The (California) English manor
Publication Date: Friday May 6, 1994

The (California) English manor

The Crist house puts on a show for the Children's Health Council

by Diane Sussman

Palo Alto architect Martin Bernstein regards the Crist house a "complete expression" of an English manor. Or at least as complete an expression of an English manor as a house in Palo Alto can be.

With the exception of a squire mucking about the grounds and the romance of foggy moors, the exterior of the house has all the attributes of the genuine English article: symmetrically located gables, a central oriel and a symmetrical roof and dormers.

Inside, however, England meets the American West.

The interior of the 6,000-square foot, six-bedroom, four-bathroom house is pure Craftsman style, with hand-crafted light fixtures, mahogany doors, black walnut paneling, crown molding and leaded windows.

Through June 5, the Crist house will be open to the public for the 1994 Designer Showcase. The showcase benefits the Children's Health Council, a non-profit organization serving children with learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral problems.

Located on Hamilton Avenue in Crescent Park, the three-story house was built in 1916 by the San Francisco architectural firm of Collman and Duncan for the Robert Ray family.

The house has a near twin next door. Both were built at the same time for the Ray family, one for the father and one for the son. But the house next door followed a looser interpretation of an English manor, adding columns and asymmetrical gables.

"The moods of the two houses are different," said Bernstein. "The Crist house is more formal. It is a good role model for an English manor. The other house plays with the concept more."

In 1942, the house was purchased by Frank Crist Sr., the Palo Alto lawyer, state assemblyman and community leader best known for helping to make Palo Alto a town where it's not a crime to imbibe, as the ordinance stated, "spiritous, vinous, malt or mixed liquors."

Indeed, it was Crist who brought the final suit challenging deed restrictions that prohibited the sale of alcohol within a 1.5-mile radius of Stanford University. In December 1970, a California Superior Court judge agreed with Crist's argument, ruling that the university could not prevent a downtown restaurant from serving alcohol.

Six months later, Crist was set to pose for a Palo Alto Times picture sipping the first legal martini at the Shutter (now Henry's). And pose he did, but with a glass of water, not spirits. Apparently, the vermouth didn't arrive in time for the newspaper's deadline, and the photographer couldn't wait.

Throughout his life, Crist and his wife, the artist Eugenia Crist, remained active in the political, social and community life of Palo Alto. Crist died in 1991; Eugenia died in January.

The Crist house has been on the market for some time, originally listed at more than $2 million but recently reduced. For the past several months, 30 local interiors designers have been painting, stripping, papering, buffing and garnishing the 25-room house in preparation for the show house.

One of the designers is Crist's daughter, Jeanese Rowell of the Palo Alto interior design firm of Jeanese Rowell Interiors. Rowell, who grew up in the house, is bringing the kitchen--carefully--into the 21st century, with mahogany cabinets, polished oak floors, black granite counter tops and an original, hand-painted wall mural.

But Rowell is designing the kitchen's ample window seat with her father in mind. "My father loved the window seat," she said. "He loved to sit there, looking at the gardens. Most people don't know that he spent almost every weekend back there, that he did the work himself."

In a strange twist of time and gender, Rowell's old girlhood bedroom upstairs is being refurbished by San Francisco designer Marian Wheeler as a "gentleman's retreat," complete with black leather upholstery and a zebra rug.

But Rowell is more concerned about her parents than the black leather motif in her old room. "It's such a tribute to mom and dad," she said. "They were so much a part of Palo Alto."

1994 Designer Showcase of the Crist house

What: Benefit for Children's Health Council

Where: Crist house, 865 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sun. through June 5; Wed. eves from 6-8 p.m.

Tickets: $15

Info: 599-3333 

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