For history museum, hunt for money continues | January 9, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 9, 2008

For history museum, hunt for money continues

Palo Alto History Museum's long search for funding is common, others in field say

by Arden Pennell

After three years of searching, the group pushing for the future Palo Alto History Museum has yet to find a big donor for the $7.2 million project, museum president Steve Staiger said this week.

Without a major gift of $1 million or $2 million dollars, it could be challenging to ask for other, smaller donations, Staiger said.

The museum's struggle is tough but typical for a local enterprise, according to experts.

Last summer, Palo Alto History Museum organizers signed a lease option with the City of Palo Alto on the historic downtown Roth building.

The Spanish Colonial-style building, built in 1932, has sat unoccupied since the city purchased it in 2000, its basement flooding with heavy rains and marked by water damage. The structure also needs seismic retro-fitting, Staiger said.

Estimated restoration costs have climbed from $5.5 million to $7.2 million.

Under the option agreement, the museum group has two years to raise the money, at which point the city will grant them the right to lease the building for $1 a year, said Staiger, who is also the city historian.

The hunt for money is a two-step process, with the group seeking the individual million-dollar gifts before launching a public campaign, he said.

"Large donations encourage smaller ones. When significant community figures give, then the public as a whole will see the project is viable and they will come forward," he said.

The group has already raised "several hundred thousand dollars," $250,000 of which came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to fund the group's effort to find more massive donations, he said.

A couple of smaller foundational grants totaling about $125,000 were given for construction costs, he added.

And because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, $800,000 of investment tax credits will be available for restoration, the museum's Project Director Karen Holman said.

But the three-year search for a major donor hasn't turned up anyone yet, he said.

The time-consuming and sometimes confounding process is to be expected, local museum founders said.

It will take at least a decade before Mountain View history buffs can open the doors of a museum currently in planning stages, according to Bob Weaver, president of the historical association.

The group will pursue the same strategy as in Palo Alto: find locals with deep pockets to make big, initial gifts towards the projected $10-million cost, he said.

They are looking for friends of wealthy, well-meaning residents, who "can put their arm up around the guy or gal's shoulder, and say, 'This is a good thing. I think you should do this,'" he said.

He added, "I don't know any of those people. We are looking for those people."

Who you know is crucial, agreed Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, which opened a new $3.5 million, 8,200-square foot exhibition space in 2001.

"People give to people," she said, noting personal connections helped convince potential funders of the importance of the project.

It took 10 years to complete fundraising and construction, she said.

Dudley Kenworthy, a retired former Stanford fundraiser, has volunteered to lead the Palo Alto museum effort. He said the first 18 months of fundraising were spent simply researching who to ask.

"You do a great deal of analysis of people who have some possible reference to this topic," working through community organizations such as churches and looking at attendees of past history-museum events, he said.

Kenworthy's many Stanford projects included the school's first capital-improvement campaign in 1959, which raised more than $100 million to construct now-classic campus buildings.

He hopes to net the needed big gifts within the next 18 months, he said.

Identifying keystone funders isn't the only challenge — timing can make the difference between flowing cash and tight fists, museum boosters said.

"If we started three years earlier, we would've got the dot-com boom," but the current economy is weaker, Staiger said.

Bajuk of Los Altos agreed, noting her museum looked for money "in the middle of the tech boom."

"People [would] say, 'I just happen to have a lot of stock that I can liquidate.' We would not be able to repeat that success today. The climate would not support it," she said.

And, of course, political clout can't hurt.

A hometown museum for Sunnyvale was merely a fervent hope of Historical Society members for decades — until city official Laura Babcock came on board.

Babcock, a long-time planning commissioner, already knew Sunnyvale City Council members and arranged a series of meetings to ensure the city and nonprofit group worked together, she said.

The city applied for state funding and the $2.6 million Heritage Park Museum, which will replace the current single room used for historical displays, is due to open in fall 2008, she said.

But relations have been rockier in Palo Alto, where museum boosters locked horns with city staff about repairs to the waterlogged Roth building.

The Palo Alto Historical Association, which later formed Palo Alto History Museum as an offshoot group, began lease negotiations for the Roth building with the city in 2004.

The city offered the building as-is, but the group claimed the city should help pay for water damage it hadn't sufficiently prevented.

After two years of negotiations, the City Council allotted $415,000 for repairs in spring 2006.

The Roth building was designed by prolific local architect Birge Clark and occupied by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic — now the Palo Alto Medical Foundation — for nearly 70 years.

Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at


Posted by Nothing historical happened in PA, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2008 at 7:56 am

What major historical events happened in Palo Alto over the years?
Sounds to me like this history museum is one big ego trip for the people involved.

Posted by KCM, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 9, 2008 at 9:52 am

Well, maybe it doesn't seem like history when you're living it, but here's an outsider's perspective: Sir Peter Hall wrote an immense book in 1998 called Cities in Civilization that describes 2500 years of western civilization in terms of the cities that typified or created each era. Alongside Athens (500-400BC), London ((1570-1620), New York (1880-1940) and others, he has a chapter on Palo Alto/Silicon Valley (1950-1990), "the Industrialization of Information." You're posting on the internet that nothing of major historical importance ever happened in Palo Alto? Thanks for making me laugh so early in the day.

Posted by Nothing historical happened in PA, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2008 at 9:59 am

KCM--hope you busted a gut laughing

Posted by Nothing historical happened in PA, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2008 at 10:31 am

KCM--by the way, we already have the Hewlett Packard garage as a monument--do we really need to spend $7.2 million on this vanity item?
Do you really think this will make PA a tourist destination or is it to stoke our own egos, that we live in a "historic" city?

Posted by KCM, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 9, 2008 at 11:03 am

This gets to the heart of the matter. Regardless of the ideas coming out of Palo Alto, this is also a town that has built no public buildings in over thirty years. We do not look like the center of Silicon Valley; we look downright seedy. This must be partly because of the tendency for people living here to "live in their heads" in the world of ideas and not see the physical reality around them.

Even if I’m not sure that the focus of the Palo Alto Historical Museum would be exactly what I would like to see there, I absolutely support the goal of new public buildings and services for the city. I just don’t believe a virtual world is enough on its own.

Posted by Periwinkle, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 9, 2008 at 1:55 pm

It would be a great addition to the cultural depth of our city, and would provide an additinoal creative and educational outlet for our kids.

Posted by Maybelle, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 10, 2008 at 9:07 pm

For those who feel nothing of importance has happened in Palo Alto, check out this group's site:

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