The future of history

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
Oct. 4, 2017, 9:00 a.m.

In the ’30s, Palo Alto caused quite a stir. This quiet and conservative university town that only voted for its first Democratic president in 1960 – when it chose John F. Kennedy – became, overnight, the scene of a rather salacious scandal.

The Palo Alto Medical Clinic, considered the first group practice in the U.S., had just completed the construction of its first clinic. Among its founding doctors were, not insignificantly, Dr. Esther Clark, one of the first female physicians in the country, and Dr. Blake Wilbur, the son of the famed president of Stanford University.  

A specimen of the Spanish eclectic, the clinic’s walls were painted with images of patients “in a state of partial undress,” along with “a Native American mother using a board to reshape her child’s head, a witch doctor casting out devils and a medical practitioner using a hot poker to cauterize a wound,” according to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), the clinic’s not-for-profit controlling organization. These were the murals of Victor Arnautoff: a Russian emigré painter, Stanford professor, Communist and former apprentice of Diego Rivera.

Too suggestive for the modesty of the town, the murals scandalized the locals, who blocked the street with their cars and bodies to balk and gawk at the brazen busts of painted patients. The traffic eventually became so disruptive that founding physician Fritz Roth, the clinic building’s (and Stanford row house’s) namesake, threatened to paint over the murals with white bleach.

If you go to 300 Homer Avenue today, you’ll find no ogling hordes to block the entrance, and the Roth building, now forgotten, sheltered by crooked wisterias that hide it under fallen piles of purple petals.

You will, however, find a proposal for another project, one which aspirationally hopes to situate itself in the nest of the former clinic. After the city purchased the building from the PAMF in 2000, it asked community members to submit suggestions for the building’s future use. In 2004, the Palo Alto Historical Association (PAHA) won out, likely because its proposal was the only one submitted. The association, a group of history buffs in the most future-oriented milieu in the country, suggested creating a museum that could be the central hub for Palo Alto’s history. The place could be a repository for archives and relics, collecting memories of the city’s past and sharing stories – like those of Drs. Clark and Wilbur – with residents and visitors. The idea was approved years ago, but details on its opening are still very much in the air. The problem, strangely, is not something you would assume to be much of an issue in a city known as the symbol of Silicon Valley wealth: For the past 10 years, the Palo Alto History Museum has been struggling to raise the $20 million needed to begin construction and, eventually, open its doors.

“The city will only allow us to start construction if we can show them that we have enough money to cover all the costs of the renovations,” says Steve Staiger, a Palo Alto historian and PAHA member. It doesn’t help that the Roth building is fairly dated and in urgent need of seismic retrofitting to bring it up to code. That alone will cost $9.2 million.

As it stands, the project is halfway funded. According to Laura Bajuk, director of the to-be-built Palo Alto History Museum, “only about 1 percent of the population of Palo Alto has contributed [that] half [of] the goal” over the past 10 years. It’s strange that in a place with such abundant capital, so little seems accessible to community initiatives like the History Museum. There is the sense that the past is not exactly where Palo Alto directs most of its attention. The glossy, high-tech attractions of University Avenue distract from the historic marvels to be found on neighboring roads. However, there is another element that stirs a disregard for Palo Alto’s past.

According to Staiger, “The vast bulk of Palo Altans aren’t here yet – they’re physically here, but this isn’t their community, necessarily.” Many living in the city will instead say that they’re from the East Coast, the Midwest or even from the Central Valley, but rarely Palo Alto. Recently, Staiger discovered that the majority of Palo Altans have only been in the community for less than 10 years. For many, Palo Alto just doesn’t have a distinct identity they feel they can tap into.

The flurry of new ideas and new ventures has certainly driven the incredible material success of the surrounding area, but it also seems to have detracted from establishing a firmly rooted sense of community. After all, the attraction of Silicon Valley is not tied to any particular locality or place. It’s tied to the ideas of industry, rapid technological progress and entrepreneurial success. These pulsate with constant and unceasing bursts of novelty that breathe new life into the local economy but also eclipse the crucial stories and past that lie at its foundation.

In fact, those foundations are rather unique. The origins of this place are what fascinates Staiger most. “I don’t know of another town in the country that was established to be a college town,” he said. There was no Palo Alto before Stanford University. The two grew together, side by side. Palo Alto’s origin, and thus its entire history, is colored by the schools and educators that supported this quiet little town for decades. Eager students and doting parents flocked to this small Bay Area locale, not least for its Mediterranean breezes and sun, but for the renowned quality of education this place offered. That’s why it’s so ironic and unfortunate that the education one can achieve in Palo Alto today excludes so much about the place in which it’s delivered.

The leadership team of the History Museum, along with other groups like the PAHA, however, seek to change that – and they’re close. The team is only $3.7 million away from the city’s approval to begin construction. In the words of Laura Bajuk, “only time will tell” when the doors of the museum will open. Until then, here’s hoping that the future of Palo Alto can include a little more history.



Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’

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