Town rejects historic house

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 8, 1998

ATHERTON: Town rejects historic house

Diverse opposition undermines move to Holbrook-Palmer Park

by Elisabeth Traugott

It was an idea that pleased preservationists, local residents and even the homeowners themselves. It was an idea that proved too good to be true. Such was the conclusion drawn by the Atherton City Council when it unanimously voted at its meeting March 24 to reject Bill and Gail Lyons' offer to donate their historic Watkins-Cartan House--the oldest structure in town--to the city and pay for the cost of moving it to Holbrook-Palmer Park.

It all came down to politics, said Atherton Vice Mayor Nanette Chapman, of the 5-0 vote. "There were a lot of potential problems," she said. "If the people who are active in the park are opposed, then it becomes a long political fight."

As soon as the plan to move the house was hatched, Chapman said opposition surfaced from many places.

Little League officials started to worry about how the house would affect their plans for a baseball diamond. City staff weren't happy about the council's decision to locate the house in the "mulch area" of the park. Holbrook-Palmer Park advocates said they didn't want more than one building in the park. Meanwhile the Lyonses told the city they didn't have time to wait around.

And, perhaps most importantly, it became clear that the financial outlook for renting the space wasn't as rosy as had first been predicted. Because the home was to be located so close to the existing main house, "chances are the two of them would not have been rented out at the same time," Chapman said.

So what next for the stately house built in 1886 in Connecticut and shipped in parts around Cape Horn to California and its current site at 25 Isabella Ave.? "We are just exploring several different options," Gail Lyons said, although she wouldn't say what exactly those options are.

The Lyonses bought the house in January 1997 and were preparing to demolish it in February that year when a group of local preservationists discovered it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At one point, Mayor Malcolm Dudley suggested that the city's police chief could live in the house if it were moved to the park, thereby solving the chief's rental dispute with his current landlord. That plan was swiftly buried by Dudley's colleagues at a March 12 council meeting.

Lyons said she's "baffled" by the town's decision on March 24. "Last year they all wanted it. This year, when I offered it and offered to pay for it, they didn't want it," she said. 

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