The Frenchman’s Tower
June 17, 2019
A tower in Northern California? That might not seem like something all that out of the ordinary, and, admittedly, there are plenty around that you can check out if you’re so inclined. One tower near the apartments in Palo Alto, however, boasts an interesting history that you’re not likely to find with similar structures, and a story that you’ll definitely want to check out before you head there in person.
That tower is the so-called “Frenchman’s Tower” off of Old Page Mill Road. Though currently owned by Stanford University, the tower’s history stretches back much further, and it’s a site that has drawn more than its fair share of public interest. Today, we’ll be taking you through the details, as we peer into the mysteries of the Frenchman’s Tower and how this obscure structure came to be.
What Is the Frenchman’s Tower?
As the name suggests, this is indeed a tower, and it was most assuredly constructed by a Frenchman — all the way back in 1875. We’ll get to the story behind its creation in a bit, but first, let’s go over the tower itself, shall we?
Poised right on the side of Old Page Mill Road, the Frenchman’s Tower stands, 32-feet tall and 15-feet-wide. It’s design mimics that of an old 15th Century medieval fortification, and it’s constructed entirely from bricks made from a kind of clay found in Mountain View. The tower has two floors, and while it never had any doors, it did possess two windows at one point.
Legend has it that the tower’s builder would enter through the windows, using the first floor as a library. The second floor had a water tank, and the tower itself was once connected to a series of underground tunnels, used to provide water to a nearby farm and lake. On the point of legends, though, there are several that surround the Frenchman’s Tower, as its owner delighted in confounding neighbors by weaving tall tales about its construction and purpose. Next, let’s cover what most agree upon about the tower and the man who built it.
The Legend of the Frenchman’s Tower
To examine the legend of the Frenchman’s Tower, we’ll have to look into its builder, a French immigrant by the name of Jean-Baptiste Paulin Caperon. He was born to wealthy parents near Bordeaux (one was one of Napoleon’s officers), but was opposed to Napoleon’s policies and, for a brief time, was even exiled from France.
Caperon was a sharp man — an avid reader, scholar, and even successful banker. Following the Franco-Prussian War, however, he left France in 1873 due to troubles in the country. Using the identity of a deceased cousin, Peter Coutts, he went to Brussels, in Belgium, then came to America — first to New Orleans, and then to Mayfield, California (present day Palo Alto) in 1875.
It was here that Caperon acquired some land on what is now a part of Stanford University — approximately 1,400 acres that he purchased from one Jeremiah Clarke for a sum of $90,000. Still worried about political upheaval in France, though, he developed a clever scheme to ensure his newfound property would stay in the family:
“In order to ensure that his children would inherit the property should he pass, and in order to protect their inheritance from his political enemies amongst the Royalists, he placed the property in the name of the children's governess, Eugenie Clogenson. Popular, yet untrue rumors have the governess as the Empress Eugenie, wife to Napoeon III, living in exile in America and being harbored by Caperon.”
And what, precisely, did Caperon do with his land? He developed it into a successful stock farm, and constructed the tower, by many accounts, to assist with the irrigation efforts at his farm. Even this detail is muddled, however, as Caperon was less-than-forthcoming about his past when talking to neighbors. When they discovered that he purchased the land in the name of his children’s governess, all manner of speculation began to fly:
“The rumors, however, about the purpose of the tower are varied. One states that the water tank connected to a system of six underground tunnels, through which they provided irrigation to the farm. Another states that the tower held a weapons cache, that Caperon intended to use to defend his property and withstand any siege that his enemies might bring to his land. Yet another, describes the tower as a prison for his mad wife!”
All that seems unlikely, however, and there’s even the possibility that Caperon built the tower on a whim — a building with no real purpose, or maybe just a decoration for his property. Either way, he was not destined to remain in California. The politics of France had changed by the 1880s, and Caperon decided it was time to return home, reclaim his assets, and reassume his true identity.
In 1882, just eight years after coming to America, Caperon moved back to France, selling his land to Leland Stanford for $140,000. Stanford University was later created on that same land, and Caperon remained in France until his death in 1889, at the age of sixty-seven years old.
As you might suspect, his tower still stands today. In the years since Caperon’s departure, vandals have snuck onto the property to care their initials into the bricks and graffiti the interior of the tower. The windows have since been bricked over, but nonetheless, this tower was named a California Historical Landmark in 1969, and can still be seen in the same spot where it was originally constructed.
More Wonders Await at the Apartments in Palo Alto
While we wouldn’t exactly describe The Village Residences as a tower, they’ve got plenty enough wonders in store to put them on par with landmarks like Frenchman’s Tower. Features like the modern, luxurious living spaces and top-tier resident amenities make for an apartment experience quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. Top that off with easy access to all of Palo Alto’s most desirable hot spots, and it’s little wonder why everyone raves about living here. Add your name to that overwhelming chorus; check out what The Village Residences have in store, and learn how you can make this community your new home today.