Nuns aim to Save Lush Fremont Garden

sunkengarden_2Written by Matthew Artz

FREMONT, Calif. (Jan 4, 2010) – Even in a steady downpour, Palmdale Estates is an island of jazz-age splendor in a sea of subdivisions.

Near the intersection of Mission and Washington boulevards, and a few steps behind the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse, two ornate 1920s Tudor homes frame a garden hideaway replete with a gazebo, grottoes, ponds, palm trees and fountains.

The sisters have owned the property since 1949, seven years before Fremont was incorporated as a city.

In fact, many of the locals old enough to remember a time when the sisters didn’t own the estates are the sisters themselves.

The average age of the sisters is 77. A good portion of their motherhouse, built in 1957, has been converted into a nursing home.

Many of the 92 sisters still are spry enough to help run early childhood education centers, serve as court-appointed children’s advocates and lobby government officials to crack down on human trafficking, said Sister Gladys Guenther, the congregational president. And the sisterhood still has the financial wherewithal to manage its 15-acre Fremont estates, she said.

But with their ranks thinning and their hair graying, the sisters are making plans to ensure that their garden oasis stays a part of Fremont even if they don’t.


Earlier this year, the sisters asked development firms, public agencies and land trusts to propose plans to preserve the 9-acre Palmdale Estates, while opening the door for some type of development on the remaining 5.7-acre portion of the property, which includes the motherhouse.

“We don’t know what the future is going to be,” Guenther said. “Should our needs change, we want to know that this property will not be subdivided and the trees won’t be chopped down.”

The ideal scenario, Guenther said, would be for the gardens and the two historic homes to go into a land trust, while the sisters keep the motherhouse and the rest of the property.

“It’s tough to find an entity that is able and willing to preserve it,” said Dominic Dutra, whose land-use consulting firm is working with the sisters on finding a suitor.

Dutra said the most likely scenario would be a collaboration of preservation groups, the East Bay Regional Park District and the city working together with sisters. He didn’t envision any home development on the property, even though it is zoned for housing.

The Sisters of the Holy Family formed in 1872 to care for needy children in San Francisco, Guenther said. They moved to what was then the sparsely populated community of Mission San Jose 60 years ago at a time when it was common for young sisters to be reared in relative solitude.

The property originally belonged to Mission San Jose, which is across Mission Boulevard, and then was sold to several families, including the Palmers, for whom the estates are named.

It was two later families – the Starrs and the Bests – who built the Tudor homes, which have painted wall murals and porcelain rose light fixtures.

The sisters, who used to live in the homes, now rent one of them out for weddings, which provides income to pay for maintenance, Guenther said. They also sold two parcels fronting Washington Boulevard more than 10 years ago for an affordable housing complex and a Montessori school.

If the sisters receive a bid that interests them, they’ll begin negotiating next year. If not, they’ll hold on to the property until the right deal comes along, Guenther said.

“That’s the joy of not having to sell (right away),” she said. “You want to do this while you’re in the driver’s seat.”

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