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March 30, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Saving a piece of history Saving a piece of history (March 30, 2005)

In conversation with Briones Foundation president Halimah Van Tuyl

by Sue Dremann

Hopeful that a 150-year-old Palo Alto house can be preserved for posterity, Halimah Van Tuyl -- an elementary school teacher and president of the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation -- is taking a new approach to an 8-year effort to save the landmark Juana Briones house from demolition.

She wants to buy it.

The home on Old Adobe Road in the hills adjacent to Arastradero Road was built by Juana Briones, a 19th century pioneer, rancher, businesswoman and folk healer. For the past six years, it has been the focus of a lawsuit between the property's owners, Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer, and the city of Palo Alto. As the case now stands, the owners may be allowed to demolish the historic home in 2008, although the city is still trying to prevent that from happening.

Van Tuyl, a soft-spoken, thoughtful Stanford alum with silver-flecked hair, said it's time for the foundation to make connections in the broader community, both to create a sensitivity of the home's cultural and historical value, and to raise funds for purchase.

The foundation is putting together a broad coalition of groups -- from neighborhood associations to ethnic organizations to architectural preservationists -- to back the local group and raise the funds to make an offer.

Van Tuyl sat down with the Weekly to discuss the foundation's plans and the importance of preserving neighborhood heritage.

Q: What are you doing differently from your predecessors to bring about a possible solution to preserving the home?
A: We're building a capital campaign team, and met with a professional fund raiser to get an idea of the funding challenges, who thinks there are a number of family foundations who would be interested.

Q: If the foundation is able to purchase the property, what do you plan to do?
A: We plan to have a restoration of the house, and some archaeological work. There are likely settlements of the Ohlone there. And we want to have a docent program for school children. In the two wings of the house, we plan to have a library and a resident apartment for a scholar-in-residence, and we would like to develop the gardens to study the plants used by Juana.

Q: How do you address the notion of private property rights -- the rights of an owner to do as they please with their property, versus the desire of a community to preserve its heritage?
A: The notion of private property is a valid one that must be balanced with the public good. The notion of parks attests to that. The notion of private property versus the public good goes back to the beginning of the United States -- the idea of public lands held by the government for the public good. Without that balance, everything would be developed.

Q: Why does preserving a house like this matter to a neighborhood?
A: At this time in history more than any, perhaps, there's an interest in a town commons. People are hungry for a sense of (a) common place, a town green, to feel a place in the neighborhood is special -- a place to walk and meet our neighbors. ... Our neighborhoods aren't isolated. We're part of a continuum, not an island unto ourselves. We're part of this ongoing relationship with the land. Because of our time online, chatting with people all over the world electronically, face-to-face time -- that neighbors connection -- is sometimes lost.

It's a good way to help the old and new residents find common ground. Part of a neighborhood is a sense of knowing people in the neighborhood. Having a connection to the past ties a community together. This connection, that's what people are hungry for. It's a very attractive feature to the concept of neighborhoods.

Q: Which neighborhoods are involved in trying to preserve the home?
A: Esther Clark Park, Barron Park and the Greater Miranda neighborhoods and parts of Los Altos Hills -- all once part of Juana Briones' rancho.

Q: What's their involvement?
A: Many neighbors in Esther Clark Park and the Old Adobe neighborhood have been involved in founding the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation, and continue to be board members. The Barron Park Neighborhood Association has endorsed the cause to buy the property and has sent a letter in support. They also have a historian, Doug Graham, who has documented some things about Juana through the last decade.

Briones Park is being renovated by the city. Part of the park was an apricot orchard (owned by Briones), and the kids from the school and in Barron Park and Greater Miranda are part of a program with (the nonprofit group) Canopy to plant back apricot trees. On Sunday (March 20), the kids took home 15-gallon pots with apricot trees, which they will keep through summer and will care for. They will plant the trees in the fall in the park.

Q: Do you live near the Juana Briones house?
A: I live on Middlefield Road in the Charleston Gardens neighborhood.

Q: How did you first get interested in the Juana Briones house?
A: I started teaching fourth and fifth grades at Juana Briones School 17 years ago, so I asked, "Who is Juana Briones?," and it started the journey.

Q: As a teacher, what is the value to education in preserving the Briones house?
A: It's not just a house; it tells a story. There is no other place in the state where there's a house still standing owned by a woman of color. It's a very important tie to our state's Latino roots. In Juana's family, also, her maternal grandparents were of African, Spanish and Indian ancestry. It's the story of California. The teaching power of this place is enormous. A coffee and discussion about the native plants of the Briones rancho and Juana Briones Heritage Foundation's vision for the restoration of the gardens and house is upcoming. Visit

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be reached at

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