For the most part, Sunnyvale’s orchard history has met its match with high tech companies. Where fruit-bearing trees and early twentieth century homes stood yesterday, modern structures rise upward today, with few reminders of the orchard lands and homes that came before. One notable exception is a small, circa 1906 cottage which stood on orchard land for more than one hundred years. When a developer purchased the land to build a multi-story tech building and parking garage, the cottage was saved and renovated for use as a small conference center within the tech company campus. Once part of an orchard and nursery, the cottage, known as the Mellow House, is a charming reminder of the history of the land and its former use. It sits today on the grounds of 23andMe, at the corner of Mathilda and California avenues, near downtown Sunnyvale.
For more than one hundred years, the Mellow House has stood on land that was part of the original land grant, Rancho Pastoria de las Borregas (sheep pasture), deeded by the Mexican government in 1842 to Francisco Estrada, husband of Inez Castro, daughter of Mariano Castro. Following the early deaths of three family members including Inez, the land grant reverted to Mariano Castro. Martin Murphy, Jr. purchased the land from Mariano in 1850, built his Bay View home and raised cattle and wheat on the acreage. In 1887, after the passing of Martin Jr., his heirs sold 200 acres of Murphy land to realtor Walter Crossman, land which would become the nucleus of the town of Sunnyvale. Crossman farmed 10.5 acres of the former Murphy property and in 1906, commissioned the architect team of Wolfe and McKenzie to build a home on the property. The wood-framed Colonial Revival-style cottage, with a bowed bay window topped by a triangular-shaped pediment, followed a popular architectural style in the early years of the Arts and Crafts movement.
After Crossman sold the house and property in 1917, the land at 221 North Mathilda Avenue changed hands many times. One early owner, Bud More, who established the first Associated Oil Station at the corner of El Camino Real and Sunnyvale Saratoga Road, gave away bags of pears from his orchard land to customers who filled their gas tanks at his station.
In the 1940s, the cottage and land were purchased by Katon and Maria Mellow who had immigrated to the Bay Area from the Azores, Portugal. The family maintained an orchard that produced persimmons, figs, plums, and apricots, and established the Mellow Nursery on the site, a much respected local business with a large inventory of plants, flowers, and trees. During the 1960s, the development of Central Expressway and the Sobrante Way onramp split the property. Although their land was reduced to 4.3 acres, another generation of the Mellow family, Tony and Eva, continued to run the successful enterprise for several more decades, until 2015, when the nursery closed.
In 2014, the year before the nursery shut down, the land was purchased by a development company, Spear Street Capital. The property had previously been listed on the City of Sunnyvale’s Heritage Resource Inventory (not the more stringent landmark list) which meant the buyer must go through the City’s Heritage Commission to make requests for adding on, bulldozing, or declaring the space uninhabitable. A “Property Condition Assessment Environmental Report” listed the house condition as “poor”, but a later, more specific structural report stated that despite severe deterioration in some areas, the majority of the existing structure appeared to be suitable for restoration. Because the developer saw potential in using the house as a small conference center for future tenants, the City gave him permission to renovate the house and bulldoze the outbuildings on the site. The overall project proposed by Spear Street Capital included a three-story commercial office building, a four-story parking garage and the restoration and adaptive reuse of a 1,252 square foot historic home on the site.
Spear Street Capital’s proposal to save the cottage included moving it one hundred feet to better fit the developer’s overall site plan, and restoring the home to its 1906 appearance. The result was a beautifully renovated, stand-alone meeting facility to be used by the future tenants of the property. Although most of the orchard and other trees on the site were removed, a few select trees, including a significant Coast Live Oak and a Southern Magnolia, stayed. A plaque, visible to the public and containing information about the house, was installed on the Mathilda Avenue side of the property.
Prior to the renovation and alteration of the Mellow Nursery and house, three historians from the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum – director Laura Babcock, collections curator Jeanine Stanek, and volunteer Johan Koning – created a historic record of the artifacts found on the property. In February, 2017, they joined historic preservation consultant Charlie Duncan on a tour of the house and site to search for articles of interest. Although the contents of the house had been removed before the documentation process, other items of interest were found outdoors, scattered between the house and orchard, and inside the barn and outbuildings. The group identified sixteen objects of interest which were measured, thoroughly documented, and photographed. After describing the exact location of each item and assigning an identifying name and number, the artifacts were transported to the museum for processing.
The artifacts found on the Mellow property include the following:
- Woodworking plane, thirty-two inches long; manufactured prior to 1923.
- Six-gallon, white ceramic crock. Commonly used in households late 1800s – early 1900s.
- Three Heinz ketchup bottles, sold between 1911–1929.
- Laundry boiler, formed from galvanized sheet steel, rusted and dented, with turned wooden handles at each end. No date, but commonly used in early 20th century houses.
- Photograph of two young girls behind glass in a wood frame. Dated: June 11, 1921. Portuguese inscription on the back. The photo was undoubtedly given to Maria Melo (later, Mellow) who was born in the Azores in 1895. The two girls were her cousins.
23andMe, the tenant who currently occupies the former Mellow property, is a personal genomics and biotechnology company, best known for providing a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service. Customers produce a saliva sample that is analyzed in a laboratory to provide reports relating to the customer’s ancestry and their genetic predispositions to health-related concerns. The company’s name originates from 23 pairs of chromosomes, the normal number contained in every human cell.
Take the time, in the not too distant future, to park your car on a side street and walk along Mathilda Avenue, past 23andMe. Read the plaque. Look through the fence that fronts the property. You will see a proud little cottage from yesteryear, dwarfed by the modern parking structure behind. Take a moment to contemplate the contrast the view provides . . the Sunnyvale of yesterday and today, right before your eyes.
- Seavey, Kent L. “More House” Images: Sunnyvale’s Heritage Resources. Sunnyvale, CA. 1988.
- City of Sunnyvale.“Report to the Heritage Preservation Commission”. 12/7/2016.
- Kezra, Victoria. “Sunnyvale: Proposed Research building at Nursery Site will Pay Tribute to City’s Agricultural Past.” Bay Area News Group.10/28/16.
- City of Sunnyvale Planning Department. “Salvage Report and Salvaged Articles Recordation for Mellow’s Nursery”. 3/21/17.
- Wikipedia. “23andMe”
- Stanek, Jeanine. “Mellow House and Nursery Notes.” 5/29/15.
By Linda Kubitz