Atherton: An appeal for preservation

Atherton Dames launch fundraising effort to restore Carriage House to its former grandeur

It's Atherton's only public park, and is often referred to as the town's crown jewel. Well-tended gardens, tree-lined walking paths, playing fields and tennis courts lure an estimated 100 to 300 daily visitors to the 22-acre Holbrook-Palmer Park for gatherings, solitary reflection, community events and recreation.

The tidiness of the grounds and the buildings -- the result of continual efforts by the town and volunteer groups -- is undoubtedly part of Holbrook-Palmer Park's appeal to visitors, some of whom may be surprised to learn of the land's history as a working farm.

Bequeathed to the town in 1950 by Olive Holbrook Palmer, the land had been purchased by Olive's parents, Charles and Sue Holbrook, as a summer estate in 1881, according to "Under the Oaks," by Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund.

But of the buildings now located there, only two stood in the days that the Holbrooks and their four children traveled by carriage each spring from their San Francisco home to the estate they named Elmwood, in what is now called Atherton. Those buildings are the Water Tower, which is about 132 years old and whose exterior has been restored; and the Carriage House, built to replace a barn that was destroyed in an 1896 fire, according to the town.

Now, the fundraising arm of the nonprofit Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation -- the Atherton Dames -- has embarked on a ambitious plan to raise $2.5 million to restore and renovate the Carriage House, which over the years has become "run down and neglected," according to the Dames. "While the Carriage House still retains its structural and historical bearings, it has lost most of its grandeur and stateliness," the Dames assert in a written statement detailing their plans.

The group has enlisted the help of Woodside architect Adolf Rosekrans, owner of the 120-acre Runnymede Farm and sculpture garden in Woodside. The architect, who helped in the restoration of the historic Folger Stable in Woodside and is a planning commissioner in that town, has drawn up plans to restore and renovate both floors of the Carriage House, which the town rents out for meetings, classes, dances and other events.

"Mr. Rosekrans has a commitment to preserving historical buildings and the Dames are pleased that he is committed to the Carriage House Project," the Dames said.

Through the years, the building has undergone repairs and alterations that have diminished its historical authenticity as a structure that once housed the family's carriages, stabled their horses and, upstairs, provided housing for farmhands and served as storage for tons of baled hay grown on the farm.

During a recent walk-through of the premises, Dames co-president Frauke Janseen said, "Mr. Rosekrans is trying to restore and preserve everything ... and make the entire building really beautiful."

Unexpected hitch

In April, Atherton Dames co-president Susan Masetti officially presented the group's plans to the City Council, asking for the council's support and a commitment of a financial contribution from the town to make grant requests and other fundraising efforts more effective. Although council members Bill Widmer and Rick DeGolia had already endorsed the plan as individuals and at that meeting advocated that the council get behind it, Mayor Cary Wiest and Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis resisted.

Mr. Wiest said he wanted more information on the condition of the building and other factors that could affect construction costs.

Ms. Lewis, an active member of the Atherton Dames, had been the only opposing vote when the group's members voted last November on establishing a planning budget to fund a capital campaign consultant and event planner for a major fundraiser.

At the April 16 council meeting, she argued that the timing for the project isn't right. A fundraising effort is underway to raise private donations to build a new Town Center, and that project "is and should be the primary focus of the residents at this point," she said. "It's much more important to the town than the

restoration of the Carriage House at this time."

Ms. Masetti returned to the council at its May 21 meeting, armed with the information council members had requested the month before. While the outcome was the same -- a council stalemate -- the emphasis by the two opposing council members was on the need for public outreach before the council gave its support.

"We have to slow down a little" and determine what residents want, Mayor Wiest said.

Responding to the Almanac's request for comment, Ms. Lewis noted in an email that the town is in the process of creating a master plan for the park, and the Carriage House is part of the package of what's being studied. When completed at the end of the year or later, the plan is expected to "identify all of the current uses and venues in the park -- whether competing or compatible -- and propose any and all potential new uses which may or may not require additional or less venue options," she wrote.

"A critical part of this master plan process is public outreach to gather public opinion to determine what our residents want, need and expect from our one and only park," she continued.

Councilman Widmer argued at the May 21 meeting that the Dames' planned project involves historical preservation, not alteration for expanded use. "It would be wrong to drastically change the Carriage House," he said, but also wrong not to preserve it.

He and Councilman DeGolia agreed that public meetings should be held to explain and get feedback on the plans, but they pushed for a compromise measure: The mayor should at least write a letter of support now, which wouldn't endorse the specific project, so that the Dames' fundraising efforts might be more successful.

Noting that key people, including county supervisors, state Sen. Jerry Hill and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, endorse the project, Mr. Widmer argued that "this council being split" on whether to get behind it "doesn't send the right message especially when it's our building." (There are only four City Council members until after the November election.)

The two council opponents didn't support the suggestion, and in the end City Manager George Rodericks was directed to meet with the Dames and help work out a public outreach plan. Ms. Masetti said later that a meeting was being set up.

"The Atherton Dames were disappointed that the town council as a whole had to delay voicing its support, but we're not going to delay the fundraising," Ms. Masetti told the Almanac. "At the same time, we're excited that we have Bill Widmer and Rick DeGolia's support."

Although there were no community-wide meetings as the Dames planned for their project, the general public wasn't entirely left out of the process. The town's Park and Recreation Commission discussed the project during at least one public meeting and gave its support, according to commissioner Sandy Crittenden.

Back in the day

Atherton resident Frank Merrill, Charles and Sue Holbrook's great-grandson, said in an email that he is "in support of the Dames and their intentions, but I feel strongly that the most unique elements of the building -- the horse stall, hay chute, upstairs dormitory, etc. -- are critical to maintain the historical structure of the Carriage House, and I want to see what the specific details are before I give unqualified support to the project."

Mr. Merrill recalled a time when he was "lucky enough" to drive a tractor on the farm for his great-uncle, Silas Palmer, widower of Olive.

"I was at Elmwood quite frequently, riding my bike ... to the farm," he said. "When I got to be about 11, the foreman ... allowed me to drive the John Deere 40 tractor with the disc assembly to plow the fields at the end of the growing season. I was never old enough while the farm was actually working to be entrusted (with) plowing between rows or such, no way. When John (the foreman) finally let me run the plow myself, I fell asleep and nearly drove the tractor into the creek!"

His farming adventures took place near the final days of the land's agricultural use. According to "Under the Oaks," when the Holbrooks first bought the property in 1881, they laid out plans for 17 acres of hay, a 1-acre orchard, and half an acre for vegetable and berry gardens. They also had flower gardens and half an acre for elm trees.

Mr. Merrill said the Carriage House "is priceless, irreplaceable, an icon of a bygone era that represents the rural town that Atherton once was."

Regarding the council's response to the restoration plan, he said, "I do not understand the reluctance of some of the town council members ... to support this project -- politics being what it is, I'm sure each individual can find a reason to not support it ... but I feel that if there is someone interested in spending the time and effort to maintain and restore this historic treasure, we shouldn't stand in the way."

Mr. Merrill's affection for the Carriage House echoes that of his mother, Genevieve Merrill, who died in 1999. The building was a favorite, and she devoted many volunteer hours to its preservation in the park. In 2000, the Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation and Atherton Dames renamed the building the Gen Merrill Carriage House.

Key elements of restoration plan

In addition to preserving the "authentic and historical elements of the Carriage House," the Atherton Dames' plan also involves bringing the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and current building regulations. Although there are two phases, the Dames say they hope to raise all the funds needed to complete both phases of the project at the same time. Project details include:

Phase 1

● New seismic plywood bracing at all four corners of both floors.

● New accessible entrance ramp

● New full-height doors

● Code-compliant stairs in the entry

● Remodeled kitchen

● Refurbished carriage room with new wood ceiling to conceal fire-control sprinklers

● Refurbished historic tie-stalls

● New accessible bathrooms

● New code-compliant second exit from first floor

Phase 2 (tentative)

● New roof and insulation

● Remodeled space for meetings and classes

● New accessible bathrooms

● New landscaping for the courtyard in connection with walking path

● New elevator/stair tower to second floor


Like this comment
Posted by what's with Lizzy
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Jun 26, 2014 at 9:06 pm

It is befuddling why the Atherton Council cannot support a fundrasing effort to raise money to fix a Town building. There wasn't any concern with the building of a 200 seat baseball stadium addition to the park by the Council Majority. What is the issue here? if it that, as mentioned above, Lewis voted (along) against the Dames moving ahead and is abusing her position to punish the Dames? The Park Master Plan has nothing to do with the Carriage House as the current plan still shows it.

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Posted by it's a puzzle
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

i have been at a few town council meetings lately and this is what i know. mr. degolia and mr. widmer are thoughtful and intelligent gentlemen. ms. lewis never makes an actual decision and the mayor? go to a meeting and make up your own mind. his first reason not to endorse the carriage house project was that the building smelled of horse manure. there hasn't been a horse in the building for over 50 years and, since he hasn't actually toured the building, i think he must have a wicked keen imagination. seriously, go and watch these people some's a real education.

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Posted by Right decision
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:40 am

This town is losing police officers due to uncompetitive wages and abominable working conditions. The existing town hall is in shambles and must be rebuilt. We cannot do this with two competing fundraising campaigns going on. The carriage house can be dealt with as part of the Master Plan. Lewis and Weist are correct. The first priority, as measured time and time again by 97% satisfaction and parcel tax renewals, is maintaining competitive wages and working conditions for our officers. They were used as pinatas all the time during the McKeithen years and now it's going to take time to rebuild the morale and working conditions they deserve.

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Posted by Enough is enough!
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:07 pm

First Lewis and Wiest make sure that the cops get a huge raise, making them (by far) the highest paid cops in the bay area.

Next, they renege on their promise to rebate the parcel tax so cops can get the surplus.

Now "Right decision" is claiming cops are still underpaid, and supports the Lewis/Wiest decision to block Carriage House renovations since it might divert even more money going to the police.

Oh, is it any coincidence that the police paid for the Lewis and Wiest campaigns?

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Posted by it is our decision
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 28, 2014 at 11:02 am

[Post removed for using multiple names on the same thread.]

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Posted by Right decision
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm

It is our decision: the citizens of Atherton did vote on this, several times. Despite the best efforts of WMD to put the library in the park, they overwhelmingly voted against this and want the park to be decided according to the Master Plan. Despite the best efforts of WMD to outsource the Atherton Police Department, they renewed the parcel tax overwhelmingly which is supposed to be supporting the Police Department. The residents voted for Cary Weist and Elizabeth Lewis, not the McKeithen hand-picked candidate Denise Kupperman because of the direction they want this town to go.

There will always be some who don't agree with the majority decisions in a democracy. Apparently you are one of them. But these decisions were far more than mere majorities.

Enough is enough: You saying it doesn't make it true. Atherton Police Officers are not paid more than their peers in neighboring communities. The overall picture is they are still underwater. That's the market voting, with officers defecting to neighboring departments. This costs Atherton money.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

One easy way that the council members could show their support for this project would be for each of them to make a small personal contribution to the restoration. That would not cost the Town a penny and would be a great endorsement for this effort.

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Posted by The facts please
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm

[Post removed for using multiple names on the same thread.]

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Posted by Dame Support Needed for Town Center
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 29, 2014 at 4:44 am

75% of the Town voted in favor of a new town center. It is a project that has been needed for 16 years; it would be helpful to the efforts of the council if the Dames supported it.

Back in the 1990s the council sought to raise the funds and was opposed by a group of citizens. Those council members were not able to finish the project during their terms and it died.

Credit to Lewis, Carlson, and others for picking it up and pushing it forward. However if the town does not focus on the Town Center project in the next few years, the project could face larger problems.

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Posted by Enough is enough!
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 29, 2014 at 11:00 pm

The Almanac deleted several comments by posters critical of the Lewis decision. Sometimes posters using multiple names are trying to create the illusion of a wider base of support than there actually is. Other times, and perhaps most often, they simply are using the name in the same manner as the subject line of an e-mail.

"Dame Support Needed for Town Center" notes that the Dames should support the town center. I'm not sure why the town center support and the Carriage House support must be mutually exclusive.

We've been hearing about this town center for years. Lewis constituted a committee of her friends and supporters such as Didi Fisher and Steve Dostart, and the town has been spending money on various plans. Everyone agrees that the funds are supposed to come strictly from private donations.

Perhaps Elizabeth Lewis and "Right decision" would have more credibility in insisting that no fundraising activities can take place other than those for town center if some actual money had already been raised.

I am surprised that the committee members themselves have not pledged initial donations. It is typical for the committee/board members of an initiative to lead the fundraising effort by example.

If they are unwilling or unable to do so, then no one has any business telling the Dames they cannot raise their own funds.

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Posted by Dame Support Needed for Town Center
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 30, 2014 at 6:17 am

To Enough is Enough: My comment: "Dame support needed for Town Center" means just that. The Town Center needs the Dame support to reach its funding goal. The Dames/ Foundation have the ability to influence many residents of the town and determine the success of the Town Center project.

You raise a new point: "Should the Dames support the Town Center?" I hope they would. Obviously they can do both.

The Dames have been considering a Carriage House renovation for more than 15 years. However before both fundraising campaigns run at the same time, the two groups should work out potential fundraising conflicts.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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