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Built in 1875 by a reclusive French refugee, the “Frenchman’s Tower“ never had any doors

David Goran

Frenchman’s Tower is a two-story red brick structure located in Santa Clara County, California, that resembles a medieval fortification. Built in 1875, the structure was listed as a California Point of Historical Interest in 1969.

The structure was built under the direction of land owner Paulin Caperon, a native of France, who had assumed the name Peter Coutts when he moved to Mayfield, California, in 1875. Coutts returned to France in 1882 without letting his California neighbors know what happened to him and ordered a bank to liquidate his Mayfield property.

Frenchman’s Tower 1910-1930 photo in San Jose Public Library. source

Frenchman’s Tower 1910-1930 photo in San Jose Public Library. source

Since then trespassers have carved names or initials into almost every brick of the tower within their reach. Some dates go back over 100 years. In 1970, the landowner bricked in the windows to protect the structure from vandals. Frenchman’s Tower stands on Old Page Mill Road, midway between Foothill Expressway and Interstate 280, in Santa Clara County, California, within a strip of land within the borders of Palo Alto on land now owned by Stanford University.

Damage caused by names being carved into bricks on Frenchman’s Tower. source

Damage caused by names being carved into bricks on Frenchman’s Tower. source

Frenchman’s Tower was built in 1875 and has miniature crenels along the top and Gothic windows, giving it a style similar to Medieval fortifications built hundreds of years earlier, not unlike Chindia Tower built between the 15th and 19th century. In the Middle Ages, crenels were used to shield archers defending the structure.

Frenchman’s Tower on Old Page Mill Road. source

Frenchman’s Tower on Old Page Mill Road. source

The second floor held a water tank while the first floor was used as a library. The original owner, Paulin Caperon, spent many hours in his library reading and studying. The building never had any doors, requiring entry through a window.

Frenchman’s Tower built in 1875. source

Frenchman’s Tower built in 1875. source

The tower, situated near Matadero Creek, was originally connected to one of a system of six underground tunnels used to provide subterranean water to his farm and on property lake. Workers had to remove tons of earth before reaching a sufficient underground water source. Bricks for the tower were made by Albert Bowman and Company from a clay deposit discovered in Mountain View, in the same year that the tower was constructed.

Frenchman’s Tower, Old Page Mill Road, Stanford, Santa Clara County, CA 23. source

Over the years, many different ideas and stories regarding Paulin Caperon’s tower and underground tunnels have been told. Caperon, who also went by the alias Peter Coutts, is said to have “enjoyed mystifying his neighbors” and often helped perpetuate these stories by neither denying nor confirming the fanciful tales. These include the construction of underground tunnels and fortified tower to “withstand a siege by his enemies” and harboring the French Empress, neither of which were true.

Gothic windows and simulated Battlements. source

Gothic windows and simulated Battlements. source

Jean-Baptiste Paulin Caperon was born of wealthy parents near Bordeaux France in 1822 and died in Bordeaux, France, in September 1889 at the age of sixty-seven.

Paulin Caperon was the son of one of Napoleon’s officers. He lost both parents when he was only 26 years old. He “openly criticized Napoleon III policies and opposed the Franco-Prussian War.” He found a private bank, which he sold in 1873. Because of problems in France, he left France for Brussels, Belgium, and then went to New Orleans, using identity papers of his deceased cousin Peter Coutts. He traveled to San Francisco and then to the township of Mayfield. Paulin Caperon, continued using the name Peter Coutts when he arrived in Mayfield (present-day Palo Alto).

Inside Frenchman’s Tower. source

Inside Frenchman’s Tower. source

In 1874, he bought 1,162 acres (4.7 km2) of Rancho Rincon de San Francisquito from Jeremiah Clarke. Caperon had a heart ailment, and his wife was an invalid. He felt concerned that he and his wife might both die, and his children might have difficulty inheriting his estate, so he took title to the land in the name of his children’s governess Eugene Cloyensen.

 

A plaque next to Frenchman’s Tower. source

A plaque next to Frenchman’s Tower. source

Caperon developed the land into a thriving stock farm and eventually directed the construction of a tower to distribute water. He seemed friendly, but would not discuss his past. When local residents discovered that Peter Coutts (Paulin Caperon) had actually purchased the land in the name of his children’s governess, the townspeople grew suspicious, made speculations, and spread rumors about the intended purpose of the tower. In 1882, only eight years after his arrival, Paulin Caperon suddenly returned to his native France and sold the land for the sum of $140,000 to Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University in 1891.

Paulin Caperon eventually reacquired legal title to the valuable property he had owned in France. “Using his true identity, Caperon and his family returned to Paris in May 1883” and he spent the rest of his life in France.