Veblen’s House

The New York Times has a feature this morning on the sale of Thorsten Veblen’s house in Menlo Park, the irony being that Veblen — the coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” would undoubtedly be chagrined to see his little shack being sold as a tear-down for more than $1 million.

I spent the first six years of my life living in a house about a block away from Veblen’s cottage, and I spent the rest of my youth about a mile away. My family still lives there, and I go back about once a year. The Times’ story is well-done, but it leaves out a few interesting bits. The Veblen place fronts on Sand Hill Road, which (to the East) leads to the Stanford medical center and the Stanford Shopping Center, and (to the West) leads to the venture capital community that Menlo Park has become known for, and to Portola Valley and Woodside. The house has a view of the Stanford golf course, across the street. For many years, the stretch of road in front of the house was where it transitioned from a two-lane road (coming up from the East) to a four-lane road (heading out West). A few years ago, the two lane road to the East was widened. The strip in front of the Veblen house remained a bottleneck. Stanford and Menlo Park recently agreed to reconfigure the golf course in order to allow widening of the bottleneck. The Veblen house, and its handful of Sand Hill Road neighbors, are being given a frontage road, dramatically increasing their value even over the ridiculously inflated amounts that have attached to the little lots in that corner of Menlo Park for many years.

Back in the late 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood — now apparently known as “University Park” (an entertaining effort to upscale its image) — had a decidely counter-culture feel, especially for a town that was principally a commuter suburb of San Francisco. Ken Kesey had lived in the area. I believe that Jerry Garcia lived there for a little while. It was an unincorporated part of San Mateo County, rather than part of incorporated Menlo Park. Meaning: no regular police patrols. I remember dimly more than a few neighborhood parties populated by groups of adults and children with tie-dye t-shirts, headbands, cutoffs, and no shoes.

Those days are long gone. As in much of the mid-Peninsula, a large number of the original houses of that era have been torn down and replaced by lot-line to lot-line developer specials. (Not that many of the original houses had tremendous charm, but at least they were scaled properly to the modest size of the lots.) The only thing conspicuous about the neighborhood today is the Veblen house itself, largely shielded from its neighbors by old trees and all but begging to be replaced by a house (or two) more in keeping with the new style of the area.