Charles Kaiser Sumner designed more than fifty local residences in Palo
Alto between 1916 and 1941. While his commissions included the occasional
office building, school, church, and country club, these residential buildings
are typical of his work, the bulk of which was stylish housing for the comfortable
middle classes. His clients were business people and professionals, as well
as academics; he built an additional twenty residences on the Stanford Campus.
Born Charles Sumner Kaiser in Wilkes–Barre, PA, in 1874, he reversed the
order of his middle and last names during World War I. He graduated from
the Columbia University School of Architecture and traveled to Europe and
the Middle East on a Perkins traveling fellowship. He began his working
life in New York City in the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, working under
Charles Follen McKim, whom he greatly respected and admired for his talent
and hard work. Sumner would have been working at that office during its
heyday, when it carried out some of its most fabulous metropolitan commissions.
After a visit to the West Coast in 1906, he moved to Berkeley where he
lived and practiced for ten years. Sumner built around fifteen houses in
Berkeley, as well as the Claremont Club, taking shares in the club in lieu
of a design fee. He designed several buildings in Sacramento as well, including
several large residences and the multi–story Farmers & Merchants Bank. Sumner
moved to Palo Alto in 1916. He lived on University Avenue, and established
a practice in San Francisco.
Sumner worked squarely within the Eclectic movement, and mastered the
details of many styles. He preferred the English Cottage, Tudor, and Colonial
Revival models, as well as the occasional Beaux–Arts/Mediterranean Revival
structure. After the Spanish Eclectic style swept into town in the mid–1920’s,
he built more and more in this style.
Sumner’s residences reflect a certain formality, with distinct separations
between public and private space, and between spaces for the servants and
the served. His are houses for entertaining, with reception hall, generous
dining room and living room forming the typical ground floor arrangement.
There is almost always room for a piano, and indeed Sumner was asked on
more than one occasion to design a stand–alone music room addition. Stairs
are positioned for privacy, either perpendicular to the view from the front
door or tucked away into a niche to prevent a direct line of sight to the
family spaces on the second floor.
While Sumner was suspicious of the Modern movement, implying that the
house as a “machine for living” lacked “cheer and comfort,” he applauded
its ideals of functionality, and approved of function’s expression in interior
design. Sumner generally provided built-in storage such as cupboards and
closets as part of the composition of the interior spaces, as well as multiple
bathrooms. His master bedrooms often had dressing areas with built-in dressing
tables positioned to take advantage of light from a well–placed window,
along with clothing storage. Sumner’s kitchens were servant spaces, as was
typical for the period in which he worked. While there was often a butler’s
pantry, his kitchens are usually small and utilitarian.
Sumner believed that house, garden, and interior furnishings had to work
together, and that their design was a collaborative effort. He speaks respectfully
of the landscape architect who brings his own “scale of spaces and proportions,
his own tools and materials,” and warns the architect of the dangers of
leaving “obstructions” in the way of the landscape architect. Sumner is
more suspicious of the decorator and strictly limits his work: while the
architect designs the “interior architecture of walls and ceilings, cabinets,
fireplaces, and staircases,” the decorator’s province is “color, rugs, furnishings,
and hangings.” If the architect is “the executive in charge,” a collaborative
approach ensures that “the whole [is] made far lovelier than the sum of
its parts” and the “pitfalls of disharmony” can be avoided.
The garden and its relationship to the house was an especially important
element for Sumner, who believed that “it takes both house and garden to
make a home.” According to one former boarder who lived with the Sumners
while attending Stanford, Sumner believed that “every room had to be suitable
for an elderly lady to live in, with windows on two or even three sides
if possible to look out at the gardens.” He planned his own garden with
great care, “each rose bush so many feet from the next...”
Sumner wished to imbue his houses with “a feeling of permanence,” meaning
“reasonable, obvious strength and durability.” The job of the architect
was to “constantly take the trouble” to achieve beauty. Restraint was an
important element of beauty: “composure…is the groundwork upon which beauty rests.” “Composure” was for Sumner the object of “composition”; “the process of composing and quieting a house’s various parts, so that they appear happy and at peace together.” The chief among the architect’s tools for composition—including
balance, scale, and symmetry—was proportion, the “magic key to beauty” in home design.
In addition to his residential work, Sumner designed Walter Hays School Sumner portion demolished), the Los Altos Golf and Country Club, the Butte County Courthouse in Oroville, and the Rangers’ Club for the National Park
Service in Yosemite. He designed the Palo Alto College Terrace Library, where WPA labor was employed in its construction.
Sumner was active in Palo Alto civic life. He served on the Palo Alto Planning Commission, and was one of the earliest backers of the University Avenue underpass. He and his wife, Alice, a watercolorist, were members of the Palo Alto Art Club (now the Pacific Art League). Through this club, he would have known Pedro de Lemos, A.B. Clark, and Birge Clark.
He died at the age of 74 in Palo Alto after a long illness on May 25, l948. Survivors included his wife, six children and five brothers.
Sumner, Charles K. “A Half-Hour Talk on House Design,”Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1936
Historic Buildings Inventory, City of Palo Alto,
Obituary, Palo Alto Times, May 26, 1948
Obituary, New York Times, May 27, 1948
Buildings List, Palo Alto Historical Association
Claremont Club, interview with Linda Williams
Gail Woolley interview with Dr. Tanner, May 14, 1995
College Terrace Library, Pacific Art League, National Park Service,
Walter Hays School
Reprinted from the 2007 PAST Holiday House Tour booklet.