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

The 1950s: So long, sleepy town

In just 10 years, babies and growth transformed a small town surrounded by orchards into a maze of traffic, schools and housing

by Diane Sussman

Throughout most of the 1940s, Palo Alto and Menlo Park were just sleepy towns down the road from the great university. But the end of World War Il brought an unprecedented influx of new residents to the area. Many were sent by the Army to Stanford University or Dibble General Hospital, a wartime Army hospital in Menlo Park. Others joined the migration of workers to the new electronics industries springing up in Stanford Industrial Park. Others came simply for the good weather and cheap land.

By the end of the 1940s, the orchards and gracious homes that characterized the sleepy towns began to yield to a new landscape that included increasing numbers of highways, industries, schools and shopping centers.

More than any other decade, the '50s helped to establish Palo Alto as we think of it today, a sophisticated suburb in the heart of the high-tech industry. The decade that gave rise to the elongated tail fin, white buck shoes, the hula hoop, beatniks and panty raids also gave rise locally to new concerns about traffic, parking, schools and limits on construction.

The decade began as a time of great hope and optimism. The years of peace immediately following "the good war" brought with them large amounts of ready money, made available through G.I. housing and education loans and the wonders of credit-card living. All that plentiful money produced a heady feeling of well-being and security; it was the right time for the nation to settle into domestic life.

People quickly began spending their money on housing, and in Palo Alto an unprecedented housing boom took place. By 1950, 40 percent of the city's housing had been built; during the next 10 years another 35 percent was added. The population more than doubled in the '50s, as more than 26,000 new residents moved in.

Menlo Park's population doubled in the decade as well, as the town grew to well over 26,000 people. But much of the population was acquired through annexation of land, which was begun in the late '40s and continued throughout the '50s. By 1952, Menlo Park had annexed the areas of Suburban Park, Paraiso Park, Belle Haven, Felton Gables and North Palo Alto.

Most of the construction in Palo Alto took place south of Oregon Avenue, an area newly annexed to the city. More than 3,000 of the new homes south of Oregon were built by Joseph Eichler, a retired egg-and-butter wholesaler. The houses with the gently sloped roofs and redwood slab construction attempted something novel in architecture: incorporating the outdoors into the indoors.

But love them or hate them, the price was right. Three-bedroom, two-bath Eichler homes sold for $15,200 to $15,905 in 1951. Veterans paid $800 down, non-veterans paid $4,700, and monthly payments for everyone hovered around $90 per month. Although the houses have never been considered aesthetic treasures, Eichler homes won the Parents magazine national merit award as best home for families with children every year from 1951 to 1953 and then again from 1955 to 1959.

But all that new housing heightened concern about floods, which had not mattered so much when the city was primarily undeveloped orchards. On Christmas Eve 1955, huge floods inundated the area. Thousands of residents had to flee their homes as San Francisquito Creek disgorged its muddy contents and storm drains overflowed all over town. Some streets in the Greer Park area had more than a foot of mud deposited on them while inside flood waters rose to the tops of beds in some cases.

In 1958, flooding occurred again, and nearly 1,000 residents of Palo Alto and the surrounding community were forced to evacuate their homes. However, overall damage was far less severe because by then flood-control work had been completed on the vital portions of all the creeks that could overflow and inundate the city.

Many homes were being built to accommodate the migration of workers to the burgeoning Stanford Industrial Park. Lured by long-term leases offered by Stanford University, companies could then entice workers with the chance to be near Stanford and enjoy the climate.

The headlines remained the same throughout the '50s: "GE will establish electronics lab on Stanford land," "Lockheed tells details of Stanford site," "Link Aviation will set up research labs in Palo Alto," "Spinco firm shows plant at Stanford."

Growth in the region was so spectacular that a model of Stanford Industrial Park was featured in an exhibit at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium.

The job and building boom were part of a new prosperity in Palo Alto. After two decades of scarcity from the Depression and war shortages, a long-delayed shopping spree was about to begin. And when the area decided to go shopping, it did so with a vengeance.

"Shop the Modern Way, Shop in Palo Alto," announced an advertising flier of the era.

The new-found wealth went toward cars, furniture, television sets--anything money could buy. "Everyone was appliance-crazy at the time," said Holly Winslow, who remembers Palo Alto in the '50s. "People bought washing machines and dryers, new refrigerators, electrical gadgets of all kinds. And modern was all the rage. No one wanted heirlooms any more. Everyone had to have Swedish furniture and anything else that was new."

Palo Alto's total retail sales in 1947 were about $42 million. By 1956 sales had soared to more than $105 million. But even so, the area lacked shopping alternatives to match its eager shoppers, who had to make frequent trips to San Francisco for the latest fashions and furnishings.

In 1953, the shopping crunch was partially alleviated with the opening of the $5 million ranch-style Town & Country Village.

But the demand for places to shop outpaced Town & Country Village and downtown until 1956, when the $15 million Stanford Shopping Center opened with 47 new stores. The center began to drain the life from the downtown Inner Circle shopping area, located at the west end of University Avenue. Several downtown stores, including Roos Bros., Chandler's, the Travel Service and LaMontagne & Co., closed up and moved to the new center, principally to avoid a coming downtown shopping slump.

"The shopping center set a tone of withdrawal of the larger businesses downtown," said Fred Eyerly, former mayor and owner of Eyerly's Hardware at 550 Waverley St., now the site of the Prolific Oven.

The new shopping center even boasted a Slenderella reducing salon, a true sign that the era of scarcity had ended.

But girths weren't swelling just from a softer way of life. They were also swelling from pregnancy as the baby boom went into full swing. Dr. Bernard Silber, an Atherton resident, said a principal recollection from that time is of "lots of pregnant ladies pushing baby buggies" down the streets.

Those babies not only needed baby food and baby things, which their parents were eagerly purchasing, they also needed an education. The schools, however, weren't ready for the invasion. At the height of the boom, between 1954 and 1957, six new schools had to be built to meet the demand: El Carmelo, Ortega, Greendell and DeAnza elementary schools, Terman Junior High and Cubberley High School.

Even so, classrooms were crowded as the number of students rose from 8,135 in 1953 to 13,660 in 1960.

But as impressive as all the building of schools seemed, educators found the young minds they were charged with building far less impressive. In the public mind, students were perceived as anti-intellectual, shallow and conservative. Educators blamed the decline on the rise in vocational and business classes and a de-emphasis on the humanities.

"We need to raise the general intellectual climate, to boost general curiosity, to learn all sorts of things," said Stanford University physics professor Felix Bloch, winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear induction, when asked to comment by the local newspaper.

The feeling that students did not measure up intensified after the launching of Sputnik in 1957. The lack of training in science became the national lament, and science classes became the national hope. And as early as 1954, the same year TV dinners appeared on the market, some argued that television was to blame. One study showed that people who owned TV sets spent an average of four to five hours a day watching.

But if the public was disenchanted with its students, the students were equally disenchanted with education. "There is this term I remember they always used to use to describe schools of that time--'the educational plant,'" said Jay Thorwaldson, director of community relations at Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a former Palo Alto Times reporter and a student in the '50s.

"There was so much memorization of dates. It was a complete numbing of the mind. It was cookie-cutter education."

In addition to the pressure of unprecedented numbers of students, educators had to contend with the fallout from McCarthyism, which was sweeping through the country in a frenzied attempt to root out Communism.

Teachers throughout the country were required to teach anti-Communism and to take loyalty oaths. Local grade schools and Stanford University were no exception.

In 1953, Stanford President J.E. Wallace Sterling denied that there were any "red" agents on campus, an accusation hurled at "every major California college and university" by Richard Combs, chief counsel for the State Senate Un-American Activities Committee. On the same day, members of the Stanford chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a resolution taking a strong stand against congressional investigations of universities.

The Palo Alto school board balked when the state passed a law requiring any group asking to use school property--including the Boy Scouts--to sign a statement swearing it was neither a Communist organization nor a front.

Superintendent Lawrence Fuller called the proposal "unnecessary and unwanted." Eventually, the school board had to concede.

Politically, however, Palo Alto, like the rest of Santa Clara County, was a heavily Republican town. The Democratic shift did not begin until the '60s, said Ward Winslow, a former political reporter and editor for the Palo Alto Times. "In 1962 Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county by 3 to 2," he said. But in 1956, he added, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. In the 1956 presidential election, 14,438 Palo Altans cast their votes for Ike, whereas only 8,727 voted for Adlai Stevenson.

The Republican pro-growth philosophy of the '50s paved the way for other major additions to the landscape later in the decade: Stanford University Hospital, Foothills Park, the main and Mitchell Park libraries and Foothill College. And all the while, the undesirable byproducts of modern life--traffic, over-development and congestion--were becoming apparent.

"We're going to need a Willow Road-Sand Hill link right now, and we're going to need it a lot worse as the years roll on," said Frank Sullivan, planning director for San Mateo County.

The issues of the 1960s were being born.

A new way of thinking was also being born, at least in the children of the baby boom, who were just working their way to or through adolescence. In 1959, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, predicted: "Employers will love this generation . . . They are going to be easy to handle. There aren't going to be any riots."

Untruer words have never been spoken.