Palo Alto at 125 Years

Visions of the Future:
Past and Present

FGA partner, Dan Garber, shares his research on the history of Palo Alto at the 2019 Annual Meeting for Palo Alto Stanford Heritage. Dan’s work traces the social and architectural histories behind the development of Stanford University and the City of Palo Alto. He explores, for example, a campus laid out to connect us to the tradition of academic excellence; a Spanish Colonial style of architecture that reminds us of a shared romantic past; and the Stanford research park that brought thousands of high paying jobs to Palo Alto, but denied its impact on the neighborhood. 

Reviewing the publication by San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), 'Four Future Scenarios for the San Francisco Bay Area,' Dan’s investigation asks Palo Alto citizens to consider: What path will we take into the future? What vision will compel us now to change our city and how we see ourselves in it? And can it be shared broadly enough for us all to see through it to the end?

To read the full text of the presentation with images, click here:

Essay by Dan Garber


Back in 1886 Frederick Law Olmsted brought his vision of the future to Leland Stanford. Stanford had hired him to design the campus for the University he was going to build in memory of his young son, Leland Stanford Junior.  


While the landscapes and parks that Olmsted created were his primary accomplishments and what he was best known for, this wasn't his interest or focus for many years. As a young man he had yet to recognize that he could anticipate how a landscape could look - that a landscape could be conceptualized and designed. He was born 39 years before the Civil War in 1822 and started life in Hartford Connecticut. He had a most extraordinary and long life. 

Several things about Olmsted’s earlier life stand out to me. The first was his interest in what was called then “scientific learning”; for instance, rotating crops to keep soil fertile. At age 24 Olmsted decided to work for George Geddes who practiced this, before starting his own farm.  

The second thing was 4 years later; when he convinced his father to pay for him to join his brother John and friend Brace on a nearly 6 month walk through England's countryside and farms from April to October in 1850. It is on this walk that most of Olmsted’s biographers cite as anchoring the memories Olmsted referred back to as he slowly began to think more critically about landscaping in the years ahead. When he returned, George Putnam, a distant relative, asked Olmsted to write a book about his walk titled: Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.  


Third - Olmsted was what was called a “Gradualist.” He believed, or perhaps hoped, that the slavery issue that was facing the country, would eventually solve itself and go away. However a story called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was serialized in 1851 and created a sensation of debate and action. So much so, that when it was published as a book the following year it’s first run of 200,000 copies outsold other recent popular publications including Don Quixote, Tom Jones and History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Will Kaufman in his book The Civil War in American Culture, said Uncle Tom’s Cabin 'helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.' 

That same fall, Brace, who had walked through England with Olmsted, knew Henry Raymond who just started a new newspaper called the New York Daily News. Henry’s marketing position was to focus on articles based on facts in contrast to all of the yellow journalism that sold papers then. Henry was desperate for content to compete against all the lurid stories that his competitors were hawking. And Brace, an ardent abolitionist who wanted to convert Olmsted into one, suggested Henry hire Olmsted to walk, not through England, but the South and record what he saw in weekly articles for the paper. These articles eventually became a trilogy of books, starting with the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy. 

Olmsted saw racism, brutality and the inequities of the south that both he and others expected to see - and it sold newspapers. But Olmsted’s biographer Justin Martin notes that “Olmsted was [also] growing convinced that slavery was flawed from an economic standpoint.” The system of slavery in the South was terribly inefficient, badly run and technologically not advanced. Olmsted also believed that slavery promoted cultural deficiency as well; while the well-breed Southern gentleman existed as an ideal, it rarely did in fact. He saw decrepitude in the owners lives as well as the desperation of the lives of the slaves. These were huge contrasts to the life he knew in the Northern states. 

By the way, that new newspaper that Olmsted was writing for had a motto; “All the news that is fit to print” and eventually changed its name to the New York Times. 

Olmsted’s life reads as a sort of privileged serendipity - not that he didn’t work hard and constantly. Knowledge of scientific farming, managing the manpower of running a farm, having an intimate understanding of how to work the land, witnessing and writing carefully about the human condition, Olmsted brought all of these experiences to bear on his next two assignments; being hired as the superintendent to create Central Park and then, somewhat astonishingly, when he became the executive secretary of the USSC - the United States Sanitary Commission. He started on the Central Park assignment in 1857 but this was interrupted in 1861 by the Civil War and his assignment to the USSC. Afterwards he returned to Central Park. 

It was in his role at the USSC that he recognized how much hygiene and sanitation played first in personal health. He eventually saved countless lives during the civil war by, among many things, feeding soldiers before battle and cleaning and bandaging their wounds afterwards - things that hadn’t been institutionalized before. This before Louis Pasteur’s groundbreaking work with germs was known and adopted by the medical community. 

 On a different scale, was Olmsted’s revisioning of 700 acres that would eventually become New York City’s Central Park over the next 19 years. Over time Olmsted realized the important role parks play in promoting the public health of people in cities. A virtue that the New York Daily News extolled publicly in its newspaper. Olmstead believed as William Pitt did about Hyde Park in London; these parks were the lungs of the city.  

Olmsted was in his early 50’s, well into his career with many famous projects under his belt when he started Stanford’s project. In a letter to Stanford, he argued that the superior climate of Palo Alto demanded a different sort of layout for the buildings and grounds than Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. What he wanted to do was spread the University out in the hills behind where the University is today “where views and breezes were available.” But Leland Stanford demanded the University be laid out in the broad plain at the foot of the hills where it is today. Stanford also eliminated the small dormitories and faculty residence quads located on either side of the main quad. In a letter to his stepson Olmsted wrote “The site is settled at last - not as I had hoped.” However, he did convince Stanford to use plantings that were appropriate to the California climate and to pave the quad’s courtyard rather than grass it. 


Olmsted’s vision was an Arcadia; a pastoral setting of man in harmony with nature. But Arcadia was a myth and like most myths, it was not to be. Stanford, brought his own vision of the future with him and it wasn’t Olmsted’s. Stanford’s vision was a validation of an academic utopia that he wanted the world to recognize as a rival to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.


Somewhat parallel in time, a completely different sort of vision was being created in Southern California in the late 1800’s that, ultimately, had a significant architectural impact that continues to this day because of three events. 

 In 1879 Helen Hunt Jackson, a poet and writer, was so appalled by how badly the United States government mistreated Native Indians that she became a strident and active voice on their behalf publicizing the government’s misconduct. Either because of this or despite it, Jackson managed to find her way to Southern as an agent for the Interior Department with the assignment, visit the Mission Indians and establish what lands, if any, should be purchased and returned to them. 

As a reminder, the Spanish Catholic priests created 21 religious and military outposts in Alta California between 1769 and 1833 whose mission was to spread Christianity among the local Native Indians. This mission was halted after Mexico won its independence from Spain and passed it’s secularization act of 1833 to reduce and eliminate Spain’s influence in their domain. The now “Catholicized” Mission Indians were disenfranchised in this transition losing land and identity. 


Although some of Jackson’s recommendations made it to Congress, they were never passed. Frustrated in her attempts to move others to support her cause, she took inspiration from a friend of hers who had recently published a very popular and influential book that appealed to the hearts of its readers rather than their minds - Uncle Tom's Cabin. 


Jackson’s book was called Ramona and is a story of a love that cannot be between the orphan girl Ramona and Alessandro, with the American Government and step parents, among others, as the antagonists. 

To say that the book was a success is an understatement. 15,000 copies sold in the ten months before Jackson's death in 1885. It has been republished over 300 times and  has never been out of print since. Six movies were made of the story, starting with DW Griffiths silent movie with Mary Pickford as Ramona in 1910. Most recently a Mexican telenovela series was made of the story in 2000. The play Ramona has been produced every year continuously since 1923 in Hemet, California. And I’m sure that I do not have to remind you that the State Play of California is Ramona. 

 The publication of the book coincided with the opening of Leland Stanford’s Southern Pacific Railway which allowed a national rush of tourism to Southern California with tourists finding their way to the places and houses that were closely associated with the book. The coincident opening of the competing Santa Fe Railway contributed to this tourism boom because the resulting rate war between the railways made tickets very inexpensive.  


Why is this important to us? Because the story of the two lovers played out in and around Spanish architecture, propelling the style across the nation and in particular in California where the Mission Revival Style became popular from about 1890 to 1915. In addition to the actual Missions, three other houses were given national historic status because of their association with the book; Casa de Estudillo, an adobe house in San Diego; Rancho Guajome, an adobe in Vista CA; and Rancho Camulos, in Piru CA. 


I suspect that the interest in this style of architecture may have died down to a dull roar at this point - had it not been for two other events.

 The first was the completion of the Panama Canal that was celebrated in San Diego's 1915 Panama–California Exposition whose structures were designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. San Francisco had a sister event the same year called the Panama–Pacific International Exposition which had its own architecture anchored by Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts. In 2015 the LA Times reported that “In a state with fewer than 3.4 million people, [the visitors to the expositions] together tallied 22 million visitors.”

The second event was in 1925. A 6.5 to 6.8 magnitude earthquake flattened the historic center of Santa Barbara in 19 seconds. This event catalyzed the Santa Barbara Community Arts Association to convince the city’s Council to rebuild the center of town entirely in the Spanish Colonial Style thus unifying the identity of the center of town and, consequently, the city. 

These three events; the publication of Ramona, the Panama–California Exposition and the Santa Barbara earthquake, anchored the pervasive use of Spanish styles that is so closely associated with the identity of California architecture even today.  

Birge Clark, born in 1893 would have been 22, a year after his graduation from Stanford, when both the Panama expositions opened. I know of no record of him attending either of these expositions; he may have already been in Europe serving as an observation balloon pilot in World War I. But the expositions and the Santa Barbara rebuilding were widely published and he would have known about them. His architecture was certainly highly influenced by the style. 

It is the wonderfully plastic quality of cement stucco that gives all the Spanish styles its character. Its ability to express the elegant to the elemental and to the ecclesiastical is readily employed. Because of Ramona the style will nearly always recall, in some manner, a romantic vision of a life long ago. 


Lets jump to the 1950’s. Sarah Clark might have been in her early 20’s when her grandfather would stop by her house on Waverley near Santa Rita in the afternoons for coffee. Sarah’s memory isn’t perfectly clear when I spoke to her about her memory some years ago, but on one of these afternoons, she recalled her grandfather mention to her mother in passing that Waverley would be made into an arterial street when Oregon Avenue would be made into a raised expressway connecting what was about to become Highway 101 to el Camino. 

Pausing a beat to recognize how this would change Waverley, the quiet street that she grew up on, Sarah’s mom politely asked her grandfather; 'Can anything be done about it?' 

His considered response was; 'Probably not, but you could try to get a petition.' In retrospect I suspect that this was a rather patronizing response; he knew that a petition would not upset Stanford and the City’s plan to connect the recently opened highway 101 to Stanford’s nascent Research Park. You see, Sarah’s grandfather was in a position to know. He was John Pierce Mitchell who was Palo Alto’s longest-sitting council member - 31 years, three of which as Mayor. 

In cooperation with Palo Alto, Stanford’s 1953 master plan called for promoting light industrial businesses to be located in the Southern quadrant of the university’s land. The idea was to attract technology-focused business, some, if not most, with Stanford faculty ties. The mastermind of this plan was Frederick Terman, first as Dean of the School of Engineering and later as Provost, under President Wallace Sterling. 

Terman worked tirelessly to bring his vision of a Stanford Research Park to reality. After World War II, Stanford suffered from the perception of it being a regional university, and the university was hurting for cash when its enrollment escalated dramatically after the war. Terman’s vision was to create “Steeples of Excellence“ that fused both the university and the Research Park into a symbiotic whole. The synergy of developing Stanford’s under-utilized lands into rental properties and attracting the funding that the military was offering as they ramped up to fight the Cold War solved both the cash and the stature problem.

The Research Park workforce largely comprised commuters who traveled to work by car. A 1962 survey revealed that the majority (56 percent) of the Park's 10,500 employees did not live in the immediate area, but commuted from communities south of Palo Alto; another seven percent lived outside the 'regional area' of the Peninsula altogether. Palo Alto residents made up only 21 percent of the workforce. Even back then Palo Alto had a jobs - housing imbalance. 

Stanford’s problem was how to get workers to it’s newly created Research Park. Highway 280 was not scheduled for completion until the early 1970’s. El Camino didn’t have anywhere near the capacity needed. And there was no direct route between the Highway 101, which would not be completed until 1962, and El Camino Real. The answer was to build the Oregon Expressway.

For several reasons many residents opposed the plan to build Oregon Expressway, and mobilized in opposition. But the proposal to build the expressway ultimately won the vote narrowly. At least it was not built as an elevated expressway. I believe that the vote benefited by the County taking the houses to make room for the expressway, on the south side of Oregon Avenue by eminent domain, rather than taking the houses on the North side. The land on the southside of Oregon Avenue been annexed into Palo Alto had only 6 years earlier and contained far fewer votes to oppose the plan. 

It is interesting to me that Birge Clark supported the building of Oregon Expressway. I could imagine that he thought that Stanford was “entitled” to the expressway. Or did he measure the future transit and business benefit and think the change was worth it despite the impacts to the neighborhoods? Even though the residents who opposed the measure lost the vote, it was the catalyzing moment that caused Palo Alto’s various residential groups to coalesce and pursue political power. 


It is important to touch briefly on Joseph Eichler’s vision. It is an irony that in a town that is so uneasy with what developers do - that we love Eichler so much. The reality is that we owe the town’s creation to developers; meaning people who use land to make their living typically, buying and selling it, versus the rest of us who use land to live or work on.

While at a significantly lesser scale than the other examples, and while his architects presented us with a different way of thinking about how a house could look and function, his vision was a marketing realization that found the lotus point between cheap land, inexpensive construction and a rapidly expanding economy supported by the GI Bill. 

 For me, what is important about Joseph Eichler wasn't his vision of selling houses after the war, it was his willingness to sell to Blacks, Jews, and other minorities. Eichler stands as one of the first to sell homes to minorities who could afford them and he even offered to purchase back homes from those uncomfortable with their potential new neighbors. At one point, Eichler spoke to a group of angry homeowners, 'If, as you claim, this will destroy property values, I could lose millions... You should be ashamed of yourselves for wasting your time and mine with such pettiness.'. 


Last year SPUR, the non-profit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association published Four Future Scenarios for the San Francisco Bay Area. The first three are clearly dystopian. I’ll paraphrase the descriptions: 

Scenario #1: The Gated Utopia - In this scenario a minority of people with influence and money simply take care of themselves. These people give up on trying to solve or even ameliorate poverty and inequality because these problems are too large to solve. The wealthy - basically anyone that owns a house today - does whatever is needed to hang onto their wealth, and exercise their power to prevent new housing from being built, and electing leaders who oppose new housing construction. 

Scenario #2: Bunker Bay Area - This scenario is created by a shift away from collective problem solving toward an emphasis on personal liberty. We give up on a civic sense of empathy that has in the past allowed us to feel that we were all in this together. The shared understanding of the public realm shrinks, the lack of social justice no longer motivates us to do better for those who have not. Money controls politics which means dramatically less tax revenue for cities, few if any community benefits, and no social security safety net. The pie simply isn’t big enough for all of us and we aren’t sharing what is left.  

 Scenario #3: Rust Belt West - As the home of the American left, the Bay Area becomes increasingly radicalized. A series of new regulations make it increasingly difficult for businesses to function. A tax on stock options becomes so significant it causes startups to leave the region before they can go public. Affordable housing requirements became so onerous that developers have no motivation to raise the capital needed to build. As elected leaders compete with each other to show who is the most progressive, important protections for workers are taken too far: Minimum wage eventually grows to $75 per hour. Local hire laws make it hard to bring in workers from around the world, eventually regulating wages and restricting who can get fired. The result is a vicious cycle: As companies leave, fewer and fewer business leaders remain to contest and debate policy choices, which over time became more and more extreme.

The last scenario is a utopia: 

A New Social Compact - We make real sacrifices by reversing 30 years of neighborhood protectionism and allowing significant new construction. We raise taxes to bring equity to housing, improve public schools, fund public transit and other programs that help bring about a high quality of life for people regardless of their income level. Wealthy business people invest heavily in the region to support a diverse community. Businesses work to develop a new employment bargain that translate the worker protections of the post-World War II era into a modern, flexible form with portable benefits, high investment in training and high wages. As a result, the Bay Area population is much larger than people ever imagined was possible. It serves as a model of what a sustainable, prosperous, socially just metropolis can look like. 

The report is summed up with this assertion: “... the region has not been able to add enough new housing or create a functional transportation system in parallel with the economy’s expansion. The results include the highest housing prices in the country and brutal commutes for [most] who live here. Those with the least wealth and power suffer the most, with some pushed into homelessness or out of the region altogether. We [Bay Area residents] can and should do better. The Bay Area, with all of its assets...should be a model for success.”

But how will we get to this scenario? 

Historically, without the overt national threats that WWII presented, the country started to chafe against the strongly centralized government that had been established to meet the war’s challenge. Throughout the country civil rights, environmentalism, and women’s rights were among the many movements that began to coalesce and incrementally pull responsibility away from more centralized decision-making authorities and distribute it more broadly. 

Today we seem constitutionally predisposed to distrust the decisions of powerful people, institutions and governments, knowing that while power is needed to make change, the likelihood is high to absolute that when change occurs it will harm the least capable of absorbing it. In 1962 the neighborhoods lost to Stanford and, many will argue, to the entitled City Council at the time. Consequently, to keep power in check, we have become expert at obstruction. 

To be sure Palo Alto was not unique in this respect.

An obvious example of this is in 1962 when San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties voted to drop out of the plan that would have brought the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit - BART - down the Bay,  killing the vision of a regional, comprehensive and integrated rapid transit system that other densely populated areas around the country enjoy.  High costs, existing service provided by Southern Pacific trains, and concerns over shoppers leaving their cities for stores in San Francisco were cited as reasons why the measure shouldn’t and didn’t pass. 

The consequent constriction of access to the Peninsula Cities including Palo Alto from the rest of the Bay Area affects us today. How different would the mid-Peninsula and Palo Alto be today if we had voted differently? 

Each of these visions I have described today have shaped Palo Alto both physically and socially. A campus laid out to connect us to the tradition of academic excellence, a style of architecture that connects us all to a shared romantic past, the research park that brought thousands of high paying jobs to Palo Alto but overlooked or denied its impact on the neighborhood, and a business scheme that aligned a marketplace with progressive ideals. 

What path will we take into the future now? What vision will compel us now to change our City and how we see ourselves in it? And can it be shared broadly enough for us all to see through it to the end?


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