Victoria Manor

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When Leon Forrest Douglass bought a property from the Payne family, he named it Victoria Manor.  It is also known as the Payne-Douglass Mansion.

One of the first houses in California to be constructed entirely of reinforced concrete, 2128 Valparaiso, Menlo Park, was built for the mining heiress Mary O'Brien Payne and her husband, Theodore Fryatt Payne. The house was subsequently owned by the inventor Leon F. Douglass and his family. Theodore Payne (1845–1907) came to California in 1861 and amassed a fortune as the owner of the Payne Bolt Works of San Francisco. In 1880, he married Mary Pauline O'Brien who, two years prior, had inherited $300,000 from her bachelor uncle William S. O'Brien, one of the Comstock Lode silver kings. Her inheritance carried the stipulation that it “not be controlled by any future husband.” After the 1906 earthquake, the Paynes decided to build a country house on their fifty acre Peninsula property, which had originally been part of the 640 acre Atherton estate. William F. Curlett was chosen as the architect. The Paynes’ imposing, stick-style house at 1409 Sutter Street in San Francisco had been designed by Curlett in 1881.

William Curlett (1845–1914) emigrated from Ireland to San Francisco in 1871. Initially working as a draftsman for Thomas J. Johnston, he became his partner two years later. By 1877 Curlett joined Augustus Laver’s firm and designed the extravagant Linden Towers in Menlo Park for James Clair Flood. Laver & Curlett also designed William S. O'Brien’s mausoleum, which Oscar Lewis claimed was "long unrivaled, despite stiff competition, for sheer ugliness in the field of cemetery architecture." Curlett's nationality brought commissions from wealthy fellow countrymen, such as Montalvo for James D. Phelan, a Nob Hill mansion for William Crocker and a Broadway residence for James Flood. One of the most prolific architects on the Pacific Coast in the final decades of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century, his buildings, both public and private, can be found throughout California. His versatility and skill as an architect enabled him to adapt all styles to his own design. Far earlier than his contemporaries, he designed buildings with hot and cold running water, advanced plumbing, central heating and machine–made hardware. As with the Valparaiso Avenue mansion, he did not shy from the unusual.

Delays plagued the start of construction of the Paynes’ $100,000 mansion until July 1909 for several reasons: Theodore Payne’s death in 1907, complex construction details and Pauline Payne’s European jaunts for furniture and artifacts. The job, when begun, brought employment to many; even the lumber used for the concrete forms was re-used on construction sites throughout Menlo Park. The Italianate architectural style designed by Curlett for the Paynes was one of the most popular to sweep North America. Its nearly flat roofs, wide eaves and massive brackets suggested the romantic villas of Renaissance Italy visited by Mrs. Payne during her trips abroad. A natural choice for upscale homes of the nouveau riche, it was also compatible with steel and concrete construction.

The three–story house with full basement had over 170’ of bay windows. An elaborate modillioned cornice between the second and third floors and a smaller cornice and parapet above the third floor accentuate the lines of the flat roof. Concrete balconies at the second-floor windows add an inviting touch to the façade. The main entry, through a massive columned porte cochere, had marble stairs leading to a bronze and plate glass door decorated with delicate iron grillwork.

The mansion’s interior contained over 50 massive and elegant rooms. The main salons boasted oak parquet floors, many with intricate designs. Throughout the house, there were carved marble mantels and elaborate ceiling ornamentation, often with colored and gold leaf designs. The mansion’s great hall had unusual window shades: sliding screens ornamented with graceful grillwork similar to that found on the wrought iron balustrade of the central staircase. Main rooms on both the first and second floor were paneled in oak. Bedrooms were arranged in eight luxurious suites and were intended as permanent homes for Mrs. Payne’s children and their families. None ever lived with her.

By the time Mary Pauline Payne moved into her house in the summer of 1914, it represented an investment of $750,000. No expense had been spared, with custom–made furniture from Europe designed to match the interior of each room. Imported fixtures, both electrical and gas, were used. Spacious lawns, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a golf course and gardens filled with varieties of trees and shrubs added to the breathtaking effect. Mary Payne enjoyed her mansion for only seven years when she sold it for $600,000. She died in New York City in 1921.

When Leon Forrest Douglass purchased the Payne mansion in 1921 for $600,000, he was already a famous and prolific inventor of electronic, telephonic, phonographic and photographic devices. Upon moving into his new home with his wife, Victoria Adams and children, he marveled "I have traveled extensively abroad and I have never entered a more beautiful home." No expense had been spared in building the reinforced concrete residence nor in furnishing its fifty two rooms (see preceding article). The magnificent Italianate style landmark with its fifty acres of manicured grounds had been built between 1909–1914 for Mary O’Brien Payne and designed by the prominent San Francisco architect, William Curlett.

Victoria Manor and Menlo Park never saw a dull moment with this creative genius in residence. Douglass instructed Amadeo Gado, his landscaper, to cut a window in the wall of the above–ground pool through which he could film underwater swimmers. In one movie, his daughters, Ena and Florence swam with a seal and in another Florence wrestled an octopus. The latter episode made national headlines until journalists realized that the octopus was dead and its arms merely wired to Florence’s wrists with fishing tackle. Experiments with underwater cameras were also carried on in the pool.

Although Douglass was a modest and retiring man, his Christmas celebrations drew crowds from afar. From 1921 until 1934, town children attended a Christmas Day gala replete with the appearance of Santa Claus. The entire mansion was hung with garlands and wreaths as Saint Nick appeared on the roof next to the chimney. It was assumed erroneously that Douglass was Santa but the shy inventor merely watched joyfully from a second story window as children received dolls, books and sports equipment.

Two of Douglass’ daughters died in 1935, and Leon and Victoria moved to a modest bungalow on the property. During World War II, the mansion served as a convalescent home for patients from the nearby Dibble Hospital. The mansion and house were sold in 1945 to Menlo School who subsequently sub–divided the land but maintained the mansion for school purposes. The exterior of the house has changed little since its construction. Leon Douglass died in San Francisco in 1940 leaving a rich legacy of 50 patents, 24 of which were registered while he lived in Victoria Manor.



Sources for this article include:
  • Palo Alto Stanford Heritage

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    Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022