For some, the town’s name has become synonymous with exclusivity.
Indeed, Atherton’s founding fathers set the tone for that 100 years ago as they wanted to keep their community strictly residential, prohibiting commercial and industrial land uses within its borders.
But while Atherton is well-known for its affluence and celebrity residents, it’s also a place rich in history, with some new developments keeping the town busy. This Sunday, Sept. 24, Atherton plans to commemorate that history with a centennial celebration at the Town Center, located at 80 Fair Oaks Lane, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It’s a milestone achievement,” Mayor Bill Widmer said of the centennial. “It gives us an opportunity to reflect back on where the town was and where it is today.”
The celebration will feature exhibits educating folks about Atherton’s neighborhoods and other characteristics.
The festivities will also include musical performances, food and a contest giving free oak trees to the first 100 residents. Holbrook-Palmer Park will have overflow parking with shuttle service to the event.
The town party is a way to get people involved in the community, Widmer said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to see what we have accomplished the last couple of years.”
Atherton boasts the new $32 million Mediterranean-inspired civic center. The project includes a $19 million library, which measures 10,000 square feet and has a spot for the popular French bakery Mademoiselle Colette.
“I lot of people haven’t seen the new library and civic center yet,” Widmer said. “The whole community is pretty excited about Mademoiselle Colette. I think it’ll be a complete draw.”
Another new civic project is transforming the town’s 620-square-foot train depot into a rail-history museum while a pickleball court may be coming to Holbrook-Palmer Park on a trial basis.
“Everybody’s excited and happy” for Atherton to achieve a century, said Joan Sanders, a member of the group organizing the centennial party. “I’ve lived in town for 53 of those 100 years. We all live in Atherton because we like the rural feel and the openness.”
That feel, however, could change to some degree as Atherton is figuring out how to plan for the additional housing under new state requirements. Town Council member Elizabeth Lewis acknowledged that new housing is needed. “But that’s really going to change the look and feel of Atherton,” she said.
For now, though, Atherton remains a small, bucolic and mostly residential community with no industrial land-use base.
The small town tends to draw attention for having the priciest zip code in the country. According to real-estate data provider PropertyShark, Atherton (94027) approached $8 million in median home-sale price in 2022 – the sixth consecutive year that the area topped the list nationwide.
Among the famous who have a home in Atherton include Golden State Warriors basketball superstar Stephen Curry and Hall of Fame former football player Jerry Rice.
But Lewis, an Atherton resident since 1997, tried to dispel the perception that her town is home only to the affluent.
“It is true we have a number of high net-worth individuals,” she said, but many other residents “have lived here a long time, and their wealth is not as spectacular. Many have modest homes and own their own business.”
Lewis also feels Atherton doesn’t get enough credit for having diversity. “We have a lot of ethnic groups here,” she said.
White residents represent a large majority of the town's population – at 68 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Asians account for 19 percent, and Latinos make up 9 percent. About 7,000 people live in Atherton.
The town officially incorporated Sept. 12, 1923, but its beginnings go back even further. In the 1860s, what was then known as Fair Oaks served as a Southern Pacific Railroad train stop between San Francisco and San Jose for those who owned large estates north of Menlo Park, according to the town's website.
In the early 1920s, Menlo Park wanted to incorporate to include Fair Oaks. But during a meeting between the two communities, Fair Oaks property owners maintained that their area should only be residential and incorporate separately.
Both groups raced to the state capitol to seek incorporation, but the Fair Oaks representatives got to Sacramento first.
It was around then that they realized another name was needed for their community as there was already a Fair Oaks near Sacramento. They decided to name their newfound town after merchant Faxon Dean Atherton, one of the first property owners on the southern Peninsula.
Originally from Massachusetts, Atherton bought more than 600 acres in the region in 1860 and built his home called Valparaiso Park several years later.