A Short History of North Willow Glen
by Dan Erceg and others, November 2005
Our story opens in 1876. There is only one house in North Willow Glen – the Isaac Bird residence, sitting in what is now Biebrach Park. All around are fields of hops (and an acre or two of orchards just south of the house) owned by Isaac and C. T. Bird – over 196 acres in all. South of what will become Coe Avenue, however, the hops fields are owned by the Odd Fellows Savings Bank. You know about hops, don’t you? It’s the bitter herb you use to make beer. Hops grown in the “California Willow Grove” were reported to be some of the finest in the nation. The hops may have been grown for the Eagle Brewing Company in downtown San Jose.
Isaac Bird, an Englishman, came to the Bay Area in 1850 or 1851 from Alabama. His son, Calvin, one of six children raised on the hop ranch, became a prominent San Jose attorney specializing in the law pertaining to streets and street improvements.
By 1887, the Bird hop ranch has been sold, probably in its entirety to the Odd Fellows Savings Bank, and the land divided into 5- and 10-acre parcels. Present-day Delmas Avenue is labeled “Hunter Avenue” north of Willow, and “Myrtle Avenue” to the south. It’s soon renamed “Delmas Avenue” for Antoine Delmas, who owned the French Gardens tract at the north end of the street (just south of Santa Clara Street). Antoine’s son, D. M. Delmas, was born in France in 1844, and educated at Santa Clara College (and Yale). A San Jose lawyer, Mr. Delmas was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879.
“H. French” owns two 5-acre parcels, covering the land where Warren, Shepherd and part of Snyder are now.
The land that will become Palm Haven is primaily orchards owned by Sylvester Newhall, with a “silk factory” situated on the bank of Los Gatos Creek near his elegant Victorian home (now gone). Henry Coe was the first area grower to raise mulberry leaves (food for silkworms), and a silk flag he presented to Congress is on display in the Smithsonian.
Up to now, what we know today as Bird Avenue was called “Lincoln Avenue” and it only ran as far south as the present-day intersection with Coe, when it turned west (following the path of Coe today). Sometime in the 1890s, Bird Avenue was extended down to Willow and beyond, and the grand Victorian house at Bird and Snyder was built (along with another one closer to Willow). This house became the residence of the Wolfe family; F.D. Wolfe was a noted architect in San Jose during the early 1900s.
San Jose’s population is around 20,000. Gardner Academy appears on city maps in 1909. Developers buy up 5- and 10-acre parcels, and subdivide them into city lots. Once land is affordable, houses begin to appear in North Willow Glen. A sprinkle of buildings appear along Delmas and Fuller Avenue – mostly modest two-bedroom bungalows in the Neoclassical style, along with a few Victorians. West Hull and Atlanta, however, are apparently a cherry orchard.
To own a home, people first buy the lot and then pay to have a home built. One of the lots on Fuller Avenue is sold in a raffle, and the winner is a young girl, Bernice Van Gundy, only 8 or 10 years of age. An elegant home, perhaps designed by the noted architect Wolf of Wolf and MacKenzie, sits proudly on the corner of Fuller and Delmas (unfortunately, it will burn while being renovated in the 1980s).
In 1911 most of this neighborhood is annexed, becomes part of the city of San Jose. North Willow Glen continues to grow. More multi-acre lots are subdivided, and sold to people of many different ethnic backgrounds. Across Bird Avenue, an exclusive subdivision is created, called Palm Haven. Exclusive, yes: buyers in Palm Haven have to sign a stipulation stating they will not sell to persons of color, which (although unenforceable, thank heaven) is still an undeletable part of the deeds.
Around this time, a streetcar begins to run along Delmas Avenue, making the trip to downtown San Jose a breeze. In its heyday, you can apparently take a streetcar all the way to Los Gatos, and from there catch the train to Santa Cruz. In springtime, people all over the Bay Area take to the rails to enjoy the beautiful sight and smell of peach, pear and apricot orchards in bloom in the South Bay, “the Valley of Heart’s Delight.”
After the Great War and the Spanish Influenza epidemic come the boom times of the ’20s. Many lots sell, and more of the farmland is subdivided, especially the cherry orchard that becomes the “Cherry Grove” subdivision of west Hull Avenue and Atlanta. Lots of Craftsman, Mission and other Eclectic homes built in North Willow Glen. When the Southern Pacific railroad proposes to run its line down Willow Avenue and into Willow Glen, residents of the area gather together to figure out how to prevent this. The town of Willow Glen is formed expressly to prevent the railroad from going through the community. Instead, the railroad goes through North Willow Glen, effectively cutting it off from the Gardner area to the north. The railroad causes some homes on the north side of Fuller to be relocated to adjacent streets such as Hull.
Willow Glen’s population of 4,145 makes it the fourth-largest city in Santa Clara County. In 1936, with the railroad threat ended, Willow Glen is subsumed into the City of San Jose. The Township of Willow Glen includes part of present-day North Willow Glen: Fisk Street, Brooks, Snyder, Warren and Shepherd Avenues are all within the boundary, as is the southern tip of Delmas. These streets become part of San Jose when, nine years after incorporation, the Town of Willow Glen narrowly votes in favor of annexation by the City of San Jose.
The demand for homes in this area continues to be high. Willow Glen’s population was 4,145 in 1930; by 1936, it had risen to over 7,000!
The streetcar tracks on Delmas are pulled up, part of a successful nationwide effort by GM to persuade townships to replace streetcars with buses.
The postwar boom more or less completes the neighborhood; almost all lots have homes on them.
It’s the time of the “Blue Sky Dream” in the South Bay. Orchards begin to be scraped up, and replaced with tract-style homes. As the young aerospace engineers and their wives buy new homes in the subdivisions, the older neighborhoods start to decline. There’s a gas station on the northeast corner of Delmas and Hull.
North Willow Glen continues to decline slowly. The neighborhood loses a few vintage homes to developers who scrape them and put up duplexes. Highway 280 cuts through to the north, cutting the community off from downtown San Jose. Around this time, the City of San Jose attempts to make Bird Avenue into a four-lane expressway. Bird is widened to six lanes from Park Avenue south as far as Coe, and many old houses are lost on Virginia, Fuller, Hull, and Atlanta. But North Willow Glen residents south of Coe put up a fight, and eventually the City drops its plan for Bird Expressway.
Highway 280 is completed. Land is reserved for Highway 87, creating a new boundary for North Willow Glen to the east. The neighborhood is losing many of its original residents to old age.
In 1986 houses sold for around $130,000. In 1988, “Welcome to Willow Glen” first appears on the Bird Avenue railroad bridge. Aesthetically, the neighborhood hits rock bottom. There is blight and residents find it impossible to get any attention from the City. Neighbors, after waiting for months to get abandoned vehicles towed from residential streets, push them out along Bird Avenue, where they are towed within the hour. North Willow Glen neighbors take up the task of painting out graffiti on the Bird Avenue railroad bridge; graffiti needs to be painted out almost every day. They paint “Welcome to Willow Glen” on the bridge, and repaint it as often as necessary.
The real estate market turns red hot in 1986, and doesn’t burn out until 1989. The situation rekindles interest in North Willow Glen, which has affordable homes, vintage charm, and quick access to Highway 280. New buyers bring new energy to the neighborhood, and a new appreciation for the aesthetics, scale and harmonious proportions of a largely intact vintage neighborhood.
North Willow Glen begins to turn itself around. Volunteers build the white fence along “Fuller Plaza” and get the City to donate the materials. North Willow Glen neighbor activists plant the pistache trees and other trees in the Bird Avenue median between Fuller and Coe. Neighbor activists get landscaping for the abandoned City lot at Bird and Fisk. Later in the decade, the City promises new effort and funds to help underserviced neighborhoods such as North Willow Glen. A significant part of North Willow Glen is included in the Greater Gardner Coalition, eligible for City aid as part of the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI).
The neighborhood continues to improve. It forms its own neighborhood association, the North Willow Glen Neighborhood Association, and gains better representation with the City. Alison England is elected the first NWGNA President, succeeded by Tom Smith in 2003, Ken Eklund in 2004 and Harvey Darnell in 2005. NWGNA is instrumental in getting the City’s vacant lots turned into pleasant spaces, at Bird and Fisk (Hummingbird Park) and on Fuller (Fuller Park). The Association wins a “BRICC” award from Community Foundation Silicon Valley in 2003.
Alarmed by the reckless speed of drivers, neighbor activists on Hull and Delmas Avenues get traffic calming measures from the San Jose Streets & Traffic Department. A series of “Neighborhood Improvement Days” led by Dan Erceg builds the destinctive North Willow Glen signature fence at the Atlanta and Delmas gateways. A series of planting days adds around 90 street trees to the North Willow Glen streetscape. In late 2005, the City installs vintage streetlights on the west side of Delmas Avenue, and begin reconstruction of Spencer Avenue. Typical homes in the neighborhood now sell for over $700,000.