Palo Alto's Historic Resources Board rejects woman's request to remove home's historic designation

Lucille Mellish, 94, wants to tear down College Avenue cottage

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.

Bunnenberg disagreed.

"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."

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35 people like this
Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2015 at 7:51 pm

So is this the city that allowed the Juana Briones house to be gone and now wants an example of a non-historic house to be left to deteriorate?

3 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 23, 2015 at 7:55 pm

My understanding is that there is no city restriction on demolition of a Category 3 or 4 building outside the downtown area. Am I incorrect?

46 people like this
Posted by Andrea Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2015 at 8:45 pm

I violently disagree with the Historic Resources Board in this matter. If the city wants to preserve this decaying house so much why don't they buy it from Ms. Mellish and lovingly refurbish it. You can't force her to repair it, so basically you are sentencing the house to a long slow death. This is beyond ridiculous. I am especially enraged by Roger Kohler's comments. If he is so interested in maintaining the historic look of Palo Alto, why does he design such boring cookie cutter homes? I live on a street which is soon to turn into a Roger Kohler development. At least 6 Eichler homes on my block have been torn down and replaced by a Kohler designed home. NONE of them have any architectural interest, but they are here all the same.

Unless someone on the Historic Resources Board wants to pay to repair this home, or buy it themselves, they should have the decency to let the OWNER tear it down. This is absolutely appalling.

I hope Ms. Mellish appeals this to the City Council. I would be happy to come and support her there.

14 people like this
Posted by CT Neighbor
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 23, 2015 at 8:53 pm

[Portion removed.] It seems to me that Mrs. Mellish was upset at this designation back in 1978 and has continued to stew about it ever since and, in turn, has done nothing to maintain the cottage or the other house. In the meantime, she snapped up the surrounding lots for a song and is now well aware of their value. One has to wonder if this elderly widow is saavy enough to know that a lot with a tear down cottage is far more valuable than one with a protected, historically designated cottage that must be maintained by the new buyer.

31 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2015 at 9:42 pm

casey is a registered user.

It seems that the lessons in this case can be applied to Buena Vista. The Buena Vista residents should get their mobile homes designated as historic residences, as an example of a type of building once common that is now rare. If the park closes, there will be no more mobile homes in Palo Alto. Mobile homes are the modern workingman's cottage.

16 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 23, 2015 at 10:16 pm

If that is a historic residence, it doesn't speak well of the history of Palo Alto. Let her year it down and focus on some of the legitimately interesting buildsing around town.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 23, 2015 at 10:35 pm

she better have the other one torn down quick before it goes on the list next. She needs to subdivide the property asap and sell off what she can to cash out.

After subdividing and selling off what she can (empty lot), she ought to leave this gem as a donation to the Historic Resources Board - let her heirs take the tax benefit of the donation to the tune of some $X Millions, and let these geniuses figure the rest out.

11 people like this
Posted by We need the housing!
a resident of another community
on Apr 23, 2015 at 10:40 pm

As one who was recently forced to move to another city when the rent in Palo Alto spiraled out of control, it makes me weep to see perfectly habitable but empty houses like this all over town. There has to be more to this story. Why has the house been empty for so long? Why was it allowed to fall into disrepair? If the owner doesn't want to sell it, perhaps she could rent it out for less than market rate and allow her tenant to make repairs/ improvements. Palo Alto cannot afford to lose a single housing unit, and older construction is almost always of better quality than new.

24 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2015 at 11:06 pm

I remember talking to a plumber who worked on that cottage back in 89' evidently the sewer line was broken from the toilet for about 1 year.After dawning the disposable jumpsuit, gloves and eye protection he went into the crawl space to go for a swim. He told me that was one of the worst jobs he ever had to fix.

"The Shack" as it was, and is affectionately called is defiantly not a historic. Maybe a historic piece of crap.

How does Roger Kohler even get a vote in this matter. Talk about conflict of interest.

11 people like this
Posted by Nuisance
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2015 at 11:44 am

This is annoying on so many levels. (1) The HRB's basis for this particular designation is absurd. (2) I suppose we can't avoid having a local architect (Kohler) who designs homes that are the opposite of preserving the historic look of our community on the Board, can we? (3) People like Mellish irritate me. They scoop up properties, sit on houses for decades, let them fall apart, even leave them empty - all the while whining about how they don't have resources to maintain them. Well, cry me a river! Meanwhile, we have an affordable housing shortage in the Peninsula and throughout Silicon Valley. [Portion removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Conflict of interest
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 24, 2015 at 11:57 am

This line bears repeating:
"How does Roger Kohler even get a vote in this matter. Talk about conflict of interest."

6 people like this
Posted by CresentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2015 at 11:58 am

>> "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.

I agree with Mellish, remove the designation ... what does the City have to say in this when they have been truly awful at maintaining this town's historic heritage, look and feel? Ugh .... this is just picking on someone and having a very negative effect on their life and property rights. What good is this doing anyone. If this is a good example, document it and keep the pictures and data at City Hall and let people make use of their land that they own and paid for, and through the ridiculous taxes in Palo Alto continue to pay for.

And what is the point of maintaining the Varsity Theater for example when it is not a theater and not really even a place the public can enjoy or get a sense of what it's historic value is ... was??

11 people like this
Posted by Margaret
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Patricia Griffin has been kind and helpful to Mrs Mellish for many years, since before the property which she currently rents became available. I don't know her arrangements with her landlady, but Patricia does not deserve the bitter slur from the anonymous "CT neighbor". How does that advance any discussion of the role of the HRB?

2 people like this
Posted by Eli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 24, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Every home in Palo Alto becomes "historic" if it stands 100 years. It doesn't make sense to preserve such homes on the site. If the city wants to preserve the look and style of old homes they should provide land to relocated them as a museum. I presume there will not be many visitors. I'd rather see Palo Alto renewing itself. Yes, some places should be preserved. For others just a photo will do.

2 people like this
Posted by Katie
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Margaret - "CT Resident" inserted some interesting information. Patricia was presented as a "Resident since 2005", showing support for Mrs. Mellish. Had she been identified as Mrs. Mellish's tenant, who is apparently contributing to Mellish's money troubles by paying a cheap rent, she may have been viewed by the HRB as having a conflict of interest. Regardless of Patricia, this decision seems a bit insane but I can see some tiny logic. It's possible that the HRB is concerned that all historical homeowners will follow suit. Allowing a historical home to rot away so that you can get rid of it is an easy (and cheap) way to drastically increase your property value, as long as you have the time to wait while nature takes over. Steve Jobs tried this in Woodside with his historical mansion and it would seem that Mrs. Mellish is doing the same.

Like this comment
Posted by Bunch of idiots
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 24, 2015 at 5:18 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by another CT resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 6:00 pm

What, exactly, did the city council expect, when they entertained this foolishness of historical houses? I joined an effort to overturn most of it (and we succeeded at the polls). However there was, apparently, some residual damage left. Such cases represent a public taking (aka public theft).

If a group of people want to preserve old homes, they should buy them...and preserve them. Imagine that!

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 6:01 pm

Poor Mrs.Mellish doesn't have money... She owns nearly quarter of the block.msN

Like this comment
Posted by Former resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 8:34 pm

I lived in College Terrace for years and always wondered about this curious little cottage and its enormous garden!

2 people like this
Posted by Chrisc
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2015 at 9:25 pm

How could she sell it if the buyers know that they can't tear it down? I get the impression new folks with that kind of money coming in want to tear down and build their new homes. It sounds like it would take a lot of money to fix it up. This seems pretty ridiculous to me.

3 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 25, 2015 at 8:23 am

This sounds to me like the City is committing a gross incursion into a citizen's property rights.

2 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2015 at 12:24 pm

"If a group of people want to preserve old homes, they should buy them...and preserve them. Imagine that!"

Thank you, Craig. As usual, you can be relied on for common sense.

1 person likes this
Posted by Dave
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2015 at 2:13 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2015 at 2:33 pm

[Post removed.]

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

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