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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 03, 2001

Where a strong sense of history motivates the community

by Adam Levermore-Rich

There is perhaps no more striking example of the history of Palo Alto than the city's Professorville neighborhood. This small residential area, bounded roughly by Addison Avenue, Cowper Street, Embarcadero Road and Emerson Street, epitomizes the spirit of the men and women who populated and nurtured a new town at the turn of the last century.

When Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford opened their university in 1891, their faculty consisted of a mere 15 people, mostly from the East Coast. As the university grew, so too did the faculty. In fact, in the university's second year it more than doubled the number of professors it employed.

With more and more professors arriving at the university every year, there was a rising need for housing. Just as today, the university allowed professors to own homes on the campus, but Stanford retained ownership of the land the houses were built on. So many professors ventured out into the fledgling town of University Park, which in 1892 would be renamed Palo Alto.

"Professorville was the closest place to campus that was not controlled by the Stanfords," said Palo Alto's resident historian Steve Staiger. People settled several blocks south of the University Avenue area because it was less commercial than the main artery to the university. Professors and others living in the new neighborhood could easily walk or bike to downtown and to campus.

But for an area that was founded by professors, few can be found there now.

"Professors don't dominate the neighborhood today," said Staiger. He said houses in Professorville are tough for today's professors-even full professors-to afford. Houses in the area have sold for more than $2 million.

Because the original houses were built for people who mainly came from the East, the designs tended to reflect the professors' origins. The dominant architecture in the neighborhood is the New England-inspired shingle style, which was favored by architects such as Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Kellogg house at 1061 Bryant St.

Many of the houses in the neighborhood have been home to Palo Alto and Stanford's industrial and academic leaders. The Queen Anne-style house at 450 Kingsley Ave. belonged to one of the original 15 Stanford professors. And the Varian brothers lived at 1044 Bryant St. before founding their medical systems company.

Sharon Olson has lived in Professorville since 1974. Olson, senior librarian at the Palo Alto Library, says her love for the neighborhood stems from the area's "living history."

"I became interested in Professorville when I started living there in the early '70s, she said. She did research for the landlord of her apartment at 1121 Bryant St., discovering that it was the original home of Castilleja School, built in 1891.

"It was an old house with lovely old floors," Olson said. "The front porch had been closed in so it was like the front room had been a porch once." In her research, she came across an old pamphlet from the school, which, among other things, laid out the girls' dress code.

But despite the neighborhood's rich history, Professorville is more than the sum of its houses.

"It's never boring around here," says Yoriko Kishimoto, president of the University South Neighborhood Association. "We basically get hit with every single major issue that comes up before the city. That's one thing that makes us a great neighborhood. Because we face all these issues our neighbors talk to each other all the time." One issue that has dogged the neighborhood for years is the matter of historic preservation. The neighborhood has been designated a national historic district since 1980, but sparks didn't begin flying until 1996, when the Palo Alto City Council adopted an emergency moratorium on demolition of homes that had been built before 1940. That year, 34 homes built before 1940 had been bulldozed by their new owners.

Two years later, after the council instituted an interim historic preservation order that required city review of proposed demolitions, the Historic Resources board sent letters to 3,300 Palo Alto residents informing them that their homes might be included on the city's inventory of historic properties. Owners of homes on the list would have to ask permission from the Historic Resources Board before undertaking most major or minor construction projects. That sent Palo Alto and the Professorville neighborhood into a chaotic and heated debate, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a clash over property rights and the need for preservation. Joan Jack, a 32-year resident of Professorville and an original member of Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST), said the preservationists' concerns were legitimate. "The fear was that we would lose our heritage to developers," she said. But while Jack and others agreed that protection was necessary for a portion of the houses, she believes the ordinance went too far. "My point of view is that the city went overboard trying to save everything, and that's why they got in hot water with the homeowners. The homeowners didn't feel that everything needed to be saved. There was a need to preserve what needed to be preserved, but without stepping on property rights." When the issue was brought to voters in 2000 in the form of Measure G, a bitter and angry debate raged, with both sides of the issue accusing the other of spreading inflammatory and false information. Ultimately, the measure was defeated, with 52 percent of Palo Alto voters voting against the controversial ordinance. But with the messiness of Measure G behind them, residents of Professorville are able to focus again on what makes their neighborhood great.

"This was a place that was one of the earliest communities in Palo Alto," said Olson. "I've visited a lot of historic communities around the country, and I think our neighborhood has a lot of the qualities of places I've visited like Salisbury, N.C., or Cambridge, Mass. It has value for our own history and the history with Stanford, which is how Palo Alto began." Olson believes the neighborhood's charm lies in its setting. "It's wonderful to be able to walk and bicycle to downtown," she said. And just like the original residents of her neighborhood, she also bikes to work. "It's a privilege to live so close to downtown, and to my work, and in a beautiful tree-canopied setting-those old homes in the craftsman-shingle style. There's so much wood, in the trees and in the homes themselves. It's very pleasing."

Professorville facts: Closest schools: Addison Elementary School, Jordan Middle School, Palo Alto High School Closest fire stations: 301 Alma St., 799 Embarcadero Road Closest post office: Hamilton Avenue branch, 380 Hamilton Ave. Closest library: Downtown branch, 270 Forest Ave. Closest parks: Scott Park, Rinconada Park, Bowling Green Park, Kellogg Park


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