Midtown

BWhomesmalltract
Smaller post-World War II tract homes, usually entry-level. Look here if you want some of the most charming South Palo Alto neighborhoods and easy access to Midtown shopping.

Boundaries: Oregon Expressway, Ross (to Loma Verde), Loma Verde (to Middlefield), Middlefield (to W. Meadow), W. Meadow (to Alma). Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Neighborhood boundaries may be subjective. Boundaries and other information on this Web site should be verified before being relied upon.

Overview: Midtown is a catchall for a number of neighborhoods more-or-less clustered around the Midtown shopping district. The MLS Midtown area boundaries can be somewhat arbitrary, and just to make things more confusing, they’re broadly defined by agents. “Midtown” has a certain cachet with buyers, so agents sometimes bring the name to other areas, hoping its luster will rub off.

East of Middlefield, one of the most popular parts of Midtown is a tract between Rosewood and Coastland called Middlefield Park, an attractive tree-lined neighborhood that’s home to the well-regarded Coastwise home.

History corner: Just south of here, on the 700 block of Colorado east of Middlefield, is one of South Palo Alto’s rare clusters of pre-WWII housing, several small houses going back to the 1920s, although they may all have been flattened by the time you read this. More significantly, it’s the site of one of the earliest settlements in Palo Alto, Clarke’s Ranch, named after Jeremiah Clarke and dating from the 1850s. Colorado Avenue traces the path of a private road that ran from the train station at old Mayfield (now California Avenue) to Clarke’s Ranch and then to Clarke’s Landing (now Baylands Park). In those early days Clarke’s settlement may have been the furthest east you could go before sinking up to your knees in mud. Although drainage projects began in the 1870s, this area was mostly marshland until the 1920s. A map of 1876 shows Matadero Creek ending not at the bay but about where Middlefield is now.

Along Middlefield is the Midtown shopping district, built in the early ‘50s, which lends its name to this area. It’s in resurgence after years of decline, with a fancy new Walgreen replacing the old Co-op Market and a Longs now occupying the former Midtown Market site. Shopping is more on a par with California Avenue than University Avenue, offering convenience and a focal point for the neighborhood. On this (east) side it’s mostly retail and some office space, with the most prominent features a small strip center and a “small” but renovated Safeway.

Just west of Middlefield, between Colorado and Oregon, is another appealing part of Midtown. Once you cross Middlefield, which on this side has a church and two small shopping strips, you enter an area that has unusual charm for South Palo Alto. I’ve seen this area labeled Old South Palo Alto and it’s an apt description. It’s a truism of Palo Alto history that “before World War II there was nothing south of Oregon”, but anyone who sees this part of Midtown will question that. In fact, it’s more correct to say that “there was nothing (or not much) south of Matadero Creek”, which bisects Midtown and was Palo Alto’s southern boundary before World War II. A building boomlet in the late 1930s, responsible for many of the relatively modest homes of southern Old Palo Alto, Midtown’s neighbor north of Oregon, also pushed across Oregon as far south as Midtown’s 2700 blocks, and sometimes further. This is more than a minor historical footnote if you’re looking for a neighborhood with charm, since the sprinkling of pre-war homes lends this part of Midtown an appealing ambience. It’s not “Old Palo Alto on a budget” but it’s also not the vast stretches of tract homes further south and east.

One aspect of the old-fashioned charm this neighborhood sometimes offers is an adobe (yes, adobe) home in the 2500 block of Waverley, built in 1937 from bricks handmade on site with clay from a Los Altos orchard, according to a flyer I picked up while the house was recently on tour. The house “reflects the fine work of local manufacturers and artisans of the era”. The Old California-style wrought-iron light fixtures are from Omar the Lamp Maker in Santa Cruz, while my guess is that the period wrought-iron stair railing was put together by a local iron-worker with an artistic flair. The roof tiles came from Mt. Eden, the floor tiles from nearby Richmond. Apparently even the “hand-adzed” ceiling beams used in the numerous cathedral ceilings are from this area. Although the interior is a bit dark and heavy, the exterior is very simple. In a rather Quixotic quest for authenticity, the home was built without a modern heating system, the three bedroom fireplaces originally supplying whatever heat the house had. 20th century adobe homes are rare, here and probably everywhere, although it seems to have been something of a very minor trend about this time. I know of two others, built in the 1940s, in Atherton, one recently torn down, and another, which I sold, in Los Altos which had its own interesting history. The Waverley home is supposedly the first built in this area and remarkably original; let’s hope its new owners don’t give it a Home Depot remodel.

History corner: Up until recently I thought that two houses on El Carmelo dating from 1895 and 1900 proved that civilization reached beyond Matadero Creek even in the very early days. It was plausible. A map from 1876 indicates that this was the outskirts of Mayfield, an old town that predated Palo Alto and was absorbed by it in the 1920s. Apparently someone thought this part of Midtown was “in the path of progress” long before progress showed up. Parcel maps show a very old sub-division called Stanford City east of Alma between Colorado and Loma Verde. Not that anyone seriously considered building a city here, and Stanford City’s lots and streets probably existed only on paper until the 1940s when the developers finally arrived. But the tract’s original street names are a throwback to Mayfield, not Palo Alto. Here South Court and Bryant were named Madrona and Manzanita respectively, Colorado was called Stanford, and an Oak Street branched off Alma between what are now the 3100 and 3200 blocks of Emerson and Ramona. Compare these street names to Acacia, Birch etc. in old Mayfield just west of Alma and you’ll see the connection. It’s also interesting that the first few blocks of Loma Verde off Alma were once College Avenue, even though nearby College Terrace has had a College Avenue since the 1880s. So how far back in pre-Palo Alto history does the Stanford City tract go? Leland Stanford had owned land on the mid-Peninsula since 1876, and this may be an early attempt to cash in on the name of this railroad tycoon, former governor and sometime senator. “College” dates the sub-division to sometime after the announcement of the creation of Stanford University in 1885. But not long after—naming streets after trees was popular until about 1900. I guessed that the Stanford City tract and the two old homes on El Carmelo dated from the same time and were related, but as it turns out, the homes were moved from downtown Palo Alto on Bryant, across from the current Senior Center, in 1949. In any case, not much happened in this area until the late 1940s, a not uncommon example of someone jumping the gun (and perhaps the first local recorded attempt to make a few bucks off the Stanford name).

While the homes on El Carmelo aren’t old farmhouses, there are a number of pre-World War II-vintage homes in Midtown that remind us of the area’s agricultural past. You’ll see them occasionally on the main streets of South Palo Alto, streets that existed long before developers carved up the farms and pastures into housing tracts. Look for small plain homes that don’t fit in with their rancher neighbors, their age betrayed by a steeply pitched roof and a boxy shape. But look fast—they’re disappearing quickly.

Housing stock: Aside from a handful of pre-war housing and some new construction, Midtown’s housing stock is mostly very small tract homes. To understand why, it might be helpful to understand the housing market when these tracts were built just after World War II. Before the war, tight credit, high down payments and very short-term mortgages kept most people from owning their own home, especially during the depression of the ’30s. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan program, begun in 1934, was a step in the right direction, and may be the reason that Peninsula home construction, completely shut down since 1930, started again on a limited scale shortly after. Then World War II absorbed building materials and the labor to use them. It wasn’t until after World War II that the Veterans Administration’s low-down payment “VA loans” made home ownership possible on a large scale, unleashing tremendous pent-up demand. Homes built between 1946 and about 1952 were the same subsistence-level housing cranked out before the war, just in greater numbers. This meant that buyers got very small homes with one bathroom and were happy to get them. It was during this era of minimalism that most of Midtown was built.

True to form, Middlefield Park’s Coastwise homes, built in 1946 and 1947, started small with two or three bedrooms and one bath. Although they have a conventional pitched roof, they’re built on slab and originally came with radiant heating just like an Eichler. Many have been expanded to three- or four-bedrooms and two baths. Or they’ve been torn down—there’s lots of new construction in this area. Contemporaries lie just to the south, very small 3/2s dating from 1954 built by Stern & Price and Eichler.

West of Middlefield the homes are mostly small ranchers built from 1947 to 1950 sprinkled with a few pre-war homes.  Here too the ranchers usually started out with only one bath and have often been expanded or replaced. Usually they’re traditional pitched-roof designs built on the preferred perimeter foundation, but a surprising number are on slab including more Coastwises on Webster, Marion, South Court and Waverley. Barrett & Hilp, builders of much of Green Gables, also built homes on slab in Midtown.

You’ll find just a handful of Eichlers in Midtown in three locations, one west of Middlefield in the 600 block of Meadow, built in 1956, a row of homes in the 3300 block of Middlefield dating from 1959 and a 1972 development on Toyon. There may be a fourth location as well, going all the way back to late 1949, although the details are unclear. Apparently Midtown is the site of one of Joe’s earliest projects, only his fourth, “at Ramona and El Dorado” in the Stanford City tract. Since he was still buying stock plans, and not using architect’s designs with identifiable Eichler touches, nothing stands out here as positively Eichler, but it’s likely that eight contemporaries built about that time in the 2800-2900 block of Ramona fit the bill. They’re typical entry-level fare, 3/1s of 1062 sq.ft., clean but unremarkable designs that I would have taken for nearby Stern & Prices. So Midtown is one South Palo Alto neighborhood where Eichler didn’t make much of an impression.

But this being South Palo Alto, there’s still an abundance of contemporaries here, particularly on the 3100 to 3500 blocks of Emerson and Ramona and from Ashton south to East Meadow. They’re Stern & Prices, sometimes similar in size and detail to the earliest Eichlers but with a few noteworthy differences. These homes are remarkably small, 3/1s of 1027 to 1120 sq.ft. and even 2/1s of 840 to 925 sq.ft., although most have been expanded (and quite a few leveled). Heating is by conventional central forced air, not the sometimes problematic radiant. Midtown Stern & Prices use the same vertical tongue-in-groove siding found on early Eichlers, one reason the two are often mistaken. Garages are detached and partially define the private front courtyard. The clothes washer is sometimes in the kitchen; the “dryer” was your clothesline in the back yard. Interior walls use sheetrock except for an Eichler-esque light-veneered plywood on the fireplace wall. Like Eichlers they’re built on slab, have floor-to-ceiling windows and either flat or low-pitched roofs covered with foam or tar-and-gravel. Both have planked ceilings and pendant light fixtures and occasionally use cinderblock as an accent. The purist will appreciate finding one with its original laminate countertops (with that quintessentially ’50s amoeba-like design) and battle-ship like Tappan gas stove. Stern & Prices are pleasant homes but don’t have the Eichler’s mystique, perhaps in part because while Eichler went on to larger, architect-designed tract and custom homes, Stern & Price moved on to build really cheap homes (kit homes designed by Cliff May(!), according to a reader) in Cupertino’s Rancho Rinconada, where many have been leveled over the past fifteen years. Rancho’s layout of winding streets suggest why Cowper, arrow-straight for miles, jogs here for no apparent reason.

If you’re driving south on Cowper and cross Loma Verde you’ll notice the neighborhood change significantly. You’ve entered St. Claire Gardens, a Midtown neighborhood of note. Like virtually all South Palo Alto tracts, St. Claire Gardens dates from the early to mid ’50s but—very unusual—homes are almost entirely 3, 4 or even 5 bedrooms with 2-plus baths. There are even some two-stories, very uncommon for older homes in this area. The story is that these homes are large because they were developed by the nearby Catholic church for its parishioners. You’ll also find pockets of relatively upscale conventional ranchers on nearby Flowers and Wellsbury.

While pleasant, the southern end of Midtown isn’t known for its architectural distinction, but there’s an exception at the corner of Loma Verde and Kipling. Built in 1947, most people today would dismiss this custom home as some sort of “Eichler”, but the rounded corners identify it as an example of a late Deco style called Streamline Moderne that appeared in the late ’20s and hung on into the early ’50s. Never popular here, I can count the number of Streamline homes I’ve seen between San Jose and San Mateo on the fingers of two hands. (Palo Alto’s University train station is also built in this style.) I’ve never seen any Eichler fans comment on the similarities between the two styles, but it’s telling that this late Streamline looks so much like a contemporary.

Lot sizes: Generally average-sized for South Palo Alto (see South Palo Alto: an Overview) but unlike the housing tracts that came later, lots are usually configured with the typical pre-1950 narrow frontage.

Affordability: Although affordable by Palo Alto standards, Midtown sells at a premium to much of South Palo Alto and for good reason. Midtown is well away from 101, although Alma and the trains contribute some noise. And unlike much of South Palo Alto, Midtown isn’t in a 100-year flood zone at this point, but flood maps can change so always verify this.

Midtown’s northern half, above Matadero Creek on both sides of Middlefield, has more charm than the average South Palo Alto neighborhood, and it’s convenient to perhaps the best shopping south of Oregon. Finally, the local elementary school, El Carmelo, has the highest test scores of any South Palo Alto elementary as this is written, except Hoover whose students are chosen by lottery. Charm, convenience and a great school keep prices high. Homes west of Middlefield seem to sell at a premium to those east of Middlefield.

The southern half of Midtown, below Matadero Creek, also has some pleasant neighborhoods but the key selling point here is its proximity to JLS Middle School and Mitchell Park. The original housing stock is a mixture of small conventional ranchers and even smaller contemporaries. Even the conventional ranchers tend to sell for a bit less than those north of the creek, while the contemporaries sell for quite a bit less. The exception to this is the previously noted St. Claire Gardens, as well as comparable blocks just to the north on Flowers and Towle. These better areas sell much like north of the creek.

How do Midtown prices compare with the rest of Palo Alto and the mid-Peninsula? Midtown is big and has a fairly diverse selection of sizes and architectural styles, so prices vary accordingly.

Schools: Palo Alto Unified School District, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto CA 94306. Main number (650) 329-3700.

Finding your neighborhood school                 PAUSD school evaluations

School attendance boundaries are subject to change and schools are subject to availability. Verify enrollment with the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Amenities: Hoover Park, 2901 Cowper St. (4.2 acres): tot lot, apparatus play area, two tennis courts, two handball courts, tennis backboard, softball field, two picnic areas, fenced dog exercise run. Mitchell Park, E. Meadow and Middlefield (22 acres): Picnic areas, seven lighted tennis courts, two paddle tennis courts, four handball courts, multi-purpose bowl, shuffleboard, bocce ball and croquet courts, checkerboard tables, jogging trail, play apparatus, rest rooms, recreation center. Mitchell Park Community Center, 3800 Middlefield Rd. (650) 329-2487. Mitchell Park Field House, 600 E. Meadow Dr. (650) 329-2697. Mitchell Park Library, 3700 Middlefield Rd. (650) 329-2586.

Shopping: Midtown (Middlefield between Oregon and Loma Verde).

Neighborhoods with similar ambience: Locally, South Palo Alto is virtually identical. Midtown has far fewer of the Eichler contemporaries that characterize South Palo Alto, but Midtown’s Stern & Price contemporaries make up about 20% of its housing stock. The north end of Midtown (“Old South Palo Alto”) has no contemporaries and compares to either Lower or Upper Willows, depending on the area. To the south, much of Santa Clara County bears a resemblance to Midtown including Mountain View west of El Camino and Grant, Sunnyvale’s Cherry Chase and most of Santa Clara. To the north, much of post-war Redwood City west of Hudson between Woodside Road and Jefferson. It isn’t Midtown’s ambience that’s hard to duplicate, it’s the schools and lifestyle.

Interested in buying in Midtown or in a similar area? Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-14

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