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Willowbrook Farm

Willowbrook Farm

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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.

……………..Nancy Lund

Tommy Simpson

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Tommy Simpson 2009

In 1954 Tommy Simpson, her husband Bob and their four sons bought one of Portola Valley’s most historic houses for $26,000. Their realtor had been reluctant to show them the house, but Tommy loved it from the instant she saw it. It is still in the family. Once it was the local residence of the Fitzhughs, owners of the Catoctin estate, now the Grove Drive and Stonegate area. The Simpsons used the Fitzhugh wine cellar as a bomb shelter. In the 1960s the Simpsons owned the hardware store at Alpine and Portola roads as well as the one in Ladera. Tommy continued to work at the Alpine/Portola store occasionally into the new century. An adventurous sort, in her later years she traveled the world.

Mark Paris, Proprietor Portola Valley Harware with Tommy Simjpson
Mark Paris, Proprietor Portola Valley Hardware, with Tommy Simpson

 

The Ramies Family

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Martin RamiesPortola Valley GaragePortola Valley Garage

Martin is one of ten children in the Ramies family. They arrived in Portola Valley by a circuitous route from Spain to Hawaii to Morgan Hill to Mountain View, ending up here in the 1920s. A poor family, they lived in various places: the Jelich barn, across the creek at the Manginis’, in a house by the windmill and on Nathhorst, where Martin was born.  All the kids worked in the orchards for the big estate owners—Schillings, Jacklings, Phlegers, Fitzhughs. Morsheads. After serving in the Korean War, Martin went to work for the Lindstroms who had opened the Portola Valley Garage in 1948, buying it from them in monthly installments with no down payment in 1963. He worked there for 45 years.

Three generations of the Ramies Family at a family gathering.

Jack & Laura (Ramies) Mangini, Martin Ramies, Michael Ramies, Tom Ramies
Jack & Laura (Ramies) Mangini, Martin Ramies, Michael Ramies, Tom Ramies
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Ron Ramies, the oldest of the Ramies brothers, runs Ramies Automotive at 115 Portola Road, just a little over half a mile from the Portola Valley Garage.

Contacts & Info

For more information, please contact us.

Nancy Lund, Portola Valley Town Historian, Educator and Author, and I embarked on a project several years ago to learn more about the roots of the Town of Portola Valley, California.

Nancy brought her knowledge of the Town’s history and interview skills and I, my technical and creative talents. Together we forged an alliance and captured video histories of many of Portola Valley’s earliest residents.

Our initial work was to find out about the people who helped incorporate the Town of Portola Valley, California in 1964.  We wanted to learn what the forces were that helped to create the Town and the challenges our early residents faced.

Here we hope to share with you some of what we have learned. Nancy LundYou can reach Nancy Lund at nlund@yahoo.com

Virginia BaconVirginia Bacon is a  licensed CA Real Estate Broker, #00883531
You can reach Virginia Bacon at vcbacon@beaucamera.com or at vcbacon@beauhomes.com