William MacGregor Cranston - Son, Husband, Father, Businessman

(presented at the LAHHS meeting by historian John Ralston, December 2007)

We offer this program on pioneer Los Altos Hills businessman and family man William MacGregor Cranston. I imagine everyone here has heard of and perhaps voted for United States Senator Alan Cranston, Democrat from California, who represented California in the Senate for 24 years, the longest period of any senator since Hiram Johnson. William Cranston was therefore the father of a famous son, but to a lesser degree, the reverse is true: Alan Cranston was the son of a prominent father, whose legacy is visible today in Palo Alto and on the peninsula.

The name Cranston is Scottish. A common conception of Scots is rugged highlanders, kilted warriors swinging two-handed claymores in battle against English monarchs or rival clans, living on porridge, haggis, and whisky. Less picturesque but more numerous were Scots of the Lowlands, roughly the area between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where the majority of Scotland's population is today, and the borders - Sir Walter Scott country. Scots of these areas were mercantile: builders, wrights, and shippers.

Alexander Cranston, born 1822, left Scotland in 1831 aged 9 for Canada, and married Marion Dickie. The couple had seven children, one of whom was Robert Dickie Cranston, born 1849, who came to San Francisco from Ontario in 1870. The 1874 San Francisco City Directory lists Robert D. as "Carpenter, D.A. MacDonald & Co." - MacDonald's a great Scottish name.

Robert married one Jane MacGregor - there's another great Scottish name - who was from Ayrshire, a county on Scotland's west coast whose most famous son was Robert Burns.

Jane MacGregor and Robert Dickie Cranston c. 1875

Robert and Jane had four children, one of whom was William MacGregor Cranston, born 1879 in Yountville, Napa County, California.

William MacGregor Cranston

Robert apparently moved a lot, as San Francisco directories list him at various addresses and occupations, but by 1889, in partnership with one Charles Keenan, he was a prominent builder in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. Lots in the area were cheap, allowing for construction of large multi-story mansions. The Haight-Ashbury in the 1960's was briefly the most famous neighborhood in the world, home of the hippie counterculture: the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, etc. This is partly because of homes like the ones Robert Cranston built, which were later subdivided for multiple apartments with cheap rents, allowing the influx of hippies who had little or no money. Many of Robert's buildings can be seen today almost unaltered, at least from the outside.

He built this residence for himself at 1777 Page Street, southeast corner of Cole just a block from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle.

1777 Page Street c. 1900

The San Francisco City Directory for 1897 lists Robert D. Cranston as "Architect and Builder," residence 502 Cole Street, just around the corner from 1777 Page Street and adjoining it. The same directory lists Robert's son, Robert A., William's older brother, as "medical student." Robert A. would have attended either Cooper Medical College at Sacramento and Webster or the Affiliated Colleges (now UCSF) on Parnassus Heights.

It also lists Robert's son William as "student." William in fact graduated in 1897 from Lowell High School, on Sutter Street at Octavia in San Francisco, about two miles from the family home.

William Cranston c. 1900

Lowell was the first high school west of the Mississippi, and was and is college-preparatory, with a reputation for high achievement (and snobbishness). Graduates today include three Nobel Prize winners, and a host of prominent figures in the arts, medicine, and politics. From Lowell, William went to Stanford University where he studied law, and met Carol Dixon, daughter of a Sacramento physician. They both graduated in 1901 and were married in 1903 in Sacramento.

Carol Dixon

By 1905 William had joined his father and brother in the construction business, which was now R.D. Cranston and sons, with offices at 114 Montgomery Street, just north of Market. William also had a separate real estate business William Cranston & Co., in partnership with one George Beevel. His residence was in Berkeley.

Then came April 18, 1906, the earthquake and subsequent fires that destroyed practically all of commercial and retail San Francisco. The disaster permanently changed Bay Area demographics. 250,000 San Franciscans were left homeless, some returning to the city, others moving for good. William and Carol moved to Palo Alto with their first child, son William, born in 1907. William Jr. died of a rare infection in 1907. The couple had a daughter, Ruth Eleanor ("R.E."), born 1909, who would write a family biography. William sold real estate "from the seat of a bicycle," according to R.E. In 1908 he organized the University Realty Company, which would be prominent for 35 years.

University Realty, Palo Alto, Waverley at University
c. 1930

In 1910 he took in a partner, fellow Stanford graduate Norwood B. Smith. It was a pioneer realty business, and dealt with big names in Palo Alto and the peninsula, among them Timothy Hopkins, nephew of Mark Hopkins, and Mrs. C.F. Rengstorff. Seven years after its founding, the Palo Alto Times reported the Cranston-Smith firm's history in a story "Red Block U is for Useful."

Everyman has a story. There are interesting stories in Palo Alto all the time that the public never hears of - stories of joy and sorrow, of achievement and defeat, of invention and intrigue - all kinds of stories…
A story of achievement and prosperity…is the story of the University Realty Company of Palo Alto, the company that has its big red block letter "U" painted on board signs along the highways and byways where lots and farms are offered for sale, all the way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz.
The two quiet young men who control this company are too busy to be much in evidence in local affairs, although they take a hand now and then. They are William MacGregor Cranston and Norwood Browning Smith, both Stanford men. They gained a little experience in San Francisco after leaving college, and returned to Palo Alto and hung out their single with the red U in the center…
They have sold the big places in the forest wilds. Their customers are capitalists and captains of industry who want wild native places, such men as the Popes, the Crockers, the Laws and the Hoovers. Big men of the Pacific coast came to have confidence in the quiet-spoken, mild-mannered, but enthusiastic Palo Alto young men who knew the wild country. It became known that a $50,000 deal could be safely entrusted to them, even if it involved many details and had to be kept secret for months.
Now the University Realty Company manages some of the big estates it has sold. The owners require agents near at hand to look after the chickens and ducks. Smith and Cranston have just completed three miles of asphalt paving through the George Pope estate at La Honda, roadway as good as the state highway. A superintendent's house and a model dairy barn will be another improvement this summer.

William and Carol bought a house in Palo Alto at 1357 Cowper Street, a fine example of the Arts and Crafts school, the exterior of which is almost unaltered today.

1357 Cowper Street, corner of Kellogg, Palo Alto, 2007
Photo courtesy of John Ralston

In 1914 their last child, son Alan MacGregor was born. The same year William and Carol bought a 20-acre parcel of land in Los Altos Hills at what is now the corner of Fremont Road and Campo Vista Drive. The property included a big red barn and an old shingled farmhouse, which was called the Red Barn House (the Winbigler House would later be built on the property).

Winbigler House

Alan and his sister R.E. roamed the large property and rode horses, enjoying their childhoods in a rural setting close to one of the world's most famous cities.

In 1922 William and Carol moved to what would be their permanent home, a large house at the end of what is now Cypress Court off Cypress Drive, which intersects Edith Avenue, Los Altos Hills. The house was on a 13-acre property along Adobe Creek. R.E. described it as…a gabled rectangle, gray-shingled, white-trimmed, with a green roof - a long, welcoming, friendly English house, set far back on the land in a grove of century-old oaks on the bank of the creek. An ancient ranch house by the creek and a little shed in the field went back to much earlier times, almost certainly to the days of the Mexican land grant.

William named the house "Villa WAREC," WAREC being an anagram of the initials for William, Alan, R.E., and Carol.

Aerial view of Villa WAREC c. 1930

The house still stands, but the property is subdivided and holds several other large houses. Just off Cypress Drive is a cul-de-sac called WAREC Way, a memento of the Cranston house's name.

University Realty, Palo Alto, thrived. It was mentioned in the memoirs of Birge Clark, Palo Alto's leading architect in the first half of the 20th century. In Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad Twain's party, touring Italy, heard Michelangelo mentioned everywhere: paintings, sculptures, historic buildings - this Michelangelo, that Michelangelo. Finally Twain said "Enough! Tell us that God made Italy from designs by Michelangelo!" Birge Clark has an analogous position in Palo Alto: the Hamilton Street Post Office, by Birge Clark; the original Palo Alto Clinic, by Birge Clark; the Lucie Stern Community Center, by Birge Clark. It's as though God made Palo Alto from designs by Birge Clark. Clark's pre-eminence is due to two factors: the compatibility of his designs, mostly Spanish Revival, with Palo Alto's heritage; and the fact that Palo Alto being a town of only 6,000 population in the early 20th century, his architectural firm was the only one in town.

Clark wrote in his memoirs:

In the early '20's there was an active real estate firm, the University Realty Company, also known as Cranston & Smith. This firm felt that Palo Alto's business district was inevitably going to grow down University Avenue, though in the early 20's it had not crossed Waverley Street with any businesses except for three little frame buildings, one of which was a cleaning and dyeing plant and one of which housed an undertaker…
In 1923 Liddicoat's Market…was built. This was quite an achievement for Norwood Smith of the University Realty. All of the original tenants, seven in number, already had separate stores in Palo Alto, and "markets" as such were almost unknown. There was, however, a famous one in Santa Barbara, so Norwood promoted this one for Palo Alto hoping it would be somewhat like that one in Santa Barbara… There were several problems which developed, but Liddicoat's eventually opened and became a very successful market. Liddicoat was the butcher, Larsen the grocer, and then there were smaller tenants for vegetables, delicatessen, cigar maker, etc. - seven in all… Norwood Smith felt that you should merely guide how a town wanted to grow and that in his opinion the town wanted to go on down University Avenue and so there was not much effort in promoting a building on the Avenue…
Cranston did not fully appreciate the need of any architect for designing store buildings and personally built 125 feet of one-story stores on the corner of Waverley and the west side of University Avenue, and a two-story Decker Oak Building opposite, using a construction firm for whom an architect named Powers made drawings.

In 1923 Norwood Smith bought out William Cranston's interest in the University Realty Company. Smith and Cranston continued to hold considerable real estate jointly, and University Realty Company was dominant in Palo Alto. It arranged the acquisition of Waverly and Hamilton streets for the downtown United States Post office. The red U logo shows in this picture of the lot. The building was designed by Birge Clark.

Site of main Palo alto Office, Waverley at Hamilton, c.1933

William Cranston took an extended tour of Europe. On his return he resumed a real estate business in San Francisco, with offices in the Alexander Building at 155 Montgomery Street, the same block as his offices 20 years earlier before the earthquake and fire, specializing in property management and the development of business property. He was a member of the Bohemian Club, which holds famous retreats at the Bohemian Grove in the redwood country. On the daily commute train, he formed a friendship with another commuter, newspaper editor Fremont Older.

Fremont Older c. 1919

Older, a man of uncompromising rectitude, had instigated the graft prosecution that shook up San Francisco in the years after the earthquake and fire. In 1916 an anonymous terrorist bomb exploded on Preparedness Day during a patriotic parade. Two labor figure, Warren Billings and Thomas Mooney, were arrested, tried, and convicted of the bombing. Older had thought Mooney guilty, but letters from a chief prosecution witness indicating that prosecution testimony was perjured were brought to him. Older's exposure of the prosecution's malfeasance led to the owners of his paper demanding that he stop it or be fired, but a last-minute offer by William Randolph Hearst of the editorship of the San Francisco Call allowed him to continue his work. Mooney had been sentenced to hang, but such an outcry was raised that Governor Stephens commuted the sentence to life imprisonment - which actually made no sense. Older continued to fight for the release of Mooney and Billings.

William Cranston

William Cranston had been a good Republican, active in the Palo Alto Republican Club. Older had been instrumental in the Progressive Republican wing, but was essentially an independent by the 1920's. Cranston's contact with Older showed Cranston a side of life he might not have seen otherwise. One day Older told Cranston he was going to see Tom Mooney in San Quentin and asked "Want to come along?" They went, taking the ferry across the Golden Gate. Mooney had been in prison for about 15 years, and would spend a total of 23 until his release in 1939. They talked, and then Mooney broke down and cried. William Cranston would tell the story to his son Alan.

Older's papers in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, contain a copy of a letter Older wrote William Cranston when Cranston was a patient at the Sansum Medical Clinic in Santa Barbara. Clinic founder Dr. William Sansum was a pioneer in the treatment of diabetes, although it is unclear if Cranston was afflicted with it. Older's letter refers to an article in the Nation about his involvement in the Billings-Mooney case.

Fremont Older and his wife Cora, a published writer herself, entertained often at the property they called "Woodhills" at the end of Prospect Road above Cupertino. There were barbecues, and guests swam in a pool below an adobe-style cabana. The Olders were often guests at Villa WAREC. The 1930's were an intensely political period, and the talk often turned to politics. In 1935 Europe was supposedly at peace, but Older could see what was coming with Hitler in power. Alan Cranston remembered Older saying "Hitler is a tyrant." Alan asked "Why?" to draw Older out, adding "He's doing what he thinks right for Germany." Older turned his large head towards Alan and said "Why - he kills people."

Alan Cranston

The depression set William Cranston's business in San Francisco back. In 1932 he removed back to Palo Alto, doing business as William Cranston and Company, a general real estate, property management, and insurance business. His best friend Fremont Older died in March, 1935 at the wheel of his car as he was returning with Cora from a flower show in Sacramento. Older influenced Alan Cranston to go into journalism. In Europe, Alan got an unexpurgated version of Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and had it published in the United States in hopes of demonstrating to Americans how dangerous Hitler was. Hitler's agents sued for breach of copyright and had the publication stopped; Alan would always be proud of having been sued by Hitler. Tom Mooney was pardoned by newly-elected Governor Culbert Olson in an emotional ceremony at the state Capitol in Sacramento. Alan Cranston drove Cora Older to the ceremony.

University Realty Company filed dissolution papers in 1943. Many of its buildings can be seen in Palo Alto today.

The Decker Oak Building was remodeled in 1984, with a new façade on the University Avenue and Waverly elevations. The rear retains the original brick wall.

Decker Oak Building, Waverley at University, Palo Alto, 2007
Photo courtesy of John Ralston

Liddicoat's became a multi-ethnic restaurant mall, notable for having the original location of Mrs. Field's Cookies. The mall closed in the 1990's and the building was remodeled.

The offices of University Realty at the northwest corner of University and Waverly are now a furniture outlet. R.E. Cranston Fowle is still with us, living at the Sequoias in Portola Valley at the time of writing.








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