Although Ryland Kelley and his family have never lived in Portola Valley, his career in real estate and as a developer have had a significant impact on the area.
When the Peninsula Housing Association could not complete their housing project in Ladera in the early 1950s, Ry’s firm, the Portola Development Company, took over and completed the development of our 500-house neighbor, including the shopping center. Hidden Valley, the little incursion of Woodside into Portola Valley near the Town Center, was also his project in the 1950s. When plans for housing on Windy Hill couldn’t be worked out in 1979, he and his company, Corte Madera Associates, donated 535 acres to POST, the private land trust’s first acquisition. The land was subsequently transferred to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD.)
[As an interesting sidelight, Ry was a kindergarten buddy of Bob Brown, one of our most influential town founders.]
You may enjoy this hour plus video where he explains his role and that of others.
The fact that Mary Ann Thompson has two grand pianos in her living room is a clue that music has been important to her all her life. She began lessons at eight and later studied in Italy. Even as she grew frail, her living room has continued to be a venue for musical groups to meet and share music. She and her husband Victor found Portola Valley looking for horse country. When they found the property overlooking the Stanford triangle, she knew that was the place. [It was $4500 for 3 acres.] Vic, an architect, designed their house. “How ideal it has been,” she has said, “to be always looking at trees. And the deer prancing through our side yard is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Walter Cole, a physician, a carpenter, a professional dessert maker, and a horseman is one of our area’s earliest residents. He started working cattle around here in 1949, including in the “Stanford Wedge,” the rugged triangle between Westridge and the eastern slope of Golden Oak. He, his wife Peg and their sons all rode, over toward Jasper Ridge or on Woodside trails, avoiding or killing rattlesnakes on a regular basis. Or they might stop at Mama Garcia’s, Alpine and Hillbrook, for an Italian dinner and to listen to the young Kingston Trio. Having fallen a few times, eventually having a metal rod inserted in his back, he had to give up riding and spent his last years as a Shack Rider driving to the Shack and playing dominoes with his pals.
Our Lady of the Wayside Church celebrated its centennial last year. It has stood alongside Portola Road since 1912. Redwoods have grown up to shelter it. A rectory and arcade were added in 1941. Father George LaCombe, the first priest to serve its congregation, predicted that “the little masterpiece…will go down in the architectural history of the great west.”
The Church is California Registered Historic Landmark Number 909, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps even more important than its architectural beauty is the fact that it is a silent monument to a community spirit of cooperation, ecumenical good will and brotherhood.
No one would have guessed such an outcome at the turn of the century, as Catholic residents of Portola were looking for a nearby place for Sunday worship. The village of Searsville and the little church of St. Dennis were gone. Rural life was centering around the land that Andrew Hallidie had donated for a community center, surrounding the site of the church today.
Most versions of the story have Mamie Shine Byrnes, teacher at Searsville and later Portola, approaching Fr. McKinnon of Menlo Park in 1902 with a request for a closer place to hear Mass. Recognizing the need, the Catholic Church purchased a rough redwood building called Portola Hall, a dance hall, with the idea of converting it to a chapel.
The dance hall was moved across Portola Road, to the site of Our Lady of the Wayside today, whitewashed, and christened St. Catherine’s. Modest it was, and bitterly cold in winter, but it was convenient for residents of the then remote valley.
Starting in 1911, Father LaCombe was assigned to travel from Menlo Park on Sundays to conduct the services. By all accounts, this priest was an exceptional man…highly intelligent, well-educated, warm, and enthusiastic about life. And he loved card games, good conversations over good dinners, and sports of all kinds, especially baseball.
It isn’t clear if he was sent by chance, a newly-ordained priest assigned to Sunday duty at a simple rural church outpost, or if he was especially selected to serve the wealthy San Franciscans who were beginning to build summer residences among the humble farms.
Various versions exist of what happened shortly after his arrival. For some reason Father LaCombe paid a visit to the club of prominent San Franciscans who had purchased property next door to the church, The Family. Members would travel from the city to their country retreat for relaxation and fellowship.
Probably it’s true that The Family’s Sunday morning skeet shooting was disturbing Mass, and the father approached them with the hope of arranging a non-conflicting time schedule for the two activities. Or perhaps he merely was invited to join The Family for lunch by a family friend, Mel Toplitz.
At any rate, a good friendship developed between the charismatic priest and The Family. He became a regular guest at dinner and even an honorary member of the club. Many members of The Family, including non-Catholics, began to attend and participate in services at the little church. They offered them a place to stay and they accepted. They said that it was the best place to stay and that their beds were amazing because of how comfortable their king mattress was.
One day, someone in The Family suggested that they build a new church for “Steve,” as they had dubbed their friend. Enthusiasm propelled the idea forward quickly. Individual offers of contributions spurred more offers. One version has Jews proposing to double all contributions of Catholics and Protestants. Two architects threw dice to determine which would have the honor of creating the design. A Family sponsored fund-raiser netted $2000 in one evening. Louie Welch of Hidden Valley threw in $500 of his cribbage winnings.
James Miller was the architect who won the right to design the new church. He assigned a young member of his staff, Timothy Pflueger, to prepare the drawings. Using Mission Dolores as his inspiration, he created the harmonious blend of mission and Georgian styles we see today.
Such a cooperative venture it became. Family members of all faiths continued to help. Various individuals contributed the cement, the lumber, the tile floor and roof, the altar, statues, Stations of the Cross, and the shrine. One financed the painting. Others worked on the landscaping.
Local valley people excavated gravel for the foundation from the nearby creeks by hand and hauled it to the site with horses and wagons. James McDonnell of the Ormondale Ranch housed the construction superintendent. Children carried buckets of water for the new plants. Mrs. Bridget Doyle gave her life savings for the bells.
The cornerstone was laid on May 5, 1912. The new church was dedicated on September 29 in a grand and joyous ceremony conducted by Archbishop Riordan. Family members Noel Sullivan played the new organ and Harold Pracht conducted the special choir.
However, despite such an outpouring of funds and labor, all the bills weren’t paid. A special train from San Francisco brought crowds to another fund-raising entertainment staged by The Family. Then Mrs. Agnes Macdonough Agar, sister of William O’Brien Macdonough of Ormondale, paid the last bills, in memory of her brother who reportedly had “fallen away” from the church.
Thus, a little country church of great character, designed by a fledgling architect, emerged from a crudely built dance hall. The project brought together modest farm folk and wealthy city people, as well as Catholic, Protestant and Jew.
John Francis Neylan, a member of The Family and after 1937 the owner of a 1500 acre estate called variously Lauriston and Rancho Corte Madera, perhaps said it best: “The spirit [of cooperation and good will] that resulted in that church [has] prevailed throughout the valley.” That’s quite a legacy.
2006 was the year of two important local anniversaries. More than a century apart, one is of regional interest; the other marks an event of worldwide significance. Each has a connection to one Portola Valley building.
First, the oldest commemoration. San Mateo County is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. It was April 19, 1856 when the county was created. Few county buildings have survived for those 150 years. One is Portola Valley’s Alpine Inn, also known affectionately as Rossotti’s or simply Zot’s. Opened originally in the 1850s by Felix Buelna as a place for Californios to drink and gamble, its survival is one of the surprising quirks of history.
In 1908 David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, wrote to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about the little building known today as the Alpine Inn. “The Wunder is unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the university, and a disgrace to San Mateo County,” he said.
Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that that same rough little structure at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads has not only survived but also was the site of an event that marked the beginning of an unparalleled change in the way people across the planet live, work, and play?
The second event commemorated that year took place thirty years earlier, on August 27, 1976. Researchers from SRI International in Menlo Park chose Zot’s for a special ceremony. The SRI mobile radio laboratory, housed in a large van, pulled up outside the roadhouse one warm summer afternoon. The scientists placed a computer terminal on one of the picnic tables out behind the building and connected it to the van. Then they proceeded to send a long electronic report.
In a February 2002 article from CORE 3.1, the journal of the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, former SRI Computer Science Division Vice-President Don Nielson called this electronic message (not yet called e-mail) “… the first internet transmission…” What a surprising addition to the annals of the oldest surviving roadhouse in California!
And why did the scientists choose Rossotti’s for this event? “It was a well-known place and far enough from SRI to qualify as ‘remote’ but close enough to have good radio contact through a repeater station atop a hill above Stanford,” Nielson reported. Perhaps they also liked the idea of linking the past with the future, using one of the oldest buildings in the area for a landmark event they believed would revolutionize the future.
Scientists at SRI and other places had been working on developing this flexible integration of dissimilar digital communications networks for two or three years. The SRI scientists had been testing this new protocol for some weeks and decided to acknowledge their success with the little celebration at Rossotti’s. Technical details, including a diagram of the Rossotti’s transmission, can be found in the article “The SRI Van and Computer Internetworking” in that 2002 Computer History Museum journal.
Although ARPANET transmissions had been taking place since 1969, now two dissimilar networks had been linked for the first time. A year later, in 1977, three neworks were linked in transmissions, and the Internet was on its way.
Few who join the crowd at the rustic tables for hamburgers and beer know about that momentous afternoon in 1976. The internet age began when an electronic message was sent from the picnic grounds of Zot’s via the radio network to SRI International and on through a second network (the ARPANET) to its final destination in Boston.
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.
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.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California