Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 21, 2011

This old house is a home

The Difani family has lived in the same house since 1896 and watched Palo Alto grow up

by Sue Dremann

The 19th-century Victorian gabled house on a quiet block of Kipling Street would fairly laugh if it could talk. Its interior walls have listened in on countless conversations, stories, loves and tribulations since Palo Alto's first barber, Willi Clinton Difani, had it built in 1896.

The Difani family has lived in this same house for four generations, according to Shirley Difani Weiland, 80, the granddaughter of Willi (pronounced WILL-eye). It is one of the oldest homes in the city continuously lived in by one family.

The beige, two-story house looks no worse for wear, with its reddish doors, bay windows and scalloped siding.

But, oh — the stories it could tell, Weiland said in an interview with the Weekly. They would be stories of birth and love and laughter and welcoming, and of what it means to be a good neighbor in times of need and plenty, she said.

"When this house was built, there was nothing between the house and University Avenue. It was just a big field," she said.

The fence post where itinerant men who sought work during the Great Depression notched markings designated 834 Kipling as a "safe house," where one could find food and work during the hard times of the 1930s, she said. The post is long gone.

Family members who gather in the house for celebrations and the generations who still inhabit the home — Weiland's son, Michael, and her younger sister, Judy — keep the house's spirit alive.

"I was born on the dining-room table," Weiland recalled, noting that Palo Alto's first female physician, Dr. Edith Johnson, did the delivery.

The house was filled with love and laughter, she recalled. Grandfather Willi, her grandmother, Lowena, father Frank Andrew, uncle George Dewey and aunt Alvernice were born and raised in the home, she said.

Lowena had a beauty parlor on the Stanford University campus, doing up the hair of young ladies, Weiland said.

"During the earthquake (in 1906), the chimney fell down.

"Grandma saw that people needed homes. She let them live on the property in tents," she said.

During World War I, when Frank and George went off to war, Grandma Lowena added another door and turned the house into a duplex to raise additional income. She rented the house to Stanford students and lived in the little house next door that George had built, she said.

During the Depression, Lowena would feed the tramps that came from the train, but she wouldn't feed anyone who wasn't willing to do a little work around the place, Weiland said.

Diane Cressey, Weiland's sister, recalled that their father traveled to Half Moon Bay during the Depression to fish for their supper. And there were many, many beans harvested from the garden, she said.

She vividly recalled the large victory garden her father created during World War II. "He kept chickens and rabbits on the side of the house," she said.

Uncle George's house next door had a small stable in the back for grandmother's horse. Every summer the family hitched the horse to a wagon and drove to Santa Cruz to visit Lowena's sister, she said.

When Weiland's father was born, the family brought a small coast-redwood sapling back from Santa Cruz and planted the tree next to the home to commemorate his birth. The tree still stands: "It's 111 years old," she said.

Weiland said she and her sisters played with other children on the one-block street. "We played tap-the-finger and other old games. It was not just certain ages. We all got together as a group. It was a nice place — a safe place. Everybody got along with everybody else," she said.

The neighborhood, while consisting of just a few homes, was filled with generations of families. The Mosher family had several homes, she said.

Cressey recalled one Mosher relative, Agnes.

"She lived alone; a little lady who collected everything. She never threw anything away. The house was packed. When she would come to visit, she would always find something for Shirley and always found something for me. She made Shirley a scrapbook of Shirley Temple and me a scrapbook of Deanna Durbin," she said, adding it made the girls feel special.

Boarders Betty Reinberg and Henry Holt were pianists. Beautiful music filled the house, Cressey said.

"Goodness, that house! Living then, people were all warm toward others. It was a whole area where we knew each other and had time for each other. Nowadays you don't even know your neighbor. They just pass you. Some don't even know their next-door neighbors," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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