History of Villa Montalvo
One of the last of the great estates that once dotted the Santa Clara country-side, Villa
Montalvo, a magnificent Italian Mediterranean style mansion with surrounding estate,
stands as an appropriate memorial to James Duval Phelan, for many years considered the
foremost citizen of California. Son of an ambitious Irish immigrant who came to San
Francisco during the gold rush and made a fortune as a trader, merchant, and banker,
Phelan rose in politics to became mayor of San Francisco and a United States Senator.
In 1911 James Phelan purchased 160 acres in the Saratoga foothills and embarked upon
his Villa Montalvo Project. Construction was begun on the 19 room mansion in 1912.
William Curlett was the initial supervising architect, and upon his death in 1914, the project
was completed under the supervision of his son Alex Curlett and partner Charles E.
Late in 1914 the mansion was opened to the first of many celebrated guests. That same
year James Phelan became The first U.S. Senator to be elected by popular vote. The
Senator served with distinction until 1921 when he, as a Democrat, was defeated amid a
After nearly two years traveling around the world Senator Phelan returned to Montalvo
where he indulged his party loving penchant to the utmost.
Phelan’s death at Villa Montalvo on August 7, 1930 was followed by the most imposing
funeral ever held in San Francisco, according to newspaper accounts.
Phelan's Charitable Trust Contested
Phelan’s two largest
bequests included a million dollars to establish the James D. Phelan Foundation for
charitable purposes for the poor. The other was the gift of Villa Montalvo to the San
Francisco Art Association along with $250,000, the income of which was to be used as a
public park. The buildings and grounds were to be used as far as possible for the
development of art, literature, music and architecture by promising students.
By 1948 the San Francisco Art Association concluded that it would be better off
terminating its trusteeship of Senator Phelan’s estate. In that year, the heirs to James
Duval Phelan’s Estate initiated legal proceedings to reclaim the Senator’s property. The
Art Association welcomed this action as an opportunity to abandon a responsibility which
had become too burdensome to tolerate any longer. The law suit contended that the Art
Association had not fulfilled the conditions of the Phelan charitable trust. As a compromise, the
San Francisco Art Association and Phelan heirs reached a pre-trial written agreement in December
1948 to divide the assets equally between the two parties. The presiding judge, Edward
Molkenbuhr, rejected this compromise and ruled that Phelan’s primary purpose was that
the villa be used for a public park, and since the grounds had been open to the public, the main
objective of the trust was clearly fulfilled. The future of Villa Montalvo as cultural
center was now secure. In October 1952, the Montalvo Association incorporated
themselves into a legal corporation. One year later, with the agreement of the San
Francisco Art Association, the Superior Court consented to a petition for change of
trusteeship to the Montalvo Association.
County Leases Park Space
The Montalvo Association, however, in subsequent years did not have an adequate
gardening staff and funding to maintain the 175 acre estate grounds as a public park.
Also, the buildings were in disrepair and the roads leading to Montalvo
were full of potholes. The Montalvo Association convinced the Santa Clara County Board
of Supervisors to lease all but 5 acres of the estate as an arboretum. By 1961, work was
commenced on development of the arboretum and extensive improvements were made over
the years to the roadways and parking facilities. The buildings have been maintained largely
by private contributions.
In 1978, Villa Montalvo was awarded the
distinction of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Villa Montalvo remains as a legacy for Senator Phelan's support and encouragement of music, art,
literature and architecture.
To learn more about current progams and activities, click-on the link (below) to the Villa
Montalvo Home Page.