For a moment on Tuesday night, the local politics of Mountain View and a multimillion-dollar office project came down to the lesson in a children's book.
Mayor Ken Rosenberg can claim the credit for that. Thinking about what to do with two of the city's historic downtown buildings, he brought up Virginia Lee Burton's "The Little House." Passing out photocopies from the 1943 storybook to his colleagues, the mayor briefly rehashed the tale of the tiny family house built to "never be sold for gold or silver, and she will live to see our great-great-grandchildren's great-great-grandchildren living in her."
In the story, the open hillside around the Little House transforms as it gets built up with roads, homes, and gas stations -- and later urban apartments, subways and skyscrapers. By this point, the once-happy house is now sad because she misses the open countryside. By the final page, the great-granddaughter of the original builder decides to move the house to a new hilltop, and the house is smiling once again. The End.
For the mayor, the lesson here was the importance of preserving small-town heritage, even in the rapidly changing times of Mountain View's booming tech economy and the insatiable demand for more offices.
"Mountain View is its history, and we need visual representations of that history," Rosenberg said.
Case in point: On Tuesday night the City Council was discussing a new proposal to remove two antique buildings along Villa Street to make way for a new four-story office building. It turned into a tug-of-war between sentimentality and sensibility as elected leaders debated whether the buildings should be saved, and how that could be done.
Whether the buildings are "happy" remains up for debate, but both structures indisputably have some historic value. They include the Chez TJ building -- also known as the Weilheimer House -- a 1894 cottage that's among the city's oldest structures, and the home of Arthur Free, the only congressman ever to hail from Mountain View. Right next door is the Tied House brewery, a 1931 Spanish-style building with its own role as a longtime meeting spot that's generally regarded as the less historically significant of the pair.
After decades of running their restaurants, Chez TJ owner George Aviat and Tied House owner Ron Manabe both came to the council on Tuesday saying they were ready to call it quits. Over the last year, both restaurateurs had partnered with the Minkoff Group development firm to work on plans for rebuilding the two sites. Their plan calls for a new four-story office complex with space for a new gastropub on the bottom floor.
"I'm getting old and I want to move into the next phase of my life," Aviat said to the council. "In order for me to continue, it's become very difficult emotionally and physically."
Aviat, who lives in a cottage behind Chez TJ, said the building's historic value had eroded over time through years of repairs and remodels. But a large showing of downtown residents and history buffs begged to differ. Taking the podium, Candace Bowers, president of the Mountain View Historical Association, gave city leaders a whirlwind biography of the early-day families who built the structures, and she warned that the city's heritage needed protection.
"Our membership has had a pretty strong, even passionate, reaction to the news of this proposed project," she said. "These buildings are visually delightful, historically interesting and they represent the city of Mountain View."
Mountain View has a rocky past when trying to preserve the vestiges of its early days. Iconic locations like Hangar One avoided the wrecking ball only due to a groundswell of public support. But other landmark sites of local lore are now lost forever, including Walker's Wagon Wheel tavern and the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.
City staff tried to find a way to satisfy everyone. Staffers proposed the restaurant buildings -- especially the older, more historic Weilheimer House -- could be moved to a new site, such as a city park.
It was an idea that didn't excite anyone, in part because it had failed previously. Just down the block from Chez TJ, the city had tried to find a new home for the 130-year-old Pearson House so the site could be rebuilt for offices. But the old house was later demolished after they couldn't find a suitable place to relocate it. On the plus side, local preservationists were able to save the tiny Immigrant House, which used to be on the same lot as the Pearson House. That structure now serves as a mini-museum at the city's Heritage Park.
For city leaders hoping to learn a lesson from the past, the future of the Villa Street restaurants was a difficult issue. Many spoke about how the downtown site and its close proximity to transit makes it a perfect spot for more offices. But almost everyone hesitated out of concern they could wind up signing away more of the city's heritage.
"People 30 years from now will talk about what happened here," said Councilwoman Pat Showalter. "We need to pause on this so we can investigate the options for these historic properties."
City leaders pitched ideas to retain more of the buildings. Could the facade of the Tied House be somehow incorporated into the new development? Perhaps the office design could be tweaked to leave enough space for the Weilheimer cottage?
By the end of the meeting, there was no firm decision. Council members asked city staff to study more options for keeping or relocating the old buildings, but they also agreed development plans should be allowed to continue. Basically, the city was urging the restaurant owners to be creative in figuring out a way to preserve their buildings, said City Manager Dan Rich.
It was an impasse that ultimately circled back to the lesson of "The Little House." Mayor Rosenberg summarized his position: The historic buildings should be remain where they are.
"This would be asking us to get rid of our history," he said. "I don't think the historic significance of the house would be preserved if you move it out of downtown."
Councilman Lenny Siegel had a different take on the book's lesson. Sometimes it made sense to move, he said.
"I read the same book to my kids," he said. "Remember: the house was smiling when it moved."