Isenberg ("EE-zen-berg") is a distinguished old name, not only in the San Francisco Bay Area but in Western United States, including Hawaii. The family founder was Paul Isenberg, born in Dransfeld, Germany in 1837, to a Lutheran clergyman father. Paul was well-educated, but had to work hard on a local estate where he learned farming and bookkeeping. About 1860 he was sent by one Herr Hoffschlaeger of Hanover, possibly a family friend, to Kauai, Hawaii, to work a farm property. He moved on to manage an unprofitable sugar plantation in Lihue which he made profitable. Before the plantation's owner Mr. Rice died, Paul had married his oldest daughter Hannah Maria. They had two children, but Hannah died in 1867. Paul returned to Germany, remarried a Miss Beta Glade, and returned with her to Lihue in 1869.

Paul Isenberg prospered in Hawaii. He expanded the Lihue plantation and invested in others. In 1881 he became a partner in the firm of H. Hackfeld, a major sugar refiner and exporter. He returned to Germany regularly, and died in Bremen in 1903. Paul and Beta had six children. Of these, their son Heinrich Alexander was most involved in the family Hawaiian properties. In 1895 the San Francisco Call announced the engagement of Alexander, of Honolulu, to Miss Virginia Duisenberg. Their marriage was in keeping with Alexander's German roots, Virginia being the daughter of the late German consul Charles Duisenberg. Alexander continued the family's international involvement, being designated German consul for Hawaii in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Alexander and Virginia had two sons, Rudolph, born in San Francisco in 1899, and Alexander the younger. Alexander the father, however, contracted pneumonia while just in his 30s and died. Virginia returned to San Francisco, where she lived the rest of her life when not traveling, which she did extensively. She had a house in Munich, Germany, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Her sons had peripatetic childhoods: their mother dragged them all over the world. They were taken out of school to be educated by private tutors while traveling, although Rudolf did attend the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and the boys were sent east to prep schools. The constant moving about seems to have permanently affected Rudolph. He moved his whole life, from place to place and from business to business. Additionally, he changed his name, dropping the d from "Rudolf" to make it "Ruolf."

About 1922 Ruolf and his family had a visitor, his cousin Gerda Isenberg. Gerda's father Carl, Alexander Isenberg's brother, had an estate called Travenort, near Lübeck in Northern Germany near Bremen. He was what we might call a gentleman farmer: educated, as was his wife Martha, Gerda's mother, and appreciative of the arts. Gerda, born 1901, was educated partly at home and partly at a school near her grandmother's home in Bremen. She was generally unenthusiastic about school until age 16, when she was sent to what was called a "garden school" - named Gross Hansdorf. Ordinarily young girls of Gerda's background would be sent to a finishing school, often in Switzerland, but World War I was raging. A generation of young men was at war being wiped out, leaving raising food to the women. Gerda was sent to garden school partly out of necessity. The climate was bad and the food was very plain, but Gerda loved her time there, better than she would have loved any finishing school. She was good-looking and independent-minded, particularly for a German Empire girl.

Ruolf asked Gerda to marry him and stay in Hawaii. "I don't think so," she said. She didn't want to leave Germany, even though it was in terrible shape post-World War I. Besides, the United States and Germany had just been at war, and Americans were prejudiced about Germans: they "all drink beer and are obnoxious and fat." Germans on the other hand considered Americans uncultured, interested only in money. Ruolf persisted. After Gerda returned to Germany Ruolf went also, staying with an uncle. Gerda's parents were skeptical of Ruolf: true, he had money, but he had no steady employment. Ruolf's answer was to go back to California and buy land in Carmel Valley. With the help of Japanese farm workers, Ruolf began raising strawberries, which gave the impression of stability. Ruolf told Gerda he wanted to go into farming, which was fine with her. They were married in 1923 and came to live in Carmel Valley. Gerda's parents visited later; they were not happy with the spot.

Ruolf never stayed in one place too long. When Gerda was pregnant with their first child, he sold the Carmel Valley property to a member of the Lowell family, as in Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. They had four children: Dorothea Martha, Gerda, Carl Alexander, and Anne Marie ("Ami") (Gerda & kids). In 1928 the family moved to what is now Los Altos Hills, and built a house at Old Trace Lane at Fremont Road.

Palo Alto city directories in the 1930's list Alexander Isenberg as manager of the Durant Insulated Pipe and Manufacturing Company, Palo Alto, residence Los Altos.

Ruolf was mechanically inclined, and among his many pursuits was aviation. The Isenberg property, between Old Trace Lane and Altadena Drive, was large and relatively flat. In the 1930's Ruolf laid out an airstrip for use by himself and a few friends.

The airstrip had just one building, possibly from when the property was a chicken farm. The strip was unpaved, as was common then.

We see the whole family here, Ruolf, Gerda, and their four children with one of Ruolf's aircraft. Ruolf is also credited with helping establish the Palo Alto Airport.

Ruolf and Gerda lived at the house in what is now Los Altos Hills until 1941, when Ruolf got into another business. At a feed store he met a man named Langley, whose father had homesteaded a large property, about 3,000 acres, on the west side of Skyline Boulevard, to raise cattle. Langley the son built a house, but the venture did not last, and he was ready to sell. Ruolf, having a substantial fortune, bought the property intending to raise beef cattle - interesting for a vegetarian. In 1944 the Los Altos property was sold to Dr. Esther Clark, a pioneer pediatrician and sister of Birge Clark, the architect whose designs are everywhere in Palo Alto. Dr. Clark later sold the property for a reasonable price to the City of Palo Alto. It is now Esther Clark Park, which is unimproved, no facilities, just paths. The airstrip is now mostly overgrown but can be visualized.

The Isenbergs maintained residences in Palo Alto, first on Cowper Street, then on Webster, so the children could attend Palo Alto schools. We see here a portrait of Gerda by the Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, who was supervising artist of the frescoes in San Francisco's Coit Tower. With her children growing, Gerda cast about for things to do. In the early 1930's Dr. Gertrude Zenzes, a German woman friend, remarked that there was no German bookshop in San Francisco. Gerda took the opportunity to open one. Her father having set up a trust for her, she went back to a book wholesaler in Leipzig, Germany, placed an order, and had it shipped out. An initial location on 609 Sutter Street being unsatisfactory, they moved into another location on Sutter near Mason. There was a reading room and tearoom on the mezzanine. Gerda's parents came out, thought the bookshop was wonderful, and sent back some paintings, which were unfortunately incompatible with the décor.

In the middle 1930's Gerda began another involvement. In the United States just after World War I she had heard stories about German atrocities - cutting off the hands of Belgian children, etc. - which she had dismissed as exaggeration. During a trip to Germany in 1933 or 1934, however, she found a strange atmosphere. People discussed politics - Hitler, in other words - only with close friends or relatives; never where a stranger could overhear them. If a servant appeared, the conversation stopped; he or she might be an informer. Back home in Los Altos, Dr. Esther Clark called Gerda to tell her about Dr. Arthur Haim, a German Jewish doctor who had escaped Germany just as he was about to become a professor in Hamburg, leaving his fiancée behind. Josephine Duveneck, a close friend, said there should be a center in San Francisco for refugees, many of whom had escaped the war in Europe by crossing Russia, Japan, and the Pacific. Gerda, who spoke German of course, began going to the American Friends Service committee in San Francisco. She was sent to visit refugees who had recently arrived and needed advice or just a welcome. She also joined the Society of Friends.

After the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, Gerda worked on behalf of Japanese Americans who were threatened with what was euphemistically called "relocation," that is, forced evacuation into concentration camps on the grounds that they were disloyal aliens. As Gerda put it:

I was also quite conscious of any civil rights problems, especially after what happened in Germany. Having taken a position against the country of my birth during World War II, I was not going to let an action which was contrary to human rights by the government of my adopted country go by without at least giving some assistance to the people in question. My stand on the basis of human rights made me sensitive to anything that might be done in the way of disregarding human rights in the U.S.A.

The Isenbergs had two Japanese-American girls working for them at the ranch property off Skyline Boulevard, which along with their German background, put them under suspicion. One day after Pearl Harbor Ruolf drove up to the property as a car was coming back up the road with two men in it. Thinking they were salesmen, he said "I'm on my way home. Make it short." The men showed him FBI badges. They were investigating a rumor: Josephine Duveneck's husband Frank had given Gerda some cots that weren't needed at the Duveneck's property, Hidden Villa. Supposedly they were to be used for an invading Japanese army. The agents had searched the house and found a suspicious radio that might have been used for sending messages. The Isenbergs managed to send the Japanese girls to Philadelphia so that they wouldn't be "relocated." Several prominent citizens, including Josephine Duveneck, Stanford University President Ray Lyman Wilbur, and University of California President Robert Gordon Sproul, lent their names to the American Committee for Fair Play, which lobbied Washington on behalf of Japanese-Americans. In 1944 Gerda, and Josephine Duveneck, traveled on behalf of the committee to the relocation camp at Tule Lake, California, which was where supposedly pro-Japanese Empire, disloyal Japanese-Americans were held. Gerda shared with them her difficult feelings about being German by birth, and the same time wanting Germany to lose the war.

Post-World War II, Gerda continued liberal activism. In 1945 another committee, the Palo Alto Fair Play Council, was founded at her house, its purpose being to assist Japanese-Americans in getting re-established after returning from the camps. Housing was a particular issue. In 1950 the Fair Play Council developed a plan that was radical for the period, a racially integrated housing tract. Members of the council contributed down payments to purchase about 25 lots. Paul Lawrence, an African-American student at Stanford, was contact with the City of Palo Alto planning commission. The subdivision was later named the Lawrence Tract. There were of course hostile reactions from local whites. Gerda got some unpleasant phone calls. She felt that the project, while small, definitely proved something. In 1950 she ran for the state assembly 28th district seat on the Democratic ticket, but lost.

The house, built in 1905, on the property on Skyline Boulevard that Ruolf bought in 1941, was uninhabitable: woodrats, mice, and bats had to be cleared out; there was no indoor plumbing and no power. After cleaning up and installing plumbing, the family moved in, cooking outdoors while waiting for PG&E to hook up. Ruolf Isenberg built an addition and living room. The house accommodated the Isenbergs' four children, an Isenberg niece, and a refugee boy from Germany. Besides Ruolf and Gerda there was a music teacher, one Marion Edwards. Ruolf built a road to the property. Ruolf's interest in the property, however, did not endure, nor did the Isenbergs' marriage. They divorced in the 1950's and divided the property, after which Ruolf married Ms. Edwards. Gerda had little money, but there was a quarry on the property. It was leased to a man named Dempsey, but took several years to become profitable.

The property had meanwhile revived another interest of Gerda's. When her children were small the Isenbergs had gone often to Lake Tahoe, where she was fascinated by conifers and other native California plants. In 1955 Gerda decided to start a own nursery, devoted to California native plants. Fittingly, it was called Yerba Buena, derived from the old Spanish term meaning "good herb." (Yerba Buena was the original name of San Francisco.) There was little interest in native plants at the time; they were considered weeds. Gerda began by propagating ferns from spores. Demand eventually grew, until Yerba Buena, the first nursery of its kind in California, became successful. Bart O'Brien, who became manager in 1988, said:

Yerba Buena Nursery has long been an important source of native plants for the Bay Area, and an invaluable way station in many lives. Over sixty people have been enriched by their experience as employees, volunteers, or interns at Yerba Buena Nursery. A reward of equal or greater value than the horticultural knowledge and experience to be gained…is the opportunity of getting to know Gerda. Her wit, wisdom, and life history are rich sources of inspiration to everyone.

In 1990 and 1991 Gerda was interviewed by Suzanne Riess of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Oral History Series. In 1995, when Gerda was 94, the nursery was sold to David and Kathy Crane of Woodside. Gerda lived in her daughter Ami's house, about a mile west of the nursery. Sunday, June 8, 1997, was Gerda Isenberg Day at Yerba Buena Nursery, a combination 96th birthday celebration and dedication of a native plant garden. Immediately afterwards Gerda suffered a stroke, and died the following Wednesday.

Winbigler House

Early Los Altos Hills was a farming and orchard community. Some farms built substantial manor houses. In 1914 Palo Alto realtor William Cranston bought a 20-acre parcel of land in Los Altos Hills at what is now the corner of Fremont Road and Campo Vista Drive.

The property included a big red barn and an old shingled farmhouse, which was called the Red Barn House. Two Cranston children, daughter Ruth Eleanor and son Alan - who would become United States Senator from California - roamed the area in childhood.

In 1922 the Cranstons sold the property to Dr. C.C. Crane. Crane demolished the old farmhouse and erected an elaborate manor 8,000-square foot manor in the style of a French chateau (Winbigler-House).

In 1946 Donald Winbigler and his wife Mary Elizabeth, a professional classical Spanish dancer, purchased the property. Winbigler was born in Illinois in 1909. After graduating from Monmouth College in 1931 he earned a doctorate in speech and drama at the University of Iowa, and came to Stanford as an assistant professor in 1940. In 1945 he was appointed Registrar by Stanford University President Donald Tressider. In 1950 he was appointed Dean of Students, a position he held during the tumultuous 1960's. Winbigler was known for being fair-minded to all sides, and presided over basic changes in the university-student relationship. The Winbigler House, as it became known, and the surrounding property, with an apricot and plum tree orchard, became a popular subject for local artists. Neighborhood children supposedly called the house "The Castle."

After Winbigler's wife died in 1998, he moved to the State of Washington to be near his son Myles. In 1999 the Winbigler House was sold for $4 million to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Gordon Campbell and Maria Legeti. In the year 2000 Campbell and Ligeti applied to the Town of Los Altos Hills Planning Commission for permission to remodel and renovate the Winbigler House. A permit was granted, subject to conditions. A letter dated September 19, 2000, to the owners from Planning Director Carl Cahill stated "The existing home shall not be moved, relocated or demolished without prior site development review and approval by the Planning Commission."

In 2001 Los Altos Hills residents saw that the stately Winbigler House had been moved off its old foundation and was sitting on jacks. The original foundation was being replaced by an expanded basement and 5-car garage. Architect David Bogstead, Walnut Creek, said the old foundation was not seismically safe, and was musty. He assured residents that "The overall goal is, when it's done, it looks like it's always been there." Additionally, two-story would will be attached to the house's sides and rear. Other additions included a caretaker's residence, a studio-workshop, swimming pool, and tennis court. The new structure might comprise 36,000 square feet.

In August, 2002, residents were even more startled. Although the permit was for incorporation of the house into the new design, the Winbigler House was demolished instead. Demolition became a cause célèbre. Planning Director Cahill issued a stop-work order immediately after learning of the demolition. Residents blamed Town Council members for being negligent, turning a blind eye to such demolition, as it would be easy to get permission for a fait accompli. Mayor Bob Fenwick responded that there was no such policy. Ligeti and Campbell tried to minimize the matter. In one of their earliest public responses, Ligeti said she had simply overlooked the $52 demolition permit; and the new structure was to be a reproduction of the original one. Besides, the house could not have been saved. Walls were buckling, she said, and there was dry rot and termite damage. As the alternative to building a whole new structure would have been subdivision, she said "We're doing a great service to the community."

On September 12, 2002, by unanimous vote, Los Altos Hills planning commissioners levied a fine of $27,000 on Campbell and Ligeti, accusing them of arrogance for tearing down the Winbigler House. Ligeti deflected the matter as insignificant, compared with what was going on the rest of the world - the September 11, 2001 attacks; AIDS; the possibility of war in Iraq. "This ain't a big problem." It wasn't a demolition, but "a reconstruction disassembly." She said it was all just a procedural mistake that she hadn't gotten a demolition permit; it was far from clear, however, that she would have gotten one. Ligeti and Campbell had supposedly wanted to show the commission rotten timbers from the old house, which justified why it couldn't be saved, but didn't. The matter was complicated by an impending local election. Bill Kerns, a candidate for Town Council, called the demolition "a blatant betrayal…of the community's trust." Townspeople overwhelmingly denounced the demolition. Other actions by the Planning Commission included denying a site development permit and a review of building inspection documents to determine why staff hadn't seen the demolition coming. The city attorney was directed to see if the architect could be barred from working in Los Altos Hills.

On December 19, 2002, after an appeal by Ligeti and Campbell, the Los Altos Hills Town Council voted 4-1 to uphold the Planning Commission's actions. In 2003 construction began at the site of a new structure, 45 feet higher than the original. Then it stopped. The property was sold to Pinewood School, which applied in October 2004 to remove the unfinished structure. Pinewood School's new quarters were never built, however. We see the property here today.










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