The Hawthorns: Have estate, need plan | November 7, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - November 7, 2012

The Hawthorns: Have estate, need plan

Midpeninsula district considers a future for The Hawthorns in Portola Valley

by Dave Boyce

There are bats in the basement of The Hawthorns mansion in Portola Valley, it is said. There were bees in the house, 10 hives of them, but they've been repatriated, it is said. But it's a big old house. Maybe the people doing the repatriating didn't get them all! Maybe the ones they left have become easily annoyed! And has anyone given a thought to ghosts?

The house is very big and very old and covered in very gray shingles, the kind you see on haunted houses everywhere. For decades, no one has lived there. The windows are boarded up. A fence topped by barbed wire surrounds it there in the woods, woods that are uninhabited — except for the coyotes and bobcats, except for the mountain lions and the rattlesnakes, and their prey.

And the house does have company. Scattered among the trees are the dark collapsing remains of wooden sheds. Bathtubs rust in the open air. What was once a boat is now a shapeless moldering pile. A mobile home, its best days long gone, slumps forlornly, melting slowly into the ground. What might one encounter on a nocturnal visit?

Fortunately — or not — The Hawthorns isn't open at night. Nor is it open during the day. This 79-acre triangular expanse of light woodlands and open grassy ridges with panoramic views and many native species belongs to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a public agency, and it isn't yet ready for public access. Rangers from the district and from the private Woodside Patrol keep an eye on the place. The patrols and the fence became necessary, said district Project Manager Regina Coony, with the vandalism that began within weeks of the property's coming into the possession of the Midpeninsula district in November 2011.

The original owners, James and Ida Allen, lived in San Francisco and used the property as a summer escape. They planted hawthorns along Alpine Road, since uprooted, and "several hundred olive trees, seven acres of vineyards, ten acres of apples and eight of prune trees," and raised thoroughbred horses and Poland China hogs, according to the 2003 book "Life on the San Andreas Fault: A History of Portola Valley," by Nancy Lund and Pamela Gullard.

The Woods family bought it in 1916. Over time, they added a garage and corrals and enclosed the house's sleeping porches. "They did such a good job of it that you don't see it at first blush," Ms. Coony said.

Ms. Woods took in donkeys retired from the San Francisco Zoo and horses retired from the San Francisco Police Department, according to the historical account.

Owls have since taken up residence in the barn, Real Property Manager Michael Williams said. When the cottonwood trees are in bloom the falling of the white blossoms "is almost like snowing," he added.

In 1952, Fred Woods III and his wife Harriet Woods, both now deceased, built a smaller single-family home out of sight of the main house. It may serve as a ranger station, officials said. The couple donated the estate to the Midpeninsula district so as to have it preserved "as public open space in perpetuity," a staff report says. "It is the largest gift from a private property owner ever received by the district, valued at $13 million, including an approximately $1.9 million endowment to be used towards stewardship of the donated property." Had it been developed, the property could have accommodated 22 large private homes, the report says.

The family and the estate became news following the 1976 conviction and imprisonment of son Fred Woods IV, who, with two partners in crime from Atherton, pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of 26 Chowchilla schoolchildren and their bus driver. The kidnappers secreted their captives in a quarry in Livermore, but they all escaped on their own without injury. Mr. Woods IV no longer has a connection with the property, district officials said.

Pausing to reflect

The district has The Hawthorns in a "freeze" while assessing the buildings, Ms. Coony told the Almanac during an hour-long tour recently. "We immediately got working on sealing the structures," she said. A full hazardous material assessment was done. The bees are with a Portola Valley beekeeper. "We've been pulling out hives," one of them with a honeycomb about 3 feet long, she said. "That's what we've been working on for several months, getting out all those bees, kind of an extraordinary effort."

All of the structures are old, and some may have historic value. There are claims that the carriage house is the work of famed architect Julia Morgan. The homestead house, which served as the residence during construction of the main house, may be the oldest structure in town, Ms. Coony said.

The barn is elegant and exceptional in its own way. Lacking a foundation, it sits directly on the ground. "The interesting thing about this building is that it doesn't have a lean to it," Mr. Williams noted.

"I can't wait to get the crew started on all the research," Ms. Coony said. A staff report lists a budget of $226,000, including $35,000 to stabilize the structures, $45,000 for first-year fire safety measures, $5,000 for an environmental assessment, and $125,000 to assess the historic elements. The district intends to connect the property to nearby open spaces and parks, including the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, and to preserve its natural, cultural and environmental aspects.

The town's Sweet Springs, Valley Oak and Alpine Road trails border the property, all of which connect to the Coal Mine Ridge trail system.

Workers have made cosmetic changes. When the district acquired the property, more than 60 vehicles were in repose there, and the place was overgrown, Mr. Williams said. With the brush now cut way back, the fire danger is much less, and homes for the vehicles were found in South Carolina and San Luis Obispo, he said.

Maintaining structures, however, is not the district's metier, so a long-term plan depends on having a partner step forward to help. A model, Ms. Coony said, would be Folger Stable at Wunderlich Park in Woodside. The San Mateo County Parks Department owns the property, and has as a partner the nonprofit Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks, which provides financial and volunteer support.

"If no partner comes forward, then the minimum we'll do is some kind of short-term mothballing," Ms. Coony said.