The house that started the Historical Society

By Katharina Woodman

Looking forward to the ten-year anniversary of the museum’s opening this year, we thought we’d go back to how it all started…. Way back in 1956! Part 1 of 4 articles on the history of the Sunnyvale Historical Society.

The effort to save the house at Bay View in 1961 was the catalyst to create the Sunnyvale Historical Society. On the right, Phyllis Sapp holds a spindle from the balcony railing of the demolished house.

Ironically, the founding of the Sunnyvale Historical Society was prompted by the fear of destruction: the imminent demolition of the historic Bay View house.

The last member of the Murphy family to live in the house was Elizabeth Whittier, Martin Murphy Jr.’s granddaughter, daughter of Mary Ann “Polly” Carroll. Elizabeth took over the home in 1917 and lived there until she sold it to the City of Sunnyvale in 1951, just three years before her death in 1954. It was supposed to have become a monument for the early history of the settlement, but many voices clamored for the demolition of the structure. Hence, a group of people came together in 1956 to try and save the house from destruction, and founded the Sunnyvale Historical Society.

Members of the first hour were Mary West (president), Doris Carlson (VP), Lillian Wilson (treasurer), Phyllis Sapp, the Ort sisters, Manuel Vargas, Marjorie Clark, Joseph Duckgeischel, and Ernest Stout. They had to fight the city and county who intended to build Central Expressway right across the Murphy estate – with the railroad bordering the property, there was not much wriggle room for a different route. The group seemed on a path to victory when the structure was declared California Registered Historical Landmark No. 644, and continued pushing for the whole site to be declared an Historical Park. However, the state announced they did not have the funds for the upkeep and left it to the city who also maintained there was no money for the preservation of the property. Whilst the SHS and other citizens worked hard to raise money in order to save the house, the City Council decided on demolition in a 4:3 vote. An auction was held to sell items from the house in 1961, and in the early morning hours one day in September, bulldozers arrived to destroy the old Bay View home, a day ahead of the original schedule. As Ben Koning and Anneke Metz put it in their volume Sunnyvale (Images of America): “Tempers flared as conservation activists accused the ‘City of Destiny’ of being the ‘City of Double-Cross’ for not giving the historical society time to raise restoration funds.”

The fight lost, members of the society concentrated on salvaging whatever was left. Items from the house were scattered all over the city. The famous piano was sitting in the basement of the City Hall, paintings resided in various places in the county. Later the society was given some room in the building at Murphy Park to establish an archive and to open a modest museum. Kay Peterson (who sponsored the period kitchen in the new building) started a trunk show for the local schools in the early 1980s to teach students about the history of the city and the Murphy family – the beginnings of our popular school program!

In 1984, Laura Babcock got involved with the society, and after her retirement in the early 1990s, she started work on OHPIE (Orchard Heritage Park Interpretive Exhibit). She became the construction manager for the project, which was dedicated in 2001. Once that step had been accomplished, the society set its sights on creating a Sunnyvale museum and building a replica of the old Murphy home to house it. Laura was charged with conducting a feasibility study, and she set herself to fundraising, creating a “museum team” of business people to help the SHS realize this dream. The society sent out an appeal to the community for photos and artifacts from the original home, and many people contributed items. However, no blueprints or drawings of the home were ever uncovered, not even in the state capitol. Once the society had raised enough money for the project, they had to appeal to the city and prove that they indeed had sufficient funds to start building. After the wooden frame was constructed, more funds were pouring in. Finally, in late September of 2008, the museum we know and love today, was opened.

To continue the story, read, After the fall of the house of Murphy, what came next?

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