The Latest From The History Museum

Posted on February 25, 2010 by  
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A tour of San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House reveals its creepy, quirky and ghostly secrets.

But the Los Altos History Museum’s latest exhibition, scheduled through June 6, uncovers the true story behind the Mystery House’s architect, Sarah Winchester, and her sister, Isabelle Merriman … “Through Thick & Thin: A Tale of Two Sisters”

In 1862, Sarah married William Winchester, wealthy son of the manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle. After Winchester succumbed to tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah and Isabelle moved to California from New Haven, Conn., seeking a similar sociopolitical environment.

Winchester purchased in 1888 much of what is now the downtown Los Altos triangle, using it as a ranch.

An arthritic and private person, Winchester resided with her sister in San Jose. She fell into a deep depression after losing her husband and her mother-in-law. Because of her sizable inheritance and her passion for architecture, she channeled her grief into building the San Jose house, working at a frenzied pace.

Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, said the public spread unfettered gossip that Sarah’s fervent and eccentric construction was due to the spirits of her dead relatives haunting her.  Buoyed by people’s superstitions, the stories made their rounds in the local press.

Around the turn of the century, the Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad Company informed Sarah that it planned to lay tracks through her Los Altos ranch property.

Sarah subsequently forced SP to purchase all of her land, adding a large sum to her fortune.  Later, Paul Shoup developed the land, paving the way for downtown Los Altos as we know it today.

After Sarah’s death in 1922, her grandiose home was immediately sold and converted into a tourist attraction – the Winchester Mystery House.

Sarah’s sister Isabelle was her polar opposite, outspoken and spunky. Isabelle lived in what is today Los Altos’ oldest home, located on Edgewood Lane. She was a humane officer for the state of California, and hordes of children would find temporary shelter at her spacious house.

In the end, the exhibit helps to dispel some of the many myths about the sisters.  I encourage you to visit the museum and enjoy the exhibit.  For more information, click here.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a recent article by Elliott Burr in the Los Altos Town Crier.


Changes for Downtown – zoning & more

Posted on February 12, 2010 by  
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Over the past six years, we have seen at least three cycles run through our core Downtown business. However, one thing has remained rather stagnant: the look and feel of Downtown. It appears that changes are afoot.

During the last couple of years, the City has been striving towards a common goal of incentivizing investments in Downtown. Yes, there were some constraints inhibiting progress. However, the City has been working towards identifying opportunities, and is ready to invest in a number of projects itself.

Below are highlights from a recent article, which covered the changes …

Downtown zoning underwent significant changes following a Feb. 9 Los Altos City Council action. The changes will pave the way for taller buildings with mixed uses along the downtown perimeter.

The bulk of the rezoning changes, unanimously approved after a lengthy public hearing, apply to First Street. Although the Safeway and Draeger’s Market properties and the city-owned plot at First and Main streets will retain a Commercial Retail Sales (CRS) zoning, most of the street is rezoned to permit office and residential uses. CRS zoning, with its two-story, 30-foot maximum, remains prevalent throughout the retail core of Main and State streets.

Coupled with last week’s approval of streetscape plans for First Street and San Antonio Road, the changes have the clear intent to attract more development – and people – to downtown.

The streetscape project, which addresses improvements to sidewalks and landscaping, also includes undergrounding utilities through a partnership with PG&E. The utility is scheduled to work on First between Edith and Main this summer.

The changes, a combination of recommendations from the Downtown Development Committee and the city’s planning commission, become effective 30 days after the second reading of the zoning amendment.

The committee’s recommendations for First included extending the commercial/retail zone along First between Safeway and Draeger’s, allowing residential units on first floors from Main to San Antonio and raising the building height limit to 45 feet.

Approximately 30 people, including downtown property and business owners, members of the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce, members of the Los Altos Village Association and residents, attended the hearing, primarily offering their support for the zoning changes.