Clark brought ‘Early California’ style to the Midpeninsula with red-tiled roofs, arches and wrought iron details that still define local streetscapes.

Historic buildings designed by Birge Clark on Ramona Street. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Just about everyone who has driven through Palo Alto likely has seen the Spanish-influenced architecture of Birge Clark.

His iconic red-tiled roofs, stucco walls, arches and wrought iron details defined the burgeoning city’s Early California style and had so much influence on the look of its commercial and residential streetscapes that Palo Alto has been referred to “as the city Birge built.”

During a 50-year span, Clark built 98 Palo Alto houses and nearly 400 buildings in and around the city, including the downtown post office on Hamilton Avenue, most of the buildings on Ramona Street’s historic block south of University Avenue, the Lucie Stern Community Center, the old Palo Alto fire and police station (now Avenidas senior center), and the nationally recognized home of Charles and Kathleen Norris at Stanford University.

More than 30 of these structures have been listed on the city’s inventory of historic buildings, and three are on the National Register of Historic Places. Palo Alto currently is working to establish a history museum in the historic two-story Spanish-Colonial Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. that Clark designed in 1932 as the original Palo Alto Medical Clinic.

Birge Clark built 98 Palo Alto homes and nearly 400 buildings in and around the city. (Photo courtesy Carolyn Caddes/Palo Alto Historical Association)

Born in a San Francisco hospital on April 16, 1893, a year and a week before Palo Alto was incorporated, Clark grew up in Palo Alto, where his father Arthur Bridgman worked as a Stanford professor of art and a freelance architect. After attending Palo Alto High School, Clark graduated from Stanford University in 1914 with a degree in graphic design (architecture wasn’t in the Stanford curriculum until the 1950s), and from Columbia University in 1917 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. After being deployed to France for two years during WWI, Clark returned to Palo Alto in 1919 and secured his first job as an architect, assisting his father with the design of Herbert Hoover’s home at Stanford.

Two years later, Clark opened up the only architectural office in Palo Alto, which at the time had a population of about 5,000, and many streets still had wooden sidewalks.

Influenced by the Spanish Colonial architecture revived for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park in 1915, Clark began designing what he called “Early California” or “California Colonial” buildings throughout Palo Alto. The exterior architecture of this style includes smooth, white stucco walls that mimic how adobe-brick walls were once covered; round-arched openings; recessed windows giving the appearance of a thickened exterior wall; sloped red roofs made from adobe tiles rounded and baked; wrought-iron railings; and front or interior patios often surrounded by a stucco wall.

His Spanish Colonial commercial work began with Addison Elementary School in 1924. The following year, Clark added to the cluster of Spanish Colonial buildings along the Ramona Street commercial district built by Palo Alto architect and artist Pedro de Lemos. The area is now a registered historic district. Clark’s noted multistory Medico-Dental building, recognized by its massive facade, ground-floor archways and elegant ironwork, is among the buildings in this district. Another of Clark’s notable Spanish Colonial projects includes the former Hotel President at 488 University Ave., which was recently converted from apartments back to a hotel. The six-story building boasted a lush roof garden, a beautiful beamed ceiling lobby and a grand spiral staircase that climbed all the way to the top floor.

Among Clark’s earliest residential projects is the two-story Spanish Colonial at 470 Coleridge Ave. and the two-story Monterey Colonial with a Mediterranean doorway at 544 Coleridge Ave., both designed in 1923. Other notable Clark homes include the Dunker House at 420 Maple St., the entire block of Coleridge Avenue between Cowper and Webster streets and the 1927-era Norris House at 1247 Cowper St., which has been called his most elaborate design. The nearly 10,000-square-foot house was commissioned for married authors Charles and Kathleen Norris, whose typewriters could be heard by passersby. The house is built from white stucco with a tile roof, wooden beams and handcrafted ironwork around the windows, doors and balconies.

In 1932, he designed the homes at 1950 and 1990 Cowper St. for Lucie Stern, one of the heirs to the Levi Strauss estate, for her own residence and for her daughter as a getaway from their main Atherton home. The houses once shared a common courtyard and fountain. In Clark’s opinion, the houses “represented the peak of his Early California designs within the city of Palo Alto.” In 1935, Stern commissioned Clark to design 1928 Cowper St. for her gardener and his wife. She also commissioned him to design the Community Center (now called Lucie Stern Community Center) at 1305 Middlefield Road.

Although Clark’s legacy is bound with his Spanish Colonial designs, he also ventured into a variety of other styles for his residential and commercial buildings. On the 1400 block of Edgewood Drive, one can see a variety of home styles he built between there 1936 and1948, including the Prairie-style house with its flagstone veneer at 1440 Edgewood, which has been described as “Birge Clark meets Frank Lloyd Wright.” Another of his homes at 570 Coleridge features a Tudor-style second story. His Streamline Moderne buildings include the former GM dealership (now Wilbur Properties) at 790 High St. and the Sea Scout Building (designed to resemble a ship) at the Baylands.

The lobby and ground-floor stairwell of the former Hotel President in Palo Alto when it was an apartment building. The building, which now houses the Graduate Palo Alto hotel, was designed by Palo Alto architect Birge Clark. (Photo by Adam Pardee)

How to identify California Colonials

-Smooth, white stucco exterior walls that mimic how adobe-brick walls were once covered

-Round-arched openings

-Recessed windows giving the appearance of a thickened exterior wall

-Sloped red roofs made from adobe tiles rounded and baked

-Wrought-iron railings

-Front or interior patios often surrounded by a stucco wall

-Often feature two-story block perpendicular to the street with a one-story wing at one side

Where to find Birge Clark buildings

U.S. Post Office, 380 Hamilton Ave.: Built in 1932, this Early California-style post office represents Clark’s deliberate and successful attempt to avoid the classical modes usually associated with government buildings of the period. Initially, his drawings were rejected by the United States Postal Service, which deemed the design inappropriate for a federal building. President Herbert Hoover, who knew Clark, reportedly intervened and the design was approved. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Medico-Dental Building, 261 Hamilton Ave.: Built in 1927 and rehabilitated in 2016, this building served as the corner anchor for the Spanish Colonial Revival commercial row along Ramona Street that is now the Ramona Street Architectural District. Clark designed this four-story business block for the Palo Alto Improvement Company. The building is noted for its irregular pattern, made to look as if it consisted of several buildings developed at different periods of time, even though it was constructed all at once.

Outside Avenidas’ remodeled building, which kept the original architecture of the historic Birge Clark building. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Old Palo Alto fire and police station, 450 Bryant St.: Originally built in 1927 as the Palo Alto Fire and Police Station, this building is now home to Avenidas.

Palo Alto Medical Clinic, 300 Homer Ave.: Built in 1932 as the first permanent home of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. The building is on the Historic Buildings Inventory. The city is currently working to rehabilitate the building and use it as a history museum.

Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St.: Built in 1926, this stucco clad building features two pitched roof elements separated by a three-story, flat-roofed tower element, and wrought iron corner balconies capped with red tile overhangs. The design combines Spanish Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, and Craftsman style features.

Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road: Built in 1932, the center was commissioned by Levi Strauss heir Lucie Stern. The center features a series of one- and two-story Spanish Colonial buildings built around an entry patio and decorative circular fountain.

Ruth and Lucie Stern residences, 1950-1990 Cowper St.: These long, low Spanish Colonial Revival homes were built for mother and daughter Lucie and Ruth Stern. The homes have a massive street facade with wrought iron window grilles. The landscaping treats the two houses as a single entity. In 2015, Ruth’s home at 1950 Cowper sold for $30 million.

Norris House, 1247 Cowper St.: Built for novelists Kathleen Norris and Charles Gilman Norris, this 10,000-square-foot house is among Clark’s most elaborate designs. The house’s layout features several one- and two-story sections surrounding a patio. The house is built from white stucco with a tile roof; handcrafted ironwork and woodwork is used in the beams and decorations. The house, which is privately owned, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bo Crane is a Palo Alto native and graduate of Stanford University. As secretary of Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, he organizes and leads architectural/historical tours of Palo Alto neighborhoods. He also is a board member of Palo Alto Historical Association and historian for the Menlo Park Historical Association. This piece was first published in our sister publication the Palo Alto Weekly’s fall home and garden publication.

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