Atherton estate traces 145 years of local history

If these walls could talk

As the long, long driveway to the home at 151 Laurel St. in Atherton winds back, and back and back, through walls of vegetation, it feels almost as if the decades are winding back with it.

The estate now known as Fennwood has been inhabited since around 1870, and its history parallels the history of Atherton.

The property started as a summer home for wealthy San Franciscans. For several years in the 1920s, it was a center of Peninsula high society when summer children's circuses that later became the Circus Club were held there. During World War II, it housed medical staff from Dibble Hospital. From the 1950s to the present, it has served as a suburban family home for two generations of the same family — except for three years in the late 1960s when it was used as a commune.

The home's residents have included a sea captain, a Stanford trustee, a photographer, a portrait painter, a railroad executive, Army medical staff, hippies, the founder of the Coro leadership program, an SRI researcher and a consultant to the World Bank — as well as quite a few people who had a passion for gardening and entertaining.

Now the property with seven bedrooms and four bathrooms — plus two separate guest quarters with another three bedrooms and two baths — is looking for new owners, with an asking price of $11.388 million.

Summer home

The original property was purchased sometime around 1870 by Selim Woodworth, an early San Francisco merchant. It then passed into the hands of Peter Spreckles, brother to "Sugar King" Claus Spreckels, before it was purchased by Captain Charles Goodall in 1885.

Captain Goodall was a politician, ran shipping companies, was a friend of Leland Stanford and was a trustee of Stanford University. He, his wife Serena and their five children used the property as a summer get-away, as did the previous owners.

The Goodalls called the then 19-acre property Petite Foret (little forest) and it was said to be home to flocks of black Australian swans, herds of deer and a free-roaming band of Shetland ponies. The property reached as far as Glenwood Avenue and near Middlefield Road.

Year-round residents

When Captain Goodall died in 1899, the property was divided among his children. Charles M. Hays, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, bought it, but by 1908 had sold it to Albert George Charles Hahn, a chemist and photographer, and his wife, Harriet Rose Fenn Hahn, 14 years his junior. Mr. Hahn renamed the property Fennwood after his wife's family. They remodeled some of the home's interiors and became among the first full-time residents of what is now Atherton.

Harriet Hahn had four gardeners to maintain her renowned grounds. Mr. Hahn, a chemist who reputedly had made his fortune by inventing a photographic paper he sold to Eastman Kodak, was a photographer.

As the leader of San Mateo County's entry at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, he hand-painted lantern slides that showed San Mateo County to the world. (One of the current Fennwood owners, William Grindley, says they received a few of the photos from a Hahn grandson.)

The Hahns remodeled the mansion's public rooms, and later converted the top of its four-story tower into a studio for their daughter Louise, a well-known portrait painter.

Circus Club

Louise Hahn is also known for being the first "Queen Polly of the Circus" in 1922, the second year the Hahns hosted a children's circus at Fennwood.

The event had started small in 1920 when three girls, who some sources say included Louise Hahn, decided to raise money for children at the Stanford Convalescent Hospital with a summer circus. The event was such a success that it was repeated the next year at Fennwood, with 3,000 spectators.

After the third year, even the meadows at Fennwood weren't big enough, so 16 families joined and formed the Circus Club.

War years and beyond

From 1944 to 1947, Fennwood was partitioned into four apartments for some of the medical staff from the nearby Dibble Hospital, which had been set up in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of American casualties that might result from an American landing in Japan.

Louise Hahn, her husband W. Donald Fletcher, an attorney who was one of the founders of the nonprofit Coro organization, and their children lived in Fennwood until the property was subdivided.

The home and not-quite two acres of land were sold in 1951 to William and Helen Platt, who eventually raised seven children there, and hosted an ever-changing group of international students from Stanford University. Mr. Platt was a researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, and one of its first employees.

The Platt's son-in-law, William Grindley, says the home's purchase was "quite a surprise to my father-in-law." The story is, he says, that Mr. Platt was just back from a business trip when Helen Platt "dangled the keys in front of him and said, 'Do you notice anything different?'"

The Platts found themselves relocated to Paris around 1969, when Mr. Platt was appointed as UNESCO's director of education. They rented the home, Mr. Grindley says, to people they thought were a remarried couple who wanted a big home for their blended family. Later, when Atherton officials contacted the Platts to say neighbors were complaining that hippies had made the home into a commune, they decided to sell.

By then the Platts' oldest daughter, Susan, had married William Grindley, whom she met when the two were Peace Corp volunteers in Peru. They had decided they wanted to buy the house, only to discover, Mr. Grindley says, that his in-laws were about to sell it to someone else.

"I had told him I wanted to buy the house, but he had forgotten," says Mr. Grindley.

That sale was canceled, and, after the Platts obeyed an order from the mayor of Atherton to "get those goddamn hippies out of the house," the Grindleys moved into the home in September 1972. (They had paid $60,000 for it a year earlier.) Before vacating, the hippies even scraped the iridescent paint from the walls, Mr. Grindley says.

Mr. Grindley, who trained as an architect but decided on another career, made restoring the house to its former grandeur a project he's been working on ever since. The family turned a laundry room, a small prep kitchen and a butler's pantry into a modern kitchen in the 1970s, but most of the other work on the home has been restoration.

Growing up in Fennwood

Pablo Grindley, who is now 42, "was born and raised in this house," he says.

Pablo says he remembers a tree fort and a rope swing, and a sport court his father built for him near the old garage. The room that he says holds the most memories for him is the ballroom, where many neighbors and friends had their recitals on its grand piano.

William Grindley says so many came for Christmas that the presents and tree sometimes took up half the ballroom. Each guest was supposed to perform at Christmas parties, and he especially remembers the time a young man, who later became a vice president at Hewlett-Packard, tap danced in and "fell on his ass."

Valentine's Day was for adults with a "Bring a Sweet and a Sweetie" theme. Easter egg hunts on the grounds swelled to as many as 125 guests. The family also hosted 20 to 25 weddings at Fennwood, he says, as well as lots of fundraisers.

"The house allowed us to do many things that are near and dear to Susan," he says. "If it sells fast, we won't be able to celebrate our 50th (anniversary) here, which is next year."

Home and garden

One of William Grindley's projects was to redo the estate's gardens. The main driveway was originally off Glenwood Avenue, where one of the two original carriage houses still exists. The current driveway was once the servants' entrance. Mr. Grindley replaced much of a driveway circling the home with lawn and plantings.

Many mature trees screen the property, including 32 oaks, palm trees and a "monkey puzzle" tree (Araucaria araucana). "What my dad likes to say is we live in a park in the middle of a city," Pablo Grindley says.

The home is filled with details that go back to an earlier day: fire hoses, light fixtures that once worked with gas, a dumbwaiter, two-piece telephones, bedroom sinks, windows with the original imperfect glass and cedar-lined closets.

Details also harken back to its days of grandeur: stained glass windows and skylights, gold leaf on coffered ceilings, the dining room's mahogany paneled walls, carved brackets and ceiling beams, 12-foot ceilings, and elaborate pre-1906 tiles in the bathroom and on the deep front porch.

The main body of the mansion is topped by a widow's walk, accessed by a ladder from the attic. The tower also houses a former "smoking room" (with lots of windows to exhaust the cigar fumes), a billiard room and a two-bedroom guest unit, which has hosted generations of Stanford grad students.

Pablo Grindley says Elon Musk lived there before he decided to not attend Stanford, and once asked his parents if they'd invest in his first company. They declined, he says, but helped him find other investors.

The family decided to sell the home, William Grindley says, because neither Pablo nor his sister Elena want to keep it, and "while we're certainly ambivalent about leaving the pleasure of living in this piece of history, age has taught me that it is time to downsize to another chapter of our lives."

For now, then, the next chapter in the history of Fennwood waits to be written.

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