Can Allied Arts Guild survive?
The Menlo Park landmark has no restaurant and a dwindling number of visitors. Is its time running out?
The Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park, with its lush gardens, Spanish Colonial architecture, and a soundtrack of trickling fountains, has been a longtime favorite spot for residents of the Peninsula to enjoy some peace and quiet.
The guild, to thousands of volunteers and patrons, has also been a favorite institution to support, as its profits go toward the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.
But lately, things are too quiet at the guild's historic complex at 75 Arbor Road — practically no one is ever there.
In February, the volunteer-operated restaurant that was based at the guild for 75 years, closed its doors — the result of a controversial decision by the guild's nonprofit owner to not renew the lease. The Traditional Shop, also run by volunteers, was closed as well.
Since the closure, the guild has been low on visitors, as tour buses and lunch-time diners no longer find their way to the historic complex, leaving the remaining artists and shop owners twiddling their thumbs, hoping customers walk through their doors.
"When the restaurant was open, I used to get anywhere from 20 to 50 people to come in a day," said Edith Schneider, a jewelry maker who runs a store at the guild. "Now, I get maybe five people a day, and three of them just come in to ask where the bathroom is."
Although Ms. Schneider and other shop owners haven't given up hope that the guild's operator will find a new restaurant to move into the vacant space, and business will pick up, members of the community are starting to ask if the historic complex — a Peninsula landmark since it was built in 1929 — may have run its course.
In addition to finding a new restaurateur, the nonprofit owner — the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital — faces other challenges: major costs due to recent erosion on part of the complex, friction among volunteers sparked by the restaurant closure, and a tense relationship with some neighbors following a four-year legal battle.
The guild was founded by Garfield and Delight Merner in 1929, after the couple bought a 3.5-acre site adjacent to the San Francisquito Creek, to build a complex to provide work space for artists and craftsmen. Tenants at the guild included photographer Ansel Adams.
In 1932, the Merners invited the Palo Alto Auxiliary to the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children (now the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital) to run a volunteer-staffed restaurant at the site, and in 1951, the hospital's Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary took over ownership and management of the entire complex.
For 54 years, the two auxiliaries operated the guild based on a simple formula — the Palo Alto Auxiliary drew people to Allied Arts with its restaurant, and the steady flow of patrons provided a customer base for small shops and artists based at the guild.
Any profits from events held at the guild, along with tips and profits from the restaurant, went to the children's hospital.
Closing the restaurant
In late 2006, members of the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary board decided the formula wasn't working, and subsequently forced out the Palo Alto Auxiliary in hopes of finding a more profitable restaurant operator.
Whether that was a good decision depends on whom you ask.
Jean Coblentz, president of the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary, said the Palo Alto Auxiliary could do only so much with a restrictive three-course menu and a shortage of volunteers, and a new restaurant was needed to inject new life into the guild.
But the initial plans for a new restaurant fell through when the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary's top choice to fill the space — local restaurateur Jesse Cool — pulled out of the deal. According to Ms. Coblentz, Ms. Cool discovered the guild's use permit restricted her from moving her catering operations from her downtown eatery jZ Cool to the guild's kitchen — a crucial incentive for the deal.
Joan Heye, a five-time president of the Palo Alto Auxiliary, said the volunteer restaurant should never have been closed in the first place.
"It wasn't a four-star restaurant, but we had been doing a pretty darn good job for over 70 years," Ms. Heye said. "I don't think [the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary] realized all of the repercussions of what they were doing when they didn't renew our lease. ... Now they don't have a restaurant, and they aren't making any money — it's sad."
She noted that the volunteer-operated restaurant donated more than $4 million to the children's hospital over its 75-year run.
Ms. Coblentz said there are "four or five" new restaurant operators that have shown interest in moving into the space. She hopes to have the restaurant up and running in about two months.
But the longer the guild goes without a restaurant, the longer businesses, and the children's hospital, feel the effects.
"Allied Arts is such a treasure, but with no restaurant, it's kind of a scary situation right now with no one here," said Julia Seelos, director of the Portola Art Gallery based at the guild. "When we moved here in September, there was a restaurant, and there was foot traffic. Now, the place looks great, but there isn't anyone here."
"We know it's really hard on the tenants, and we're very sympathetic to their problems," Ms. Coblentz said. "They know we're working as hard as we can to get a restaurant up and going."
Here to stay
Ms. Coblentz said as long as there is support in the community to keep the guild as is, it will stay that way.
She said the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary has no intentions of selling the property, and is in the process of renaming the nonprofit the Allied Arts Auxiliary to build public awareness for the historic site.
But she acknowledged that things need to change soon, as the guild has failed to make any revenue for the children's hospital since it reopened in October 2004 following a massive $8.5 million renovation.
Although the auxiliary's annual Tally Ho event is still a big moneymaker for the children's hospital, no donations have stemmed from the guild in "quite a while," Ms. Coblentz said. She noted that rent paid by the guild's tenants provides only enough income to maintain the complex.
"We have no plans to make any kind of major changes to Allied Arts, but without community support, we can't make a go of it," she said. "Without support, I don't know what we would do."
But if the auxiliary's checkbook is any indicator, it's still devoted to the guild.
Less than three years removed from the restoration of the complex, the auxiliary is footing the bill for a complicated reinforcement project along the creek bank, behind the old Wick Candle Shop site.
In September, an oak tree behind the candle shop toppled into the creek, unearthing a chunk of land, and cutting some 10 feet into the property, Ms. Coblentz said.
The buildings along that portion of the creek have been closed since, as the auxiliary has worked with county and state officials to stop further erosion into the site.
In August, crews will start to reinforce the site with concrete — a project Ms. Coblentz labeled "very costly." She declined to give an exact amount.
The future of Allied Arts, whatever that may be, will likely rest on the relationship between the guild's owners and volunteers and its neighbors — a relationship that has had its fair share of conflicts.
A group called Allied Arts Neighbors sued the auxiliary and the city of Menlo Park in 2003, claiming plans by the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary to revamp the guild and expand the hours and intensity of operations required a full environmental impact report.
The auxiliary had hoped to boost the amount of revenue it raised for the hospital by increasing the number of special events and conference rentals.
Although the lawsuit was initially rejected, the neighbors successfully appealed the decision in a higher court.
The two groups in July 2006 compromised on a lighter schedule of events than what was proposed by the auxiliary. The agreement allowed the auxiliary to avoid costly environmental studies.
Members of both auxiliaries and shop owners say the vast majority of the neighbors are appreciative and supportive of the guild, but assert that there are a few residents who seem set on making things more difficult.
The more difficult residents, according to guild supporters, have taken it upon themselves to police Allied Arts, taking head counts at weddings and counting cars that enter the parking lot in search of potential violations of the guild's use permit.
Jim Dickerson, a member of Allied Arts Neighbors, said neighbors, like other residents, want the guild to be successful.
"Contrary to some stated opinions, Allied Arts Neighbors has never been opposed to traditional operations at the guild and has always wanted to work together with others to find a solution that works for the guild, the neighborhood, and the city," he wrote in an e-mail to the Almanac.
Councilman Andy Cohen said he hopes to get neighbors and auxiliary officials together to discuss the future of the guild, and what can be done to keep the complex a Menlo Park landmark.
He would not elaborate on his plan, but said, "I think if we get everyone to the table, we can come up with a solution."