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The 1950s transformed Palo Alto from a small town surrounded by orchards to a maze of traffic, schools and housing.


Housing Boom

The end of World War Il brought an unprecedented influx of new residents to the area. Many were sent by the Army to Stanford University or Dibble General Hospital, a wartime Army hospital in Menlo Park. Others joined the migration of workers to the new electronics industries springing up in Stanford Industrial Park. Others came simply for the good weather and cheap land.

More than any other decade, the '50s helped to establish Palo Alto as we think of it today, a sophisticated suburb in the heart of the high-tech industry. The decade that gave rise to the elongated tail fin, white buck shoes, the hula hoop, beatniks and panty raids also gave rise locally to new concerns about traffic, parking, schools and limits on construction.

The decade began as a time of great hope and optimism. The years of peace immediately following "the good war" brought with them large amounts of ready money, made available through G.I. housing and education loans and the wonders of credit-card living. All that plentiful money produced a heady feeling of well-being and security; it was the right time for the nation to settle into domestic life.

People quickly began spending their money on housing, and in Palo Alto an unprecedented housing boom took place. By 1950, 40 percent of the city's housing had been built; during the next 10 years another 35 percent was added. The population more than doubled in the '50s, as more than 26,000 new residents moved in.

Menlo Park's population doubled in the decade as well, as the town grew to well over 26,000 people. But much of the population was acquired through annexation of land, which was begun in the late '40s and continued throughout the '50s. By 1952, Menlo Park had annexed the areas of Suburban Park, Paraiso Park, Belle Haven, Felton Gables and North Palo Alto.

Most of the construction in Palo Alto took place south of Oregon Avenue, an area newly annexed to the city. More than 3,000 of the new homes south of Oregon were built by Joseph Eichler, a retired egg-and-butter wholesaler. The houses with the gently sloped roofs and redwood slab construction attempted something novel in architecture: incorporating the outdoors into the indoors.

But love them or hate them, the price was right. Three-bedroom, two-bath Eichler homes sold for $15,200 to $15,905 in 1951. Veterans paid $800 down, non-veterans paid $4,700, and monthly payments for everyone hovered around $90 per month. Although the houses have never been considered aesthetic treasures, Eichler homes won the Parents magazine national merit award as best home for families with children every year from 1951 to 1953 and then again from 1955 to 1959.


But all that new housing heightened concern about floods, which had not mattered so much when the city was primarily undeveloped orchards. On Christmas Eve 1955, huge floods inundated the area. Thousands of residents had to flee their homes as San Francisquito Creek disgorged its muddy contents and storm drains overflowed all over town. Some streets in the Greer Park area had more than a foot of mud deposited on them while inside flood waters rose to the tops of beds in some cases.

In 1958, flooding occurred again, and nearly 1,000 residents of Palo Alto and the surrounding community were forced to evacuate their homes. However, overall damage was far less severe because by then flood-control work had been completed on the vital portions of all the creeks that could overflow and inundate the city.

Industrial Growth

Many homes were being built to accommodate the migration of workers to the burgeoning Stanford Industrial Park. Lured by long-term leases offered by Stanford University, companies could then entice workers with the chance to be near Stanford and enjoy the climate.

The headlines remained the same throughout the '50s: "GE will establish electronics lab on Stanford land," "Lockheed tells details of Stanford site," "Link Aviation will set up research labs in Palo Alto," "Spinco firm shows plant at Stanford."

Growth in the region was so spectacular that a model of Stanford Industrial Park was featured in an exhibit at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium.

New Prosperity

The job and building boom were part of a new prosperity in Palo Alto. After two decades of scarcity from the Depression and war shortages, a long-delayed shopping spree was about to begin. And when the area decided to go shopping, it did so with a vengeance.

"Shop the Modern Way, Shop in Palo Alto," announced an advertising flier of the era.

The new-found wealth went toward cars, furniture, television sets - anything money could buy. Appliances like washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, electrical gadgets of all kinds were popular. As one resident said, "Modern was all the rage. No one wanted heirlooms any more. Everyone had to have Swedish furniture and anything else that was new."

Palo Alto's total retail sales in 1947 were about $42 million. By 1956 sales had soared to more than $105 million. But even so, the area lacked shopping alternatives to match its eager shoppers, who had to make frequent trips to San Francisco for the latest fashions and furnishings.

In 1953, the shopping crunch was partially alleviated with the opening of the $5 million ranch-style Town & Country Village.

But the demand for places to shop outpaced Town & Country Village and downtown until 1956, when the $15 million Stanford Shopping Center opened with 47 new stores. The center began to drain the life from the downtown Inner Circle shopping area, located at the west end of University Avenue. Several downtown stores, including Roos Bros., Chandler's, the Travel Service and LaMontagne & Co., closed up and moved to the new center, principally to avoid a coming downtown shopping slump. The new shopping center even boasted a Slenderella reducing salon, a true sign that the era of scarcity had ended.


Student population booms

As Palo Alto opened itself to the post-war hordes of families seeking the American dream, the school district bore the brunt of the onslaught. In the 1950s, new school construction included a total of 12 new elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school and the district administration building at 25 Churchill Ave. At the height of the Baby Boom years, between 1954 and 1957, six new schools had to be built to meet the demand: El Carmelo, Ortega, Greendell and DeAnza elementary schools, Terman Junior High and Cubberley High School. As soon as a school went up it was filled with students, and another school site was begun.

When school started in the fall of 1953, the roads leading to the newly built Fairmeadow Elementary School weren't even built yet. Planks were laid down by the city for students and staff to walk over.

But roads and sidewalks were the least of the district's worries. Finding enough teachers to fill all the positions at the new schools posed another, bigger problem.

Despite the number of schools, classrooms were still crowded. The number of students rose from 8,135 in 1953 to 13,660 in 1960. One teacher remembers that almost all classes had at least 32 or 33 students, even in primary grades. Fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes were larger.

The number of students was impressive, but educators found the young minds they were charged with building far less impressive. In the public mind, students were perceived as anti-intellectual, shallow and conservative. As early as 1954, the same year TV dinners appeared on the market, some argued that television was to blame. One study showed that people who owned TV sets spent an average of four to five hours a day watching.


Educators also blamed the decline on the rise in vocational and business classes and a de-emphasis on the humanities.

And so the '50s was characterized by innovations in the school system that lasted into the '90s. Along with school counselors and classroom aides came a huge change in curriculum.

At the start of the '50s, the entire curriculum was wrapped around social studies. According to a former Palo Alto teacher, "The expert teacher was expected to teach everything - English, math, reading - through social studies. The present wasn't included in the curriculum. History stopped at the Civil War."

But after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States switched gears, mandating more emphasis on technology and science. History shorcomings were felt with the assasination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The lack of training in science became the national lament, and science classes became the national hope.

But if the public was disenchanted with its students, the students were equally disenchanted with their "cookie-cutter education" , calling schools "educational plants", according to then reporter and student Jay Thorwaldson.

Despite this, schools and the Palo Alto community still formed a well-working relationship. With all the young families moving in, there was a link between the school district and everyday life. In 1990, only about 16 percent of city residents had school-age children. In the '5Os households with school children made up a large percentage of residents.

Effects of McCarthyism

In addition to the pressure of unprecedented numbers of students, educators had to contend with the fallout from McCarthyism, which was sweeping through the country in a frenzied attempt to root out Communism.

Teachers throughout the country were required to teach anti-Communism and to take loyalty oaths. Local grade schools and Stanford University were no exception.

In 1953, Stanford President J.E. Wallace Sterling denied that there were any "red" agents on campus, an accusation hurled at "every major California college and university" by Richard Combs, chief counsel for the State Senate Un-American Activities Committee. On the same day, members of the Stanford chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a resolution taking a strong stand against congressional investigations of universities.

The Palo Alto school board balked when the state passed a law requiring any group asking to use school property - including the Boy Scouts - to sign a statement swearing it was neither a Communist organization nor a front. Superintendent Lawrence Fuller called the proposal "unnecessary and unwanted." Eventually, the school board had to concede.


Politically, Palo Alto, like the rest of Santa Clara County, was a heavily Republican town. In 1956, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. In that year's presidential election, 14,438 Palo Altans cast their votes for Ike, whereas only 8,727 voted for Adlai Stevenson. The Democratic shift did not begin until the '60s, when Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county by 3 to 2.

The Republican pro-growth philosophy of the '50s paved the way for other major additions to the landscape later in the decade: Stanford University Hospital, Foothills Park, the main and Mitchell Park libraries and Foothill College. And all the while, the undesirable byproducts of modern life - traffic, over-development and congestion - were becoming apparent.

Residents fight City Council

As Palo Alto and its environs changed radically in the 1950s, the decade also began to foreshadow what would later be a full-scale political revolution on the home front. A new constituency came to town as a result of all those new houses built south of Oregon Avenue for all those young engineers needed for all those new buildings in the industrial park. And it didn't take the newcomers long to learn that no one was listening to them.

Enid Pearson and her family arrived in town in 1953, and a year later she and her husband were amazed to hear that the city wanted to extend downtown through Professorville, where the Pearsons lived, all the way to Embarcadero Road, turning Bryant and Waverley into one-way streets.

"It got a lot of people stirred up," said Pearson, who went on to serve several terms on the City Council in the 1960s and '70s. She became the official Council watcher for her neighborhood, charged with making sure the city government didn't pull any fast ones.

It didn't, but not for lack of trying. Pearson said that in the two years she spent as a Council watcher, the proposal to turn Bryant and Waverley into one-way streets came up no fewer than 18 times, although it never appeared on any meeting agendas.

Politics in the city was a different animal in the 1950s. "There was a lot of abuse of the public" by the Council, Pearson said. "It was a horrendous experience. People were treated very rudely."

Noel Porter, a vice president at Hewlett-Packard Co., served as mayor from 1955-60, and was one of three men who literally ran the town. The others were Jerry Keithley, who was hired as Palo Alto's first city manager in 1950 and is credited with creating a strong set of city policies, and Alf Brandin, vice president for business affairs at Stanford University.

Stanford and the city had much in common in the 1950s. Both needed money, and both had a lot of land to develop. Development of the Stanford Industrial Park and its annexation to the city meant a lot of money in ground leases for the university and a lot of money in taxes for the growing city.

Such tremendous growth in a relatively short time created its own problems. The city, Brandin said, didn't do a very good job communicating with its residents, many of them newcomers who highly valued the area's beauty and "wanted to close it down" by stopping development.

The Keithley-Porter-Brandin triumvirate was "really incredible to watch," Pearson remembered.

In the many meetings between university and city officials to deal with issues such as expansion of city utilities and other matters relating to the development of the industrial park, Keithley protected the city's interests while Brandin tried to watch out for the university's interests. And Porter, Brandin said, "showed no quarter to the university."

Some people suggested that Porter's public statements in favor of an expanded Oregon Avenue raised questions about the conflict of interest between his job at Hewlett-Packard and his role as mayor. However, Porter, apparently had no qualms. According to Pearson, Porter, now deceased, admitted publicly that his job was to get an improved road between the Bayshore Freeway and Hewlett-Packard.

The growing conflict between the pro-growth Council and the more neighborhood-oriented newcomers resulted in a decades-long political fight, which the residentialists eventually won.

In the 1950s, the Palo Alto Residents Association was the first group formed to defend the residential character of the city. In the 1960s, that led to the pitched battle over Oregon Expressway and the formation of a new group, United Palo Altans. That, in turn, led to the formation of still another group, Association for a Balanced Community, or ABC, which finally took control of the City Council in the early 1970s.

But back in the 1950s, high-rises were still in vogue. Pearson said Stanford wanted to build 27-story high-rise buildings next to El Camino Park near the train tracks, and Keithley wanted to build high-rises in the foothills. Today, of course, the thought of building anything in the foothills, even single-family homes, brings a chorus of complaints.

While the 1950s set the stage for the big political battles of the 1960s--Oregon Expressway, a downtown hospital and a massive downtown office building known as "superblock"--the decade had a few important skirmishes of its own. These included a tiff over building a new City Hall, which the voters rejected but the City Council went ahead and built anyway. Several of the Council members lost re-election bids in the mid-195Os as a result. The building is now the Cultural Center at Embarcadero and Newell roads.

There also was a lot of controversy, surprisingly enough, over the city buying what would become Foothills Park in the late '50s from Dr. Russel Lee, one of the founders of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. Many people back then thought it wasn't wise to spend so much money--the price was $1.29 million. But the 1,399-acre park today is considered one of the city's jewels, and despite some attempts in the early '90s to change the policy, admission is still restricted to Palo Alto residents.

Early in the 1960s, Noel Porter got his road to the industrial park in the form of Oregon Expressway. Maybe that's why the city named a street after him in the park -Porter Drive.

Hod Ray and Paly Sports

From 1921-'51, Palo Alto was a formidable football town, with a record of 221 wins, 24 ties and 63 losses. And for two of those years - 1950 and 1951 - Palo Alto was more than just formidable, it was downright glorious. Those were the years the Palo Alto High School Vikings crushed their way through two perfect seasons to win the Peninsula Athletic League championship.

Much of the success was only possible with Howard "Hod" Ray, the coach at Palo Alto High School for 30 years and the man for whom the high school playing fields are named. Ray, known for his jaunty walk, booming bass voice, twinkling blue eyes, informal manner and great golf scores, began coaching at Paly in 1921. During the next 30 years, his grid team took eight Peninsula Athletic League championships.

In addition to football, he coached basketball, track and field, swimming and baseball. Contending that "only one in 100 understands football," Ray wrote "Football Facts and Fun," a 64-page book filled with clear-cut facts about the game and explanatory cartoons. Despite his huge success as a football coach, he maintained that basketball, the sport he played in college, was his favorite.

Ray died of a heart attack on Dec. 15, 1951, just a few weeks after the jubilant Vikings carried him across the field at the end of their second perfect championship season.



  • Palo Alto: The First 100 Years, The Palo Alto Weekly, 1994.
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