History of the Roberto-Sunol Adobe, San Jose, CA

770 Lincoln Avenue, San Jose, CA

The Roberto Adobe was built in 1836 and was the home of Roberto Bellarmino, a Valley Indian. The Sunol/Splivalo House was built by successive owners as an expansion of the small adobe (on the left in the above picture), with a portion of the first floor added in 1854 by Antonio Sunol and an expansion and second story added in 1875 by Captain Stefano Splivalo. 

Roberto Bellarmino (sometimes spelled Vellarmino) was a Valley Indian who held a responsible position at Mission Santa Clara. In 1844 he was granted the Rancho de los Coches (2219 acres) and was issued a “Certificate of Emancipation”, giving him full citizenship rights by the Mexican Governor. On this land he built a primitive adobe home in 1836. The house was an 18 square foot single room with a good size loft and a tule roof. The sun-dried bricks were molded in an odd size, 18 x 11x 14, instead of the usual 22 x 11 x 4 inches, and were placed in an irregular fashion. Wooden bars were placed in the windows, the door was only 5.5 feet high, and the floor was dirt. Cooking was done outside using a hornito (clay oven). At the time Roberto built his home, the area known as the “Willows” (now Willow Glen) was considered the wilderness. Roberto, his wife Manuela, a son, and a daughter were all deceased by the end of 1851.

Left: The original 1836 Adobe built by Roberto Bellarmino adjacent to the Suñol brick house. A hornito (clay oven) sits next to the door.

                                                     

Right: close-up of adobe bricks.

  

Antonio Suñol obtained the Adobe house and Rancho de los Coches in 1847 from Roberto as payment on a debt. Suñol, born in Spain, was a seaman on a French merchant ship and was dropped off at San Francisco due to a serious illness in 1817. He arrived in San Jose in 1818 and was the town’s first well-educated citizen. He married into the wealthy Bernal family and acted as a business manger for many local rancheros. He was the first layman on record to grow grapes and make wine commercially.

Suñol became the Pueblo’s first Postmaster (1826-1829), served on the town council, was appointed Alcalde (mayor) in 1841, and was appointed Sub-Prefect of the First District (highest legal authority for all of San Jose, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz) by the California Governor under Mexico. He owned a large rancho with his three brothers-in-law, which now include Livermore, Pleasanton, and Suñol (town named after him). He was a shrewd businessman with ingenuity, foresight and energy. He was also known for his generosity and hospitality. In 1835, he donated the land on Market Street where St. Josephs Church now stands.

By 1844, Suñol lived part-time on Rancho de los Coches in a wooden house near Roberto’s Adobe, served as his business manager, and kept his records since Roberto could not read or write. Later, around 1847, it is believed that Suñol built a one-story three-room brick house attached to the Roberto Adobe with the Adobe serving as the kitchen. This house may be one of the first brick houses built in California, since the bricks are softer than bricks produced later. Suñol was innovative by extending his brick walls two feet below the ground with flanging extending under the soil. The house was somewhat earthquake resistant with this type of foundation. This second home (his main residence was in town) had redwood plank floors on top of gravel and redwood beams supporting the ceiling.

In 1849, Suñol divided Los Coches into thirds; one-third went to his eldest daughter, Paula Sainsevain, and one-third was sold to Hengry M. Naglee for $10,000. It took many years to determine land ownership after California became part of the United States. The original sale of the Adobe and Rancho de los Coches to Suñol was the first case decided by the U.S. Federal Land Commission in Santa Clara County. The 1857 final settlement of this claim, filed by Suñol, his daughter, and Henry Naglee, is signed by President James Buchanan. Suñol died in 1865 at the age of 68 and is buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery.

Left: Interior of the Sunol/Splivalo House.

 

Right: Interior of the Adobe.

Captain Stefano Splivalo, who came from Dalmatia (a region in Yugoslavia), purchased the Adobe and 55 acres of the Rancho de los Coches in 1853 for $3000. By 1870, the brick house was increased in size by adding three small rooms (a sitting room, dining room and kitchen) adjacent to the Adobe. The original 18-inch brick walls were encased in wood and plaster. A second story was added with a full balcony. The front door became the back door and a new front door was cut through the brick wall facing El Abra Road (now Lincoln Avenue). The front of the house now faced west instead of east. The front door of the original Adobe now faced the backyard. Luxurious items such as a marble mantelpiece, hand carved banister rails, and 7-foot shingled shutters were brought from Dalmatia by ship to enhance Splivalo’s home. Grape vineyards partially surrounded the house. The house became an interesting composite of Federal and Classical design with suggestions of the early-day east and west coast architecture.

After Splivalo, the house passed through multiple owners until 1906 when the Basuini family purchased it. Basuini descendants inhabited the house until 1966. By 1973 the house stood vacant for seven years and the remaining Basuini descendants who owned the Adobe were anxious to find a buyer who was interested in preserving it. The Santa Clara County Historical Commission wanted to safeguard the Adobe but efforts to turn it into a public park failed.

Left: Backyard looking at the century and a half old fig tree and the back of the house and gardens.

Right: The brick Suñol house (1847) with additions (second story and rear rooms) from Captain Stefano Splivalo in the early 1870’s.

In 1965, the proposed Highway 280 would have required the Adobe’s demolition. City Historian Clyde Arbuckle and San Jose Historic Land Commission President Theron Fox presented evidence on the historical significance of the Roberto-Suñol Adobe and the century-old fig tree to the State Highway representative. In order to save the historic Adobe, design plans for Highway 280 was re-routed to the north by 15 feet plus extra space for a retaining wall.

Finally, John Bruzzone bought the land to expand his business, The Pied Piper Exterminators, Inc. When he discovered the historic significance of the Adobe in 1974, he began to extensively and carefully restore the Adobe back to the 1870’s at great expense. He hired Gil Sanchez, a well-known restoration architect, to begin the long process. The small Adobe walls were rebuilt, restored and reinforced with concealed steel and concrete. The new roof was installed with square hand-split redwood shakes. The two-story house and chimney required stabilization and seismic bracing. There are sections of the original redwood plank flooring, brick walls, and redwood beams that were left exposed to reveal the evolution of the building. The picket fence was taken down, scraped, sanded, repaired and repainted. All siding and plaster was removed from the brick walls and the mortar was replaced. The exterior wood siding was returned (some replaced) and the bricks were re-plastered. Then the electrical system, heating, air-conditioning and a powerful sprinkler system were installed. The kitchen was re-located to the vacant room and the two bathrooms replaced the former kitchen. Finally, paint, wallpaper, rugs, hardware and all the necessities to complete this picture of history were carefully selected and installed.

Historic Landmark Plaque in front of the house.

The Adobe’s dedication as a California State Historical Landmark #898 took place on March 18, 1977 and it remained open to the public for six months. The building now serves as law offices and demonstrates the success of adaptive reuse of an historical structure.

The citizens of Santa Clara Valley owe a debt of gratitude to John Bruzzone, his family, dedicated friends, and workers who restored this wonderful piece of history for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Gayle Frank
September 2007