A paradise for eager eyes

A handstand in front of James Duval Phelan's glorious Villa Montalvo
A handstand in front of James Duval Phelan's glorious Villa Montalvo

My wife is currently a resident composer at Villa Montalvo in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains above Saratoga, California. We are living here for the early summer of 2011.

This is the story of Villa Montalvo:

James Duval Phelan was born in 1861 into fabulous wealth, son of an Irish immigrant who made a fortune during the California Gold Rush as a merchant and banker. He studied law at the University of California, Berkeley and then became a banker himself. He was elected Mayor of San Francisco and served from 1897 until 1902.

Phelan read the classics, and traveled widely in Europe, spending time in Paris, Rome, and Athens. Influenced by his classical education, he had strong ideas about how cities should work, and how they should strive to be beautiful for their citizens. He was a patron of the arts and a friend to writers, painters and philosophers.

He built one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States and a gorgeous house, which he left to the public: this is the Villa Montalvo.

In her charming history book Saratoga’s First Hundred Years, Florence R. Cunningham (1880-1965) describes the creation of the estate:

In 1911, two hundred wooded acres were purchased east of Saratoga by one of San Francisco’s most popular bachelors, James Duval Phelan, generous philanthropist, brilliant statesman, financier, humanitarian and liberal patron of the arts. The following year construction began on his Floretine type villa, Montalvo …

… The finest of wood and material were used for the interior, and skilled woodcarvers were imported from Italy to hand-carve the eucalyptus woodwork and first floor fireplaces …

… When completed, this beautiful home was filled with the finest of furniture and rare art treasures from all parts of the world…

… Besides the expansive sweeping lawns, botanical treasures of shrubs and trees accentuated with massive flower beds, there was a deer paddock, vineyards and fruit trees. A Mediterranean influence was apparent in the three-thousand-year-old Egyptian obelisk, terraces, patios, pergolas and courts.

Beautiful pieces of statuary were effectively placed throughout the grounds. Probably none of these was more admired than the wall fountain in the patio, the work of the famous Carmel artist, Jo Mora. On it was inscribed a poem penned by the owner, explaining the meaning of the name, Montalvo:

California poem by James D Phelan, from Villa Montalvo
California poem by James D Phelan, from Villa Montalvo

Know
Ordoñez De Montalvo’s
Fame
Did he not see
In Fantasy
Our California grow
Out of old Spain
Conferred her name
Foretold
Her gold?
A paradise
For eager eyes
His dream came true
For me and you

Ordoñez de Montalvo was a 16th century writer, who used the name California in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandian. He described an island of marvelous riches, a kingdom of the Amazons, valiant women warriors who rode to war mounted on griffins. The name of this wonderful island was California and it was located “at the right hand of the Indies… very close to the Terrestrial Paradise.” …

… The account of the origin of the name of his native state was favorite story with James D. Phelan. So it was not strange that he honored its author by naming his new home, Montalvo.

Handstand on the Montalvo estate above Silicon Valley
Handstand on the Montalvo estate above Silicon Valley
The grounds of the Villa Montalvo include the main house and several gardens, as well as a large patch of forested mountainside above the house, where there are hiking trails through the redwood trees up to a view point that looks down on Silicon Valley.

From here, you can see that Silicon Valley is actually a valley. You can regard in one huge panorama the flatlands below, the wide valley that contains Mountain View (home of Google), Cupertino (home of Apple) and Palo Alto (home of Stanford University and Facebook). High up on the cool mountain, you can marvel at the ambitions of the people who call California their home.

Quoting again from Florence R. Cunningham’s book:

The natural beauties of the area were probably never better described than in a legal decision rendered by San Fransisco Superior Court Judge Edward Molkenbur in July 1951, when he said:

“The land at Montalvo, etched by nature itself, is exquisite and something one dreams of or sees in the paintings of creative artists…

Redwood forest
Redwood forest
There it lies, just outside Saratoga at the base of the mountains, with its gently rolling slopes, its redwoods ans other virgin trees, its canyon with magnificent trails, its natural springs, ferns and shrubbery, and to complete the picture, a rippling creek gently flowing through the grounds”.

James Duval Phelan was a life long bachelor, but a host in the manner of William Hearst. At Montalvo, he entertained kings, presidents, writers including Jack London, artists, politicians and others, including, in 1925, Chief Snow-on-the-Mountain and what Florence R. Cunningham describes as “a colorful group of Pueblo Indians”.

The “Master of Montalvo” for all his flaws (see Found SF Story linked below) created something truly special here.

This is an astonishingly beautiful part of the world for my eager eyes.

Some links:

Montalvo Arts Center
Wikipedia: James D. Phelan, Villa Montalvo
Found SF: Mayor James Phelan
Amazon.com: Saratoga’s first hundred years: By Florence R. Cunningham

Published by

Jeremy Goldkorn

Danwei.com South African media entrepreneur who has lived in China since 1995. China, Media, Internet, Great Wall and Great FireWall, Chinese food, African music.