Since the first house in Sunnyvale, the Murphy’s Bay View home of 1850, was demolished in 1961, another wooden frame structure became the oldest house in the city: the Wright House. The exact date it was built is unknown, but 1862 seems to be the year on which most sources agree. Michael S. Malone, the current owner, assumes that the original structure at the Wright farm was erected in 1851/52 as a simple one-room shack (encompassing the current entry hall and library). The house has had a variety of styles ascribed to it: Pioneer Style, Pioneer Colonial, vernacular American Gothic, and Gothic Revival due to its shape before major renovation in the beginning of the 20th century, and neo-classical, Colonial Revival, Georgian Colonial, and California-style Colonial since then. The original look is typical of the style settlers from the East Coast of the US were erecting in the West – copying what they knew from home: the simple shape of an I or L and a hipped roof with a gable.
The man who built the house, William Wright, was just such an East Coast man. He came from Maryland in 1849, at age 23, to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. After a few years of checkered success in mining and running a store, William gave up prospecting and came to the Santa Clara Valley. He bought 160 acres of land from Martin Murphy, Jr., and since he had never farmed before, hired a foreman at $100 a month (one source says per year) to teach him. He grew wheat and barley and raised stock, and after a year was successful enough to buy an additional 160 acres. Eventually, he added fruit to his crops and enlarged his property to (it is assumed) 640 acres total; the area from today’s Homestead Avenue to Knickerbocker Drive or even as far as El Camino Real, and from Mary Avenue to Bernardo Avenue.
In preparation for bringing his bride home from Maryland, William expanded his house to a Gothic Revival with one centered gable and a full-width open porch, as depicted in an 1876 lithograph. Helena and William had two children, William Tarleton and Dora, and after William Sr.’s death in 1890, his widow managed 220 acres of the property, whereas William T. inherited 25 acres and the house. William T.’s life was cut short by an accident in 1912, when his clothes were caught in the machinery of the well pump. His mother Helena died only one year later. This left William T.’s widow, Ada, and her three children trying to keep the orchard property going. Ada appealed to the City to name the mile-long driveway up to the house “Wright Avenue”. The family eventually lost the house during the Great Depression.
Following the sale, a string of owners lived in the Wright house, including a retired GM executive; Sunnyvale’s first City Manager, Ken Hunter; a local veterinarian, Dr. Humphrey; the Seagraves; and Michael Malone, the current owner.
Reports diverge as to when changes to the original shape of the house were made and by whom: Malone ascribes the creation of three gables and a portico, plus the addition of the living room and transformation of the back porch into a sunroom to William T.. According to the notes of the Sunnyvale Landmarks document, these adjustments were made in 1918, when W.T. had been dead for six years. In the 1930s, the living room was expanded to become a one-story gabled wing. The house, built of quality Redwood, boasts 10-foot ceilings.
Dr. Humphrey petitioned the City to subdivide the remaining 1.56 acres of the property in 1961, claiming that the land required too much maintenance. A newspaper article of February 24, 1961 makes a dramatic statement about the decision the Planning Commission was faced with: “whether Sunnyvale should have a historical past – more to the point, whether a historical landmark should be removed in favor of modern housing. There are few grand old houses around.” Another question was how the subdivision would be zoned: for single-family homes or multi-family dwellings. One commissioner was in favor of removing the house, stating it was in bad repair and “probably termite-eaten”, and, after all “only an old farmhouse, anyway”. The extensive remodeling and beautification Ken Hunter had accomplished earlier spoke against it. Considering that this was the same year the City decided to destroy the Murphy home, the Wright House probably had a narrow escape.
The next threat to the old home occurred in 1977, when Janis and Frank Seagrave, who called the house “Cranberry Meadows” (the property is located on Cranberry Avenue), tried to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. Thanks to massive resistance from the neighbors, that did not materialize. Janis Seagrave was an interior decorator and launched her own set of remodels, including “rewiring, replumbing, adding a bathroom, lowering the kitchen ceiling, and converting an entryway off the master bedroom into his-and-hers dressing rooms” (S.L. Wykes, Mercury News, April 8, 1987). Furniture from Frank Seagrave’s family was brought out West to use in their vintage home. During their ownership of the house, there were four (or five) bedrooms, a library, three baths, two fireplaces, and the sunroom. They had the water tower moved from its original position to the side of the street, and Janis intended to use it as her studio (the actual water tank is now serving its original purpose at the City Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains). The Seagraves had sold most of the surrounding land to be developed, and three homes would be constructed there, while the old dwelling was added to the Santa Clara Valley Historical Heritage Inventory.
In 1980, the Wright house was one of 67 structures the City considered for designation as “having special historical significance for the community”. This designation could lead to landmark status, which meant it was protected from demolition and no changes or additions could be made without approval. Home owners could decide for themselves if they wanted to add their properties to this list.
Ten years later, the Seagraves opened the home to the public during the City’s 75th anniversary celebration in June 1987, with ticket sales benefitting the Sunnyvale museum. Signing a Mills Act contract with the City in 1991 allowed the Seagraves to pay lower taxes for their property in return for preserving its historic character. This was the first such contract to be approved in Sunnyvale, and the fourth in the county. At the time, they estimated their cost for the upkeep of the place to be $6,600 a year.
When Michael S. Malone and his wife, Carol Marschner, bought the house in the early nineties, what started as a simple renovation of the structure turned into a vast project. When the house was jacked up to level the uneven floors, the walls cracked and needed replastering. During that process, they uncovered auger holes for gas lines to 24 wall sconces and decided to restore those. The story continues with discoveries every step of the way, like peeling off multiple layers of wallpaper to detect a hand-drawn sketch on the wall with a design for curtains for the windows. The Malones laid a new foundation, extended the basement, and removed walls that were not original to the house. They threw out carpets and refinished the oak and redwood floors, stripped paint from crown moldings as well as the doors and placed those doors in their original locations. Reading Malone’s account of the process, one forms the impression that in this latest endeavor, the house was restored rather than remodeled and regained its original look on the inside as well as the outside. – Sadly, Michael’s father, Pat Malone, erstwhile President and dedicated supporter of the Sunnyvale Historical Society, did not live to see this transformation, or ever knew that his son had acquired the property.
By: Katharina Woodman
Sunnyvale Landmark documents
Michael S. Malone, William Wright Historic Farm House, Cherryhill Neighborhood Association
Images – Sunnyvale Heritage Resources, prepared by the California History Center, De Anza College
Newspaper articles from the SHS archives
Michael S. Malone, Our Place, Mercury News (West), December 19, 1993