Palo Alto History. Org

The Gamble Garden Center & The Williams House: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

When a local benefactor dies and wills a house to a city, it can sometimes be a mixed blessing.  The city obtains a new piece of property, but it also has to decide what to do with it --- and that’s not always so easy.  Such was the case with both the Gamble Estate, willed to the city upon the death of Miss Elizabeth Gamble in 1981 and the Williams House, bequeathed to Palo Alto upon the death of Rhona Williams in 1989.  While both old structures and their surrounding grounds provided an opportunity for the city to find a new home for some philanthropic civic function, each house each set off its own fury to divide up a newly acquired pie.  Every non-profit in town seemed to come up with a rational for why their organization would
be ideal future tenants, putting the City Council in the unenviable position of having to decide which do-gooders would do the most good of all.

Both the Williams and Gamble Houses are venerable old structures and both enjoyed long runs as prestigious homes for prestigious families.  The Tudor revival-style house at 351 Homer Avenue was designed by Ernest Coxhead for the family of Dr. Thomas Williams in 1907. Constructed for the (then) exorbitant sum of $6,000, the Williams House featured a redwood-paneled living room, 16 paned windows and even a private gas pump for Dr. Williams’ automobile --- as one of the first drivers in town, the good doctor didn’t exactly have a wealth of filling stations to choose from.  The house also had a private laboratory, examining room and office in the back.

The Georgian revival Gamble House was built in 1902, by Edwin Gamble, son of Proctor & Gamble founder James Gamble.  It was one of the first houses constructed south of Embarcadero Road --- at the time not even within the Palo Alto city limits.   Although the property contained a worthy nine-room, three story house, the property was truly valued for its expansive gardens as cultivated by Edwin’s daughter Elizabeth Gamble, the long-time Palo Alto resident and benefactor.  A great lover of irises, the gardens boasted a world-class collection of irises and roses as well as rare trees such as a Chinese Chestnut tree, an Empress tree and a Weeping Crabtree.  There was even an old carriage house built for a horse and buggy and a small tea house where Miss Gamble entertained guests.

But the acquisition of both the Williams and Gamble properties began a trying and sometimes frustrating process, as the city tried to find the best uses for its new found acquisitions.  The City Council spent more than four years debating and evaluating the proposals from a dozen local groups who had their eyes on the 2.2 acre Gamble property.  Proposed uses included a second lawn bowling green adjacent to the existing one that stood next door, a teen drop-in center, a new art center, a headquarters for the Older Woman’s League and a half dozen other ideas, both good and bad.  Some even suggested selling the property to the highest bidder to pay for the city’s purchase of the future Terman Middle School site.

But the real tug of war eventually pitted the “Coalition to Save Miss Gamble’s Garden,” aiming to procure the entire site for a Community Garden Center and the Palo Alto Housing Commission which wanted to build 21 units of low cost senior housing on the site.  Housing for elderly Palo Altans was a hot political issue in 1985 and the senior housing proposal was buoyed by the expressed desire in Miss Gamble’s will that the property be used “for seniors.”  The garden group countered that a community garden center would be the perfect homage to the green-thumbed benefactor.  Seeking to mollify both groups, city staff recommended a “joint use” between gardening and low cost senior housing.  No one was very happy with this idea and the Garden Center group even decided to pull the plug on the bidding if the joint use plan was adopted by the Council.  

As the Council’s big vote approached, the city’s Planning Commission weighed in with a split: 3 votes for the Garden Center, 3 for housing.  The Times Tribune chimed in for the garden center, the Weekly favored selling the property.  What had started as a “great gift that didn’t cost the city anything,” in the words of 1981 Mayor Alan Henderson, had by 1985 become a “War of the Roses,” as one editorialist put it.  It
seemed that one group of citizens was sure to go home unhappy.
On the evening of May 13th, 1985, Council chambers overflowed with garden advocates wearing Gamble Estate flowers in their lapels.  Then in a dramatic stroke of parliamentarian agility, the garden group presented the Council with a letter from Elizabeth Gamble’s sister-in-law, attesting that Elizabeth would have applauded their idea.  Debate and speeches dragged on into Tuesday morning but eventually the Council voted 8-1 in favor of garden group, paving the way for the community garden center that now stands.

In a slightly different manner, the search for permanent tenants at the Williams House also became a drawn-out city headache.  The will of Rhona Williams had vaguely requested that the house and ample surrounding greenery be used “for park or cultural purposes.”  Such a description potentially included a great many groups around the city and the free-for-all began.  Originally, the Council decided to lease the property to the Peninsula Conservation Center, but that group declined the offer when it found another home.  The Council then gave the go-ahead to the Lace Museum --- only to have that group’s backing museum coalition fall apart.  

In 1994, the city commenced a third attempt to find a suitable resident for the Williams House.  A host of non-profits including a center for non-verbal therapy for childhood trauma victims, a historic clothing society and chocolate factory (an odd juxtaposition?), and a care center for deaf children were among the applicants.  Eventually, the decision came down to the proposals from the Museum of American Heritage and the Pacific Art League.  And even after the city awarded the site to the museum, the process almost reverted back to square one again when the museum submitted a sizable building alteration plan to the city.  
Fearing that the Williams House might never be filled, Council member Gary Fazzino joked at one meeting that “given the amount of time we've spent on this issue in the last three years, we're probably discouraging Palo Altans from including the city in their wills.”

Eventually, however both the Museum of American Heritage and the Gamble Garden Center went forward with their plans.  Once established, both have become local favorites and wonderful ways for Palo Altans to take in a lazy weekend day.  The American Heritage Musuem recalls the past, both in its exploration of early 20th Century daily domestic life, as well as its exhibits showcasing the Williams House itself.  The Garden Center is also a terrific community treasure.  Along with allowing visitors to explore its extensive gardens, the center also provides classes for both novices and old garden pros, maintains a gardening reference library and even conducts tours with university master gardeners.  It’s just about all a local planter could want.

Today both the Williams House and the Garden Center serve the public well.  They are important community resources that attract thousands of visitors each year --- of which few are likely aware of the contention that surrounded their original creation. []   

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The Gamble Garden House as seen in 1981. (PAHA)

The Williams House in 1925. (PAHA)

These days the gardens are thriving.