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Group seeks to bring Palo Alto history to life

History Museum donations top $6.2 million in three years, as museum backers gird for the home stretch of $1.5 million more

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A long-standing dream of bringing Palo Alto's rich history to life with the city's own History Museum is approaching reality, thanks to $6.2 million pledged so far by donors. But there's $1.5 million to go, museum backers note.

With the $6.2 million raised in the past three years, project managers aim to begin renovation of the Roth Building, at 300 Homer Ave., in May 2011 and predict that the museum will open by October 2012. The Roth Building is itself historic, becoming an early location of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic when it was built in 1932.

Floor plans for the museum show several galleries for exhibits, a cafe, a community room, an upstairs space that can be leased to a subtenant and a recording area to allow visitors to add their stories to the collection of personal histories that make up Palo Alto, among other features.

Palo Alto City Historian Steve Staiger said nearly every city in Santa Clara County except Palo Alto has some form of a historical museum specifically detailing the city's past.

City Council member Karen Holman emphasized that the museum will not only be a focus on the city's founding but that exhibits will evolve and change with the times.

"People only think of history as the past, but it's a time continuum," Holman said.

"This isn't like the museums we used to go to with our parents where the only thing that's changed is the amount of dust on the displays," she said, quoting a conversation she had with Staiger.

Exhibits will be cover four categories: education, technology, business/environment, and arts and culture.

"Any story that can be told here should fit into one of those categories," she said.

Ideas are already being discussed for potential exhibits. One will feature Ohlone Native American life at the turn of the 20th century, while another will explore the role of venture capital in Silicon Valley.

"Venture capitalists have not gotten much credit for what they have done for California and its economy," Margaret Maloney of the Palo Alto History Museum board said. "We're giving them credit and telling their stories."

Other themes will include Palo Alto's geology, Palo Alto and Bay area artists and musicians, as well as a plan for "living time capsules" -- an area where children can suggest objects they think best represent a given year. Objects will be gathered and displayed in five-year increments, beginning with the year the museum opens.

The building itself will have a place in the museum's historical teachings. The Roth Building, built for the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, was constructed in 1932 and served the community as one of the first group medical practices in the country. The building is listed in the National Registrar of Historic Places.

The murals decorating the walls of the Roth Building have a few stories behind them as well. Created by Victor Arnautoff in 1932, the Art Deco murals caused a stir when they were unveiled. Several of the pictures showed half-naked patients being examined by doctors, exciting outrage from the public. Local media picked up the story, and the murals were criticized by the San Francisco Chronicle as art that "flaunts modernity in the face of a quiet, family neighborhood."

Palo Alto muralist Greg Brown, known for his whimsical wall art in downtown Palo Alto, has been commissioned to create a new mural for another side of the Roth Building.

"We don't just want learning to take place inside the museum," Holman said. "We want learning to start at the sidewalk."

The museum board also plans to offer interactive experiences, from photography workshops, recycling seminars and exploration into the murals of Palo Alto. Potential events will include cultural cooking classes and a recording area to allow visitors to add their story to the collection of personal histories that make up Palo Alto.

"We want to tell the story of Palo Alto by telling the stories of the people," Staiger said.

The construction project is also planned as an example of environmentally friendly renovation.

"Since the beginning we intended for this to be a 'green' building," Holman said. "We're aiming for a LEED Gold standard," she said, referring to the national green-building certification program.

One strategy to meet LEED requirements will be to salvage and reuse building materials to reduce waste.

"We want to make this a learning center for converting old buildings to LEED standards," Holman said.

According to Holman, the museum currently has a lease-option agreement, which the board can exercise for $1 per year. In addition to the $6.2 million raised, the museum board will need another $1.5 million to meet its expected budget and is encouraging potential donors to help make the project a success.

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Like this comment
Posted by Use-No-Public-Funds
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2010 at 10:29 am

NO public money should be spent on this project. Everything that will be displayed in this building could be converted to digital, making the cost of storing, and displaying, this information far less than what is being proposed here.

The money for this effort should come from those who have benefited the most--businesses and individuals who cashed in on those businesses.

The City should not be a party to this. The lease fees should be raised to reflect the true costs of this building to the public treasury. And should the building require modifications, or refurbishment, in the future--no public funds should be made available to whomever is operating this facility.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2010 at 4:36 pm

In response to the last comment about the use of public funds: nothing in this article states that the Museum project is being supported with public funds. All of the funds for this project are being raised privately. Regarding the lease, it is totally common for cities to lease properties for these kinds of projects at something like $1/yr. This is something that will provide benefit to the community and the city. Don't forget that the PA History Museum will be pouring millions into this beautiful and historic Palo Alto property that was otherwise falling into total disrepair. The only special interest here is that of the citizens who care about the history of this community, who are ponying up the cash for the Museum themselves. Please familiarize yourself fully with a project before spouting off about it.

Like this comment
Posted by Pria Lytle Fletcher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm

PA History Museum? What a joke!!! Nothing in Pa is historic--not that you would know that by listening to the people who once claimed that every home over 50 years old was historic!!!!
Let these people have their little folly. As long as they fund it themselves--of course the matter of whether the location could be used for a revenue generating source instead of a plaything for the entitled of the city needs to be looked into.
Anyway this may become the crown jewel of the "destination palo alto" campaign--I can see travelers from all over the world flooding into PA for this--but only if they bike or walk.

Like this comment
Posted by Use-No-Public-Funds
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm

> In response to the last comment about the use of public funds:
> nothing in this article states that the Museum project is being
> supported with public funds

The following is from the article:

> According to Holman, the museum currently has a
> lease-option agreement, which the board can exercise for $1 per year.

The Roth Building is City-owned, and has cost quite a bit of money to get it to where it is now. The $1/year lease is the public subsidy. It's not clear what a fair lease fee (fair to the taxpayers) would be--but $1/year is definitely not fair.

Like this comment
Posted by What's historic?
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I am concerned regarding the traffic impact and safety on the roads around the museum. We will have children from all the schools and how they are escorted from their transportation safely is an issue. The most dangerous issue is Bryant Street from Embarcadero up to University.
This is a designated Palo Alto bike path. It is heavily used. We have cars parking all day on both sides of the road and if there is someone on a bike there are times that the biker and another car needing to occupy the middle of the street are forced into dangerous situations. I wonder if we could use just one side of the street for parking, and use the other side of the street for temporary parking to unload children or visitors to the museum and then the driver can seek parking elsewhere.
thank you.

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