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Carriage House museum breaks ground in Redwood City

Taube Family Carriage House and Automobile Gallery will showcase transportation exhibits from horse-drawn to vintage automobiles and specialty cars

A longtime dream to put the San Mateo County History Museum's collection of rare 19th-century horse-drawn carriages on public display broke ground on Thursday afternoon.

The $13.5 million Taube Family Carriage House and Automobile Gallery will have glass walls and nighttime lighting to allow the public to view the displays of historic vehicles after hours. The three-story museum at Marshall Street and Middlefield Road will be located in downtown Redwood City.

At nearly 15,000 square feet, the museum will include permanent and rotating exhibits, a rooftop terrace and ground-floor courtyard. There will be events and summertime museum camps for children, according to the history museum.

An ice sculpture of a Victorian-era carriage was part of the reception for the groundbreaking of the new Taube Family Carriage House and Automobile Gallery. Photo by Sue Dremann.

Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony included an 1890 Ladies "George IV" Phaeton carriage and a 1928 Ford Model A Sport car lent for the event from private collections. A 1914 Model T Ford was also displayed at a catered reception at Courthouse Square.

Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association, led the groundbreaking and Paul Tonnelli, San Francisco 49ers sports broadcaster, took on the role of master of ceremonies. 

Chonita Cleary, past chair and historical association board member, said the Carriage House is part of the Sand Mateo County Historical Association's "mission to inspire wonder and discovery about the history of San Mateo County."

The historical association's collection of Victorian-era carriages made by Brewster, a leading 19th-century carriage maker, was gifted to the San Mateo County History Museum in 1975 by Lurline Matson Roth. Roth owned the Filoli property, which was deeded separately to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The historic carriages, and those of other prominent local families, have been stored for the last 40 years in a climate-controlled facility located in San Mateo, according to the historical association.

Barbara Pierce, a member of the Historical Association's Carriage House Committee and a past Redwood City mayor, has championed the museum idea for more than a decade.

"The goal was a much more modest project," she said, but supply-chain issues and the COVID-19 pandemic drove up the costs. Through their Taube Family Foundation, Woodside residents Dianne and Tad Taube have donated a whopping $7 million toward building the museum.

The association has raised $12 million, with only $1.5 million more needed to complete its fundraising goal. 

"Tad has a special place in his heart for San Mateo history. We are proud to turn the ground on this new project," Dianne Taube said during the groundbreaking.

San Mateo County History Museum volunteers Tatiana Ellison, left, and Nanci Williams, left, show off Victorian-era clothing at the Taube Family Carriage House and Automobile Gallery groundbreaking reception on Sept.14. Photo by Sue Dremann.

Tad Taube said he thought the downtown and the museum, which is housed in the old court building at Courthouse Square, is "an incredible public building."

Seeing the area behind the museum, Tad Taube said, he was excited by the prospect of a museum dedicated to early San Mateo transportation.

Dianne Taube said she grew up in San Mateo County. She has visually watched the area transition through time. Keeping a part of history alive in the area where she grew up is valuable for the community.

When she first saw the 18 carriages in the historical association's warehoused collection, she felt inspired, she said.

"I felt immersed in time. There were women's carriages and nanny carriages … they represent so many parts of (Victorian) life," she said.

She thought about what it took to travel from one place to the other, harnessing the horses, and the time and effort it took to ride out to a gathering in the hills. The things modern drivers take for granted were a tremendous effort compared to hopping into a car today and zipping up Woodside Road or the freeway. She said she hoped the new museum would connect people to the lives of past community residents.

Nanci Williams, a Historical Museum volunteer, was one of about a half-dozen women dressed in clothing dating from the 1800s, the time period captured by the carriages. While most of the clothing were replicas of period pieces in the museum's Millie Collection, Williams wore an original sage-green dress from the collection. Here and there, small patches of fabric had been darned after 183 years of exposure to time.

As women did in the past, Williams wore a corset and bustle.

"They did the corset tight today. I'm not having any hors d'oeuvres," Williams said at the reception, which featured an ice sculpture of a vintage carriage.

The Millie Collection is named after Millie Hagstrom, a local who gathered Victorian-era clothing from the 1840s through the 1880s. She hosted Victorian Days in San Mateo Park, where people dressed up until the donations became unwieldy. Williams said the women's clothing was first housed at the College of San Mateo before permanently coming to the History Museum.

All the clothing in the collection was initially worn by San Mateo County residents. Like the carriage collection, the county-specific collection doesn't include anything from outside the area. The museum once turned down a beautiful and expensive dress they were offered to the museum from San Francisco. It didn't have a local connection, Williams said.

Just as Dianne Taube imagined what transportation life was like in Victorian San Mateo County, Williams said wearing the Millie Collection clothing also captures the strong sense of connection to the people of Redwood City's and San Mateo County's past.

"I like to imagine the woman who wore it. You couldn't dress yourself. You had to have a dresser then. It starts to lend an (upper crust) air about you," she said.

The Carriage House museum will likewise feature vehicles with a San Mateo history. The carriages will be paired with vintage clothing and textiles from the history museum. They will be reflected in Victorian mirrors from the county's grand estates. The Carriage Conservation Center will allow the public to view the restoration of the vehicles through a glass-enclosed gallery.

In addition to the vintage carriages, the historical association said the first floor will have changing exhibits on vintage automobiles from local collections and more unusual vehicles. The Carriage House is scheduled to open in 2025.


About the Author: Sue Dremann

Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats.
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