Ladera Lore, written by Hallis Friend and Nancy Lund in 1974, describes the unique and fascinating history of the community we now know as Ladera. We appreciate their willingness to allow us to reprint excerpts from it here.
Before the Spanish
For centuries the hills that are now Ladera were quiet. If there were any inhabitants, they were tribelets of the Ohlones Indians - the Wemelento and Akahawi. They lived mainly on seeds and small game and stayed away from the redwood groves for fear of a super-natural and evil little people.
In those years Ladera was a foothill woodland of grasses, valley or white oak, blue oak, and, in the upper hills, the California live oak. The rock beneath Ladera is principally sandstone from the Miocene period. The uppermost area is underlaid by sandstone and shale from the earlier Eocene and Paleocene epochs (called Ladera Sandstone). This is separated from the formation below by a fault.
The Spanish Land Grants
When the Spanish came and established the mission at Santa Clara and the pueblo of San Jose, logging was begun in the area. As early as 1785 logs were cut into beams and dragged south by oxen. By 1800 the area was part of Mission Santa Clara lands and inhabited by wild animals (including grizzly bears) and by Indians who had avoided mission life and remained unfriendly. Probably the earliest settlers in the vicinity were Rafael Soto and his family who arrived in 1827 and stayed about 8 years. Soto later built the port of Palo Alto and the Embarcadero Road and trans- ported lumber between his docks and the Corte Madera Rancho.
The first recorded deeded ownership of the land to become became Ladera was in 1833. Then, the Mexican governor of California, Jose Figueroa, granted one square league (4,438 acres) to Maximo Martinez and Domingo Peralta. This grant, one of eighteen in San Mateo County, was called various "el Rancho de Corte de Madera," or "Rancho canada del Corte Madera." In English, Corte Madera means short timber choppings, or the lumber cutting, even lumber clearing, thus roughly translating to "Ranch of the Valley of the Cut Wood," The record shows more lands were granted in 1836 and 1839, and on May 1, 1844 Governor Micheltorena granted even more, until the whole Corte Madera grant equaled 22,980 acres, from Alameda de las Pulgas to Skyline.
The California Statehood Years
Domingo Peralta's parents were the owners of Rancho San Antonio, today the sites of Alameda, Oakland, Piedmont and Berkeley. He sold his rights to Martinez, Cipriano Thurn and H. W. Carpentier. At any rate, the Corte Madera grant was confirmed by the newly-controlling United States government to Maximo Martinez on September 10, 1855, patented on July 14, 1858 and recorded on December 21, 1858 in the amount of 13,316 acres. Ladera was a part of this grant, as well as the Westridge area of Portola Valley.
Martinez had a wooden house moved from San Jose to a spot near where Los Trancos Road now enters Alpine Road, likely at the current location of the Portola Valley Garage. He had been a soldier in San Francisco from 1819 until 1827 and was regidor at San Jose at the time of the first grant. He operated a stock ranch on his land from 1834 until his death at the age of 71 in 1863. He and his wife DanMana Padilla had seven children. Maximo Martinez could not write his name. Even then, apparently there was little use of the Ladera land.
His son Nicholas was apparently the next owner of the tract that contained Ladera. He had an adobe home in what is now Westridge. This house was later used by William O'Brien Macdonough (whose descendants owned Ladera, until 1901).
The 260 acres that became Ladera were sold to Francis Scanlin in 1867. In 1868 a section of the Menlo Park-Santa Cruz Turnpike (opened now called Alpine Road) over portions of an old Ohlone trail. After Scanlin's death, the land was sold in 1877 to the Raffertys-Sarah, Patrick, Michael, Margaret and Owen. They owned it until 1885 when Frank H. Burke bought it, and the land got its first real name - the Burke Ranch.
Frank H. Burke was born on June 12, 1848 in Wisconsin and came to California in 1851. His father was Martin J. Burke, the San Francisco chief of police from 1856 to 1865 and one of the founders of Madison and Burke. He had a large house and ranch called "La Siesta" (ever wonder why there is a Siesta Court in Ladera?). Trotters were bred and trained on the Burke Ranch, and Frank H. Burke was a well-known San Mateo County horseman until his death in December, 1910.
The Burkes had no children and the 260 acres changed hands several times in the next years. In 1913 it was sold to George Greenwood who immediately sold it to Norwood Smith (who was to come into the Ladera story again years later) and William Cranston, real estate brokers. They sold it, still in 1913, to Frederick and Olive Schneider. A year later, April 14, 1914, the Schneiders sold it to Horace L. Hill and his wife Julia. Apparently upon his death in 1918, the heirs sold to one J. Meyer, who held the land from June 6, 1918 until April 2, 1919. From then until May 24, 1927, the 260 acres belonged to Fred C. and May Franks. They sold to Joseph M. Macdonough, and the old Burke Ranch was added to the holdings of the vast Ormondale Ranch.
The Ormondale Ranch consisted of 1400 acres, including today's Ladera and Westridge. The main portion of it had been bought about 1886 from Nicholas Larco by the Macdonough family. A large home was built above the land where the Country Shopper now exists, but its exact location has not been determined. What is known is that the home consisted of imported materials from Europe, and cost $100,000 to build, a fortune at the time. Through the years it was used for racehorses, shorthorn cattle, sheep, and Aberdeen Angus stock. The most famous of the Macdonough horses was Ormonde. He was bought by the Macdonoughs in the late 1800's for $150,000, the highest price ever paid for a racehorse at that time. Ormonde was never beaten in a race. (He never raced in this country but won his races in England.) When he died, his bones were sent to the British Museum in London. He was the sire of Ormondale, another great horse. The Ormondale school in Portola Valley occupies the place where the race track of Mr. Macdonoughï¿½s ranch was located.
By the time the Ladera's 260 acres became part of the Ormondale Ranch, the horses had largely been replaced by cattle and sheep. Stanley Webb was growing up on the neighboring Webb Ranch during these years, and he can remember occasional visits of a Basque sheep- herder to his mother's kitchen. He recalls that she would cook. the mutton he brought and that the Webb children would disappear, lest they be invited to share in the meal. Mrs. David Botsford tells of childhood memories of running up the hill from Alpine Road to a big poplar tree (still standing beyond the end of East Floresta) to see the shepherd and count the new lambs.
There is little other evidence of activity on the land that was to become Ladera, although nearby Jasper Ridge is riddled with shafts dug by silver seekers. There was a famous hermit-Domenico Grosso- living there in the late 1800's. He had a cabin, a barn, a shop, roses, fruit trees, terraces and an ornamental trout pool. Neither he nor anyone else realized any profits from these shafts. Stanley Webb can recall two pros- pect silver mines on the site of Ladera-one near the top and one across from a large rock with a huge hole in it that was called "Rainbow Rock."
The last single owner of Ladera, before its development as a community, was Denton W. Macdonough. On his Ormondale Ranch he planted 300 redwoods, 800 oaks and 300 pepper trees, including the pepper trees along Gabarda today. In the later years his wife operated an antique store, Merryvale, where the Ladera Oaks clubhouse is today. Although the horseracing days were largely over then for the Ormondale Ranch, Macdonough loved horses, horse races and open spaces. Macdonough, lived in frail health at 168 Chestnut in San Francisco. When he sold 260 acres of his ranch to the Peninsula Housing Association in 1946, the current story of Ladera really began.
The Ladera of homes, families and streets and stores actually had its beginnings during World War II. Because of his interest in the Consumers' Cooperative Movement and his role in helping to originate the Palo Alto Cooperative, Dr. Murray Luck, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford, was invited by the Stanford YMCA and YWCA to conduct a Christmas vacation workshop at Asilomar on consumers' cooperatives. A number of other workshops, including one on city planning conducted by Sumner Spaulding (then the city planner for the City of Los Angeles), were conducted simultaneously. It was as a result of these meetings and many conversations with Mr. Spaulding that Dr. Luck began to realize the possibilities of a group of people joining together to buy land and plan and develop a community in which they themselves would live. The potential economic and social benefits which might be realized encouraged him to pursue such a cooperative approach. It appeared to be obvious that such a community could have values to the residents that might be lacking in a typical commercial development.
Dr. Luck found enthusiastic support for this idea in Dr. Erik Heegaard, another biochemist Dr. David Bonner, a biologist, and in Ralph Evans, then the Palo Alto postmaster and also a member of the Palo Alto Co-op. On April 17, 1944, under their leadership, the Peninsula Housing Association was incorporated to purchase a tract of land and to direct its development as a cooperative community. Frederick and Rebecca Ander- son and Mrs. Aletha Baker were also members of the founding committee. Each put up $200 for legal help in incorporating, and Dr. Heegaard recalls that tat was a sizeable sum in those days and that he taught Air Force students, at night, for a period of many months to earn his $200. In March of 1945, the PHA was granted permission from the Commissioner of Corporations to sell memberships and to issue certificates of interest. Thus was born the group which grew rapidly-and ultimately failed-that, in the words of Wallace Stegner, "had the spirit that used to animate barn raisings when democracy was younger and simpler."
The spirit of coï¿½perativism was somewhat abroad in the land in those years. Housing costs were high and were soaring even higher. News- papers were digging into the wretched status of housing. Henry Kaiser was planning a low-cost housing project applying assembly line techniques. Harry E. Sharkey, editor of the York, Pa. Gazette and Daily, was urging the cooperative movement to enter the housing field. There were newspaper reports of successful co-op housing projects in Denmark and Sweden. There was enough interest that the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics printed a pamphlet on the organization and management of co-ops. By 1947, there were perhaps 100 cooperative housing groups in the country with about 5000 members. At least four were in California: Community Homes, Inc. of Los Angeles; Veterans Housing Cooperative in San Francisco; Home and Community Planning Association of Berkeley; and the PHA of Palo Alto. Its founders believed that none was more thoroughly cooperative and detailed in its planning than the PHA.
Word of the PHA spread through Stanford and the Palo Alto Co-op and out beyond until 1944's handful became fifty members by September 1945, and 150 by 1946. The goal was 400 members. The membership fee was $200, $150 of which was refundable upon withdrawal. On completing payment of membership fees, the member bought certificates of interest in the cooperative. These certificates were negotiable securities in the amount of $500 bearing 5% interest. This investment was to pay for the development of the property, and the certificates were to be exchanged for a deed to a specific lot. Ultimately, as development of the land began, certificates of interest or assessments were required of members; by 1950 most had $2300 invested.
In addition to several Stanford professors, these members were people from all walks of life-chemists, writers, nurses, accountants, pilots, public school teachers, lawyers, mechanics and government employees. The average family had two children; many were expecting more. The average age was thirty six. The average income range was $4000-$8500. They hoped that through the PHA they could make their money count for more. The goal was to live in a well-planned, beautiful community. The original hope was to achieve this aim for $6000 per family.
There were many reasons why the PHA members thought that they could save each family some money. Buying and developing the land themselves would represent a considerable saving. Undeveloped land similar to Ladera was selling for as much as $2,000 an acre (by the year 2000, this same land was valued at $1-2 million per acre). Wallace Stegner was quoted a price of $10,000 for another hillside lot. The Sanderson Smiths were quoted a price of $6,000 for a non-view acre in Atherton. Smaller town lots in Palo Alto were selling for $3,000-$4,000. Ladera cost about $600 per acre, and with sewers and utilities, the average one-third acre lot would cost $1,500 to $1,800. In addition, the owners would have an equity in the acres of common land set aside as parks and open space. Then too, it was thought that architecture and construction costs would be cut by building 400 homes at once in one place. Large scale financing should be less costly. Even buying 400 refrigerators and washing machines should bring the individual's cost down.
The first step for the newly-formed PHA was to find their land. They investigated two parcels in the Sand Hill/Whiskey Hill Road area. Even before the war ended they were negotiating to lease property there from Stanford. Despite the fact that President Tressider's wife was an enthusiastic supporter of the cooperative movement, Stanford said no. They talked to the Bank of California representatives of Lord and Lady Hesketh of England (she was one of the Sharon daughters) about buying a substantial portion of the Sharon estate. Nothing came of this. There was another piece of property, the Hidden Valley, on Portola Road across from the Portola Valley School, that looked promising, but negotiations did not result in a sale. They considered a ranch on Arastradero Road; it wasn't for sale either. Then Norwood B. Smith, a Palo Alto realtor and partner of William Cranston, Senator Alan Cranston's father, suggested a portion of the Ormondale Ranch that had been the 260 acre Burke Ranch from 1885 until 1913.
What a piece of land this was! Only four miles from downtown Palo Alto, it was partially bordered by Stanford University lands which would probably remain open space forever. It mostly consisted of oak- dotted, rolling hills rising to a heavily-wooded, steep-sided plateau on the Northwest. There were views in every direction-of Mt. Tamalpais, Diablo, Mt. Hamilton, Black Mountain, Jasper Ridge and the Santa Clara Valley. From the plateau on top, one could see the Bay Bridge. It didn't take long for the cooperative to realize that this was their land.
At first, Denton W. Macdonough, the last owner of the Ormondale Ranch, was horrified by the thought of 400 houses being built on his 260 acres. But he was beginning to feel civilization closing in on him, and he agreed to sell. However, it was to take well over a year for negotiations to be completed (the land was owned by the estate of Joseph M. Macdonough and was tied up in probate), and the final purchase price was far above their original hopes.
On Wednesday, July 31, 1946 at 10:00 A.M., the Superior Court of the County of San Mateo was asked to confirm the purchase for the original bid of $78,000, plus $34,000 to bring a water line to the property. The judge asked if there were other bidders, and representatives of a San Francisco real estate syndicate bid $123,000, the required 10% above the standing bid. The bidding was open then and quickly reached $131,000, the highest price the PHA Board had authorized. Because of a legal point raised by PHA member and legal counselor, Willard Johnston, the court adjourned for two days. Dr. Luck and Mr. Johnson arranged for additional funds and were authorized by the Board to bid as high as $156,000. When The PHA bid $155,000, the San Francisco firm stopped. The final purchase price was $43,000 above the initial bid, or about $100 for each of the proposed 400 members. That meant a total price of $387 for each undeveloped lot (by 2007, one undeveloped lot was valued at $700,000). The dream was beginning to become a reality.
During 1946, before the land was owned, the selection of a name for the future home of the PHA was an actively discussed topic. Just the right name, one that was "imaginative, would quicken the pulse, stir the heart and catch at the purse strings" was sought. The members knew that the name selected would afterward be used as the common name for their region, so they simply wanted it to be "catchy, beautiful, dignified, descriptive, imaginative, accurate and unforgettable." That's all. All members were invited to enter the name contest, the only prize being "ever- lasting, if anonymous, fame." The suggestions fell mainly into three categories.
One was the conventional development sort of name. Suggestions were: Oak Ridge, Laurel Dale, Bay Knob, Rolling Acres, Poplar Rise, Hill Crest, Bay Ridge, BayView, Portola Heights, Sunninhill, Sunninhill Park, Lark Hills, University Heights, Foothill Village, Ormonda.le Village, Village in the Hills, Meadowlark Hills, Fairview Hills, Peninsula Village, Vista Heights, Panvista, West Hills, Summerhill, Far Hills, Hillside Acres, Hill- side Valley, Pepper Tree Hills, Oakwood Heights, Oakwood Hills, Oakwood Acres, Pacific Heights, Pacific Hills, Pacific Acres and Larkton.
A second category pertained to the cooperative nature of the project: Twin Pines, Concord Homes, Progress Range, Rochdale, New Rochdale, Rochdale Heights (inspired by the English birthplace of the cooperative movement in the mid 1800's), and 400 Community, and P.H.A., California.
Finally there were Spanish names representative of the early heritage of California and descriptive of the land or of the cooperative nature of the development. Nominations were Los Cuatrocientos, El Modelo, Los Modelos, Piios Gemelos, Loma Verde and Ladera.
There were two suggestions in honor of the founders: Evansluck and Lucky Acres.
After studying the dozens of suggestions from members and weighing support for each, the names committee finally determined that the three most popular choices were Lark Hills, Ladera, and New Rochdale. Each had obvious reasons for support. For those who had walked the property, Lark Hills needed no explanation; New Rochdale (Rosh-dale) reflected the cooperative principles upon which the community was being built; and Ladera was Spanish for "slope" or "hillside," and it had a smooth, melodious sound and was appropriately descriptive. In a vote of the members on April 294946, Ladera was selected. (One member claimed Ladera also meant "bottlecap"; Erik Heegaard says the true Spanish interpretation would be slope of a curve, rather than of a hillside.) Lest the fame remain completely anonymous, Ladera popped out of a Spanish dictionary one day when Heegaard, Dave Bonner and Wallace Stegner were looking for a name for the community.
During the long months of negotiations for their land, the members of the PHA had been busy planning. At first there were four main committees: Land Development and Utilities, Rules and Procedures, Architecture and Home Construction, and Promotion and Publicity. In January 1946, a finance committee was created. Much of the preliminary work had been done, and when the land was actually owned, the final plans could be laid. It was hoped that construction could begin by the spring of 1948.
The Architecture Committee interviewed many architects, visited homes they had designed and studies available literature. At first the thought was to have no general plan for the houses, but after some high voltage meetings, the decision was that all houses should be of the same general design. One architect that many found interesting was Richard Neutra of Los Angeles. In the recollection of Mrs. Sanderson Smith, a member of the committee, his ideas were stark white cubicles and kitchen ceilings no higher than perhaps 6'9". She has commented that he would have found the "contemporary California" style eventually selected ''romantic.''
It was Frank Skillman who introduced the firm of John Funk and Joseph Allen Stein of San Francisco. Both had received international recognition for their work. The committee was particularly impressed by the warm, soft use of redwood in some of Funk's homes in Berkeley. They were unanimously selected by the membership to design the houses. They signed a contract with the PHA on February 1, 1947. Garrett Eckbo, a well- known landscape architect, was hired to work with the architects.
Then began the questioning of the members to determine their needs and wishes. What finally emerged were plans for 13 houses with seven variations designed for indoor/outdoor living. They had flat roofs to keep the homes low and unobtrusive and to preserve neighbors' views. There were floor-to-ceiling windows. They were to have Roman brick fireplaces and living and dining rooms paneled with mahogany, birch, cedar or elm grained plywood. Most were oriented toward the rear of the lot for privacy. They varied in size from 1010 to 2100 square feet. There were sections that could be added later. Ultimately each lot description had a list of the various house plans suited to it.
The Land Development and Utilities Committee, with the approval of the Board and general membership, engaged the services of Civil Engineer, Nicholas Cirino; Electrical Engineer Charles Von Bergen; Mechanical Engineer George Brokaw; and Structural Engineer Edwin Vermer to work with the architects in the development of the site. The street plan that was laid out consisted of two meandering arteries with dead end cul-de-sacs branching off of them. There were walkways laid out behind the houses leading to the school site, the park sites, the play yards and the shopping center. It was planned that one could walk almost anywhere in the development without crossing a street. Near the center of the lower section was to be the school and the recreation center.. There was some discussion about having stables. Near one entrance, plans were made for a chapel and a guest house. Near the other entrance were plans for an office-which actually was built, the corporation yard and a firehouse. Large portions of the upper, steep, heavily-wooded area were to remain untouched open space. Eighty acres, or nearly one third of the development, were to be parks or open spaces. Lot size varied from 80' by 110' to 2.6 acres, the average being one-third acre. The 1945- 1947 Biennial Report of the San Mateo County Planning Commission included a map of the subdivision plans for Ladera as an excellent model.
By the time the street plans were ready, the Names Commit- tee was ready too. They thought it appropriate to continue the use of Spanish names for the streets. Because of the ruling of the County Planning Commission that new street names could not duplicate any already in use, they had to reject many they might otherwise have selected. They listed 59 names of persons prominent in California history and found that the pronounceable ones were already in use in several places. They then listed 160 names of trees, flowers, etc. and then rejected those already in use, any which would readily be mispronounced and any which were too long to be convenient. The final recommendation was that the shorter circular main artery be named La Mesa and the longer eastern one be Called La Cuesta. The following names were selected for the short cul-de-sacs. They were to be in alphabetical order and without the articles el or la.
Opening onto La Mesa: Opening onto La Cuesta:
Alondra (meadowlark) Aliso (alder tree)
Balsamina (balsam) Berenda (gazelle)
Castanya (chestnut) Coquito (dove)
Dedalera (foxglove) Durazno (peach tree)
Escanyo (maize) Erica (heather)
Floresta (forest) Fragaria (flower of the same name)
Granada (pomegranate) Gabarda (wild rose)
Linaria (flower of the same name)
Mimosa (flower of the same name)
A shopping center based on cooperative principles was planned to front on then-Portola now-Alpine Road. At least a gas station and a grocery store were to be included. Perhaps also there would have been a dry cleaners and a restaurant or a delicatessen. The stores were to be built on lands owned in common by all members. "Profits" from the cooperative shops were to be divided among members based on the amount of their purchases at a given store-the well recognized patronage-refund principle which distinguishes consumer cooperative enterprises.
Those planning years of '45, '46, and '47 were busy, exciting times for the PHA. Committees met regularly in one another's homes. General membership meetings were held quarterly, usually in the Palo Alto Community Center or the old Mayfield Library. A bi-weekly newsletter, The 400, which went to all interested people, announced new members in nearly every issue. An adult education course, specifically aimed at PHA'ers, was organized at Palo Alto High School and was taught by Mrs. A. F. Bell. Every Sunday afternoon beginning on March 4, 1945, an informal group met on the property to picnic, hike, show the property to prospective members and to dream of the day they would live there.
There was a favorite, sheltered spot somewhere in what is today "High Ladera" where the view was particularly spectacular. The terrain has been changed so now that no one can quite identify where it was. There was a sort of gravel pit there and a flat place for sports. It was reached by walking through the fields (carrying all the picnic supplies) and over the hills or by driving up a rough road left from ranching days. (Part of this road can be seen today behind the shopping center.) There was an old gate across the road and a den of rattlesnakes nearby. Mrs. J. T. Rusmore has a hazy recollection of Stanford psychologist Dr. Farnsworth telling her that the snakes were taken there from a collection and put in an abandoned wine barrel or well. Regardless of how they arrived, Ralph Evans can recall tossing sticks around and waiting to hear a rattle. Maybe not the best advertisement for a prospective occupant! He can also remember the songs of the larks.
Erik Heegaard, now living in London, was treasurer then and in charge of promotion. He was the guide for many of these Sunday walks. He remembers biking out the two-lane dirt road today called Alpine Road to meet the hikers of the day. (Today he can only remember walking on the land, not driving.) At any rate, as chief of the guides' union, he offered a particularly evocative choice of tours. There was the "Fat Man's Tour" for fat men and women who insisted on wearing high heels. The tour went to the top of the first hilt where the tourists murmured "How beautiful" and coasted back to the gate. There was the "Old Reliable Tour"-up and back, all the way by road. It was guaranteed to convince a prospect that 250 acres was a huge hunk of territory. Tour #3 was called "Swiss Alps," especially designed for rock climbers and goat hunters. It featured the rugged northwest corner. The final choice was the "Range Riders' Special." It was the ultimate test of the tourist. Although this tour promised a real knowledge of the property, the guide warned that bleached bones along the track told the pathetic story of those whose strength did not match their zeal.
In addition to the optimism and enthusiasm and good spirits, there were times when crucial decisions had to be made and varying philosophies stirred strong emotions. These issues have been characterized ; as "the dreamers" vs. "the practical men." There were some meetings into the early hours of the morning, emotional speeches and some resignations.
One of the most keenly felt of these issues was the question of an interracial community. There were those who felt that there should be no racial or ethnic restrictions of any sort; that a cooperative venture should be open to all; that Ladera should exemplify the best that is meant by the terms democracy and brotherhood. There were others who felt that an interracial community would bring financing difficulties and that such a posture shouldn't be attempted. In November of 1946 the membership upheld the no-restrictions-of-any-sort policy by a mail vote of 93 to 42. Later, as a sort of compromise, the following addition to the Restrictive Covenants was proposed to the membership:
No person who is a member of a race other than Caucasian race may use or occupy any residential lot, if at the time of the commencement of such use or occupancy the proportion of the population of Ladera equals or exceeds the proportion of such race to the entire population of California. This prohibition shall not apply to any child of such person born during such person's use or occupancy while living with such person. The Corporation's determination from time to time whether any such proportion has been equaled or exceeded and as to what race any person belongs and as to all other questions arising under this paragraph shall be conclusive and not subject to review by any court or otherwise.
The alternative was to have no statement of any sort. The Board was opposed to this clause as well as to the "complete restrictive clauses of the conventional type" and so informed the membership by letter dated December 23, 1947.
On January 12, 1948, the mail vote was 78 for, 75 against, and the quota statement became part 4 L of the Restrictive Covenants. There were at least three black families who were members of the PHA- Clarence Braden, Felix Natis, and William H. White, Jr. Hans Roth recalls that there was also an Asian family.
Another issue which roused strong feelings and ultimately re- sulted in the resignations of Murray Luck and Ralph Evans from the Board was the question of a manager for the PHA and whether or not the coopera- tive should be its own general contractor. By early 1947 it was becoming apparent that a manager was needed to handle the day-to-day affairs of the association. Whether or not this manager should also be in charge of the general contracting, who he should be, and hqw he should be selected were issues which became inextricably interwoven. Luck and Evans were strong supporters of the appointment of Grant Miner, an engineer and the first to join the PHA after it was incorporated. He was in favor of the PHA's doing its own contracting. Feelings of Board members were aroused pro and con over these intertwined issues, and a series of lengthy informative letters was fired off to the membership. Many felt that a more thorough search for a manager should be conducted and more study given to the contracting question. This all became a very sensitive point. A contract was offered Grant Miner in February 1947, a protest was launched, and Mr. C. E. Jeffries was offered the manager's contract in May. He accepted and resigned in August. The old issues revived, and Luck resigned from the Board, followed later by Evans, who also resigned from the association. (Today Evans recalls that he resigned because at this time the FHA refused to guarantee a loan to the PHA and he knew that that refusal would cause failure of the venture.) On November 10, 1947 Hubert S. Hunter, a civil engineer, was hired to be PHA's manager. By now there were rifts among the membership, the two4 generally considered the founders of the PHA were gone from active positions of leadership, and according to Willard Johnston, as a business venture it was mostly downhill after that.
While serious discussion continued over philosophies and procedures, plans were continuing. Originally the goal was to begin six houses at the first of April 1948 and six more each succeeding week until all 400 houses were completed by November 1949. Various delays and failure to obtain 400 members made this impossible, but progress was being made. Representatives of PHA had been meeting with Officials of the State Department of Education about a school. Construction of an on-site office was begun on May 1, 1947 and its "housewarming" took place on Sunday, August 3. A truck was purchased for the elimination of vast quantities of poison oak. Plans for a community-owned water system were approved, and Ladera joined the Woodside Fire Protection District. Telephone, gas and electric services would be provided by utility companies. (They were considering underground electrical service.) Landscape plans for play yards, playgrounds, and common lands were ready by June. In September, Mr. Cirino began the lot survey, and men were at work laying out roads, dead-ends, walkways and building sites. By December 1947 Joe Maes had been hired as a full-time yard employee. By January 1948, Norwood Smith and L. C. Mattfeldt were appraising the property, and the streets were roughly laid out and named. In that month Lester F. Lindwall was hired as bookkeeper.
At last the long-awaited lot reservation day arrived. Members had studies the maps and walked the property endlessly to be ready to make their choices. Sixty of the 391 lots cost over $3000, and of those seven were over $5000. These most expensive lots were around the boulevard-part of La Cuesta. Lot 350 was the most expensive at $7000. There were four at $1800, one at $1900 and 140 at $2750. The selection days were February 14-15 and February 21-22, 1948. On Valentine's Day, those with the lowest lot selection numbers met at the administration building. There was a big bonfire, last minute scurrying over the hillsides, and jokes about the Oklahoma land rush. To Erik Heegaard fell the first selection. He chose the lot on which the Owen Gibbs home stands today at the end of West Floresta. He later traded for a site on Berenda which was to be developed sooner. More than one family camped out on "their" land during those weekends. By February 22, 179 of the lots had been reserved.
On June 2, 1948, Redwood City contractor Peter Sorensen began grading the streets, and an official starting-of-Ladera ceremony took place on June 7. Emmett Mossman, Board member, took the con- trols of a giant bulldozer, Betty Lundquist, member and office secretary, christened it with a bottle of champagne, and the first "official" shovel of Ladera earth was moved.
During that summer contracts were let for sewers and water for Unit I (Aliso, Berenda and the connecting part of LaCuesta), for the construction of a 200,000 gallon water reservoir, and for a connecting sewer line to Menlo Park. These contracts cost $100,792. Paper work was underway for loans and an FHA guarantee. On October 29, 1948 the sub-division map was recorded, paving the way for transfer of deeds from the PHA to individual members.
Bids were received on December 31, 1948 for the first 31 homes. Costs ranged from $12,125 to $17,793 plus about 5% for archi- tectural and administrative fees. The cost per square foot varied from $8.10 to $10.15. An exhaustive study ~undertaken by the Board at that time showed that houses of similar quality cost 20-30% more in Mann County, Berkeley and Palo Alto. By January, 1949, the reservoir and mains down to Unit II were finished. Curbs, gutters and sidewalks were going in. The PHA'ers were proud that their land was not mutilated and that the construction seemed to fit into the landscape. Lot development of section II was scheduled to begin in the summer.
On April 3, 1949, 150 PHA'ers gathered to dedicate the foundation of one of the first homes, that of Miss Lorraine Knoles (today 4 Aliso Way). Dr. Luck christened the foundation forms and spoke, as did Frank Skillman and the manager, Herbert Hunter. By June, contractors Borror and Gesso had 10 houses under construction. There were delays for such reasons as difficulty in obtaining clear, all-heart redwood siding. By January 1950, there were 25 homes either completed or under way.
But by now, the PHA was in serious difficulty. They were out of money. Financing was a problem since the Federal Housing Authority had refused to guarantee a loan. Although 400 members had joined, many had dropped out for various reasons-an important one being that they needed housing desperately and couldn't wait. Prices were rising rapidly. What seemed a reasonable price for a home one year was ridiculously low a year later. The PHA had to face bankruptcy or make some sort of other arrangements. On March 24, 1950, they decided to sell Ladera to the Portola Development Company, a subsidiary of Hare, Brewer and Kelley.
Those were sad days for the PHA, and the memory of those days can still bring tears to many eyes now, nearly twenty-five years later. Ladera bad been a dearly-held dream, and its failure was a strongly emotional experience for many. One of the most heartbreaking aspects for some was that they had to ask their minority members to withdraw. As a condition for a loan imposed upon the Portola Development Company by the American Trust Company, a restrictive clause had to be imposed. Mrs. William H. White, Jr., a black member, recalls the day a PHA member came to her home to explain the situation to her. She said there was nothing they could do but withdraw-they couldn't be the cause of their friends losing their investment.
And so, the PHA transferred all of its assets to the Portola Development Company, and Portola give the PHA a non-negotiable, non-interest bearing promissory note for $392,327.95. That amount represented the total amount invested in PHA by then-present and withdrawn members. Portola assumed all of PHA's liabilities which totaled approximately $141,530.51. The indebtedness assumed by Portola was $533,858.46, and the value of PHA's assets was less than half of that. The President of the PHA Board, Frank Skiflman, became a member of the Board of Directors of the Portola Development Company. Finally, and importantly for PHA members, the Portola Development Company would honor its promissory note to the PHA within fifteen years or begin paying interest. If their dream was lost eventually at least the financial loss would be only $50, the non-refundable portion of the membership fee.
A nucleus of PHA'ers did move into Ladera, in those houses on Alisa, La Cuesta and Berenda built by the PHA. Some made their own arrangements for builders. The first four families to live in Ladera were the John Cannings, 276 La Cuesta; the William Ryders, 264 La Cuesta; Mrs. J. A. Atkinson and her son Richard Muffley, 36 Aliso Way; and the Sigurd Varians, 24 Aliso Way. Of these four, only Mrs. Canning still lives in Ladera today. Others came shortly afterward. They took an active leadership role in the continuing development of Ladera and perhaps have been instrumental in helping to establish the spirit of community which exists there today.
Houses and subdivision also began in upper Ladera in the late 1950's, with La Mesa and Gabarda extending up into formerly open spaces, with larger plots, and courts such as Siesta and Lerida extending on steep land made accessible to building by increasingly sophisticated house foundation technology. The last empty and steep lots were sold in the 1990's, while a few of the larger plots have undergone division and sprouted new homes.
The Demise of the Ladera Cooperative
The final chapter of the PHA story was written in the mid 1960's. In June of 1963, the Portola Development Company deposited $392,327.95 in a special account in the United California Bank. The Directors of the PHA were to repay in full the 262 members. Individuals were owed from $250 to $5000, most around $2500. Oh June 4, 1963, the Directors of the PHA filed suit in Superior Court of San Mateo County against the membership for "the involuntary winding up and dissolution of the defendant." Then began the arduous tasks of bringing the PHA books up to date, having an independent accountant examine them to see that no Internal Revenue Service claim could be filed against the corporation or its directors, and locating the members and former members. Once again Willard Johnston, PHA member and the attorney who had aided in the purchase of Ladera 17 years earlier, acted as attorney. In a letter from him to the Directors of the PHA dated December 6, 1967, he stated that all proceedings involving the PHA had been completed. The Directors had been discharged from their duties and liabilities to creditors and shareholders. The corporation had been dissolved.
Why did the Peninsula Housing Corporation fail? In the opinion of Murray Luck, the plan for total development (acquisition of land, installation of roads and utilities and construction of the houses) was too ambitious in view of the slow growth in membership and the innumerable delays imposed by local ordinances, the FHA, and internal dissent on a variety of issues. Had the PHA limited itself to the cooperative acquisition of the land and installation of the roads, utilities and building sites, it might have succeeded. The lots would then have been sold to members and each would have been free to contract for construction of his own home.
The PHA did perhaps spend beyond its means. From the day that the land cost more than they anticipated, the expenses were high-for architectural plans, landscaping plans, utility development, a paid staff of employees. The slowness of the democratic process in making decisions (the committees studied and debated; then the membership studied and debated the committees' recommendations) meant that inflation took its toll.
Perhaps there were other factors at work too. Federal legislation aimed at providing government assistance for cooperatives failed to pass. The FHA refused to guarantee a loan, and there are those who believe to this day, without documentation, that the refusal was due to the interracial nature of the proposed community. One opinion was that the group fried too hard to go too fast toward idealism.
It was a fantastic dream. Twenty-five years ago Frank Skillman said, "This cooperative housing project is blazing a new pattern of living as vital to America's future as were the pioneering trails of our forefathers. It's economic democracy in action- people like you and me cooperating together to build a better community for better living-truly this is of, by and for the people."
And Erik Heegaard said on February 22, 1974, "If I should sum up my own recollection, it would be by saying that participating in this venture was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The group planning it involved and the enthusiasm it generated for creating a new kind of community was something to behold. Many of the problems which today's youth think they invented, such as environmental protection, pollution- control, group living and planning an interracial community, we tackled in the most practical and fundamental way twenty-five years ago. It is difficult to be a pioneer with a new idea, but it is fun if it succeeds, even if only in part."
The Memorial Sign on La Mesa
A letter from the Engineering and Road Department, County Government Center, Redwood City, California, dated June 23, 1964 granted the Board of Trustees, Ladera Community Association a Revocable Encroachment Permit "to install and maintain a sign, partially or wholly within the public right-of-way of La Mesa Drive, County Road No. 607, 125 feet, more or less, westerly from Alpine Road. Said sign is to be a memorial to Frank Skillman, San Mateo County Planning Director, in form of Road Map of Ladera Subdivision. It is to be installed and maintained by the permittee." The sign, made from two-inch thick heart redwood and purchased from the McCreery Sign Company, Palo Alto, for a cost of $175.00 was put up by Chuck Heyler, George Abbott, Bob Taylor, Fred Franklin and Rick Kernoll. It was decided by the Ladera Community Association to install this sign because Frank Skillman had made a very valuable contribution to Ladera, both in the early formation of the community and also through his office on the Planning Commission of San Mateo County.
Today, Ladera is an unincorporated community of approximately 540 families. There exists here, for many, a feeling of cohesiveness and neighborhood that does not exist in many unincorporated communities or towns. Perhaps this is because of the dreams and early leadership of the town. Perhaps it is because homes aren't too far apart or too close together. Or it may be the result of the need for group action on the various issues which have arisen over the years.
There aren't any more secluded lovers' lanes or places where Ladera kids can camp overnight in the wilderness, but there are still raccoons, deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, and the rumored glimpse of mountain lions every now and then.
And perhaps on a bright moonlit night, if you listen carefully, you may be able to hear the echoes of Don Maximo Martinez or of the great Ormonde as he races over the hills toward home.
Bibliography and Sources
Much of the Ladera cooperative history was collected from participants in the process. Other, earlier history, was assembled in 1974 by Ladera residents. Since then, more research has been made available, including
Stanger, Frank. Sawmills in the Redwoods: Logging on the San Francisco Peninsula. San Mateo County Historical Association, San Mateo. 1967.
Goodman, Marian. San Mateo County--Its Story. Goodman Publishing Company. Redwood City. 1967.
Lund, Nancy, Gullard, Pamela. "Life along the San Andreas Fault: A History of Portola Valley," 2003.
Lund, Nancy. The Portola Valley Primer. Lisbet Nilson, editor. 1966.
Telfer, Dorothy. The Story of Portola Valley and the Neighbors. Instructional Materials from Portola Valley School District. 1964.