George and Marjorie Mader, long-time Ladera residents, know more about Portola Valley and its residents than most people who have lived in town for a long time. Marjorie was a reporter for the Almanac for decades, and the Portola Valley School District was her beat.
She has witnessed the passage of countless school boards, has worked with parents, teachers and other community members and thus has a comprehensive understanding of how the district works. George was the town planner from 1965 until 2011.
As a county planner, he worked on a study of Portola Valley before it was incorporated. His remarkable vision in planning strategies to implement the will of the councils has been instrumental in preserving the beauty of the land as development has occurred. A pioneer in planning for geologic safety, he has crafted the technical ordinances designed to protect life and property from landslides and earthquakes. He has carried the Portola Valley story around the world to countries endangered by faulting to pass on the knowledge learned here. The Maders were Blues and Barbecue honorees in 2001.
George’s insights into how planning in Portola Valley has evolved from early days can be seen in these two videos. They are lengthy and quite detailed.
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.
In the years after the Martinez family moved onto their rancho which encompassed all of Portola Valley and more, the land was quiet. Quiet that is, until a June day in 1838 when an earthquake of a magnitude at least similar to that of 1906 struck. Since so few people were in the area, few details were recorded. However, one man, Charles Brown, who took the name Carlos de Jesus Moreno when he married the daughter of a ranchero, lived in an adobe house near Alambique Creek, a short distance beyond the Martinez boundaries. Forty years later, a reporter for the San Francisco Call interviewed him about his memories of that day. Here is what he remembered.
He had been cutting wood. As he entered his adobe shortly after noon, he was struck a blow on the back of his head by a vat of lard suspended from the ceiling. It was swinging wildly about the room. He felt the house rock and the floor tremble. From the doorway, as far as the eye could see, the earth was rising and falling in solid waves. The redwoods rocked like lakeside reeds. Thousands of them were broken off and hurled through the air for immense distances.
Francisca Brown was washing clothes in the creek near the house when, without warning, the bed of the stream was uplifted, and its water poured over her. An Hispanic workman threw himself to the ground and prayed to God for deliverance, as he feared the end of the world was at hand.
Adobe houses were cracked from top to bottom with fissures wide enough for a person to walk through. The ground was cracked in all directions and one miles-long crevice, ten to twelve feet wide, opened. Brown said he had experienced many earthquakes in the half century since he arrived in 1829, but this one was by far the worst.
Wondering if the vivid description was the exaggerated tall tale of an old man, in 1947 University of California geologist George D. Louderback decided to study the Brown account. Comparing his report to many from 1906, he concluded that the details mentioned were not unusual for an earthquake of great magnitude. He compared it to reports from others who were in California at the time but not in this area. They seemed consistent. Except for a few discrepancies that didn’t affect the overall reminiscence, Louderback concluded that the Brown account must be accurate. A huge earthquake rocked the Portola Valley area in 1838.
The Charles Brown adobe survived not only that earthquake but also the ones in 1868, 1906 and 1989. Although modified many times over the years, it stands today.
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.
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.
Bunny Dawson is amazed that the tiny Russell Avenue cottage where she and her husband lived in 1951 increased in price from $7,000 to $700,000 and beyond. They bought a caretaker’s cottage on Tintern in 1954 for $17,500 and made some improvements. Bunny lived there for more than 50 years. In those early days, feral cats lived in an old barn, open wells were a risk, and orchards of the Catoctin estate still existed. She has known generations of Portola Valley kids because of her decades-long role in the school library and her role as the early technology leader there. in this day and age, having a library that was built to be a library instead of housing books in a former classroom, store, or house is wonderful, she says.
In 1962, when the Santa Maria neighborhood was a place of summer cabins, Rowland Tabor bought a 1920s era house from the valet of a wealthy person. It was a good half-acre site, but ever since the purchase, he’s been working on improvements. Meanwhile, the two Tabor boys played in the meadow above Woodside Highlands. Rowland served on the committee that led to Portola Valley’s incorporation in 1964. In the 1970s, he was one of the geologists who pointed out the danger of the San Andreas Fault and who started the movement that resulted in the sale of Portola Valley School, sitting astride the fault, to the Town.
Veterinarian John Schulte has known our area, its residents and pets for decades. Getting his love of the land from his father, he came here at age 6 and grew up studying nature on twenty acres on Family Farm Road and at Jasper Ridge. Once in a rainstorm, he rode San Francisquito Creek all the way to the bay. Another highlight of his youth occurred when a teacher at Portola Valley School took John and other students on a 9-week trip across the United States. He opened his practice here because he believed no other place offered all Portola Valley’s benefits. He and his wife bought property on Los Trancos Road in 1980.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California