In 1912, when California Senator James Phelan built his 175-acre estate, he named it Villa Montalvo, after the 16th-century Spaniard whose novel first gave the world the word California. Today the journey to Montalvo provides a nice cross section of the state. Start in the flatlands of the Silicon Valley, where the hopes of software engineers and venture capitalists are slowly coming back to life after five lean years. Then follow the road uphill to the expensively rustic suburb of Saratoga, and farther still to where the road narrows and winds between giant oaks. You could turn left now and admire Phelan's original Italianate mansion. Instead, turn right and come to a hillside, once a prune orchard and now ... something else.
What else? Think Tuscan hill town reimagined by Red Grooms. Or John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" if designed for The Incredibles. "We wanted to give the artists a sense of community," says Montalvo Arts Center's executive director, Elisbeth Challener. "And we wanted synergy between the artists and architects."
To accomplish this in a world-class artist residency program, the Montalvo board hired six leading Western architects and asked them to design 10 live/work studios in conjunction with an internationally renowned painter or writer or musician. Sally Lucas ― Montalvo trustee and the namesake, with husband Don, of the Lucas Artists Programs residencies ― says her friends were appalled. "They would tell me, 'We just had the worst experience with one architect! How can you work with six? And artists, too!' "
But that's what happened. San Francisco architect Jim Jennings collaborated with late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz to create a cerebral writer's studio, and with sculptor Richard Serra to shape a luminous visual artist's space. The two composer's cottages by Daniel Solomon, another San Francisco architect, are designed for optimum acoustics. At the base of the hill, the commons building, by Portland architect Don Stastny, gives residents a place to hang out when they're tired of working in solitude. And a place to enjoy those fabulous dinners, cooked by culinary fellows like chef Romana Ciubini.
In the 75 years since Senator Phelan passed away, his home has become the arts center he dreamed of. A Bay Area cultural institution, Montalvo regularly hosts concerts, readings, and other arts events. Even so, expanding the existing artist residency program ― the oldest of its kind in the West ― to rival East Coast retreats like the legendary Yaddo was a major stretch, requiring five years of planning and building and a budget of $10.5 million. And fund-raising still isn't quite finished.
"For a while," Sally Lucas recalls of her own efforts, "people saw me coming on the sidewalk and crossed the street." Lucas even harbored a few doubts about whether the entire program would ever be completed. But last fall, the first of the artists arrived to begin their residencies. "When we actually had them living here," Lucas recalls, "they said, 'We like it, we really like it!' I felt just like Sally Field."