Early 20th century artwork discovered in downtown Palo Alto

Nearly 90-year-old tile panel buried in wall of University Art Center building

What began as a seismic retrofit to ensure a historic downtown building meets earthquake codes soon turned into "an archaeological dig" for a piece of Palo Alto history.

Rapp Development is currently renovating the Birge Clark building at 261 Hamilton Ave., which until recently housed University Art Center. The building, constructed in 1927, was originally designed as a medical-dental building and featured the city's first underground garage. The U.S. post office operated out of the ground floor until 1933, when the stand-alone post office at 380 Hamilton Ave. was completed.

While developer Roxy Rapp and partner Joe Martignetti were looking at Clark's original plans for 261 Hamilton, the two noticed decorative panels on both sides of the facade next to the post office's entrance.

"I thought, 'Oh God, that's no longer there,'" Rapp said. But when he went to examine the building, he happened to see the "little outline of the stucco where they patched it. And (he) said, 'I wonder if it could still be there?'"

To put an end to his curiosity, Rapp hired Emeryville-based Giampolini Courtney, a masonry restoration company, to uncover the artwork.

"These guys are artists. ... They're like archaeologists that go into tombs and carefully relieve skeletons and artifacts. ... You've got to have a whole lot of patience to do it," Rapp said.

With a mashing hammer and chisel in hand, Shawn Tibbs of Giampolini took to the site where an incredible discovery was made: two 2-foot-by-2-foot panels, each made up of 16 tiles. One depicted an airplane with "U.S. Mail" etched on the door panel and the other, a mail boat.

Tibbs, a stone carver by trade, worked for two days to uncover one panel, which was covered with two inches of mortar, paint and a wax substance that helped preserve the artwork, he said.

"I used my technique to carve stone, which is a lot less destructive," he said.

The next step is to put a coating on the tiles to protect them and "leave them exposed the way it was originally intended," Tibbs said.

Rapp said he thinks the artwork was based on stamps from that era and is working to find out more details.

"You got to realize this was in 1928 this tile was produced and put into the building. So it's been in there that long," he said. "It's so neat to be able to discover something that ... was covered up, and so I'm trying to restore it as much as I can."

During a recent visit to see the artwork, city planner Matthew Weintraub said it is amazing that the panels are in such good condition and that it is great to see effort being put into preserving the artwork.

The four-story building at the corner of Ramona Street and across from City Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Like this comment
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on May 5, 2015 at 9:12 am

Do you mean really mean, as it says, that the panels are only 5 inch by 5 inch? Or do you mean 5 feet by 5 feet?
This is a very cool find.

4 people like this
Posted by My Nguyen
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 5, 2015 at 9:16 am

My Nguyen is a registered user.

Hi @Ellie, my mistake, yes I meant feet not inches. I have changed it in the story. Thanks for pointing that out!

6 people like this
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on May 5, 2015 at 9:23 am

The dimensions quoted in the post seem to be incorrect. Looking at the photos, the exposed airplane panel appears to be about two feet square, not 5-feet by 5-feet judging by the people in the photographs.

Great find and nice to see Roxy Rapp spend the extra money to preserve a piece of local history.

Like this comment
Posted by My Nguyen
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 5, 2015 at 9:25 am

My Nguyen is a registered user.

Hi @Jay Park, um I will make a call to find the exact measurement. I thought I was told 5X5. Thanks for pointing that out!

2 people like this
Posted by My Nguyen
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

My Nguyen is a registered user.

@Ellie and @Jay Park. Roxy got back to me. He said the panels are 2-feet by 2-feet. I've changed that in the story. Thank you both for pointing out the error!

Like this comment
Posted by OPA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2015 at 10:44 am

If each tile is 5 inches square and you allow for the border and the grout, that would make the two panels, each of which contains 16 tiles, roughly 2 feet square.

Like this comment
Posted by My Nguyen
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 5, 2015 at 10:50 am

My Nguyen is a registered user.

Hi @OPA, yes, you are correct. I just made that correction in the story.

27 people like this
Posted by an old Palo Altan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 5, 2015 at 11:04 am

A big THANK YOU to Roxy Rapp and Joe Martignetti for preserving a little bit of early Palo Alto history. Little is left of the old days and it would have been easy and finacially expedient to keeping on drilling. Thank you both!

28 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Community Center
on May 5, 2015 at 11:16 am

KUDOS to developer Rapp and Martignetti for their care and thought in proceeding.
It is heart-warming to know they appreciated the historical artifacts and took measures to preserve it.
It's a collective treasure so collective THANKS.

16 people like this
Posted by Shirley
a resident of Barron Park
on May 5, 2015 at 11:47 am

There are many items of architectural merit in the upper floors of this Birge Clark Building. I visited this building several years ago and was fascinated by some of details. Sure hope they retain many features in the renovation.

11 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on May 5, 2015 at 11:58 am

That is so neat! Hope they preserve them prominently.

6 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2015 at 12:14 pm

What a great find!

4 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 5, 2015 at 1:50 pm

They just don't make post offices like they used to.

3 people like this
Posted by Lily3
a resident of another community
on May 5, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Lily3 is a registered user.

Ah, aviation: Lindberg flies to Paris in 1927, boys all over the country adore airplanes, my aunt goes up with early aviators in San Francisco, my father flew u-control planes on the Hod Ray fields at Paly. Roxy Rapp has restored this precious tile to us, sparking memories of Old Palo Alto. Thank you, Roxy!
Judy, Paly '57

Like this comment
Posted by Stretch
a resident of another community
on May 5, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Thanks, Roxy! My old boss at the Habit.

Like this comment
Posted by chris cotton
a resident of Atherton
on May 5, 2015 at 9:46 pm

Looks like the Spirit of St. Louis that Charles Lindberb flew in 1927

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Short story writers wanted!

The 33rd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 29. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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