Even before the Antonio’s Nut House building on California Avenue became synonymous with pints, peanut shells, margaritas, technicians and regulars soaking up the dive-bar experience, it stood out as a center of innovation.
Built in 1938, the structure served 12 years as a Safeway grocery store and stood out in its early days as a prototype drive-thru “supermarket” that stood out for its larger size than existing grocery stores. Safeway Grocers described its new California Avenue store in the late 1930s as “one of the most modern and convenient markets on the Peninsula,” according to a 2000 landmark study by the state Department of Parks and recreation (the novelty apparently wore off by 1950, when Safeway called it a regular “market” in announcements to new owners).
Today, the building at 321 California Ave. remains vacant, with the owners of the Nut House closing the popular bar and restaurant in August 2020. Now, as the property’s new owner prepares to rehabilitate the building, Palo Alto officials are trying to ensure its meaning history remains intact.
The city’s Historic Resources Board last week enthusiastically approved Storm Land LLC’s plan to demolish the concrete addition to the rear of the building and construct a new dining pavilion and courtyard in front of the Birch Street restaurant entrance, an area that has traditionally been used for parking. The council also agreed in its review on May 26 that the owner should acknowledge the building’s historic significance as the first supermarket by putting up a plaque or some other kind of marker.
The rehabbed building is unlikely to retain the dive, dimly lit, unassuming vibe that has endeared the Nut House to its guests. The rear part of the building which was once a card room and more recently a billiard room would be demolished. Additions would include a private dining room and an outdoor courtyard connected to a bar.
Architect Ken Hayes told the board that the design team sought to work in a “modern style that is complementary, deferential and distinct from the historic building”. The new restaurant would retain some of the defining features of the existing structure: its rectangular floor plan, one-story massing, stucco cladding, ceramic tile along the storefront wall, and post-and-beam construction. .
Parking would be moved to the rear of the building so that the outdoor dining area could occupy the front.
“The idea here is to restore the building’s original rectangular plan by demolishing the rear addition and turning it into a rear parking lot,” Hayes told the board. “We are going to reallocate where the parking lot now is at the corner of the new pavilion addition and courtyard, create porous edges between the existing building and this courtyard to allow people to see in and out outside and move around.”
When reviewing the project, council members praised the proposed changes to the building and site layout. They also urged the applicant to ensure that they leave behind some sort of marker evoking the original function of the building. A review by the city’s consulting firm, Page & Turnbull, concluded that the building is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, even though it has not been officially added to the register. That’s because the building represents a “radical shift” in grocery retailing to accommodate an “increasingly car-based society”, according to the Page & Turnbull study.
Besides its function, the building is architecturally significant as it represents an early example of a supermarket, according to the study.
‘This building is a rare example of a once common type, a supermarket, to retain its original character,’ states a report from planning staff.
Given its status, Council Member Michael Makinen urged the applicant to include a plaque or other marker that commemorates this historic feature.
“It is inconceivable that anyone would recognize this building for what it is after the work has been done to improve it for modern use,” Makinen said.
His colleagues were in full agreement. Board member Margaret Wimmer praised Hayes for blending the historic features of the building with modern design elements and moving the parking lot to the rear of the property, allowing for garden space in a corner traditionally used for cars.
“It’s great. It’s still a great nod to the building’s existing era. … It will be a great improvement for this corner,” Wimmer said.
Board Chair Carolyn Willis called Hayes’ proposed design a “beautiful solution for California Avenue.”
“I think it benefits from both the historical and the new,” Willis said. “That’s a beautiful story.”
She compared the proposed development to the MacArthur Park Restaurant near the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station, a historic building that was used for recreation during World War I by troops training at Camp Fremont in Menlo. Park. Visitors, she noted, can enter the restaurant and view photos that illustrate the building’s important historical role.
“I think our kids are seeing history go by so fast that it’s good to remember that not too long ago you weren’t going to Safeway and buying your groceries,” said Willis. “It’s relatively new in the history of the world that supermarkets exist. It’s nice to see the progression of how this has happened.”