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."
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:
● 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