Mt. Um Keeps Its Radar Tower

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District votes "to keep the Cube" on Mt. Umunhum, and give staff and supporters five years build partnerships to raise money.


The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District voted unanimously to keep the Cold War-era radar tower standing on the top of Mount Umunhum Wednesday night, an action that even its chairman thought he would not vote for last July.

“I’ve come around from ‘Tear the thing down,’ to ‘No … Let’s do it right. Let’s bring in partners,” said Curt Riffle, board chairman, representing Los Altos and Mountain View residents.

“This is a very major decision that I didn’t think would have been done two months ago.”

The vote, taken in the historic Del Monte building in Sunnyvale, culminated a two-an-a-half year effort to begin opening up the 44-acre former Air Force station on the mountain top that the district purchased in 1986 from the federal government.

“We succeeded in saving it,” said a relieved —from the veterans who had served there, watching the air space for possible hostile incursion, to the legions of residents who had regarded “The Cube” as a comforting landmark—and navigational tool—that signified home.

The $414,000 option approved Wednesday is an interim measure for five years, allowing the staff to take steps to retain and seal the building, while developing partnerships with outside groups to do everything from raising money for structural and interpretive work, to the many things related to historical preservation that the open space district was never set up to do.

“We don’t do buildings,” Riffle said, asking the 150-plus people in the audience to contemplate the open space district’s mission that was projected large on a screen. “We run away from buildings.”

And it was evident there are members of the broader community who are willing to help.

Such as the Kitty Monahan of the New Almaden Quicksilver Park Association, who said her organization helped develop Quicksilver Park and Casa Grande. “Our organizations are ready to put our bodies where our mouths are, “ she said

And so did Mike Boullan of Friends of Alamitos Watershed, who was already laying plans to meet with others.

Jaber said they had built a good network in a short amount of time, that he hoped that once they start getting word out that more people would be willing to put money to saving the Cube and efforts to educate the public about the important Cold War work that was done there.

At one time, a vast network of radar towers dotted the country, each staffed by small communities of people who watched skywards in an invisible blanket of vigilence.

Kent Miller of Morgan Hill was part of that network.

He lived at Mt. Umunhum from 1967-68, as part of his job as a radar height finder technician. Before that, he served at Makah Air Force Station in Neah Bay, Wash. "But you'd never know it was there. They are not seen. This one you can. It is part of a complete network that protected the United States during the Cold War. This is what was done to protect this place. Umunum is unique gecause it was visible. And it was important because it was at a time when we were being pressured by Russia. We need to keep this tower."

Ronald Horii of San Jose recounted how he was struck by the similarities between the radar tower on Mt. Um, and the historic Fort Point in San Francisco. Built in the 1850s to guard the mouth of the Golden Gate from intruders, Fort Point was abandoned and vandalized by the 1930s. It was scheduled for demolition to make way for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Hori said. “But chief bridge engineer Joseph Strauss recognized the architectural value of the fort and had an arch designed in the bridge to protect it," Horii said.

Fast forward several decades: After years of lobbying it was declared a National Historic Site in 1970, over 30 years after it was saved from demolition, Horii said.

Then he added one more thought.

“Imagine if Joseph Strauss had said, ’My job is bridge-building, not preservation?’” 


Patch will have a fuller report on MROSD's decision, later Thursday.

Basim Jaber October 18, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Thank you to everyone who supported this cause. We have managed to keep the tower up for 5 years while we seek funding and partnerships to preserve it forever. You'll hear more about this in the near future when we formulate the official foundation and 501.3(c). Stay tuned!
Sheila Sanchez (Editor) October 18, 2012 at 07:36 PM
First, a big thank-you to my colleague L.A. Chung for covering this important meeting. Second, seems like a reasonable decision given all the public outcry to preserve the iconic 'Cube." Third, due to the shrinking amount of open space and recreational areas for the public all over, this is good news for those of us who want to visit Mount Um's peak, enjoy its beauty and learn about history. It's also nice to see our veterans being honored.
Gabe Roberts October 20, 2012 at 09:32 PM
I was at the meeting, which is the first one about the peak that I've attended, and was impressed by the passion and information that those attending had. Basim, you brought up some great and important points that I was glad to hear! I'm personally in favor of keeping the tower, as I've grown up in it's "shadow" my whole life. I feel it's important to remind future generations of what it represents - a time and era in our civilization that we have many lessons to learn from. This is a unique opportunity to retain something that can stand and contribute to a historical legacy that California needs. To me, personally, this tower is on the same level of importance and significance as the missions, and of castles in Europe. It would be as if those castles were torn down hundreds of years ago, leaving us nothing tangible to remind us of the past.


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