Issue date: October 21, 1998
By JANE KNOERLE
It was a memorable moving day for Atherton's historic Watkins-Cartan House, which now has a new owner and a new location. On Monday, the 132-year-old Gothic Victorian house, which had been cut in two sections, raised onto steel beams and hoisted onto flatbed trucks, was moved approximately one-half mile from Isabella Avenue to Alejandra Avenue.
It was a scene for normally quiet Atherton. New owner Rhoda Herron and her daughter were on hand, so was former owner of the house, Gail Lyons. John Baer, who lost out on a bid to buy the house and move it to Vintage Oaks, was there taking pictures. Marion Oster of Atherton's Heritage Association and Mrs. Herron hugged each other as the house made its way through Brittany Meadows to Alejandra Avenue. And, down the same street, it was moving day for Jerry Rice and his family. Even the 49er great was out to check the action.
Trucks from PG&E, Cable Co-op, and Davey Tree Trimming lined Alejandra Avenue, preparing the way for the historic house's journey. It was a great day for rubber-neckers.
New owners of the Watkins-Cartan house, longtime Atherton residents Rhoda and David Herron, plan to restore the 3,600-square-foot home as a single-family residence.
"This is the realization of a long-hoped-for dream," said Mrs. Herron. "We have lived in Atherton for more than 40 years and I have always loved the Watkins-Cartan House. It will be an honor to own this home which has such significance for Atherton and to preserve its historic character."
Her daughter, Celia Herron Water, added that her mother, a national tennis champion, has always admired the beautiful grass tennis court on the Cartan property.
Previous owners, Bill and Gail Lyons, who want to build another house on their property, offered earlier this year to donate the historic house to the town of Atherton and move it to Holbrook-Palmer Park, but their offer was rejected.
According to the Atherton Heritage Association, the house was constructed around around 1866. Commodore James Watkins of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, together with his wife Ellen, were among the first influential citizens of San Francisco to purchase land and build homes in the Atherton area. Their two-story house stood on 19 acres, bounded by Maple Avenue, El Camino Real, Fair Oaks Lane and the current Southern Pacific right-of-way.
Commodore Watkins commissioned his home to be designed and constructed by shipwrights in New London, Connecticut, according to the heritage association. Legend has it that the completed building was then dismantled and shipped around Cape Horn as ship's ballast to San Francisco. The story is questioned because the house's large supporting beams are made of redwood, which is not found in Connecticut, said Marion Oster, president of the association.
After Commodore Watkins' death in 1968, his widow lived in the house until 1890 when she sold it to shipper John J. Moore. Thirteen years later, Mr. Moore moved the house approximately five blocks to 25 Isabella Avenue.
Since then, the house has had several owners, including John J. Breuner, also known as "the furniture man of San Francisco." The Breuner family lived there until the house was purchased by Mrs. Henry Cartan in 1945.
The Cartans made several additions, including a sleeping porch, library and detached three-car garage. Barbara Cartan died in 1987. Her daughter, Cathy Bellis and her husband, Gordon, moved to Atherton and began restoring the estate. After his wife died, Mr. Bellis continued the renovation. Although the house was sold to the Lyonses approximately two years ago, they have never resided there.
Relocation of the house was coordinated by Howard Kelly, owner of Kelly Brothers Movers in San Jose. The house was cut into two sections lengthwise and moved to the site of the Herron's present home on Alejandra Avenue. The historic house was placed in front of the existing house where the Herrons will continue to live until restoration is completed.
The San Francisco architectural firm of Page & Turnbull is working with the Herrons to develop a restoration plan that will preserve the historic integrity of the structure.
"We have received a tremendous amount of help," Mrs. Herron said, "from a broad range of individuals and organizations -- the previous owners, the town of Atherton, our neighbors, Menlo School and College -- the list goes on and on."
Although the house is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places as the "Watkins-Cartan House," Mrs. Herron hopes it will become more popularly known as the Commodore Watkins House, honoring the original builder and his unique design.
"This is such a happy ending," said Ms. Oster. "I couldn't be more pleased about the outcome if I bought the house myself."