Trompe L’ Oeil and the Palo Alto Street Art of Greg Brown

It was such fun living in Palo Alto in the 1970’s—in the “pre-Silicon Valley-era” before real estate prices and greedy ambition rarified the place forever. Downtown Palo Alto was just a cool place—small and totally walkable . . . a mix of funky shops, book stores, coffee and tea shops, fancy clothing and jewelry boutiques mixed in with commercial and professional businesses. Cozy Craftsman-style bungalows shared space with quaint or trendy eateries, like the Peninsula Creamery or St. Michael’s Alley. The town had a friendly and approachable flavor—a place where you could always count on running into someone you knew . . . a neighbor, fellow student, an academic or working colleague.

And there were a lot of non-computer-related “firsts” happening in Palo Alto back then. Like the opening of the first “Mrs. Fields Cookies” store.

Liddicoat’s on University Avenue was home to the first “Mrs. Fields Cookies” store. The bicyclist is just passing in front of the order window in this 1977 shot.

Many lucky first-time customers were handed sample chocolate chip cookies by a young Debbi Fields. Back then, the cookies were huge and filled with warm chunks of chocolate and they only cost 25 cents each!

But it’s another Palo Alto  “first” that truly made living there fun. It was the phenomenon of the whimsical 3D painted characters that would seemingly show up overnight on buildings along University Avenue and some side streets.There were originally nine figures sprinkled about town in 1976. These included a nun flying a toy plane from an upstairs balcony, a pair of masked bank robbers dropping down from a rooftop by rope, the infamous ex-Nixon-VP Spiro Agnew pushing a fat cat in a baby stroller, an African-American woman walking a pelican on a dog leash, and (my favorite) a gardening lady watering a real-life plant as a small bird alights on the painted hose in her hand.

Turns out that these were the magical creations of local trompe l’ oeil artist Greg Brown. And in another odd twist (proving, I guess, that Palo Alto really was a small town back then), he was my Barron Park over-the-back-fence neighbor. Unfortunately, I only learned about that after I had long moved away.

Many of Greg Brown’s works have been restored and are still poking around town. “The Palo Alto series” is still magical after all this time . . .and you can visit Greg Brown’s website to see the originals.

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