The stunning views at writer Wallace Stegner's former home are still, indeed, stunning, 18 years after his death.
So stunning that its new owners have submitted new house plans that include demolishing the "Dean of Western Writers'" low-slung modern home and studio, which was the place where Angle of Repose, Spectator Bird, All the Little Live Things and many of his major works were written.
"It was important part of his life," said Les Earnest, a member of the town's History Committee. "He's a world-famous man and the place where he did his writing is this beautiful site."
On Tuesday, Earnest will present a resolution to designate the home a historical site, a move, he admits, would have little ability to stop any demolition. He is still trying to interest organizations to enjoin the effort, so critical he thinks it is. But his small influence on the History Committee won't be the magic bullet.
"Even if we had done this earlier, I don't think it would act as a barrier to demolition," Earnest said. "The charter of the committee excludes us from taking part in such matters."
The steep, oak-studded property, off Page Mill Road and Three Forks Road, is owned by Yew Nam and Wan Lei Yong. The proposal is subject to review by the town's planning commission if the couple does not agree to recommendations made by other town committees that have examined the plans, and if neighbors object, said Mayor Ginger Summit.
Stegner, who was a professor at Stanford University, is often known by the superalatives, "the Dean of Western Writers," and "a Man of the American West." His work, both in letters and in conservation fields, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, was national. He was a founding member of the Committee for Green Foothills on the Peninsula, was involved in the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. When he wrote Wilderness Letter, about the importance of federal protection of wild places, it was used to introduce the bill that established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.
Stegner's influence locally is seen all around the Peninsula, where the Peninsula Trust for Open Space sponsors the Stegner lecture series that he was scheduled to host in its inaugural year of 1993—until he was killed in an automobile accident in New Mexico. Stanford University's Creative Writing program, which he established in 1964, has a two-year fellowship called the Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, is locally.
Elsewhere, there is a Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. Stegner spent 13 years in Salt Lake City after leaving Saskatchewan.
Nonetheless, Earnest is still exploring ways to get the town to try whatever it can, lest a place of historical significance forever slip into oblivion. The neighboring city of Palo Alto, just across Page Mill Road, appeared to allow the demolition of the original adobe of Juana Briones because actions had not been taken earlier, he said.
Earnest first bicycled up the hill to Stegner's property more than 20 years ago, when the writer invited him there in order to take his measure as a potential Town Council candidate, he said. Stegner had already checked him out through his network, and finally gave Earnest his endorsement.
"I lost by 17 votes," Earnest allowed. But Stegner, as a fellow conservationist had been impressed that Earnest made it up the steep hill by pedal power, he said.
Earnest served on the Los Altos Hills Pathways Committee and had in recent years proposed naming the path fringing Stegner's property the Wallace Stegner Path. That path, that was built in the late 1980s when a nearby subdivision went in, starts on Three Forks Lane alongside Matadero Creek near the Stegner property. Although Wallace Stegner fought it, Stegner's wife confided to Earnest that her husband later came to enjoy walking on it, he said. Although the path was named in the writer's honor in 2008, signs to mark it were put up only last summer, when a semi-formal dedication ceremony was held, Earnest said.
Mayor Summit said she understood from a May 14 San Francisco Chronicle article that the Stegner family had offered the home at a reduced price to Stanford University, for use for its Stegner fellows, but Stanford could not agree to those terms. Stegner's early family home, where he lived as young boy in Saskatchewan, Canada was restored by the Eastend Arts Council two decades ago and established as residence for artists, in a similar fashion.
Sunday, Summit said that she believes the time to act was years ago. Had the family approached the town, perhaps there might have been some creative thinking.
"Normally I would say 'yes,' we should examine this, but at this point, it's too late," she said. "It's not fair to the new owners and it's too late for us to go back and say, "Oh, by the way there are restrictions, you can't tear down this house, it's now a historic house."