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2005 Holiday House Tour: Charming Old Palo Alto

The Seale Addition

Houses on tour:

Early map of area

The Seale Addition

Old Palo Alto, originally known as the Seale Addition, is identified as the area bounded by Alma, Middlefield, Embarcadero, and Oregon Expressway. To the present day, this area is recognized for its charm, gracious streets, and mature trees, as well as its wonderfully preserved homes.

Documentation of the land can be traced back to the time when it was part of Don Rafael Soto's land grant, Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito. When Rafael Soto's daughter Maria Luisa (married to John Greer) was unable to defend her title to the Rancho in the mid 1850's, Thomas and Henry Seale offered to help in return for a parcel of the land in question. At the time, the Seale brothers, contractors living in San Francisco, were in the market for hay fields for their livestock. In 1865 Henry Seale successfully helped the Greer family defend their claim and was rewarded with 1,200 to 1,400 acres, as promised.

In 1887, Henry Seale sold 697 acres of the ranch to Timothy Hopkins for the establishment of the town that was to become Palo Alto. This was the first of several sales.

By the turn of the century Palo Alto had grown, and people were looking for more land on which to build their homes and the remaining Seale Ranch land had passed on to Thomas Seale's son, Alfred. In 1904, Alfred subdivided a large portion of the Seale Ranch for homes and offered it to the public by auction. At a later date, the section identified as Subdivision No. 8 was sold off. The two–page brochure for the 1904 auction and the map of Subdivision No. 8 are reprinted in this booklet. Note this description of Palo Alto's advantages:

Climactically Palo Alto is a happy medium between that of San Jose and San Francisco–sunshine without extreme heat, coast air without fogs or winds. Geographically the location is most favorable for the accommodation of the city people. Many merchants, bankers, professional and railroad men reside at Palo Alto. The local trains pass through a handsome park of luxuriant trees. The trip of less than one hour is refreshing and much less annoying and consumes less time than to reach any suitable residence section in Oakland. He who lives at Palo Alto has the best California can offer.

The Seale Addition, which has been the location of many important community resources, including the Gamble Garden Center and the Peninsula Hospital, was annexed into the city of Palo Alto in 1917. At that time, it was known as the South Palo Alto tract. According to Palo Alto: A Centennial History by Ward Windslow, in that same year, another portion of the Seale Ranch was divided into three-acre parcels for "little farms" where crops such as tomatoes, corn, alfalfa and pears could be grown. Alfred Seale and Gus Laumeister, a well–respected Palo Alto contractor, invested in the grading and surfacing of the streets prior to the sale. Palo Alto, while developing as a city, still maintained its ranching roots.

Read more and see an early photo of part of the Seale Addition.



119 Coleridge Avenue — 1927

This very appealing California Bungalow today harbors a wonderful period garden, but formerly harbored the Garden family. Built in 1927 by A.J. Garden, who ironically was the grounds foreman for Hewlett–Packard, the home is a bit late chronologically to be considered of the Craftsman era. Yet it embodies many Craftsman principles—warmth, beauty, comfort, practicality and durability. Speaking of durability, this home has been lived in only by Garden family relatives until the current owner's purchase. In addition to being visually appealing, this home is intriguing to view because it is well-maintained and relatively untouched. Most light fixtures are original, including the dining room chandelier. The attractive bathroom is original. With the exception of a contemporary sink, dishwasher and refrigerator, the kitchen also is original. There are cut–out swinging doors under the sink, an antique range and a California cooler. The adjacent utility room also has a California cooler. This home will bring back many memories. All woodwork, except that in the kitchen and bath, is finished with faux graining. Be sure to view the especially attractive faux graining on the dining room wainscoting.

Mr. Garden would be pleased to see that the gardens were recently redone in a style sensitive to the home's original period and the basic layout of the garden remains. In the backyard are a dramatic cascading water feature as a focal point, a cobbled patio, and a mixture of original and new outdoor "garden rooms". The small concrete bridge in the water feature is original. Be sure to notice a small ornamental lighthouse adjacent to the water feature that was built by prior owner Ernest Schiller in his sheet metal workshop.

        119 Coleridge




2175 Cowper Street — 1930

The symmetry of this two–story Colonial Revival's brick walkways and retaining walls belies the unusual interests of this home's past inhabitants. Compactly set on a Seale Addition lot lined with mature magnolia trees, the lovely gardens give no hint that Gerda Isenberg, who began the famous Yerba Buena Nursery on her Skyline Ranch property, lived there. Or that her husband, Rudolph Isenberg, was a barnstorming pilot who helped establish the Palo Alto airport. A pioneer propagator of native plants in the late 1950's when they were considered to be no more than weeds, Gerda "the fern lady" began selling ferns and mimulus to El Camino Real nurseries from the back of her station wagon.

Originally designed for John P. Breeden by Irwin J.R. Reichel and constructed by W.M. Klay in 1930, the home cost $15,000 and $700 more for the garage. It epitomizes the Colonial Revival style reminiscent of early English and Dutch houses along the Atlantic seaboard.

Signature elements of the elegant dwelling include the medium–pitched, side-gabled roof with profiled cornice; front façade with symmetrically balanced window and center door; six–over–six double-hung windows throughout the structure with painted wood shutters sporting crescent moon cut-outs; an accentuated front entry with decorative crown extended forward and supported by slender tapering Doric columns. The exterior walls are clad in horizontally lapped wood siding.

The Historic Resources Board's Application for Historic Merit recognized this as the most elaborate and substantial of the 2100 block of Cowper.

        2175 Cowper Street




240 Rinconada Avenue — 1927

Ralph and Leone Britton purchased this home in 1927 for $6000 plus $500 for the 10,000 square foot lot. It was one of eight or ten homes built by Earnest Gibson, whose own home was just down the street at the corner of Rinconada and Emerson. The neighborhood was home to families with varying middle class occupations: lithographer, teacher, lawyer, and a machinist who worked on a boring mill making engines for Liberty Ships during WWII. Ralph Britton Sr. was earning $187 per month as a physics teacher at a San Francisco boy's school and his salary also had to cover hs $9 monthly SP commute ticket.

There were two downstairs bedrooms and bath and a small upstairs bedroom. Architectural details adding to the warmth of the home included barrel ceilings in the living and dining rooms, a corner cabinet in the dining room, generous windows and doors facing the southwest and fireplace tiles depicting a scene of castles and forests. These remain as attractive highlights today.

The large lot allowed the Brittons the luxury of a fine garden. During WWII, they planted a Victory Garden providing fruits and vegetables and even had a chicken coop. The Brittons ate chicken on Sunday and eggs for breakfast without spending precious ration stamps.

After Ralph Sr.'s death in 1990, the home was acquired by the present owners, Betty and Ralph Jr. who hired San Francisco Architect Richard Christiani for an extensive remodel that would maintain the look and feel of the original house while becoming thoroughly modern. The rear of the house now extends eight feet to accommodate a semi-octagonal breakfast room. A small downstairs bedroom made way for an attractive staircase to the upstairs which now has two bedrooms, two baths, and an office. Above the breakfast room there is a balcony overlooking the garden.

The result of these changes is what you see today. An elegant kitchen contains a large island, which serves as both a serving area and a gathering place for family and friends. White tile and painted cabinets give the kitchen a light and cheery look. Eight–foot doors in the breakfast room allow a view to the garden from the kitchen work area. The stairs feature a built-in book cabinet and a leaded glass window rescued from a Berkeley salvage dealer. Above the stairs, the complicated roof structure adds interest and meets the City's daylight plane requirements. The bath at the top of the stairs features floor tile typical of that in use in 1927, and the obscure glass door is from the original bath. The upstairs rooms all have cathedral ceilings, which, due to the complex framing, create an interesting display that varies in effect with the time of day. White ceilings and bright colors enhance the effect.

The living room, dining room and downstairs den/bedroom are very much as they were in 1927. Where possible, original windows were reused, and door and window trim preserved. Original flooring was re–laid as required. Even though drywall replaces the original lath and plaster, the appearance of the rooms is unchanged. The tile and fireplace is original, and great effort went into replacing the chimney, damaged in 1989, while preserving the fireplace.

Plumbing, heating and electrical systems were replaced to meet current code and earthquake resistance standards and to offer the safety and convenience of a new home.

240 Rinconada on tour day





1431 Waverley Street — 1902

The Historic Resources Board says the Gamble Garden Estate "is the last remaining Palo Alto property exemplifying integration of extensive gardens and a home as it was in the early 1900's." This three–story, 5,450 sq. ft. home, called a villa when it was built, and its 1,075 sq. ft. carriage house were built in 1902 on 2.3 acres for only $6,039. Being the first home other than the Seale Ranch located south of Embarcadero Road, special arrangements had to be made to hook it to electricity.

Edwin Gamble, son of Procter & Gamble's co–founder, his wife Elizabeth and their four children, James, George, Elizabeth Frances and Launcelot, moved from Kentucky in 1901 when James entered Stanford University.

The younger Elizabeth returned to the family home after graduating from Wellesley College where she developed an interest in gardening. As a child, she rode her pony around the property's riding ring, but, spurred by her new interest, she plowed up the old pony ring and orchards on the north half of the property to plant flowers for cutting and show. Many irises, her favorite flower, are still found there. Elizabeth was known for wearing flowered dresses and distributing home–grown flowers around town. Upon her father's death in 1939, she inherited the estate.

The architectural style has been described as Colonial Georgian Revival or New England Colonial Revival. With a fireplace in each room and chimneys in interior walls, heat was conserved. A central hallway is also characteristic of this style.

Under the eaves, the cornice is ornamented with a course of dentils tracing back to Greek architecture. Below that is a frieze or band of wood siding that attempts to simulate a stone band of masonry. The clapboard siding is narrow with two clapboards cut from a single piece of siding. A living room window has the "Palladian motif" adopted from ruined Roman buildings by Italian architect Andrea Palladio. It seems that Palladio (1505–80) had a stronger and longer lasting influence in England and colonial America than any other architect.

The ground floor originally included an entry hall, living room, dining room, music room, library, kitchen and pantry, office, bath and a lattice porch off the library. The central stairwell rises from the large entry hall to the second and third floors. The second floor has 5 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, and the third floor includes 2 more bedrooms and a storage area.

In 1937–38, the north and south sides of the house were extended and a tool house was added to the carriage house by renowned local designer Charles K. Sumner.

Elizabeth had the teahouse, designed by landscape designer Allan Himes Reid, added in 1948 in the middle of the gardens so guests could gather there for refreshments. The front porch was modified in 1953 by architect Leslie I. Nichols.

Elizabeth willed the house and grounds to the City in 1971 with the stipulation that she and her brother could continue living there. The City received many proposals for the property, including one to demolish the house. That spurred the Garden Club of Palo Alto to spearhead a drive to preserve the estate as a community garden center.

Since 1987, a storage building, greenhouse, lath house and restrooms have been added. The Carriage House has been remodeled as a meeting area. The Garden's horticulturist and his family live on the second floor which was converted to full living quarters for them. The house also provides offices and workspace for the staff and volunteers, and a horticultural library.

Recent renovations to the dining room, library and entry return their original elegant dark, natural wood wainscoting, and graceful molded ceilings.

        Gamble House
Gamble House door


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