Heading for the Hills

If you’ve kept up with my posts so far, you would be forgiven for thinking that I intend for my blog to be focused on downtown Redwood City. My focus on downtown so far was just a result of timing: I coincidentally started this blog just as Redwood City’s great downtown revitalization moved from the planning stage to active construction. With all of the very visible changes suddenly transforming the downtown area, I felt obligated to research and provide information on the many visible downtown projects. I will continue to write about those projects as they progress, and will discuss others as they break ground (there are a couple more still to come, including one that will be the largest single residential project of them all!). However, I thought this was a good time to take a break and walk in an entirely different direction: westward into Emerald Hills.

Exploring downtown is fun, but from an exercise standpoint it leaves something to be desired: downtown Redwood City is entirely flat, and I find myself constantly having to stop at intersections and wait for the crossing signal. This “stop and go” walking doesn’t allow me to raise my heart rate to its optimal point and keep it there for the recommended twenty-minute minimum. Fortunately, I live just at the base of the hills near Sequoia Hospital, so simply by heading in a westerly direction I can get a vigorous workout. I often wander up in the direction of the large cross located on the hilltop just off Jefferson Ave., although I rarely go all the way to the cross itself. The routes I take vary. Often I’ll wander up Oak Knoll to Emerald Lake, and then take one of the many branches from there. Or, I’ll wander up behind Sequoia Hospital and drop down onto Cordilleras, which I’ll follow to Edgewood Park. I then walk up through the park, popping out near Sunset Way. Or, as I did last Monday, I’ll just wander up Jefferson or Farm Hill Blvd.

The views from the hills are just breathtaking; I can certainly see why people want to live up there. Commuting up and down those hills must be something of a drawback, but there are wonderful houses to be found in the Emerald Hills, and I love looking at them and seeing what people do to them. And, as I’ve discovered, those hills hide some secret places as well…

Hills mean height, and height means that you can see things in a way that you otherwise might not be able to. For instance, while standing on Oak Knoll, looking down towards and across Alameda de las Pulgas, I took this picture of the Hetch-Hetchy right of way:

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You cannot build any permanent structures on the right-of-way, but as you can see you are allowed to build fences and roads across it. Someone has planted a very nice garden on it, and just beyond that person’s fence you can see that their neighbor is prepping the areas on either side of his driveway (all of which is on the right-of-way) for planting.

Walking along Oak Knoll I could hear a lot of heavy construction going on; I searched for the source of the sounds and eventually found this house:

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(This is a view of the back of the house; it is actually located at 728 Hillcrest Dr., but due to a long driveway I couldn’t get any interesting pictures from there.) I was pleased to see that although the house is seemingly undergoing a rather significant remodel, much of the house is being left intact. So many remodels I run across are remodels in name only—the builder has left some insignificant part of the house standing presumably so that it can qualify as a remodel, when in fact it really is a complete tear-down. Like this house in San Carlos I ran across some time back:

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The above picture doesn’t show the whole property, but there isn’t really anything else to see. The small white garage-door surround and parts of the original foundation were all that were left. Everything else had been completely torn out and a whole new house was being built around it.

Back to the hills, though. There are some truly beautiful houses being built up there. One that I checked out on Monday was a property that my friend Cindy had been very interested in at one point. When she had looked at it, it was a nice-sized parcel with a small house over a garage that was dug into the hillside. Someone else wound up buying the property, and they then remodeled it into an enormous—and truly beautiful—house:

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Unfortunately, I don’t have a “before” picture for this property, but believe me, the transformation is astounding. I just love the use of the old barn wood for the facade. And look at how they used contrasting materials for the center section:

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If you want to see it for yourself, you can find this house at the corner of Oak Knoll and Acacia Ln., just above Emerald Lake.

For a long time now I’ve been aiming to walk to Canãda College. Before setting out on Monday I looked at the map to see if I could find a good safe route up there. I didn’t, but in looking at the map I did find something that I had not noticed before—something that really piqued my curiosity. According to the map, there is a convent—a very large convent—right next to the Elk’s Lodge golf course! Now, I’ve played that course many times (and, in fact, had just played it the day before) but never had any idea that there was anything like that up there. According to the map, it looked as if you could drive to the golf course without ever going on Jefferson: there appeared to be a back way in from Farm Hill Blvd, via Bret Harte Dr. This mysterious convent was a secret I just knew I had to check out.

I set out from my house and headed straight over to and then up Jefferson Ave. I continued on to Farm Hill Blvd., moving at a good clip. My heart was pounding and I could feel the burn in my legs as I powered my way up the hill. As I approached PCC (Peninsula Covenant Church) I found an excuse to take a short break: I could see that the church was doing some work on their tower. The tower was completely encased in scaffolding, and a couple of workmen were doing something about midway up. I could not tell what they were doing, however, so I took a couple of pictures and then resumed my walk.

Years ago when my kids were in Boy Scouts we used to participate in the annual “Scouting for Food” canned food drive. We were frequently assigned to the area between Farm Hill and Jefferson, near Roy Cloud school. Since those days I have had little reason to be in the area, and was looking forward to seeing it again. Accordingly, I turned off Farm Hill at the earliest opportunity—at Glennan Dr.—and walked up to Bret Harte. I then turned left and aimed to walk the full length of Bret Harte, wrapping around the Mount Alverno Convent to the point where (according to the map) it connected to Wilmington Way.

Following the road I climbed higher and higher into the hills, trying to keep my pace up by promising myself that I’d soon be getting a break: I could see the top of the current hill not too far up ahead. The neighborhood contained the expected variety of houses, mostly two story, and most appearing to have been built in the 1970’s. The Brady Bunch house would fit right in to this neighborhood, I thought.

Reaching the top of the hill, at Edgecliff Way, I could see that Bret Harte continued on down the back side of the hill. But I was surprised to see that it only went about half a block before it was partially blocked by some arched gateposts. The road continued on through, but clearly it was transforming from a typical public street into something a bit more private. I figured that this was the boundary of the convent property, and I was right—sort of.

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As I approached, I got a better look at that sign on the left-hand post, and what I saw surprised me. It didn’t say “Mount Alverno Convent,” as I expected, but “Shinnyo-en USA Buddhist Temple.” Confused, I looked all around but did not see any “keep out” signs; in fact, the arched doorway on the left led to a path that was clearly marked with signs indicating that people should keep their dogs on leashes, and outlining basic behavior for people walking on the grounds. It seems that the public is welcome to walk the grounds, as long as they keep to the roads and paths, and don’t stray into the areas that are clearly marked as not for public access. Assuming that the Buddhist temple must be adjacent to the convent, and seeing no reason not to go in, I plunged on ahead.

If you have been up in these hills at all, you most likely have seen this tower:

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Like me, you may have assumed that it was a church of some sort, and not bothered to check it out. Well, wonder no more: it was built as part of the convent, adjacent to the main church building. As I approached it, I looked everywhere for signs indicating where the temple grounds ended, and the convent began. It wasn’t until I got to the church and tower that I realized that the convent was no more: that the Buddhist temple had now taken its place. Actually, it isn’t so much that the temple replaced the convent, but instead that the Buddhists simply replaced the Catholic nuns.

The Sisters of Saint Francis built the Mount Alverno Convent on this 26-acre site back in 1960. They built quite a building: four stories tall, 100,000 square feet. The Sisters were closely associated with Saint Matthias Catholic Church (on Cordilleras, down the hill from the Canyon Inn); among other things they staffed the church’s parochial school from 1965 through 1971. The convent was closed in 2003, however, and sold to the Buddhists. (The Sisters bought two adjacent houses on Brewster, across from Sequoia High School and adjacent to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church; today they reside in one and use the other as a guest house.)

Shinnyo-en is an independent Buddhist order that has branched out from Japan and now has temples and “training centers” all around the world. Here in the United States, Shinnyo-en has eleven sites; there is also one in Vancouver, Canada, one in Mexico City, and two in South America. The US sites range from New York in the east to Hawaii in the west. What I found most interesting, however, is that their “USA Head Temple” is located right here in Redwood City, on the grounds of the former Catholic convent.

The temple grounds are beautiful and well-maintained. Curiously, if I hadn’t read the sign on the gateposts I wouldn’t have known that I was strolling the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The entire place looks as if it is unchanged from when the Sisters of Saint Francis left. Even the sanctuary’s stained glass windows appear untouched (although I couldn’t get a very good look at them from the outside). Also, the grounds were very quiet: I only encountered two sets of people while walking the temple grounds: one older woman and a child who appeared to be residents of the surrounding neighborhood, just out for a walk, and a woman carrying a baby who, based on her dress and the direction from which she was coming, I presumed to be a member of the sect. The trees, the views, and the lack of activity made it a very peaceful place to take a walk; if you live in the area or are just curious, I recommend taking a stroll through the grounds.

My walk mostly followed the road, although I did deviate a bit to take a closer look at some of the buildings. According to the map, Bret Harte makes a complete loop around the grounds, and there is a small connector that allows you to access Wilmington Way. Having walked the area I can verify that although the map is technically accurate, you can’t actually drive a car between Wilmington and Bret Harte. Unfortunately, this particular access is blocked off with a locked gate. Fortunately, there is a pedestrian gate immediately adjacent to the one blocking the road, and that gate is not locked. Thus, while I was indeed able to walk to the Elk’s Lodge Golf Course by going through the temple grounds, I would not be able to trace the same route in a car.

Walking can be great exercise: according to the walking app on my iPhone, I burned over 1100 calories on that particular trip. But it was the Buddhist temple that really got me excited: who would have thought little ‘ol Redwood City would host such a place? Our town is an incredibly varied place with a lot of interesting and important history. I, for one, hope to track down many more of Redwood City’s secrets. And you can be sure I will share them with you, via this blog, when I do. If you know of some that you want me to investigate and write about, please let me know. I’m always interested in a good mystery…

3 thoughts on “Heading for the Hills

  1. I just discovered your blog and I find it very informative and fascinating. I was born (1942) and raised in RWC and spent almost 30 years there. Life’s things called me away to the Sacramento area in 1972 but my heart is in RWC. I am retired and living up in the gold county on 2 acres with my avid gardener wife. My evening’s entertainment is usually on the computer. I enjoy rooting for an item or an answer for a question that I might have raised. I guess the challenge factor kicks in because I might spend many an evening just tracking down one item. I am one who loves a challenge (I buy old riding mowers just to see if I can get them running. The challenge part is that I am no way a trained mechanic. In exploring things RWC on the web like old photo collections ,reports web sites etc I kept reading that a concrete ship was built on Redwood Creek but where on Redwood Creek? The port and yacht harbor area was one of my childhood playgrounds. I could not figure out where this ship was built on Redwood Creek.
    Mystery Number 1: The “Faith” a concrete hulled ship-was built in RWC in 1917-18. This is a very historical ship because it is THE FIRST OCEAN GOING CONCRETE SHIP BUILT IN THE UNITED STATES!! This ship was NOT built on Redwood Creek! The proof of where it was built is out there on the web I mean real proof that will convince anyone. There are photos –even a newsreel of the launching!
    Mystery Number2: The Sequoia theatre was not the first RWC movie house! There is another- in fact you walked right by it on one of your walks!!
    Well there you are- a couple of mysteries to solve.
    John in Georgetown

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