When Lucille Mellish and her husband purchased their 696-square-foot cottage at 757 College Ave. in 1968, it wasn't on the City of Palo Alto's Historic Inventory, but 10 years later, Mellish, now 94, says the city added her home to the list.
Mellish says she didn't want the home to be designated as a historic residence in 1978; and 37 years later, she wants to tear down the cottage and an adjacent home at 739 College Ave., which is not on the list of historic buildings. Both homes are in disrepair, Mellish said. No one has lived in the home at 757 College Ave. for at least 20 years -- except for birds, squirrels, termites and the occasional squatter, she said.
But the city's Historic Resources Board rejected her petition on Thursday, finding that the 1906 single-story home -- an example of a "workingman's cottage" -- still meets the criteria as a historical asset. The seven-member board unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council keep the home on the list.
"What a bunch of idiots," Mellish, a registered sea captain who was in the U.S. Navy, retorted as the hearing drew to an end.
At times soft spoken, tearful or angry, Mellish said she doesn't have the money to fix the homes, which have become a neighborhood eyesore. She lives around the corner in an adjacent home on Wellesley Street. She doesn't plan to build on the properties, but she just wants the decrepit houses gone.
"I'm afraid inquisitive children in the neighborhood will go into the home and get hurt, and I'm afraid they will sue me," she said. "It's just awful. There's nothing about it that's historical. No one has ever lived in it that's of any note. It's nothing but a piece of junk."
Patricia Griffin, a neighbor since 2005, supported Mellish's request.
"I know how much stress this has caused her because her hands are tied," Griffin said.
Evergreen Park resident Mike Forrester, a member of the Palo Alto Historical Association and the Museum of American Heritage, said he is a big supporter of historic preservation, but Mellish's house really shouldn't qualify.
There must be some criteria that if the cost of repairs is extraordinary or a large amount of the home is not usable or safe, the city "would recognize that some houses just cannot be preserved," he said.
Mellish tearfully told the board that she has spent thousands of dollars trying to get rid of the building.
"I should be spending the money on my nieces and nephews who are trying to get an education, and I want to help them do it. But this thing here is taking up all of my money that I should be spending on them," she said. Mellish said she also must help another relative who has Parkinson's disease.
"It seems like this whole thing is so overwhelming. I've just got to get rid of these buildings," she said.
But board members did not agree with her hired representatives, architect Robert McCormick and architectural historian Richard Brandi. They described the residence as having so many altered elements that it no longer would qualify as being close to historically relevant. McCormick said the home's structure is rotted away and it has no foundation.
"It began to self-destruct from the moment it was built," he said.
Palo Alto's municipal code lists criteria for historic structures and sites for listing in the inventory, including:
The home identifies with historic people or important events;
It is particularly representative of an architectural style or way of life important to the city, state or nation;
It is an example of a type of building once common that is now rare;
The architect or building was important;
The structure has elements demonstrating outstanding attention to design, detail, materials or craftsmanship
Mellish's home is designated as a Category 3 or 4 "contributing building," meaning it is a good local example of architectural styles that relate to the character of a neighborhood.
A contributing building may have had extensive or permanent changes to the original design, such as inappropriate additions, extensive removal of architectural details or wooden facades resurfaced in asbestos or stucco, according to the city's ordinance.
Brandi said the board should instead consider the National Register of Historic Places criteria for a historic home: the ability of the property to convey its historic significance.
With its appearance as a Folk Victorian home limited and a loss of major features that were once characteristic of its style, the building would not be eligible for registration by National Register standards, he said.
"One hundred percent of its historic fabric is gone," he said, noting that the roof is now flat asphalt, the horizontal siding is covered by shingles and the building's base is now stucco. "It looks like a nondescript shack, not a representative of a Folk Victorian."
But Board member Martin Bernstein said the home meets four out of seven aspects of integrity for a historic building based on the National Register's definition, including the original feeling of the neighborhood.
"It really does have the original feeling of College Terrace," he said.
Brandi and board member Beth Bunnenberg debated how a particular occupancy might or might not contribute to the historical significance of the property.
Brandi said no one of any significance ever resided in the residence. According to the city's Historic Resources Inventory detail for the property, the home passed through several hands and was occupied by early Japanese residents, the Hironaka family, a retired teacher and librarian, a contractor, longtime superintendent of sewage treatment and others.
But Bunnenberg thought the Hironakas' residence could be considered significant, since Japanese and Japanese Americans were generally only resided in 1911 in the city's Japan Town, which was located in what is now part of the University South area.
The fact that the home was occupied by a succession of working-class persons rather than a prominent family should not make it less historically important, especially if "framing it as pioneers who came to this area to work near that strange new area now known as Stanford University," she said.
But Brandi pointed out that many different people resided in the house, according to old city directories, and they often only lived there for a year or two.
"It's hard to make the case that these were pioneers in Palo Alto," he said. If they were associated with Stanford in some way, prominent professors or from an early farming family, a case might be made. But the reports don't support any of those possibilities," he said.
"In order to build what we have now, you have to have some workers. It's a way of life of the period," she said.
The small home may be modest, but it is of a type that is becoming increasingly rare in the city, board members said. The property's condition, while derelict, is salvageable.
Mellish has not made any "good faith effort" to keep up the property in 47 years of ownership, board members said. And that would not be a good reason to remove its historical designation.
Board member Roger Kohler said the board's goal is to maintain historic homes.
"It's the duty of every homeowner to maintain the condition of a home," he said.
Other board members agreed. Margaret Wimmer said the home, especially compared to its more dilapidated neighbor, "Makes me imagine how wonderful it could be."
There are many things wrong with the home, Wimmer said, "but I think there are people out there who would love to have this historic building."
In the current real estate market, the property could be sold in a week, board member Patricia Dicicco said.
The board members said there are existing remedies for Mellish. City Planner Matthew Weintraub said Mellish would have the potential to subdivide the property and increase the gross floor area to encourage rehabilitation. As the owner of three adjacent properties, she could change the lot lines to adjust the three parcels.
Mellish could also sell the property to someone who would be willing to rehabilitate the home. She would not need to spend additional money and would have enough to take care of her obligations, board members said.
"Are you going to take it away from me? Is that what you are saying?" Mellish said. "This group of people is not going to get away with that. If you do take it, you're going to pay me $10 million."