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October 21, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 21, 2005

Professorville Professorville (October 21, 2005)

Close to downtown and Stanford, its historical roots

by Patricia Bass

Before there was Palo Alto, there was Stanford. First there was the campus, and then there was University Avenue, where most of the businesses were. Finally, there was housing for the first professors, a straggling group of 20- and 30-somethings who grabbed the opportunity to hold a position at the fledgling university.

And then there was Professorville, the area where most of them lived, the spot next to University Avenue that was the shortest walking (or wagon)'s distance across the fields that separated the town from campus.

Now, Palo Alto is no longer solely home to professors, wagons are no longer a practical method of crossing El Camino, and Stanford professors are no longer inexperienced 20-somethings who are holding their first real jobs. But the Professorville houses remain -- many of them dark-shingled homes near downtown Palo Alto, obscured by large front lawns, old trees and fences.

Aneka and Ray Dempsey live on Bryant Street, one of the streets that bounds the historic area.

"In the [11 years] we've lived here, Professorville hasn't changed a great deal in terms of homes and layout," Ray Dempsey said, and that is what makes the neighborhood special. The unique label of Historic District protects most of the homes in the area from being changed from their 100-year-old architecture and landscaping.

The homes in Professorville range from the Spanish Colonial style that was born in Monterrey to Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival, according to the Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) historical organization. Many of the current houses survived the 1906 earthquake.

The old style and history of the buildings are appreciated by residents like Robert and Joan Jack, who say they "love the architecture," and their neighbors, who are renovating the Sunbonnet house on the corner of Bryant Street and Lincoln Avenue to look like it originally did in the 1900s.

The rich history of Professorville was first recognized in 1980, when it was designated a national historic district, and again in 1996, when the city of Palo Alto put an emergency moratorium on the demolition of homes built before 1940.

However, although the houses remain the same, the demographics of the area have certainly changed. Due to the high price of the large historical homes, Stanford professors and younger couples are few and far-between.

"I think if you live here you're going to have to be older rather than young, because housing is so expensive," Dempsey said. "Most people have been living here for a while, and there are a few retired people."

Most homeowners bought their houses in the '50s or '60s when the area was less desirable, however "neighbors are still welcoming to new families," according to Dempsey.

"We keep an eye on each other," he said, citing garden parties to welcome new additions to the neighborhood and bottles of Champagne bought for couples who returned from vacation. "It's a place where I think you can rely on your neighbors."

The Jacks are one family that bought their Professorville home in the 1960s and still live in one of the historical houses highlighted by the PAST tour.

"When we moved here in 1968, the area was composed of rentals and groups of students, and it was pretty run-down," Joan Jack said. "The property was cheaper because smaller, newer houses were more popular. Then people started buying the houses as family homes and started caring for their properties better."

Palo Alto historical librarian Steve Staiger noted that it is not only the design of the houses, but the design of the plots of land they are on that is unique.

"The land developer wanted to sell a lot quickly, so he would offer entire blocks or half blocks, if people could afford them," he said. "This creates the bizarre land plots one sees today, where professors subdivided their own lots into smaller properties that they leased or sold."

One result of the "bizarre land plots" is the phenomenon of flag houses -- a house in the center of a block, completely hidden by the houses surrounding it. This occurred because professors would sell plots of land around their central house -- eventually surrounding their own home with other people's properties. This type of design is noticeable on Kellogg Avenue.

Now, the houses are highly valued not only for their antique style and lay-out, but for their proximity to downtown Palo Alto. Although Dempsey mentioned that being close to downtown meant that parking was often a problem, the traffic that usually comes with it is rarely an issue. Barriers and streets are set up in such a way that makes cutting through Professorville on the way to downtown impractical, not to mention the design of Bryant Street, which is a bike trail.

PAST provides tours of Professorville and brochures for self-guided walks. However, to gain the highest appreciation of the neighborhood, one might have to talk to residents themselves.

Ray Dempsey echoes the prevalent neighborhood pride when he says, "my wife and I always say we are blessed to be able to live here."
Professorville facts: @facthead:CHILDCARE AND PRESCHOOLS (NEARBY): @fact:The Learning Center, 459 Kingsley Ave.; Downtown Child Care Center -- CCLC, 848 Ramona St. @facthead:FIRE STATION: @fact:No. 1, 301 Alma St. , and No. 3, 799 Embarcadero Road @facthead:LIBRARY: @fact:Downtown branch, 270 Forest Ave. @facthead:PARKS: @fact:Scott Street Mini Park, Scott Street and Channing Avenue @facthead:POST OFFICE: @fact:Hamilton, 380 Hamilton Ave. @facthead:PUBLIC SCHOOLS: @fact:Addison Elementary School, Jordan Middle School, Palo Alto High School @facthead:SHOPPING: @fact:University Avenue; Town & Country Shopping Center

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