Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Local Adventures- Villa Montalvo

In the last year, I've been spending a significant amount of time exploring locally and I've found that playing tourist among the familiar can be as much fun as being a tourist in other countries. I suppose it's all about "looking" in a new way, and the local adventures I've embarked on have been great fun!

One my favorite discoveries recently is Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, California. The property was once the country estate of James Duval Phelan (1861-1930), the first popularly elected Senator from California and three-time mayor of San Francisco. A native of San Francisco elite society, Phelan built this estate as a personal resort where he could hand-feed baby deer, entertain artists, and enjoy the restorative country air at the base of the Santa Cruz mountains. For me, Phelan's role as a leading patron of the arts in San Francisco and the Peninsula holds particular fascination, as does his desire to fashion a life that so clearly references European traditions. The architectural style of his country house was greatly influenced by Italian villas and formal gardens- such as the ones I visited in Tuscany. Learning more about Phelan, I can see why the aesthetic of the Tuscan villa and its broader implications of wealth and stature held appeal.

Construction on the Villa began in 1911 and by the Roaring Twenties Phelan was entertaining actors, actresses, a local Tennis star on whom he had a crush, opera singers, poets, and people in the community like the American Boy Scouts and local poetry teachers. Phelan's salon and the fresh air of the Saratoga mountains drew an interesting crowd including Gertrude Atherton, Edwin Markham and many others. Although the accommodations were quite out of way, Phelan drew high ranking government officials to the country, like the Attorney General and future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and visiting European aristocrats. Walking where they walked and in such quiet, natural beauty is a rare pleasure in our technologically driven valley.

After Phelan's death, his beloved Montalvo was given to the community. In his will Phelan declares that he wants his country estate to be used as a public park and "as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students." At first the property was managed by the San Francisco Art Association. However, after a brief period of neglect caused by a World War and the high cost of the property's upkeep, for which Phelan did not leave sufficient funds, the will was contested his heirs. In a remarkable feat, the people of the community rallied against the heirs and won an epic court battle in San Francisco. In 1953, the property was turned over to the local community in Saratoga. Following their victory in San Francisco, Saratoga's leading women launched new efforts to raise money and promote art, music, and literature. Today Montalvo is one of the oldest artists in residency programs in the United States; nestled near the mountains, visual artists, musicians, and writers continue to live and create.  It is also a beautiful and popular venue for live music and weddings.

In 2011, one of the artists in residence created a sculpture installation on the front lawn. Using plastic bags, Claudia Borgna created a whimsical piece called Mighty Like a Flower. I found it to be quite eloquent and delightful.


Borgna's flowers were a beautiful accent to the villa's aesthetic!

View from the mansion to the entrance of the formal Italian garden.

Montalvo is definitely a local treasure.

I love walking along the paths and smelling the fresh air.


The trees are gorgeous and I particularly love the green of the estate, which is helped by the damp weather at the base of the mountains.

 Looking through these pictures makes me strongly consider another weekend excursion,

as visiting the estate always leaves me smiling! :-)