Set among over ten acres of apricot trees in Los Altos is the J. Gilbert Smith History House, a Craftsman-esque farmhouse built in 1905 on what is now the Civic Center site.
In 1896 at the age of 20, Julian Gilbert Smith moved from Portland, Oregon to Mayfield (now part of Palo Alto) with his widowed mother. There, they joined his older siblings who were attending Stanford University.
Before entering Stanford in 1898 to study mechanical engineering, Gilbert worked as a local carpenter, helping construct some of the tiny cottages at College Terrace.
In 1901, Gilbert purchased a 5-acre parcel on what would later become San Antonio Road. It was situated directly across from land that would be the future Los Altos downtown triangle.
For a year, Gilbert lived in a tent while he built his house, a tank tower and planted his apricot trees. When the farmhouse was complete, Gilbert’s mother Mary and sister Elinor came to live with him and they christened the house, ‘The Oaks’. Elinor eventually moved to Carmel but Mary lived with Gilbert until her passing in 1931.
Shortly after, Gilbert married teacher Margaret Hill, his childhood sweetheart whose family also moved to the area from Oregon.
By the time Los Altos purchased most of the Smith’s property in 1954, the apricot orchard had more than doubled. Gilbert and his wife sold their land to the city but retained the lifelong right to their Craftsman home and one acre of surrounding land. Gilbert passed away in 1966 at 89 and Margaret converted the upstairs into a rental apartment. Upon her death in 1971 at 94 years of age, the house and last remaining acre of land reverted to city ownership.
The J. Gilbert History House and its still flourishing apricot orchard were transformed into a museum to preserve the rich history of Los Altos. Opening in 1977, it was designated as a local Historical Landmark and a California State Point of Historical Interest.
Visitors are treated to a docent-led tour of the period furnished home and can explore the acres of orchards, antique farm equipment and charming gardens that surround the Craftsman home. The Los Altos History Museum is set on the same site and offers impressive exhibits about Los Altos and it’s significance in Silicon Valley.
Located at 51 South San Antonio Road, both the museum and J. Gilbert House are free. The J. Gilbert House and History Museum are open Thursday through Sunday from 12 noon to 4pm. The gardens are open for exploration and picnicking even when the museum and farmhouse is closed.