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In 1911, James D. Phelan, a three-term mayor of San Francisco, California who would go on to be California's first popularly elected US Senator, purchased 160 acres (65 ha) in the Saratoga countryside and foothills.
Phelan began construction of the mansion in 1912. The initial supervising architect was William Curlett. When he died in 1914, his son, Alex Curlett, took over supervision along with partner Charles E. Gottschalk. The construction of the building was completed that same year.
Upon his death, Phelan bequeathed Montalvo thus:
- "I would like the property at Saratoga, California, known as Villa Montalvo, to be maintained as a public park open under reasonable restrictions, the buildings and grounds immediately surrounding the same to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students."