Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Palo Alto owes a lot to Aunt Lucie

by Kathleen Donnelly

Palo Alto owes a lot to its favored aunt--Lucie Stern.

Beginning in the Depression years of the 1930s, Stern donated about $400,000 pre-inflation dollars to a dozen civic projects in Palo Alto. She also donated $400,000 to build a dormitory at Stanford. And after her death in 1946, she kept on giving by earmarking one-third of her estate for distribution to "charitable scientific, literary and educational organizations, political subdivisions and municipalities."

No wonder she was affectionately called "Aunt Lucie" by her beneficiaries.

Born in 1871 in France but raised in San Francisco, Lucie Cahen married Louis Stern, one of the four nephews of blue jean-manufacturer Levi Strauss, in 1899. Like other wealthy people of their day, the Sterns moved to New York and then traveled to Europe on their honeymoon. They returned to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, living in hotels until they moved to a mansion on Selby Lane in Atherton, which they christened "Byde-A-Whyle."

After her husband's death in 1924, Stern and her invalid daughter, Ruth, moved to Palo Alto, where she had adjacent homes built for her daughter and herself on the 1900 block of Cowper Street. In his text on local commercial buildings designed by his office, Palo Alto architect Birge M. Clark writes that the enjoyment she took in building the Cowper Street homes may have helped convince Stern to begin her civic projects in Palo Alto.

Stern had always been interested in the development of the Palo Alto Community Players, and she was dissatisfied with their "theater" in the community house, which now houses Palo Alto's MacArthur Park restaurant.

Located by the railroad tracks, the community house was not a good place for plays, especially when the trains drowned out the dialogue.

In 1933, motivated, Clark says, by "her pleasure in building, her desire to provide more employment for various mechanics with whom she had become acquainted" and "her delight in doing things for people," Stern gave $44,000 to finance the construction of a community theater that would be home to the Palo Alto Players.

The theater, designed by Birge Clark, became the nucleus of the Palo Alto Community Center on Middlefield Road, which carries Lucie Stern's name. On opening night in 1933, every seat was sold for the Players' performance of "Grumpy" and the local newspaper praised everything from the seating to the heating system.

Soon after the theater was completed, Stern gave thousands of dollars to build two more wings of the Community Center. Then she added the Children's Theatre, the Boy Scout Fire Circle and the Children's Library.

During the Depression, getting the money for her civic projects wasn't always easy, even for a wealthy woman, Clark said in an interview in 1988. It was difficult to get large sums of money from the banks. "What apparently had happened was they had kept up the normal payments which she had had for several years and from this, by careful thrift, she was able to set aside enough money to build the Adult Theater."

Although she built an adult theater first, Stern always had an interest in children, especially boys. She gave $12,000 to build the Sea Scout headquarters at the Palo Alto yacht harbor and Camp Oljato in the Sierra Nevada. . She also was especially interested in the young men of Stanford University. She regularly invited students to her Cowper Street home for small Sunday dinner parties, treating them to the gourmet cooking of her French chef, Eugene. She also kept a closet full of neckties, shirts, sweaters and other articles that she passed out as gifts to her guests.

For all her philanthropy, Stern was a shy woman, and one who shunned publicity. Her gift of the community theater was initially made anonymously and, although her wealth and her name could have placed her high in San Francisco society, she preferred to stay at home in Palo Alto.

"I simply don't like that society life. I'm just not going to get involved," she told Clark.