Historic Palo Alto home to be lifted and rotated

Plan for Fowler House would create a backyard for prospective owners

A century-old house at 221 Kingsley Ave. described as an "anchor" of the historic Professorville neighborhood will be lifted and rotated 90 degrees to create a backyard for the prospective new owners, according to plans on file with the city.

Woodside residents Max and Nahid Keech said their contract to buy the 4,600-square-foot house at the corner of Kingsley Avenue and Ramona Street, known as the Fowler House, is contingent on city approval of their plans. The plans also include construction of a 748-square-foot guesthouse and a swimming pool.

The couple seeks to rotate the shingled, Colonial Revival-style structure -- currently facing Kingsley and set back on a 19,461-square-foot lot -- to face Ramona.

"By solving the lack of a backyard, you give incentive for people like me to restore the property and ensure long-term preservation of the house," Max Keech told members of the Historic Resources Board at a hearing Aug. 5. "We believe the building can be moved, without damage, on the site."

The Historic Resources Board approved Keech's plans on a 3-2 vote, with two members absent. The board's role is to ensure that projects in the Professorville Historic District, roughly between Addison Avenue and Embarcadero Road, and Emerson to Cowper streets, comply with conditions for historic rehabilitation established by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Approval becomes final only after action by the city's director of planning and community environment, who is awaiting comment on the Keeches' application for an Individual Review and home-improvement exception, according to Chief Planning Official Amy French.

"I think this project is extraordinarily well-thought-out," Historic Resources Board member David Bower said. "It's tough moving anything in the historic district, and my concern is that we lose the character of the district by 1,000 cuts. But in this case, I think it actually improves this building (to rotate it)."

Joining Bower in support of the project was Chairman Roger Kohler and member Patricia Di Cicco.

Bower's colleagues Martin Bernstein and Beth Bunnenberg disagreed.

"This house in its current location is almost like a gateway building (to Professorville) in the way it's located. When I think about it being moved ... I think it loses some of its 'grande dame' character," Bernstein said.

Keech said the house will be moved in one piece by elevating it with hydraulic jacks, constructing a steel latticework structure with rollers beneath it and then rotating it.

The house was built in 1902 by Marion Hall-Fowler, a wealthy transplant from Michigan who had come to Palo Alto two years earlier so her son, Frederick, could attend Stanford University. Frederick Fowler later married Elsie Branner, daughter of Stanford's second president John Branner, and the young couple joined his mother in the home, according to city documents.

Marion Hall-Fowler died in 1931. From 1938 to 1974, Stanford agricultural economist Karl Brandt occupied the house.

Originally, the Fowler property included a carriage house and was nearly centered on a 50,000-square-foot lot, with ample space on all sides. But subdivisions by previous owners -- one in 1975 and another in 1998 -- carved out lots for two homes facing Emerson and another facing Ramona, taking about 60 percent of the original parcel.

"Although the Fowler House site has been substantially modified, the Fowler House itself retains nearly all of its historic character-defining features on its primary faces," said historical consultant Seth Bergstein in concluding that the Keeches' plans conform to the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.

"The proposed rehabilitation design includes restoring the existing character-defining features on the primary facades to preserve the architectural value of the property. This will enable the Fowler house to maintain its status as a contributing structure to the Professorville Historic District," Bergstein said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Horacio
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 22, 2014 at 8:06 am

The second subdivision should never have been approved or allowed!

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2014 at 8:57 am

This sounds like somebody has too much money to spend. It made me smile anyway.

I would like the kitchen in my house to be at the back of the house rather than the front. I get tired of carrying trays of food right through the house into our backyard and worrying about spills in the living room. :)

A little whimsy for a Friday, perhaps.

Like this comment
Posted by enee
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 22, 2014 at 11:07 am

I bike by the house every day. I'm not surprised they want to rotate it because it has a huge front yard. It doesn't have any back yard because the previous owners were allowed 10 to 15 years ago to subdivide the property and sell off what had been the back yard. I support the board's decision to allow them to rotate it. I don't think it will effect the character of the neighborhood. And I'm happy to see that they want to rehab the house.

Like this comment
Posted by BS from NC
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2014 at 11:22 am

I would prefer that this house is torn down and replaced with a modern looking home. However, it is not my home so I should have little to no say in what the owner does with this home

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Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Only in tony Palo Alto.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 22, 2014 at 7:50 pm

This is a great, creative idea. We preserve a beautiful, historic structure and the potential homeowners have a home and yard they can enjoy. Mr. Bernstein - I'm not sure how this house is a "gateway building to Professorville since it is on a dead-end portion of Kingsley that gets mostly pedestrian access, but I think we should be very happy that someone is willing to buy it and preserve it instead of tearing it down - which would be cheaper and easier.

Palo Alto is not that old, but anything we can do to preserve some of our beautiful old homes is a plus. There are too many that have either been torn down or gutted and turned into pseudo modern homes (the formerly beautiful, now just odd house at the corner of Forest and Lincoln comes to mind) or McMansions.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2014 at 7:56 pm

This could start a new fad --- buy a multimillion dollar home (this one was listed at $9 million and sold right away), and turn it around to face another direction. (Away from the neighbors?)

Like this comment
Posted by Family Town?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2014 at 8:39 am

One great side effect is the house will get a modern foundation. I think this is one of those cases where someone was able to do something optimal that normally people shake their heads about wishing but not having the money to do.

Hey people with money to burn: please get together and save the Frys site and the Maybell orchard from development! The Maybell Orchard has 100 trees on it that survive without watering in this drought, Faces the Foothills, and an existing park.. It's also right next to an elementary school. Imagine a community orchard where kids could climb the trees. The place is totally accessible from the bike path to Los Altos, meaning, everywhere from San Antonio to Stanford. Please don't let someone bulldoze the trees when its such a great place for something unique for this town.

The Frys site could be an anchor of open space, accessible to the bike path to Los Altos which means also easy to reach from Stanford and beyond. In other words, it could be a place our kids could be independent with. Imagine a park and maker space, totally unique and Palo Alto.

Please also consider investing together in our community like Los Altos has been experiencing. We've had a lot of negative development, we need positive development and it won't come from the City.

Like this comment
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 23, 2014 at 10:05 am

Excellent Move!

This one will preserve the Oldies but goodies!

It also will fix the problems that usually associate with old home e.g. foundation, plumbing etc.

It will make back yard neighbor happy since it put distance to it.

It is a win-win situation!

2 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2014 at 11:52 am

Has anyone notified the termites?

Like this comment
Posted by Money, money, money
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 23, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Having too much money, like poverty, does something odd to the brain. Searching for ways to spend big money can cause disorientation.
Wonder where the money comes from.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 23, 2014 at 8:32 pm

The family selling this house have maximized their profit at the expense of the neighbors and the community. When they sold off the guest house/rental units several years ago, over the objection of most of their neighbors, they hired outside experts to testify that it would not damage the historic value of the house. I believe they claimed the money was to be used to preserve the house (actually it went to the kids). Now they are both deceased, and the house can't be sold except under these conditions. It is one of the few actual historic houses in town. I don't blame the buyers, I blame the city.

2 people like this
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 25, 2014 at 11:07 am

perhaps this is worth commenting on. whatever happened to the peninsula when there was a middle-class? if this is newsworthy, then this is accurate. pining for the former palo alto when regular people could afford the cost of living. bully, bully

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2014 at 11:11 am

I was born in the 50's and am a native. Northern PA has always been more expensive than neighboring cities.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 25, 2014 at 11:14 am

Resident, It made me smile as well;). Too funny.....

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2014 at 11:15 am

@neighbor - While you may not have appreciated the past owners selling off bits of the property, the fact that the current potential owners are willing to move and rehab the house is great. A house on Melville was moved forward on the property a few years ago (and updated) as was a home in the 1000 block of Forest. The homeowners were happy and a piece of Palo Alto history was preserved.

As an alternative, someone could buy the house, knock it down and potentially subdivide it.

Like this comment
Posted by Mimi
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2014 at 11:26 am

Actually, this may not be as expensive as you think. 27 years ago we lifted our home in Midtown 10 feet in the air and built a beautiful first floor with open beams, coffered ceilings, etc under it. This allowed us to upgrade the foundation while we were at it, and the cost of lifting, holding and lowering the former first floor back down and reattaching it to be a second floor was less than replacing the roof would have been had we done the traditional second floor remodel.

Like this comment
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

My opinion doesn't matter in this situation. But this is what I'm wondering: will doing this make it more earthquake-safe? If so, it sounds like a great idea.

Like this comment
Posted by Marian
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 25, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Glad to see that creative thinking will preserve this old house. The house in its present state has a configuration on the lot and inside that is so awkward as to be unliveable. Congratulations to the new owners that they figured out how to maximize the historic aspects with changes that will bring it into the new century. Welcome to the neighnborhood.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2014 at 2:13 pm

re: Earthquake Safe --- I would have no doubt that the city will require the owners to bolt the house down onto the new foundation. Whether the city will require the installation of shear walls (I would guess "yes") - that would be part of the permitting process.

Like this comment
Posted by Suzy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Shear walls (which have anchor bolts and thick plywood, as called out in architectural plans based on structural engineering calculations) are a code requirement! Anchor bolts are inspected as they are installed or pull tested. Very important load bearing/seismic elements.

The building inspectors look for this as part of the inspection process.

Like this comment
Posted by Jeff Keller
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 26, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Jeff Keller is a registered user.

"almost like a gateway building in the way it's located" ... with the appropriate "NOT A THROUGH STREET" sign at the corner before you get to the front of the house?

If the adjacent neighbors don't object to the change in setbacks, let the new owner rotate the house. Through traffic would see the front of the house rather than the side ... if the hedge on both Kingsley and Ramona didn't block the view of the house no matter which way it is oriented.

2 people like this
Posted by RomShady
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 27, 2014 at 8:55 am

I would like my house mounted on a turntable foundation so that my bedroom can stay cool and shady all day.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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