With the exception of a squire mucking about the grounds and the romance of foggy moors, the exterior of the three-story, 1916-era home on the 800 block of Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto that recently sold on April 26 for $19.5 million has all the attributes of a genuine English manor: symmetrical gables, a central oriel and a steep-pitched roof with narrow banks of windows and dormers.
Designed by noted Palo Alto architect Charles K. Sumner, whose eclectic work can be found throughout residential neighborhoods in Palo Alto and Stanford, the 25-room estate has retained much of the grand character that defined it as one of the "finest" residences in Palo Alto when it was built 107 years ago, according to local newspaper accounts uncovered by the nonprofit Palo Alto Stanford Heritage preservation group.
Surrounded by sculpted gardens, covered walkways, a centrally located pool with a pool house, and a one-bedroom guest cottage, the home sits on nearly three-quarters of an acre in the Crescent Park neighborhood adjacent to a near-identical twin home built at the same time for the same family: Patriarch Robert Ray commissioned one home for himself and the other for his son, for a total cost of $30,000.
A quarter of a century later, the estate changed hands and became known as the "Crist House" – a name that would be linked to the 1970 repeal of Sen. Leland Stanford's decades-old alcohol ban in Palo Alto.
The 'Crist House' era
In 1942, the Ray family house was purchased by Frank Crist Sr., the Palo Alto lawyer, state Assembly member and community leader best-known for helping to make Palo Alto a town where it's not a crime to imbibe in "spiritous, vinous, malt or mixed liquors."
It was Crist who brought the final suit challenging deed restrictions implemented by Stanford in 1888 that prohibited the sale of alcohol within a 1.5-mile radius of the university.
Stanford was concerned that saloons would come to the town that was sprouting up next to his newly founded university, so he encouraged Timothy Hopkins, the original subdivider of the site where Palo Alto now stands, to write a liquor sales ban into the deeds of trust for each property. A few years later, an alcohol ban was written into the town's incorporation documents.
The "dry zone" remained unbroken until December 1970, when a California Superior Court judge agreed with Crist's argument, ruling that the university could not prevent a downtown restaurant from serving alcohol.
In May 1971, Crist toasted the first legal cocktail at a downtown restaurant.
Crist and his wife lived the remainder of their lives in the "Crist House." In the early 1990s, the six-bedroom, five-bathroom, 6,086-square-foot estate was put back on the market for just over $2 million.
Designed for grand entertaining
The home is among the earliest that Sumner designed in Palo Alto and reflects his emphasis on formality and entertaining, with distinct separations between public and private space and formal rooms large enough to host grand gatherings.
The ground floor features a reception hall flanked by formal dining and living room spaces with window-lined sunrooms that expand each room along either side of the home.
For privacy, the staircase is strategically positioned perpendicular to the view from the front door, a common feature Sumner used to prevent a direct line of sight to the family spaces on the second floor.
The garden and its relationship to the house was an especially important element for Sumner. He believed that every room should have windows on two to three sides, when possible, to look out at the gardens. He made certain to incorporate French doors with balconies, decorative leaded glass windows and sunrooms into the home's design to provide various views of the property and its sculpted gardens.
The man who built the manor
A Pennsylvania native, Sumner graduated from the Columbia University School of Architecture and worked for McKim, Mead and White in New York City, the firm that designed the original Penn Station.
He moved to Palo Alto in 1916, where he spent the bulk of his career designing homes for the upper middle class, including professors at Stanford University. Between 1916 and 1941, he designed more than 50 residences in Palo Alto and 20 on the Stanford campus.
Sumner worked squarely within the eclectic movement, incorporating a mixture of elements from many styles into his work. He preferred the English cottage, Tudor and Colonial Revival styles, as well as the occasional Mediterranean Revival structure. After the Spanish Eclectic style swept into town in the mid–1920s, Sumner designed more of his work in this style.
In addition to his residential work, Sumner occasionally designed office buildings, schools, libraries and churches, including Palo Alto's Spanish Colonial Revival-style College Terrace Library at 2300 Wellesley St. and the mission-style building that once housed Walter Hays School before it was demolished.
Portions of this article taken from Palo Alto Stanford Heritage and the article "The (California) English manor" by Diane Sussman that originally appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 6, 1994.