Harold Hohbach, a patent attorney and developer whose mixed-use projects and whimsical art helped transform the area around California Avenue, died on Dec. 28 at his home in Atherton, according to various sources. He was 96.
Known for his dogged persistence, his irascible nature, his uncompromising style and his deep appreciation for Silicon Valley's legacy of innovation, Hohbach spent more than 40 years working as an investor, attorney and developer, with a focus on the California Avenue Business District. His recent projects included 195 Page Mill Road, which featured 82 apartments and research-and-development space, and the Birch Plaza project at 305 Grant Ave., which has eight apartments and office space.
Other prominent Hohbach projects include Sheridan Apartments, which he constructed in the mid-1990s and which is perhaps best known for its public art: a fountain sculpture that graces the courtyard of Caffé Riace and features a classical nude lifting a washing machine over her head.
Born on a farm in South Dakota, Hohbach was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and rode a horse-and-buggy to school, according to the family's obituary. He then enrolled in South Dakota State University, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering, according to his son, Douglas Hohbach. In 1943, after he earned his degree, Hohbach joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and spent part of World War II as a first lieutenant in Germany and North Africa.
Upon his return, he enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley on the GI bill and earned a business degree, Douglas Hohbach said. He later earned a law degree. And while many in Palo Alto associate him primarily with developments, Hohbach's primary job was as a patent attorney -- a job he held until well into his 80s.
Those who worked with Hohbach cited his loyalty, determination and stubborn streak. Susan McKay, manager of Park Plaza, a Hohbach project, described him as the kind of a man whose "handshake meant a lot." He had been developing since the 1950s and never retired from the company. She said Hohbach died at home, surrounded by his family.
McKay said Hohbach was "well-known for his loyalty and long business relationships," some of which stretched back more than four decades. And she said he will be remembered for his indelible personality.
"He had his own vision about things and was very clear about it," McKay said. "That could promote some pushback because everyone has an opinion. Harold was one of those people who was sure his opinion was right."
Palo Alto officials were far less certain. In the early 1970s, Hohbach became a limited partner in a team that was looking to build a 10-story office building called Court House Plaza at 260 Sheridan Ave.
The project was in the planning phase in 1974, when the city adopted its 50-foot height limit for new developments, a restriction that reduced the project to a four-story office complex.
During the 16-year legal battle over the project, city officials got a taste of Hohbach's determined, uncompromising style. In 1978, Hohbach rejected the city's proposed compromise that would have allowed an eight-story building. According to reports at the time, Hohbach was concerned about wasting the 300-ton cache of steel he had purchased to construct the 10-story building.
View a map showing all the developments Hohbach helped build in the California Avenue Business District here.
Undaunted, he appealed the city's decision five times -- twice to the California Supreme Court and three times to the U.S. Supreme Court -- to no avail.
Hohbach also sued the city in 2010 over Park Plaza, the project at 195 Page Mill that he first proposed in 2005. After years of delays and a lawsuit from project opponents, Hohbach filed his own suit in a federal court. Hohbach, who was 88 at the time, argued in his claim that the city was unreasonably delaying the final approval of the project, and "destroying" Hohbach's ability to complete the project "in light of his advanced age." (The mixed-use project ultimately won the council's approval in 2012.)
Though Hohbach rarely attended council meetings or community events, preferring to work behind the scenes, the few interviews he gave suggested that his "advanced age" rarely strayed far from his mind. In a 1995 interview with the Weekly, he reflected on the fact that he would not live forever.
"I'd like to think I have all the time in the world," Hohbach, then 73, told the Weekly. "But I don't."
He also noted at the time that he has no plans to retire. Ever. ("Let other people retire," he said. "Not me.") He never swerved from that position. McKay said he worked up until the end and his mind was always "sharp as a tack."
Douglas Hohbach said the Court House Plaza project was his father's first venture into development. Once he became involved in the California Avenue Business District, Hohbach found other opportunities in the area for new developments.
The younger Hohbach said many viewed his father as a "tenacious" developer -- a quality that also applied to him in his personal life. It was these qualities that led him to surmount economic challenges and political opposition.
"He worked hard; he didn’t give up and kept going at things," Douglas Hohbach said. "In his personal life, he wasn't vastly different from that appearance because it did take someone with real tenaciousness in that period to build rental housing, which he did."
Others who knew Hohbach agreed with that assessment. Isaac Arman, who works in Hohbach Realty's accounting department, said he worked regularly with Hohbach, up until two days before Hohbach's death.
His gruff persona notwithstanding, Hohbach really cared about his employees and took time to assist them with personal problems, Arman told the Weekly. He described Hohbach as a tough person and an honest one.
"He didn’t want people overcharging him," Arman said. "And if anyone tried to take advantage of him, he knew it."
Those who knew Hohbach also pointed to his admiration for those innovators who turned Silicon Valley into the world's pre-eminent tech hub. He had served on the board of the early venture capital firm, Sutter Hill Capital. He also helped support several startup companies, including manufacturers of medical devices, Douglas Hohbach said.
Marcus Wood, a broker who worked with Hohbach for decades, called Hohbach a "great man without trying to be one." Elizabeth Alexis, an acquaintance of Hohbach, said he was "an interesting guy who had a genuine admiration for inventors."
"His main career was as a patent attorney, and he was serious about building R&D space in his later career as a developer," Alexis said.
Late in his life, Hohbach also began to set up a foundation to further encourage innovators. Still in its nascent phase, the new foundation will commemorate Silicon Valley inventors and encourage others to "take that inventor and innovator perspective," Douglas Hohbach said.
Hohbach is survived by his wife, Marilyn; his sisters, Lorraine, Carol and Sharon; and his children and their spouses, Douglas (Kay), Janet (Chris) and Ellen (Lance).
According to Menlo Church, a memorial service for Harold Hohbach is planned for 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 2.