bee keepers had to be called in an attempt to save as many of the bees as possible. The roof required a plastic covering to prevent further deterioration due to rain. A chain link fence had to be erected and a motion-detection light installed to try halt further vandalism.
MIdpen has another problem. Its mission is the preservation of open space, not protection of historic structures, and public funds are limited. In addition to the Allen-Woods mansion, the historic complex contains several small outbuildings and three other buildings of considerable significance. The solution to the dilemma is to try to find a partner, with whom the agency can work to preserve the buildings while its staff tries to get trails built and the preserve open to the public.
To find this partner, it would be necessary to have as much information as possible about the buildings. Thus, in addition to dipping severely into the endowment to stabilize and protect the mansion, it was necessary to hire an architectural firm to evaluate the historic structures for their significance and for their structural condition. As a result of these comprehensive studies, Midpen learned that it had become owner of a set of buildings eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, not a circumstance to be taken lightly. The Hawthorns historic complex has been labeled a “gentleman’s farm,’ and a surviving representative of a way of life on the San Francisco peninsula from the 1860s until the end of World War II.
Midpen believes it has found the partner: Richard and Ann Crevelt. They have entered into what will be a tiered series of contracts, if all goes well. essentially a long term lease. Midpen owns the land in perpetuity; the Crevelts will make all the necessary repairs in the mansion (and the three important outbuildings in time) at their expense and have the pleasure of occupying the site. The first tier is about to get underway: a one-year permission to enter the property, to lay plans and to raise money. If that goes well, the rehabilitations will begin. Stay tuned.