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Old-fashioned but not outdated

Historic Palo Alto businesses prove preserving heritage doesn't go out of style

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In 1925, guests at the Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto could wash up in a sturdy cast-iron tub, then stroll through the hotel's lavish lobby to the neighboring Cardinal Barber Shop for a trim, and afterwards meet a date for a silent matinee at the Stanford Theatre. More than 80 years later, people still can, thanks to the efforts of a handful of benefactors like David Packard and business owners like Bjarne Dahl, who has been managing the Cardinal Hotel since 1975.

"I try to keep the flavor of the period," said Dahl, whose parents, aunt and uncle bought the property in 1945 during World War II. "I won't throw anything out."

The Hotel remains virtually unchanged since its flapper-era opening in 1922, with intact ceramic-tiled floors and original iron chandeliers handmade and imported from Spain, although the staircase that once led to a basement speak-easy has been altered. It is one of a handful of historic structures in the old downtown, including the barber shop, theater, Bell's Books bookstore, and MacArthur Park restaurant, which used to be a Y.W.C.A. Hostess House during World War I.

Faith Bell, whose family has operated the bookstore since her father opened up shop in 1935, has weathered the challenge of competition from modern chains and Internet dealers by staying alert to the changing marketplace.

"Every bookstore has to shift constantly to meet demands," she said, explaining that her family's business now focuses more on academic and antiquarian volumes unavailable elsewhere.

The store's packed shelves are a quiet conduit of Palo Alto history, containing family and estate collections that go back generations.

"I've bought collections from people who did business with my parents. We have third-generation customers at this point," Bell said.

And while the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley brainstorm to come up with a new, unique product, the guardians of historic charm have found a business formula whose profits rely on their old, unique product.

"We're not competing with the Hyatt or the Marriot. We're a historic hotel," Dahl said. "During the tech crash, the Marriott down near San Jose had to shutter its top stories. But we were fine."

Similarly, Cyndi Mortensen, manager of the Stanford Theatre, said the theater is unthreatened by multiplex proliferation.

"We offer something that no other theaters offer in this area, and that is classical Hollywood films the way they were meant to be seen," Mortensen said.

After purchasing the Stanford Theatre in 1989, the Packard Foundation funded the $6 million restoration of the run-down theater to its former splendor as an "art deco jewelbox," Mortensen said. Now viewers can enjoy Humphrey Bogart's portrayals of gruff heroes alongside a gilded organ grille and intricate ceiling murals.

However, sometimes it is not the glamour but rather the simplicity of the past that attracts contemporary consumers.

"My customers like a barber shop. They don't want a fancy salon," said Gerardo Macareño, who has been cutting, shaving and trimming -- but not "styling" -- at the Cardinal Barber Shop since 1982. And while buttery leather chairs betray a hint of bygone luxury, the shop's plain white cabinets hold only the basics, with nary a bottle of designer shampoo in sight.

The proximity of Stanford University also generates patronage for these islands of old-fashioned style. Conference guests and arriving students frequently stay in the Cardinal Hotel, Dahl said.

"We also get reunions from classes of the 1920s," he said.

Bell credited the university with fostering an intellectual community that keeps literary requests constant, as well as helping her research the volumes she vends.

"We have an ongoing relationship with [Stanford library's Special Collections department," she said.

And Megan Johnson, special events coordinator for MacArthur Park, said that Stanford-affiliated groups frequently rent one of several airy rooms for events.

MacArthur Park's high-ceilinged structure, designed by Julia Morgan to serve as a meeting place for women and children visiting Camp Fremont in Menlo Park, was once destined for postwar demolition. Palo Alto's mayor bought it for the symbolic amount of $1, and it was transplanted from the southern border of Menlo Park to its current site adjacent to the Palo Alto Transit Center. Historic photographs and flags, as well as the exposed-beam architecture itself, allude to an earlier era.

Although travelers come and go just beyond its doors, the building and the time it represents stay in place.

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Like this comment
Posted by Love It!
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 6, 2007 at 12:35 am

I once saw a movie in the Stanford Theatre. Being a teenager, I LOVED it. I loved the experience, and the entire place was very fascinating.

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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