Architect Charles K. Sumner’s work can be found throughout Palo Alto, including at a home once owned by the man who led the repeal that overturned prohibition in the city.
From the ornate Victorians to the early shingle-style Craftsman to the California Colonial look championed by homegrown architect Birge Clark in the 1920s to the midcentury modern Eichlers that began popping up in the 1950s, Palo Alto boasts a hodgepodge of architectural styles that span more than 100 years, as well as several notable local architects who helped define the area’s cityscape. This story takes a look at architect Charles K. Sumner and the stately English manor he designed on Hamilton Avenue in the 1910s.
With the exception of a squire mucking about the grounds and the romance of foggy moors, the exterior of the three-story, 1916-era home on the 800 block of Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto has all the attributes of a genuine English manor: symmetrical gables, a central oriel and a steep-pitched roof with narrow banks of windows and dormers.
Designed by noted Palo Alto architect Charles K. Sumner, whose eclectic work can be found throughout residential neighborhoods in Palo Alto and Stanford, the 25-room estate has retained much of the grand character that defined it as one of the “finest” residences in Palo Alto when it was built 107 years ago, according to local newspaper accounts uncovered by the nonprofit Palo Alto Stanford Heritage preservation group. The private home, which recently sold for $19.5 million, opened its doors to the public in 1994 during a Designer Showcase home tour but has remained closed to the general public ever since.
Surrounded by sculpted gardens, covered walkways, a centrally located pool with a pool house, and a one-bedroom guest cottage, the home sits on nearly three quarters of an acre in the Crescent Park neighborhood adjacent to a near-identical twin home built at the same time for the same family: Patriarch Robert Ray commissioned one home for himself and the other for his son, for a total cost of $30,000.
A quarter of a century later, the estate changed hands and became known as the “Crist House” — a name that would be linked to the 1970 repeal of Sen. Leland Stanford’s decades-old alcohol ban in Palo Alto.
The ‘Crist House’ era
In 1942, the Ray family house was purchased by Frank Crist Sr., the Palo Alto lawyer, state Assembly member and community leader best known for helping to make Palo Alto a town where it’s not a crime to imbibe in “spiritous, vinous, malt or mixed liquors.” It was Crist who brought the final suit challenging deed restrictions implemented by Stanford in 1888 that prohibited the sale of alcohol within a 1.5-mile radius of the university.
Stanford was concerned that saloons would come to the town that was sprouting up next to his
newly founded university, so he encouraged Timothy Hopkins, the original subdivider of the site where
Palo Alto now stands, to write a liquor sales ban into the deeds of trust for each property. A few years later, an alcohol ban was written into the town’s incorporation documents.
The “dry zone” remained unbroken until December 1970, when a California Superior Court judge agreed with Crist’s argument, ruling that the university could not prevent a downtown restaurant from serving alcohol.
In May 1971, Crist toasted the first legal cocktail at a downtown restaurant.
Crist and his wife lived the remainder of their lives in the “Crist House.” In the early 1990s, the six bedroom, five-bathroom, 6,086-square-foot estate was put back on the market for just over $2
Designed for grand entertaining
The home is among the earliest that Sumner designed in Palo Alto and reflects his emphasis on formality and entertaining, with distinct separations between public and private space and formal rooms large enough to host grand gatherings.
The ground floor features a reception hall flanked by formal dining and living room spaces with window-lined sunrooms that expand each room along either side of the home.
For privacy, the staircase is strategically positioned perpendicular to the view from the front door, a common feature Sumner used to prevent a direct line of sight to the family spaces on the second floor.
The garden and its relationship to the house was an especially important element for Sumner. He believed that every room should have windows on two to three sides, when possible, to look out at the gardens. He made certain to incorporate French doors with balconies, decorative leaded glass
windows and sunrooms into the home’s design to provide various views of the property and its
The man who built the manor
A Pennsylvania native, Sumner graduated from the Columbia University School of Architecture and worked for McKim, Mead and White in New York City, the firm that designed the original Penn
He moved to Palo Alto in 1916, where he spent the bulk of his career designing homes for the upper middle class, including professors at Stanford University. Between 1916 and 1941, he designed more than 50 residences in Palo Alto, including a cluster of six homes along Hamilton Avenue, as well as an additional 20 homes on the Stanford campus.
Sumner worked squarely within the eclectic movement, incorporating a mixture of elements from many styles into his work. He preferred the English cottage, Tudor and Colonial Revival styles, as well as the occasional Mediterranean Revival structure. After the Spanish Eclectic style swept into town in the mid 1920s, Sumner designed more of his work in this style.
In addition to his residential work, Sumner occasionally designed office buildings, schools, libraries and churches, including Palo Alto’s Spanish Colonial Revival-style College Terrace Library at 2300 Wellesley St. and the mission-style building that once housed Walter Hays School before it was demolished.
Where to find Charles K. Sumner buildings
College Terrace Library, 2300 Wellesley St.: With little traffic on the street, few ever pass by what is called Sumner’s most important Spanish Colonial Revival work. Built in 1936, the one-story tile and stucco structure features interesting relief decorative patterns over the entrance, tall Palladian windows at either end and wrought iron trusses spanning the ceiling.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 1295 Middlefield Road: Built in 1928 near Hamilton Avenue and Byron Street, this Spanish Colonial building was surrounded by an expansive courtyard that incorporated Sumner’s ideas of light and openness. He believed that a building and its landscaping had to work together. He designed spaces with that in mind, which is why deep front yards and enclosed courtyards are common elements of his work. After 25 years, the building was relocated in 1953 to its current location on Middlefield Road.
Tudor-style house, 548 E. Crescent Drive: Built in 1928 for $15,000, this private residence features the traditional hallmarks of the Tudor style: It has steeply pitched gable roofs, half-timbering on its facade and leaded glass windows.
Spanish Colonial Revival home, 1184 Palo Alto Ave.: Completed in 1935, this private residence is considered one of the most important examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the city. Its nearly solid street façade, void of doors, windows or other openings, adheres closely to original Spanish models. The home was built for Leslie Kiler, a noted local landscape architect who designed the grounds at three Birge Clark-designed homes commissioned by Lucie Stern in the 1900 block of Cowper Street, as well as the Lucie Stern Community Center and Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University.
Spanish eclectic home, 1505 University Ave.: Built in 1926, this private home is notable for its use of beautiful materials. The doors and living room floors are of Honduran mahogany. The fireplace is an elaborate confection of Batchelder terra-cotta tiles, and the arched windows and doors retain their original curved curtain rods. Mission-derived features include the terra-cotta tile floor at its entry and decorative iron grillwork.
—Bo Crane and Palo Alto Stanford Heritage
Portions of this article taken from Palo Alto Stanford Heritage and the article “The (California) English manor” by Diane Sussman that originally appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 6, 1994. This article originally ran in the Palo Alto Weekly’s Summer 2023 Home & Garden Design special publication.