Category Archives: Portola Valley Places

The Story of Windmill School

Everyone who travels on Portola Road in Portola Valley notices the whimsical windmill that has stood on the corner of Georgia Lane for ninety-nine years. Some probably know that it isn’t really a windmill; rather it’s a structure placed atop a well by William Fitzhugh, the owner of an estate called Catoctin, todays’ Grove and Stonegate.

But few know that a Portola Valley institution had its beginnings right beside that windmill around sixty years ago. That institution is the Windmill Preschool. Ever wondered why it’s called Windmill? Now you know. Since the preschool is soon to begin a new chapter in its evolution, this seems a good time to tell its story.

It was in the 1950s, most probably 1957, that Irma Scheller, a young mom who lived on Wyndham, decided to open a preschool in the little house that stood beside the windmill. The house wasn’t in very good shape, and It was a simple beginning for the school she called Windmill Day Nursery School. Among its features were a six-foot long green fiberglass dinosaur and a tan four-foot tall horse with a white mane.

Mrs. Scheller probably didn’t know that the very site where she started her preschool had been the home of the Corte Madera Brewery in the 1870s.

She ran the school until 1969 when the land with the house was purchased by Sharon and Dennis Reichardt. They ran the school for a few years and in 1974 hired Joan Barksdale from the renowned Bing Nursery School at Stanford to be the director. Learning through play continued to be the school’s philosophy. Since the house was small, and since our climate is what it is, much of the program was outside: walking through the nearby orchard, looking at the creek that was right there, playing with the goat, gathering eggs from the chickens and the watching the sheep being sheared every year. The garage was on a slab, and that’s where the easels were set up for art. There were ten or twelve families, who all became good friends.

When the Reichardts decided to sell the property in the mid-1970s, the families of Windmill wanted the preschool to continue. By then about seventy children were enrolled. Possible sites were few, but the little stone building on the Alpine Hills Swim and Tennis Club property that had served as the Town Hall was empty. The group created a non-profit corporation with a volunteer board of directors. They raised money, came to an agreement with with Alpine Hills and the Town,  donated hours of physical labor to get the building and grounds ready, and moved the Windmill Preschool into new quarters in 1977.

The families probably didn’t know that before their preschool became the Town Hall, the building had been Eugene Kelly’s saloon in the teens and twenties and later the center of the Manginis’ Picnic Park until 1958, a spot where many a glass of beer had been quaffed. Their historic bar is featured in the swim and tennis club today.

It turned out to be a good fit. At first a maximum of 21 children from ages 2 ½ to 6 were allowed at any one time, with up to three teachers. The youngsters could participate in a tennis camp and a swim program in addition to the regular learn-through-play curriculum.

Now we come to the present. The little stone house is really too small for the kinds of programs the staff would like to offer today. And the swim and tennis club needs the building. So the search for new quarters has been on. Options aren’t much greater today than they were in the mid ‘70s.

After a long, diligent search, the board of directors purchased the Al’s Nursery site, 900 Portola Road, in 2015. When the new buildings are ready, in the fall of 2017, they have plans to add to the program—morning classes for all preschool age groups, a ‘young fives’ class, and enrichment classes for both preschoolers and young elementary school students. They will establish also a Family Education Center.  The tradition of play-based learning for all the community’s preschoolers will be enhanced, and the school will, for the first time in its sixty years of existence, have its own home.

And those families that established the non-profit foundation in the 1970s? They established personal bonds as well, went on to play many leadership roles in the schools, and remain good friends today.

The Hawthorns

The Hawthorns

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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

James AllenThe 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. TheAllen-Woods Home 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, viaHenry Mayo Newhall 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 Newhall Yachtclubs 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 inFrances Wood 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 Frances and childrenchildren 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 Woods house with caption test 1space, 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 has found their 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 have formed The Hawthorns Preservation Trust Foundation  to raise capital to make the necessary repairs in the mansion (and the three important outbuildings in time.) They plan to provide the community with a much benefit as possible. 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.

The Story of Incorporation, Part III

 Realizing that the post-war boom roaring through the small towns of the United States was beginning to reach the valley, a group of seventy-five residents met at the Portola Valley School on January 13, 1955 to discuss how to “protect the rural character of the area, to defend it against intensive development, the population boom and urbanization.” They created an organization they called the Portola Valley Association. It was the first of many, many meetings committees and studies before Portola Valley became an incorporated town in 1964, thereby allowing residents to make their own land-use decisions.

   In 1955, few Americans worried about over-use of land, or about pollution, or environmentalism. Bigger was considered better. Earth Day demonstrations would not be held for another fifteen years, the Environmental Protection Agency would not come into being until 1970 and global warming was unknown, never mind a household word. Yet these citizens of the village of Portola Valley wanted to grapple with environmental and other and land use issues before irreparable damage was done.

By 1957, a committee composed of Horton Whipple, Bob Brown, and Albert Boissevain had prepared a 25-page report detailing problems based on increasing pressure from subdividers and commercial interests.

Bob Brown
Bob Brown

Their report used the approximate borders of the school district.  Their entire report was mailed to all residents.  Most read it, and many attended long meetings about growth and possible solutions. Democracy was alive and well.

A postcard poll followed. Results: 400 cards returned; 201 against incorporation,   50 for it, and 149 wanting to postpone incorporation.  The Association dropped plans for incorporation and focused on developing a master plan for the area and studying  the  possibility of annexation to Woodside.

Then John Francis Neylan, owner of 1500 acres above Portola Road, sold property  along the road to the Northern California Presbyterian Homes. They planned a retirement home on the site.

Sign showing the location for the Sequoias Retirement Community
Sign showing the location for the Sequoias Retirement Community

Although the plans were relatively modest, one feature alarmed residents: the introduction of sewers to the valley. Until that time, the sole use of septic tanks, which required large leach fields, provided a natural brake on growth. A sewer line, however, could make possible close, multiple hook-ups and small lots, even apartments. Canvassing by the Association showed widespread opposition to the complex, but the County of San Mateo approved the project, named by then the Sequoias, anyway. Here was significant proof that local control was the only way to preserve their valley. How best to accomplish this was the dilemma.

The Portola Valley Association proclaimed itself neutral with regard to what decisions should be made to achieve that goal; members considered it an information gathering body and a clearing house for discussions. The Association hired Griffenhagen-Kroeger, a highly respected consulting firm specializing in local governments, to study such issues as a description and costs of existing government service, the operating budget the proposed city would require, non-property tax revenues available, and fiscal consequences of annexation.  They presented their report in April.  More discussions. Democracy is time-consuming.

1960 Incorporation Map for the Town of Portola Valley
1960 Incorporation Map for the Town of Portola Valley, California

Meanwhile, a number of people within the Association continued to believe that incorporation was the only way to assure reasonable development in the valley. The Committee for the Incorporation had been formed in January and planned to go through the required procedures to bring a vote. The first step was to file a Notice to Circulate a Petition for Incorporation with the county along with a map of the proposed new town. The petition had to have signatures from at least 25% of the population within the boundaries, who represented at least 25% of the assessed valuation of that area.  That notice was filed with the county on February 1, 1960.

On March 4, 1960, John Francis Neylan (yes, the man who had sold land for the Sequoias) sent the first of many mass letters to the “Residents and Tax Payers of Portola Valley” announcing his intention to procure signatures of the owners of 51% of the land’s assessed valuation. Presenting such a petition to the Board of Supervisors would be sufficient to halt incorporation. His goal: “to stop the headlong rush into unknown taxes and turmoil.”

John Francis Neylan was a formidable foe to the Committee for Incorporation. He was the lawyer for William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the old San Francisco Call, State Controller, and twenty-eight-year member of the University of California Board of Regents.

John Francis Neylan
John Francis Neylan

Alexander Bodie, editor of the Palo Alto Times knew him well. He wrote: “He was a biased, opinionated and often an irritating  man  – I think he would have taken that as a compliment.” Neylan spoke of himself thusly: “Some people love me, some people hate me; no one within the sound of my voice is indifferent.”

The battle was engaged.

The Committee began circulating its petition to incorporate on April12. They needed 443 signatures based on 1772 property owners, and  representation of  $700,408 of $ 2,801,635 of assessed valuation.

Neylan fired off a series of letters, including response postcards.  He first garnered support of the large landowners; others followed. His frequent letters to the community, using words such as “sly and slick maneuvers, a dearth of intelligent arguments”, and “misrepresentations and fraudulent statements,” about the Committee to Incorporate were enormously effective.

On June 1, the Petition to Incorporate was filed with 548 names, 30.9% of residents who represented $717,104.50, 25.595 % of the assessed valuation of the proposed town. It was enough!  A hearing was set by the Board of Supervisors for September 15, at which time it was presumed that they would set a date for an incorporation election.

Meanwhile, Neylan had filed petitions of protest from 680 residents representing $1,305,815 of assessed valuation; it was $200,000 short of the required 51%. Since another 212 more protests had been filed at the last minute, the hearing was postponed so that the names could be verified.

In the end, on October 6, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring that 55.2% of owners of more than 51% of the assessed valuation had protested. The incorporation attempt had failed.

John Francis Neylan had died on August 19.

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

In June of 1874, the editor of the Telegram and Gazette took a drive along Portola Road.  This excerpt from his report is a reminder of how quickly the loggers passed through the valley and how rich their harvest must have been.

Moving towards Searsville we pass through the farm of Supervisor [Hugh] Kelly. It puts us in mind of the early days. Here and there through the grain are redwood stumps, of large size, but black and blistered from the effects of the many fires to which they have been exposed. Hardly a score of years ago this very spot was a forest of giant trees, and nearby was a sawmill manufacturing lumber [probably the Mastic mill on Bull Run Creek near Wyndham Drive]. The ravines were full of men and teams, and the yell of the bullwhacker and the pop of his whip rang upon the air with the roar of going artillery. How changed! The timber is gone, as are the bachelor axmen and their cabins, and in their place is the permanent home, the orchard, the wife and the little ones…

An excerpt from the June 6, 1874 issue

Portola Road vicinity, 2003
Portola Road vicinity, 2003

Karen and John Wu

Al’s Nursery

Karen Wu is the daughter of Al Bertschinger, the longtime owner of Al’s Nursery on Portola Road. The business, started in 1959, was the way of life for the family from the beginning. At first they lived in the little building that became the office, then in 1960 in a house they built on the site. Both Karen and her sister worked alongside their parents, beginning by pulling weeds. “Work first, then play,” was the motto. (Play was sometimes in the dirt of sparsely traveled Portola Road.)

Karen and John Wu
Karen and John Wu

Karen met John, who has a background in biology and zoology, at the nursery.  He had had various careers, e. g. college administration, before he began chatting with Al one day when he was biking the loop. He and Karen eventually married, and became increasingly active in the business as Al aged. Karen and John took over the business in 1996. Until his last days, Al missed the work and always asked, “Who came in today?”

In 2011, the Wus sold the nursery and retired to Florida to join their two children who work for Disney. Volunteering and/or working only eight-hour days was something to look forward to.

The Library’s Story

It has been important for people living in Portola Valley to have ready access to books even before the beginning of the modern town.  When residents built the first school in Portola Valley in 1894, they included a small library. Later, in the early years of the twentieth century a little building stood in the circle of redwoods beside the surviving 1909 historic schoolhouse. At first it was a residence for the teacher (called a “teacherage”) because Portola Valley was too remote for any commuting teacher.  It eventually became a library.

It hasn’t been easy to keep a library close by, as Portola Valley has always been somewhat remote and has a small population. For several years a bookmobile served as the local library. When the town was incorporated in 1964, the Town Council set up a Library Study Committee, and the Friends of the Library of Portola Valley was established the next year.  The goal was to bring in a San Mateo County Branch Library. In 1967 a little library opened in an empty storefront in the Village Square. Many residents surely remember it.

Several things happened in the next years. Emma and Carroll Roush gifted the Friends with a piece of property on Nathhorst for a library site. As real estate prices rose, the land significantly increased in value. Along with various fund-raising drives aimed at creating a nest egg for a building, by 1970 $53,000 had accumulated in the Library Building Fund.

In 1975, the Town purchased Portola Valley School, and it became the Town Center and a logical place for a library. The Friends sold the Nathhorst site, more funds were raised, a grant was obtained, and in 1980, a 4000 square foot library with a collection of 20,000 books opened in a wing of the former Portola Valley School. It served the community until 2006.

In 1988 the first computer was installed for use by the public, and the technology has advanced ever since with more available computers and periodic free lessons for patrons. In 1993 the library staff unveiled a CD-Rom computer catalog linking all the county libraries, giving patrons instant access to the entire county’s collection

In the early 1990s, the county reduced funding for libraries and there was concern about a possible decrease in open hours or even closure of small libraries, such as ours. After two years of negotiations, headlines and editorials, the Council agreed to accept a complicated funding formula and to join a newly created Joint Powers Agency involving the county and eleven cities. The financial crisis was over, at least for the time being.

The Town Council has maintained strong support for a local library through all the re-locations and several renovations. The Friends have continued their work through the years as well, donating funds to the county for books for their library as well as other libraries in need of support. They have provided children’s programs, audio-visual equipment, summer reading programs, furniture, landscaping…an endless list of enrichments for the library.

Portola Valley Library, November 2013
Portola Valley Library, November 2013

When a new Town Center became a necessity, there was no question that a library would be included. In 2006, deconstruction of the former Portola Valley School (and the library housed there) began. The school district offered two former kindergarten rooms at Corte Madera School for a temporary library during construction of the new facilities. Once again, thanks to the generosity of residents, the beautiful new Town Center with its state-of-the-art library opened in September 2008. For the first time in the 118-year history of libraries in Portola Valley, patrons can visit a building that was actually planned to be a library.

 

Willowbrook Farm

Willowbrook Farm

Gatehouse_Lauriston3JPG

Willowbrook “Gate House”
The Old Stone House on Portola Road

Traveling along Portola Road takes one past some of Portola Valley’s most highly valued historic sites. One  structure there  has recently received some attention because it has been somewhat remodeled and put up for sale. It is one of the most intriguing buildings in town–the quaint stone houses at 451 Portola that look like  castles from a Grimm Brothers story.  Was that window in the tower the one where Rapunzel stood and hung down her hair for the prince?   Was it the castle where Cinderella, dressed in her finery, went to the ball? Or maybe it was the house to which the evil witch enticed Hansel and Gretel. Although the property’s story is less romantic than a fairy tale, nonetheless, it’s interesting.

This charming ivy-covered house is often called the Willowbrook Gate House, or just the gate house.  Actually it was built around 1915 as a home for the superintendent of Willowbrook Farm, a man named Henry Schoellhamer, nicknamed “Shell.” The smaller structure was his office. They sit at one entrance to the old Willowbrook Farm,. 61 acres purchased in 1912 by Herbert E. Law. It stretched approximately between Portola and Willowbrook roads as far as Alpine Road.

Herbert Law and his brother Hartland were publishers, chemists, patent medicine purveyors and land developers. They owned the unfinished Fairmont Hotel when it burned in 1906.  Afterward, they hired Julia Morgan to direct the reconstruction. They were instrumental in bringing the Panama Pacific Exposition to San Francisco in 1915.  In 1926, Herbert incorporated as the Lauriston Investment Company and was the main stockholder in the group that built the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Law purchased Willowbrook Farm from Laura Martinez Faber, granddaughter of Maximo Martinez, the original ranchero who owned the 13,000 acre Rancho el Corte de Madera. They needed a place to grow the rare herbs and plants needed for their patent medicine VIAVI, an enormously successfully product designed to cure a variety of women’s complaints. The VIAVI system included red Moroccan leather manuals and books and 10,000 active saleswomen (mostly) teaching and selling the system door to door in more than 20 countries.

Law immediately built a cow barn, stables, a bunkhouse, chicken houses, and he renovated existing gardens and orchards. In 1915 he added a white stucco villa with roof garden and tower on a knoll above the south entrance to his farm off Alpine Road.  It had a loggia, red brick terraces and formal gardens with a large marble fountain, an artificial stream and waterfalls.

Herbert Law's first mansion
Law’s first mansion on lower Alpine RoadLaw vista with lathsLaw’s terraces and herb farm

At one point lathhouses for the exotic plants covered 40 acres. This farming operation required enormous quantities of water. Since Corte Madera Creek was insufficient despite providing as much as 60,000 gallons per day, Law purchased land along Spring Ridge (the long bare ridge leading to Windy Hill) and piped water as far as 3 1/2 miles to his fields.

Ultimately he controlled almost 400 acres and almost all the water rights in the area.

Schoellhamer, the man who occupied the stone house, oversaw all the construction and farming. He ranged over the entire property in his khaki shirt, tie, jodhpurs, puttees, and boots. He would meet Law at the train station in Palo Alto, and they would ride their horses back to Willowbrook Farm, accompanied by two Great Danes.

Unfortunately, a blight continually affected the plants, it was hard to get skilled workers to tend them, the market for the plants weakened, and in 1920, Law traded Willowbrook Farm for the Ritz Carlton Apartments in San Francisco.

He sent Schoellhamer to the property along Spring Ridge which he had bought to supply Willowbrook and built there the enormous house called Villa Lauriston, another superintendent’s house and an “agricultural complex.”  But that’s a story for another day.

Law sold Willowbrook to William Fitzhugh of the neighboring Catoctin Estate, today’s Stonegate/Grove Drive area, in 1921.The stone house was empty for a long time and a subject for vandalism. In 1941 the Catoctin people sold to a Mr. Cox, who in turn sold to Alexander and Madeleine  Isenberg in 1953 for $29,000.  After  Madeleine Isenberg passed away, John Zicker owned the stone house for a decade. A couple of years ago, he sold to the developer who has it on the market.The next chapter of the house’s story is yet to emerge.

Although portions of the terraces exist today on private property, “Shell’s” house and office are the only remaining structures from Willowbrook Farm.  The mansion was razed in 1945.The barn/dormitory at 211 Willowbrook, which had long ago been converted into a home, was demolished several  years ago.

To learn more about the stone houses, Willowbrook Farm and Lauriston, one might read  Lauriston:  An Architectural Biography of Herbert Edward Law  by Sewall ‘Skip” Bogart, available in the Portola Valley library and the Town Heritage Center.