Duvenecks central to 'Touching Lives' exhibit

Exhibit at Los Altos History Museum features the Duvenecks' influential efforts in founding Hidden Villa and Peninsula School

There's a lot more to real estate than "location, location." The heart of a property often comes from what you do with it.

Few Peninsulans have illustrated this philosophy better than Josephine and Frank Duveneck. In 1924, they bought a pretty piece of land in a Los Altos Hills valley, and ended up turning it into the summer camp, farm and gathering place now known as Hidden Villa.

Around that time, the Duvenecks and other parents also transformed Menlo Park's Coleman Mansion and its environs into the progressive Peninsula School.

In their spare time, the pair also helped found the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, and Josephine served a term on the Palo Alto City Council.

"She had incredible energy and was able to enlist people to support her," Nan Geschke said. "We are just in awe of everything she did."

Geschke has done quite a lot herself. She's co-chair of the exhibit "Touching Lives: The Duvenecks of Hidden Villa" that opened last month at the Los Altos History Museum. Through old photos, newspaper clippings, videos, clothing and other artifacts, the exhibit traces the couple's lives. Visitors follow the Duvenecks from their privileged East Coast upbringings to their philanthropic decades on the San Francisco Peninsula after they fell in love with California.

A centerpiece is a re-creation of the dining room at "The Big House" that the Duvenecks built at Hidden Villa. Within the wooden walls are historic photos; a copy of a painting by Frank's father, the artist Frank Duveneck Sr.; and a set table complete with candlesticks.

The room also gives a taste of the couple's politics. A photo of Cesar Chavez is prominently placed at one table setting, providing a reminder that the Big House was not just a warm hearth for family and friends, but a community gathering place where Chavez and other Mexican-American activists planned farm workers' strikes and boycotts.

Another area recalls the support the Duvenecks gave to their Japanese-American friends who were interned during World War II. A stack of small suitcases shows the limited amount of belongings that internees were allowed to bring, while an exhibit card tells about the Duvenecks bringing relief supplies to the internees and storing their possessions for them during the war. A quote from Josephine reads: "Intolerance is too costly for any of us."

Other exhibit areas include replicas of the fireplace at the Big House, Frank's blacksmith shop, and the writing cabin behind the Big House where Josephine wrote books including her autobiography, "Life on Two Levels."

A section on Peninsula School features a poem by Josephine about the school, a decades-old yearbook, and a large photo of the graceful Coleman Mansion that became the school's "Big Building."

The school, Geschke said in an interview at the museum, had its roots in Josephine's own "nontraditional education." Josephine said that traditional public schools could be crowded and restrictive, and also complained that "the girls had to wear dresses," according to an exhibit card.

After Josephine and other parents researched progressive schools and studied the ideas of education reformers including Maria Montessori, they opened The Peninsula School for Creative Education in the fall of 1925 with 45 students, according to the exhibit. Today the school has 255 students in nursery school through eighth grade. Its website still talks about the founders' original values: "an environment in which learning was joyful and exciting, where children were challenged to learn by doing, and where both independence and group cooperation were highly valued."

Besides being Peninsula's co-founder, Josephine was also director and teacher, among other roles. Frank taught math, science and shop, and served on the board. A photo in the exhibit shows children taking part in one of the Greek festivals that Josephine liked to stage at the school.

The couple's legacy also lives on in the Palo Alto Unified School District, where Duveneck Elementary School is named after them.

As for Hidden Villa, the pair bought its land while they were living in Palo Alto. They had become drawn to the picturesque valley in neighboring Los Altos Hills, and one day saw a "For Sale" sign on Moody Road, Geschke said. "It just became the center of their lives."

Irene Sasaki, one of the exhibit researchers, added, "Once they had this lovely property, they decided to share it with people."

The Duvenecks built the Big House, a three-story, 5,000-square-foot home roofed in handmade green tiles, for $33,564.42, according to an exhibit card. Then they opened it, and Hidden Villa, to the world, establishing a hostel, a pioneering multiracial summer camp, and an environmental-education program.

Thousands of people visit Hidden Villa every year, in tune with the Duvenecks' original vision for the place. Of the Big House, an exhibit card states, "It was a gathering place for politically minded people, a spawning ground for social justice, a safe haven and the scene of countless festivities.

"The Duvenecks never locked the door of the Big House or the gates to the property."

What: The exhibit "Touching Lives: The Duvenecks of Hidden Villa" traces the lives of Peninsula philanthropists Josephine and Frank Duveneck.

Where: Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road

When: Through June 27, open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to or call 650-948-9427. Special programs include a panel discussion on the Duvenecks and Hidden Villa, with such speakers as Palo Alto musician Nancy Cassidy, who was an early camp director; and David Duveneck, grandson of Josephine and Frank. The free panel is from 7 to 8:30 p.m. March 16 at the Hillview Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

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