Plans for Williams house hit snag
Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 26, 1995

COMMUNITY: Plans for Williams house hit snag

City Council may reconsider lease to Museum of American Heritage

by Peter Gauvin

Like a broken phonograph, Palo Alto's plan to lease the historic Williams House seems to be repeating itself. And it's about to make another revolution.

The city's hopes of leasing the house on Homer Avenue to the Museum of American Heritage appear once again to be in jeopardy. This time the problem is that the museum wants to make more changes to the house than the city had anticipated or wanted. So it may be back to the drawing board.

The city has been trying to lease the property, located across from the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, since 1992. Twice it has settled on prospective tenants only to have them fall through for one reason or another.

Last fall, the City Council awarded the museum the right to lease the 1906 home, after a very close race with the Pacific Art League. The Council was encouraged because both groups seemed to appreciate the need to maintain the historical integrity of the property, without having to make any major renovations or additions.

But the museum's plans for the property, released earlier this summer, are far from what the city had in mind. The Council is scheduled to decide at its Aug. 7 meeting whether or not to proceed with the lease.

The museum wants to add a 1,300-square-foot room addition onto the back of the house, put a circular driveway through a portion of the garden and provide 15 to 20 spaces of on-site parking.

"That was not part of the (Council's) approval," said Senior City Planner Virginia Warheit. "Some of the things they're proposing are the same sort of thing the PCC (Peninsula Conservation Center) proposed three years ago and were soundly rejected."

The house, designed by Ernest Coxhead, was the residence and medical office of Dr. Thomas Williams. His daughter, Rhona, willed it to the city when she died in 1989.

A historic resources report of the property done in 1992 said its value is that it has been unaltered for nearly 90 years and it is one of the few intact representations of early-1900s, middle-class life left.

"The Council has been very consistent that any reuse of the property should follow the recommendations of the historic resources report and comply with the (U.S.) Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic renovations," Warheit said.

The museum's plans are completely inconsistent, she said.

Providing parking on-site is unnecessary, she said. People can park on the street or walk a few blocks from downtown.

Bob Beck, the museum's interim director, said there's probably time for a compromise solution to be worked out. "I have every confidence we're going to work (the differences) out. I don't see anything that's really insurmountable."

The museum wants a circular driveway for improved safety and accessibility, he said, because the existing driveway on the west side of the property is too narrow for cars to pass.

But more important is the addition of the meeting room, along with restrooms that are wheelchair-accessible, to the back of the house, he said. "If we can't have that then we can't move in because it's not big enough," he said.

Museum officials believe the ground-floor addition will not compromise the historic integrity of the house or the large garden area.

The house is presently about 4,000 square feet, only about half the size of the museum's building at 275 Alma St., which remains open on a month-to-month basis.

Beck said they will save the garage, an important architectural feature because Dr. Williams was one of the first Palo Altans to own a car. He even had a gas pump installed in the garage. Initially, it was thought the garage was structurally unsound, but it turns out it's quite sturdy.

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