Sometimes, getting in touch with the past can help make sense of the present and even provide a needed sense of stability for the future. Reading is one way, but when we can experience the things left behind by the people who came before us, history really comes to life. With that in mind, a new cultural destination is being planned for downtown Redwood City that organizers hope will make history come to life in multiple ways and provide plenty of enjoyment in the present.
The San Mateo County Historical Association is finalizing plans for the Taube Family Carriage House. Named for the project's keystone donor, Woodside philanthropist and businessman Tad Taube, the carriage house will be the showcase for San Mateo County's collection of historic horse-drawn vehicles and much more. The new building will include areas for revolving exhibits and public event space.
Just as the 2006 renovation of the historic domed courthouse (present home of the San Mateo County History Museum) and creation of the adjacent public square played a major role in changing downtown Redwood City from "Deadwood City" to the lively and attractive cultural hotspot that it is today, the carriage house will add a new dimension to the downtown area.
The planned three-story, 14,000-square-foot building will be located at the corner of Marshall Street and Middlefield Road, adjacent to the courthouse and to the newly relocated Lathrop House. Designed by Woodside architect Adolph Rosekrans, the striking carriage house will sit on what is now a small parking area.
"It's hard to believe we could put something like that up there," remarked Taube.
The building will feature glass walls on every level, providing passersby with lighted views of the interior at all hours.
What inspired this ambitious addition to the San Mateo County Historical Association's collection? First, a bit of background:
Long before Silicon Valley started making billionaires, San Mateo County was a favorite destination for people with high net worth to escape the grit and chill of San Francisco. They came, they played and they built. So much so that by the 1880s, there were more large country estates on the Peninsula than in any other place west of the Mississippi.
Being seen out and about was important to the top tier of society at that time and fine carriages became the way to get around and also the way to communicate one's wealth and status. Carriages made by Brewster and Company in New York were considered the finest in the world at the time and owning at least one was de rigueur for wealthy residents.
Fast forward to 1975, when Lurline Matson Roth donated her 650-acre Woodside estate, Filoli, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Roth's stunning collection of Brewster carriages, however, was given to San Mateo County. Although a few of the carriages have been on display in the San Mateo History Museum galleries, the rest of the Roth collection and a number of other fine examples of horse-drawn vehicles (29 in all), have been stored for more than 40 years in a climate-controlled warehouse out of public view.
Mitch Postel, San Mateo County History Association president and executive director since 1985, has been dreaming for years of a place where the public could enjoy these reminders of our equestrian past.
Postel, who is arguably the most energetic and knowledgeable fan of San Mateo County's past one is ever likely to meet, provided this perspective on the "upstairs-downstairs" aspect of Peninsula society in the late 1800s:
"San Mateo and Burlingame were like villages in the European tradition." And although most of the vehicles in the collection were once owned by the wealthiest and most prominent residents of the area, Postel is adamant that it's not just about them. "Sure, you might have been a rich cat with lots of money but many people made their living by working for the carriage trade. This is really our heritage -- this is us! It's who we were," he said.
Taube has been involved in the San Mateo County Historical Association for a number of years and received the organization's History Maker Award in 2017. He first became aware of the carriages about two years ago and after a visit to the warehouse, he knew he had to make something happen.
"When I saw them, I thought, 'My God, this is really a treasure!' I immediately reacted that we had to bring this to the world," he recalled.
Taube and Postel set out to find a new home for the carriages near Courthouse Square. The original idea was pretty straightforward -- a simple structure on the order of a single-story, garage-type building -- but rapidly evolved into something far more exciting.
"We concluded that the only way to do justice to these carriages was to create a showplace. Of course, a showplace involves money," Taube said. To date, The Taube Carriage House Campaign has raised over 78% of the $11.5 million price tag, all of which has come from private pledges and donations. Construction of the Carriage House is expected to take approximately two years, with preliminary site improvements set to begin this spring.
With the showplace fast becoming a reality, Taube said, "Anybody who has seen the carriages has to get excited about the possibility that people are going to be able to enjoy them." Plans are well underway for what visitors will experience.
On the ground floor will be a gallery devoted to rotating exhibits featuring special display bays. Possible themes include vehicle collections from local car aficionados, historical perspectives on the electric car and other vehicles from the county's collection, including a remarkable Standard Oil delivery wagon. Said Postel, "I would love to do a display of low riders."
The second-floor gallery will feature a permanent display of the county's 10 prized Brewster carriages and a rotating display of other carriages, all of which will be shown with the museum's collection of textiles and vintage gowns from the period. Interactive features include the opportunity to experience what it was like to drive a horse-drawn vehicle and to observe craftsmen at work restoring and maintaining carriages in the conservation area. Plans also include an entire wall of magnificent gilded mirrors from several of the Peninsula's great estates.
The crown jewel of the carriage collection is the 17-passenger Brewster Standard Light Park Drag. With its metal frame painted a cheerful but tasteful yellow, the carriage was designed for fun: Owners and guests were seated on top for the best views of sporting and social events, while an assortment of servants rode below. Pointing to the lined and fitted compartments for bottles and glasses in the rear of the carriage, Postel chuckled, "This was the ultimate tailgating vehicle."
The original purchase price of the Park Drag was $2,800. In today's dollars, that would be about $82,000 or similar to the price of a new Tesla Model S. Actually, this comparison isn't quite accurate. Despite the quality of both vehicles, the carriage by itself wouldn't have gotten you anywhere without four fine, perfectly matched horses turned out in polished, monogrammed harnesses, an assortment of servants and grooms in matching uniforms and a clean-shaven coachman.
The carriage house's third-floor rooftop terrace will be an open, airy space featuring a central skylight and large expanses of glass on the exterior walls. The facility, which has been designed for gatherings of up to 300 people and includes catering areas, will be available for rent to the public for post-pandemic events such as meetings, conferences and receptions.
In addition to the carriage house, a new natural history area will be created through construction of a passageway connecting the new building with the courthouse. A diorama will feature the complete 14-foot cast of the skeleton of a paleoparadoxia -- a rare aquatic mammal that inhabited the area of what is now Menlo Park in the Miocene period, approximately 12 million years ago. Murals by Burlingame artist Fred Sinclair, Jr. will depict the ancient elephants, horses, saber-toothed cats and rhinoceroses that once roamed the Peninsula.
Interactive exhibits will provide kids the opportunity to experience what it's like to be a paleontologist or archaeologist and an electronic map will show the area's geologic and geographic changes over millions of years.
Meanwhile, project architect Rosekrans, who will turn 90 this year, can personally attest to the power of things from the past. As an avid collector of antique farm implements, he recently accompanied San Mateo County Historical Association Curator Dana Neitzel to look at a carriage that was being offered to San Mateo County by History San José. He did not know that the errand was about to reconnect him with his childhood. Rosekrans remembered that his mother, Alma Spreckles, had owned several carriages and remembered riding in them on Runnymede, her Woodside estate, but didn't know what had become of them. "She probably wanted them out of the way," he said.
The carriage being offered was a Brewster Brougham (pronounced "brooam') from the late 1890s and was showing its years. Rosekrans and Neitzel went about inspecting the vehicle and, "when I put my hand on the handle, it felt very familiar," Rosekrans said. A subsequent check of the carriage's serial numbers determined the original owner. "It turned out to be my great grandfather, Claus Spreckles," he exclaimed. The handle was the very one he had gripped as a child.
The Spreckles carriage, which for now is back at Runnymede, will be the first subject of the carriage house's restoration project. With the Taube Family Carriage House plans rolling along, locals can look forward to making more connections to San Mateo County's past -- and creating new memories.
Contributing Writer Maggie Mah can be emailed at [email protected]