Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Birge Clark: the man behind the blueprints

by Rick Kushman

Birge M. Clark, Palo Alto's best-loved architect, leaned back in his chair and smiled as he talked about earlier times during an interview with the Palo Alto Weekly in 1979. Clark was 86 at the time. "The disappearance of the horse from the construction business," he said, "was something we never anticipated."

Clark had seen a number of changes in his business; he started as an architect in 1919.

"I used to go down to the building inspector's office, lay my plan down and hack things out in a half-hour," he said. "Now there are so many reports to file it can take months. That is not all bad, but it sure has made the practice of architecture more complicated."

His profession was less complicated when he opened his first office in 1922, because he was one of only two architects between San Jose and San Francisco; the other was in San Mateo.

In the half-century that followed, Birge Clark was a major contributor to the development of Palo Alto. His architecture had a large effect on the appearance of this community. When he started, the population was about 5,000, and many streets still had wooden sidewalks.

"Today, no architect would dream of going into a town that size," he said, "but I didn't think it was a risk. I knew people here and they knew me. Going off cold to San Francisco, that would have taken nerve."

Clark's timing was uncanny because Palo Alto started to grow rapidly, and his business and reputation boomed. Among the buildings he designed are the Palo Alto downtown post office; most of the buildings on Ramona Street on the historic block south of University Avenue, the Lucie Stern Community Center; the old Palo Alto fire and police station, now the Senior Center; and the home of Charles and Kathleen Norris, now Stanford's Newman Center.

But his first attempt in the business came in 1919 when he and his father, who would become chairman of Stanford's art department, designed Herbert Hoover's home.

Clark graduated from Stanford in 1914 with a degree in art and engineering and received a masters in architecture from Columbia University in 1917. He came back to Palo Alto in 1919 after spending two years as an Army captain and a company commander in the balloon service during World War 1. He married Lucile Townley in 1922 and they raised four children.

"We had a terrific start on everyone," Clark said. "I was just like a country doctor, I did a little bit of everything because there was so much to do.

"The backbone of my early business was residences, but now they've run out of houses, so that ended that."

Only once in his years as an architect did he contemplate another career. "During World War 11 there was a freeze on building and it looked like there wouldn't be much demand for an architect. I thought about going back into the armed service." But then he contracted to work on a plant for Kaiser Permanente, and later served as a consultant for a Kaiser steel mill.

"I've always been happy in this business. It's rewarding, and I can see the effect of my work," he said. "And there aren't too many hardships. You know, they say a doctor buries his mistakes, and a lawyer's mistakes go to prison. All an architect has to do to avoid his mistakes is drive around the block.

"When you build a house for someone," he said, "they sort of adopt you. But I also believe if you designed it, it's your house as long as it stands. If there is a problem, you go in and correct it. That is something I tried to pound into my students."

Clark taught at Stanford from 1950 until 1972.

"Any client is entitled to your best effort, and your building should fit their need. You can design a beautiful building but if it doesn't function you've got a problem," he said.

Clark said he wouldn't mind spending more time playing golf, although he had little praise for his skills.

"I was out playing the other day," said Clark, "and the fellow I was playing with asked me my age. I told him 86, and he asked what I attributed my health to. I told him 'Picking the right grandparents and not coming home drunk.'"

Clark died on April 30, 1989 at the age of 96.

All told, he contributed to the designing of 450 buildings in the Palo Alto area, including more than 30 that are on the city's inventory of historic buildings and three that are on the National Register of Historic Places. He defined the city's Early California style and he helped define Palo Alto as "The city that Birge built."