Saving Stegner’s study

Jan. 18, 2012, 3:02 a.m.
Saving Stegner's study
Wallace Stegner in 1947, at the beginning of the Stanford Creative Writing Program. Stegner was the founder of this program in his time as an English professor here. (Courtesy of Lynn Stegner)

The Los Altos Hills community is no stranger to mega mansions — indeed, a 25,500-square-foot mansion recently sold for $100 million as the most expensive single-family house purchased in the United States, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. But the new construction also replaces smaller homes of the past.


One house slated for demolition belonged to Wallace Stegner, an acclaimed historian, environmentalist and writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 and was an early resident of Los Altos Hills.


“Wallace Stegner was appointed a full professor at Stanford in 1945,” wrote Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program, in an email to The Daily. “He was hired specifically to be in charge of the Creative Writing Program.”


Stegner’s family “decided to offer his property and house to Stanford at a discounted price in the hope that they might put in a creative writing center,” said Les Earnest, senior research scientist emeritus.


Stanford’s Property Development Office said it would sell instead, leading the family to withdraw the offer. The property was placed on the market and purchased by New Yam and Wan Lei Yong. The Yongs later applied for a demolition permit because they “wanted to build another mansion,” according to Earnest.


Earnest is leading an effort to preserve Stegner’s study, where Stegner wrote the majority of his most famous works, such as “Angle of Repose” and “The Spectator Bird.” He believes the study should be relocated to a site in the surrounding area and converted into a small museum, where he envisions exhibits on Stegner’s career and a robotic docent.


The landowners agreed to allow the study to be moved, but the logistics are difficult: the study can only be moved once the demolition has started because of its location on the lot.


There are other efforts to not only save the study but also to halt the house’s demolition entirely. The National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote to Debbie Pedro, planning director for Los Altos Hills, arguing the study should be designated a historic site and to request a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of the site. This review examines both the environmental implications of a demolition and the site’s historical significance.


As the CEQA review takes place, Earnest is racing to gather funds to relocate the study and find a place to put it.


“I have about half as much as we need, namely $3,500, and I am willing to loan enough to get the job done,” Earnest said. “So the money is not the major block at this point. It’s the site and lack thereof.”


Earnest has looked at several sites for a possible relocation, but none have yet come through. After being rejected by the board of Hidden Villa, a Los Altos Hills ranch, he appealed to Stanford.


“I happen to know John Hennessy and suggested to him that Stanford provide a site,” Earnest said. As a result, Stanford’s Property Development Office looked into possible sites for the study.


Stanford’s Property Development Office found three potential sites in the foothills by the golf course overlooking the campus. Earnest appealed to those at Stanford “who were previously associated with Stegner,” he said.


Stanford ultimately rejected the project.


Finding no help from the University, Earnest moved on to two potential sites in Los Altos Hills. One of these sites is “next to town hall — in fact next to an old house moved there as a historical artifact,” Earnest said.


“I did write a letter to the town government requesting permission to use the sites,” Earnest said. “There are indications that some council members are opposed.”


On Dec. 20, Los Altos Hills Mayor Rich Larson wrote to Earnest, saying “the History Committee has been asked to put this issue on the January agenda and to propose a solution. There appears to be strong agreement from all parties that this matter should be resolved as quickly as possible.”


Yet without a site and with the result of the CEQA review still pending, the study’s future is unclear.

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