The historic home of Juana Briones at 4155 Old Adobe Road is threatened with demolition. Part of the house is Juana's original one-and-a-half story home of "encajando" construction, with large redwood corner posts and walls of tamped adobe soil between redwood boards. It was built in 1846 or 1847 and was the main house on her 4500-acre Rancho La Purissima Concepcion, which she had purchased in 1844 or 1845 for $300. When the house was built, there was no other building in this end of the County except for a few temporary herder's huts. It is the oldest surviving structure this side of Santa Clara Mission.
Juana lived there, on her hilltop above a spring area (one of the sources of Barron Creek) until 1885 when she moved to a small house at the corner of Washington (now Oregon Expressway) and Birch in Mayfield. The house and 40 surrounding acres was sold in 1900 to Charles Nott, a Stanford botanist, who renovated it, added two wings, and lived there until 1925. The next owners were the Eaton-Cox family, who finished the second floor and modernized. Marjorie Eaton willed the property to her grandniece Susan Berthiaume, who held and protected the property until 1993. Unfortunately, the house, including the packed-adobe portion, was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Berthiaume sold to the present owner, neurosurgeon Dan Meub, who lived there until moving his family out in October of this year. Allegedly, during the Meubs' ownership, illegal modifications were made to the house, mostly to the 1910-era wings. Meub is now interested in selling the property and has asked the City if it might consider granting a demolition permit so that sale could be facilitated. Since 1988, the property has been covered by the Mills Act, which has preserved the historic building in exchange for a 75% reduction in property taxes. Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) and the City's Historic Resources Board are both involved in trying to assure continuing preservation of this unique house.
A FASCINATING CHARACTER
Juana Briones herself was an extraordinary woman for her times. Her personality can be glimpsed in the many comments about her written by early day travelers. Neither she nor her children were literate (very few Californios of their generations were, since there were no regular schools). To add to the dearth of diaries and letters there is a complete lack of photographs. The drawing reproduced here is by a later-day artist who sketched a niece of Juana's who was said to have a strong resemblance to her. She learned herbal medicine and was regularly sought out to treat the ailments of travelers and neighbors, as there were no hospitals or doctors. She aided runaway sailors who "jumped ship" in Yerba Buena (San Francisco), developing life-long friendships with some.
She was born during the last decade of the eighteenth century in Monterey or Carmel, the first European child to be born in that vicinity, according to family tradition. Her family moved to Santa Clara Mission and then to the Presidio of San Francisco. In 1819 or 1820 she married Apolinario Miranda, the Lieutenant of Cavalry at the post. During their stormy 27-year marriage, seven children were born. Juana moved out of Miranda's house in 1836 or 1837, pioneering a plot of ground in North Beach near the present corner of Powell and Filbert Streets. She was the first settler outside of the Presidio or the Mission, and thus qualifies as the first resident of the Pueblo of Yerba Buena that became San Francisco. She did well in farming and ranching, and perhaps did some tailoring, too.
She soon became well-known as "the Widow Briones", and was very popular for her aid to the sick and homeless. Thus, when more trouble with her husband arose in 1842 and 1843, she prevailed with the Alcalde (Justice of the Peace) and Apolinario was ordered to leave her alone. At one point his property was seized for "not living harmoniously with his wife." In another hearing he was referred to as "Senora Briones' husband".
Gaiety and hospitality marked Juana's home. One American sailor described a party during pre-lenten Carnival in 1841, when he called upon Juana's nineteen year old daughter Presentacion, a sprightly and pretty girl. They played a game trying to break eggshells filled with confetti or tinsel on each other's heads, but Presentacion was too skillful and quick for him.
The Briones de Miranda family was still living in Yerba Buena in 1846 when the American flag went up over the alcaldia, but soon after that, Juana took the children on horseback and loaded their furniture and possessions on oxcarts for the three-day journey to the rancho.
Juana Briones has been honored by the naming of one each of the two parks and schools in the Barron Park Neighborhood. Although our land was not part of her rancho, her name is one of the most prominent in our historical heritage.
If you are interested in joining the effort to save the Juana Briones House, contact PAST or the Palo Alto Historical Association, call the City Historian, Steve Staiger (at the Main Library) or call me at 493-0689.