Villa Montalvo, a magnificent Mediterranean mansion with surrounding gardens, is one of the last great estates gracing the Santa Clara countryside. It stands as an appropriate memorial to James Duval Phelan, for many years considered "the foremost citizen of California." Son of an ambitious Irish immigrant who came to San Francisco during the gold rush and made a fortune, James Duval Phelan become mayor of San Francisco and a United States Senator. Phelan encouraged the building of the Hetch Hetchy water system for San Francisco, and is considered to be one of the fathers of the establishment of San Francisco's Civic Center. He donated the first monument of Father Junípero Serra in San Francisco. In addition, the Shakespeare bust in Golden Gate Park was contributed by Phelan, and he also donated one million dollars to the Red Cross for disaster relief following the 1906 earthquake. The Phelen Building in San Francisco was the first business to be erected after the earthquake; in part to demonstrate Phelan's faith in the rebuilding of San Francisco.
In 1911, James Phelan purchased 160 acres in the Saratoga foothills and embarked upon his Villa Montalvo project. Construction began on the mansion in 1912, with William Curlett chosen as supervising architect. Upon Curlett's death, his son, Alex Curlett, and partner, Charles Gottschalk, took over the completion of the sandstone building. John McLaren, Golden Gate Park's landscape designer, laid out the grounds with hidden nooks and wisteria-covered pergolas. While in Europe promoting international participation in the 1915 World's Fair, Phelan purchased in Granada the splendid antique carved wooden doors that stand at the entry. During this time he arranged for a fine Italian craftsman to come to Montalvo to carve a variety of precious woods in the arched hallway and adjoining library walls.
Late in 1914 the doors to Villa Montalvo opened to its first distinguished guests. During that same year, James Phelan was elected United States Senator, where he served until 1921 when he, a Democrat, was defeated amid the Republican landslide that put Warren Harding in office. Upon his death in 1930 the former senator donated Villa Montalvo to the San Francisco Art Association, along with income to maintain the property as a public park. The buildings and grounds were to be used primarily for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students. After standing vacant for many years, Villa Montalvo today serves as a center for the arts under the sponsorship of the Montalvo Association. Today, resident artists live and work on the magnificent estate as envisioned years ago by the generous James Duval Phelan.