Just about everyone who has driven through Palo Alto likely has seen the Spanish-influenced architecture of Birge Clark. His iconic red-tiled roofs, stucco walls, arches and wrought iron details defined the burgeoning city's Early California style and had so much influence on the look of its commercial and residential streetscapes that Palo Alto has been referred to “as the city Birge built.”
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Clark's architectural practice in Palo Alto, the city council in May issued a proclamation recognizing Clark's architectural contributions and legacy to the city.
During a 50-year span, Clark built 98 Palo Alto Houses and nearly 400 buildings in and around the city, including the downtown post office on Hamilton Avenue, most of the buildings on Ramona Street’s historic block south of University Avenue, the Lucie Stern Community Center; the old Palo Alto fire and police station (now Avenidas senior center), and the nationally recognized home of Charles and Kathleen Norris at Stanford University.
More than 30 of these structures have been listed on the city's inventory of historic buildings, and three are on the National Register of Historic Places. Palo Alto currently is working to establish a history museum in the historic two-story Spanish-Colonial Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. that Clark designed in 1932 as the original Palo Alto Medical Clinic.
Born in a San Francisco hospital on April 16, 1893, a year and a week before Palo Alto was incorporated, Clark grew up in Palo Alto, where his father Arthur Bridgman worked as a Stanford Professor of art and a freelance architect. After attending Palo Alto High School, Clark graduated from Stanford University in 1914 with a degree in graphic design (architecture wasn’t in the Stanford curriculum until the 1950s), and from Columbia University in 1917 with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture.
After being deployed to France for two years during World War I, Clark returned to Palo Alto in1919 and secured his first job as an architect, assisting his father with the design of Herbert Hoover’s home at Stanford. Two years later, Clark opened up the only architectural office in Palo Alto, which at the time, had a population of about 5,000,and many streets still had wooden sidewalks.
Influenced by the Spanish Colonial architecture revived for the Panama-California Exposition San Diego’s Balboa Park in 1915, Clark began designing what he called “Early California” or “California Colonial” buildings throughout Palo Alto. The exterior architecture of this style includes smooth, white stucco walls that mimic how adobe-brick walls were once covered, round-arched openings, recessed windows giving the appearance of a thickened exterior wall, sloped red roofs made from adobe tiles rounded and baked, wrought-iron railings, and front or interior patios often surrounded by a stucco wall.
His Spanish Colonial commercial work began with Addison Elementary School in 1924. The following year, Clark added to the cluster of Spanish Colonial buildings along the Ramona Street commercial district built by Palo Alto architect and artist Pedro de Lemos. The area is now a registered historic district. Clark’s noted multi-story Medico-Dental building, recognized by its massive facade, ground-floor archways and elegant ironwork, is among the buildings in this district.
Another of Clark’s notable Spanish Colonial projects includes the former Hotel President at 488 University Ave., which was recently converted from apartments back to a hotel. The six-story building boasted a lush roof garden, a beautiful beamed ceiling lobby and a grand spiral staircase that climbed all the way to the top floor.
Among Clark’s earliest residential projects is the two-story Spanish Colonial at 470 Coleridge Ave. and the two-story Monterey Colonial with a Mediterranean doorway at 544 Coleridge Ave., both designed in 1923. Other notable Clark homes include the Dunker House at 420 Maple St., the entire block of Coleridge Avenue between Cowper and Webster streets and the 1927-era Norris House at 1247 Cowper St., which has been called his most elaborate design.
The nearly 10,000-square-foot house was commissioned for married authors Charles and Kathleen Norris, whose typewriters could be heard by passersby. The house is built from white stucco with a tile roof, wooden beams and handcrafted ironwork around the windows, doors and balconies.
In 1932, Clark designed the homes at 1950 and 1990 Cowper St. for Lucie Stern, one of the heirs to the Levi Strauss estate, for her own residence and for her daughter, as a get-away from their main Atherton home. The houses once shared a common courtyard and fountain. In Clark’s opinion, the houses “represented the peak of his Early California designs within the city of Palo Alto.”
In 1935, Stern commissioned Clark to design 1928 Cowper St. for her gardener and his wife. She also commissioned him to design the Community Center (now called Lucie Stern Community Center) at 1305 Middlefield Road.
Although Clark’s legacy is bound with his Spanish Colonial designs, he also ventured into a variety of other styles for his residential and commercial buildings. On the 1400 block of Edgewood Drive, one can see a variety of home styles he built there between 1936 and 1948, including the Prairie-style house with its flagstone veneer at 1440 Edgewood, which has been described as “Birge Clark meets Frank Lloyd Wright.” Another of his homes at 570 Coleridge features a Tudor-style second story. His Streamline Moderne buildings include the former GM dealership (now Wilbur Properties) at 790 High St. and the Sea Scout Building (designed to resemble a ship) at the Baylands.
How to identify California Colonials
• Smooth, white stucco exterior walls that mimic how adobe-brick walls were once covered
• Round-arched openings
• Recessed windows giving the appearance of a thickened exterior wall
• Sloped red roofs made from adobe tiles rounded and baked
• Wrought-iron railings
• Front or interior patios often surrounded by a stucco wall
• Often feature two-story block perpendicular to the street with a one-story wing at one side
Bo Crane is a Palo Alto native and graduate of Stanford University. As secretary of Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, he organizes and leads architectural/historical tours of Palo Alto neighborhoods. He also is a board member of Palo Alto Historical Association and historian for the Menlo Park Historical Association.