Archive for the ‘Oakland History’ Category

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Our bungalow in a BOOK!

March 16, 2010

Or, to be a bit more accurate, on a book. Jane Smiley’s new novel Private Life, to be exact.

Yep, that's our house there at the bottom! (Image from Faber & Faber)

This is a story of amazing discoveries:

First, a great-grandaughter of Walter and Mabel Kiedaisch, the couple who owned our home from 1921 to 1927, stumbled upon this blog last year after I posted a little history of our house. (Side note: We have now been in contact with five of the nine families who have lived here over the last century, including the family who built the home in 1915….that’s pretty amazing!) We’d known that Walter Kiedaisch was a photographer—and as it turns out, his great-granddaughter has his photograph archives. Lo and behold, she hunted down a snapshot of our house! (This is especially impressive given that she did this in part by looking at the little chopped-and-shopped graphic of our house in the corner of the homepage, which—though it is in fact adapted from a real photograph—takes a lot of artistic liberties…)

Then, even more astoundingly, Faber and Faber, a British publishing house, found the photograph on this blog while searching for pictures of Bay Area bungalows to use on the cover of the British edition of Private Life. (The moral of the story is: tag, and tag well!) They were good enough to write and ask for formal permission to use the image, and have included a photography credit for Walter Kiedaisch, fifty years after his death. And the icing on the cake: this gig even came with an honorarium for use of the photograph that, with the blessing of the Kiedaisch family, we asked the publisher to donate to the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA), where it will go to work preserving Oakland’s history (not to mention helping to fund the cool history lecture series and walking tours that OHA offers).

This experience was also a good lesson for me in learning to be less paranoid—my initial reaction to the email that showed up from the publishing house was “what kind of a scam could this be??” But a little digging on the interweb revealed that everyone was indeed who they said they were, and it was all real. So, working with three women I’ve never met on two different continents, we coordinated all of the logistics—and here it is!

I have yet to actually read the book—we haven’t received our copy yet as it doesn’t officially come out until May, so that’s a project for later this spring!—but I’m very curious, since the novel is about a young woman living in the Bay Area in the early 20th century with her naval officer/astronomer husband. I don’t think the book itself is set in Oakland—the few excerpts I’ve seen refer to a San Francisco naval base, which, in the 1920s, would likely have been Hunters Point in San Francisco, one of the first Pacific naval bases established. The Oakland Naval Reserve Air Base, located where the Oakland Airport is today, did not go into operation until 1928. Alameda Naval Air Station in West Alameda was acquired by the Navy in 1930, and Treasure Island, midway between San Francisco and Oakland, was the last to go to the Navy in 1940 as part of a land swap that got the City of San Francisco property near Millbrae to build the airport that is now SFO. But regardless of the setting, the novel should be an intriguing snapshot of Bay Area history. (Author Jane Smiley is a Northern Californian herself, so I imagine she had a chance to delve into all sorts of fun aspects of the history of this region.)

And speaking of Bay Area naval bases, here’s some fun trivia: in 1927, the Oakland City Council bought Bay Farm Island, now part of the city of Alameda except for OAK, to build the city an airport. A few months later, the Army got in touch to say they wanted to try the first flight from the mainland to Hawai’i, and wanted Oakland to build a runway for them. So, working 24 hours a day for three weeks (sound familiar, Caltrans??), Oakland crews built what was then the world’s longest runway, and on June 28, 1927, a flight from Oakland to O’ahu became the first successful flight to Hawai’i from the U.S. mainland. The Navy took over the next year, launching a long history of naval aviation in the East Bay.

Anyway, if for some reason you want to be the proud owner of a book with our house on the cover of it, you can get it here. (The photograph is only on the UK paperback edition of the book.) We’re picking up a few extra copies to pass along to any future owners of the house, too, since it’s such a fun story—and looks eerily the same as our house today. (And, of course, we’re ignoring the somewhat creepy sub-heading on the cover, given that we’re down to just a few months before our wedding….)

Turns out that a little history goes a long way!

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Kitchen Chronicles: A little Oaktown history!

February 26, 2010

Yeah, I know it’s been weeks since I’ve had anything to say about our kitchen remodel. This isn’t because it’s fallen to the wayside—in fact, it’s chugging along nicely, on track for a post-wedding July start—but because I’ve had absolutely no time to sit down and write much of anything. Soon, though! In the meantime, here’s a little fun history I ran into along the way.

If you’ve ever worked on a kitchen remodel, you’ve probably encountered the kitchen work triangle—the magic space that is supposed to connect the areas for preparation (sink), cooking (stove), and storage (refrigerator). What you probably didn’t know, though, is that this simple-but-revolutionary theory was pioneered by (among others) Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the first female industrial psychologist, one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. at Berkeley (although for complicated reasons, she never received her degree), and a native Oaklander. That’s right—the work triangle theory has its origins in our city, and even—amazingly!—on our very street, where Lillian grew up over a century ago. (Back in those days, our house was still just a twinkle in Edward Brown Walsworth’s eye; the Presbyterian minister from Cleveland ran the Female College of the Pacific on what is now Pill Hill, and owned the tract of land that would ultimately be subdivided to create our neighborhood. Our stretch of Harrison Street north of 27th/Bay was called Walsworth Avenue in his honor up until the 1930s, when it was finally renamed to create more consistency in the street grid.)

So what’s a work triangle?
The basic tenets of the work triangle theory are:

  • Each leg of the triangle should be between 4 and 9 feet
  • The total of all three legs should be between 12 and 26 feet
  • No obstructions should block a leg of the work triangle
  • Household traffic should not flow through the work triangle
What your work triangle is supposed to look like...

What your work triangle is supposed to look like

If you can get all of that accomplished, you’ll have a more efficient kitchen. It should be noted, of course, that all of these dimensions were refined back in the 1930s and 1940s, when kitchens were a whole lot smaller and it was pretty simple to accomplish this. (In fact, our current kitchen meets all but the last work triangle requirement!) Back then, the concept of maximizing efficiency in the workplace was pretty novel—before the late nineteenth century, designers hadn’t thought about this as scientifically. Enter consumer science and industrial psychology!

The "Kitchen Practical"

The "Kitchen Practical"

And who’s Lillian Moller Gilbreth?
Lillian Gilbreth is probably best known these days as the matriarch of the Gilbreth family, whose adventures were chronicled in the books (and later two rounds of movies) Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes. But while her husband Frank’s work in scientific management and efficiency studies was groundbreaking, Lillian’s work on motion studies, time management, fatigue, and stress—and especially, on work issues affecting women—was equally critical to the development of modern domestic science and ergonomics.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Lillian was born Lillie Evelyn Moller, and grew up on our street a few blocks west in a house that was sadly torn down in the 1940s to build part of what is now the Summit Medical Center campus. (She changed her name to the more formal “Lillian” later in life.) At the time, “Academy Hill,” as Pill Hill was originally known, was prime real estate in Oakland, with a number of sizable mansions in the area. The Mollers lived in a large home there with two Japanese servants.

Lillie’s father, William Moller, was a partner of Robert Dalziel (another name that should be familiar to anyone who’s spent time at City Center!), and their plumbing and gas fixture empire, the Dalziel-Moller Company, was one of the largest wholesale plumbing dealers in Oakland and San Francisco in its heyday. (It later became Dalziel Plumbing Supply and ultimately closed in the 1980s.)

Her maternal grandfather, Frederick William Delger, was considered Oakland’s first millionaire, and owned a huge estate bounded by Telegraph, Broadway, 17th, and 20th on the land that is now the Uptown apartments. Much of the estate was dedicated to renowned gardens that filled entire blocks. (The Delger family also built the building that now houses Smart & Final in Old Oakland.) Delger initially made his name as a shoe salesman with stores across the Bay Area to serve the Gold Rush miners, but strategic investments in downtown Oakland and San Francisco secured his fortune. The Delgers were also key supporters of Fabiola Hospital, which later became Kaiser Permanente’s first home, and the Altenheim, which was initially founded in the Dimond as a senior home for German immigrants. (Thanks to significant reinvestment in 2007, the Altenheim is still providing affordable senior housing for older Oaklanders and is now also on the National Register of Historic Places.)

During the time Delger lived in Uptown, he named the streets on his land Frederick Street (now 19th), William Street (still there!), and Delger Street (20th). Gotta love creativity. (If you’ve ever wondered why many of the numbered streets in downtown Oakland are only in a kinda-sorta grid, it’s because the numbering was done after the fact; in the city’s earliest stages of development, many of the streets were named for and platted by the landowners, but in later years as the city grew, a numbering system was superimposed. In contrast, the numbered avenues in East Oakland were planned before much of that development went in.) Delger and his family are now buried in an ornate mausoleum in Mountain View Cemetery at the end of Piedmont.

The Delger mansion on 19th Street (from the Oakland Museum)

The Delger mansion on 19th Street (from the Oakland Museum)

Lillie, the oldest of the Moller children (excepting an older sister who died as an infant), was first home-schooled, and briefly attended Miss Snell’s Female Seminary before transferring to public elementary school in Oakland. (I haven’t been able to figure out which one; the only clue is that after the Moller family moved away from Pill Hill, Lillie had to take the streetcar to school. But since I’m not sure where they moved to and many of the streetcar lines converged on Broadway at that point, that doesn’t help much!) From there, she attended Oakland High School—Oakland Tech had not yet opened—and overlapped for a year there with author Jack London. Finally, following graduation, she went on to UC Berkeley, becoming one of the first women to pursue graduate education there.

While Lillian’s Oakland story ends there—she moved out east, married Frank Gilbreth, and settled there, only returning to California for visits after that point—she went on to do all sorts of work, pioneering the new field of industrial engineering and helping to lay the groundwork for modern industrial engineering. But that’s a story for another day!

Anyway, none of this has helped advance our kitchen project much, but it’s been fun to wade through some of the history on this. If I get a chance (that would be this summer at the earliest!) I’ll pull it together into something a bit more comprehensive with some better pictures. Still, it’s a cool little window into our neighborhood’s past.

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Our house 85 years ago!

October 28, 2009

Another quick post, because as a lot of you know, we have been extremely busy the last few weeks with a number of things! (Updates coming soon…)

But I did receive this incredible photograph today from a great-granddaughter of the Kiedaisch family, who lived in our house from 1921 to 1927. She found my house history post earlier this year and, astoundingly, dug up a photograph taken of our house sometime in the mid-1920s by her great-grandfather Walter Kiedaisch, who was a Bay Area photographer.

ourhouse1920s

Our house circa mid-1920s (courtesy of the Kiedaisch family)

Even the small snapshot yields a lot of intriguing information:

The garage. We now know our garage is at least 80 years old! We’d talked to the City about this at one point since they had no record of the permits to build it; now I know why (and can conclusively prove that yes, it was definitely there when we moved in…) We’re pretty sure it isn’t original since it’s built up against the house and you can see where the doorways were modified at some point, but this means it was probably built by either the Kiedaisches themselves or by Joseph Smith, who owned the house from 1919 to 1921 after buying it from the original owners (who built it in 1915). The garage does have something of a 1920s vibe going on, too, so that would make sense. (Sadly, that look is almost gone today after the previous owner ditched the original garage doors and replaced them with a generic automatic door to get the house ready for sale. Convenient, but man, I wish she’d kept them…you can even still see them in the Google Street View photos of our block, which is just cruel!)

The adjacent rear lots. You can see the buildings on the lots behind us pretty clearly in this photo, which is interesting because both lots were redeveloped in the 1960s into apartment complexes. (The houses to either side of us, in contrast, look pretty much the same today.) I had envisioned cute little bungalows on these lots, and have often griped about how close to the lot line the 1960s developments were built. (Trying to figure out ownership of a shared fence last year, I even found a Planning Commission memo from the 1960s chiding one of the property owners for violating the property line setback rules; he was fined a relatively small amount and the building was unchanged.) As it turns out, though, even the original buildings must have been pretty close to the lot lines to be visible in this photo. (The one on the right looks like it’s practically in our next-door neighbor’s backyard—the condos there today have a bit of a buffer, at least!)

The front steps. We had wooden steps originally! (Our next-door neighbor still does and it’s pretty traditional for a California bungalow, so this isn’t totally surprising—but today the steps are concrete.) I am a little bummed, though, because when we had the foundation inspected recently in preparation for the kitchen remodel, the inspector oohed and ahhed over our concrete steps, noting that ours were in better shape than those of almost any other house its age that he’d seen. D’oh! Now I know why…

Otherwise, though, the house looks strikingly similar today, right down to the curves on the sidewalk. (Even the sidewalk itself looks like it might be the same…guess that really is due for replacement!) The front yard has since been terraced and landscaped, but we knew the previous owner had done a lot of that work, and from what our neighbor says, before then the yard looked, well, basically the same as it did in the 1920s. It’s very likely that this was the original paint job on the house, too, since it would have been barely ten years old (if that) when this photograph was taken. Hard to tell what the colors actually were, but it gives a sense of the aesthetic, at least. (The stucco on the side of the house behind the garage wall is cream, though, so that may have been the original color; in later years it appears to have been painted light green at some point.)

Anyway, just a very cool find! A huge thanks to Michelle for sharing this great piece of our home’s history!

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All about Auto Row: A (very) brief history

July 8, 2009

The next Auto Row meeting is coming up tomorrow, Thursday July 9, at First Presbyterian Church at 2619 Broadway (at 27th) from 6 to 8 pm. The postcard, and last month’s news that GM is finally filing for bankruptcy and closing thousands of dealerships, reminded me that I hadn’t yet finished the little Auto Row retrospective I started a while back, shortly before we went to the kick-off meeting for a two-year planning process to define the future of Broadway Auto Row (or “Upper Broadway,” as the City is starting to call it once again), Oakland’s historic automobile dealer district (and our best-known neighborhood landmark!)

As we think about the future of this space, though, I couldn’t help but think back on the past, since I dug up all sorts of interesting tidbits on Auto Row when I was doing neighborhood history research earlier this year. I meant this to be a bit more narrative and reflective, but haven’t had time to sit down with it—so instead it’s just the blow-by-blow history of the corridor. More musings on the future in the next post….

Before Auto Row: Pre-1912
Broadway, of course, was around for decades before Auto Row was established in 1912. In Oakland’s early years, the neighborhood in and around Auto Row was known as “Academy Hill” for the number of schools and universities that dotted it. (The hill itself is now known to most Oaklanders as “Pill Hill” in reference to the hospitals and medical community that now occupy it.) St. Mary’s College, now in Moraga, sat at 30th and Broadway for nearly 40 years (and in fact had a plaque on the old Connell Oldsmobile building to mark the spot of the building they called “the old Brickpile”).

Original St. Marys campus in Oakland

Original St. Mary's campus on Broadway in Oakland

Other Academy Hill institutions included a military academy, a seminary, and in later years an elementary school that sat at 29th and Broadway, now home to Grocery Outlet (and home to Safeway for 30 years before that). The transition to medical uses began fairly early on, too: another early Auto Row establishment was Providence Hospital, started by the Sisters of Providence at Broadway and 26th and later transferred to Sutter Health, which still runs Alta Bates Summit Medical Center on Pill Hill today.

During these years, Oakland did have an Auto Row—but it was located in downtown Oakland in the heart of the commercial district. When residential development (and the auto industry!) took off in the post-earthquake years, though, so did the need for more automobile retailers, so development of a new Oakland Auto Row along Upper Broadway began.

The Early Years: 1912-1925
Auto-oriented businesses began popping up on Auto Row as early as 1912; by 1913 things were in full swing, so the Row is approaching its hundredth anniversary. Initially, the area was referred to as “Upper Broadway Automobile Row” to distinguish it from Oakland’s established 12th Street auto row and San Francisco’s developing auto row along Van Ness, but before long the name was shortened to “Broadway Auto Row,” as the area is still known today. As Oakland developed, the corridor also became a major transit trunk with multiple streetcar lines taking you out to Piedmont, Berkeley, and as far as Kensington.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California)

Early tenants included Marion, Studebaker, Empire, A.B. Cosby, J.W. Leavitt, Kissel Kar, Packard, and multiple manufacturers, tire businesses, service stations, and other maintenance and repair shops—not so unlike Auto Row today. By 1914, Buick had opened up shop at Broadway and Piedmont, and was soon followed by virtually every big name in automobiles and automobile parts: Oakland’s Auto Row had arrived.

The new Cosby Motor Cars dealership when it opened in 1913. They sold electric cars, among other things; sadly, it's now a surface parking lot....

The new Peacock Motor Company dealership when it opened at 2841 Broadway in 1913. Sadly, it's now a surface parking lot....

Auto Row’s Hey Day: 1925-1955
As Oakland’s population soared in the 1920s through the post-war years, so did Auto Row, as new dealers filled in along Upper Broadway south to Grand and north to West MacArthur Boulevard (then Moss Avenue). Many of the auto-related repair and supply shops that opened up in between the dealerships and along the side streets are still in business today, many incarnations later. Many of the residential areas adjacent to Auto Row also developed in the 1910s and 20s, so there were hundreds of new residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. Mosswood Park, which the City had purchased in 1907, was also extensively developed during this period to include new recreational facilities, amphitheaters, and other community spaces at the northern edge of Auto Row. (Sadly, several of these were later demolished to make room for I-580).

Streetcars at Broadway and Grand (Photo from Key Rail Pix)

Streetcars at Broadway and Grand (Photo from Key Rail Pix)

[This section really deserves a much longer writeup, because a lot of cool stuff happened in Oakland and on Auto Row during this period....but since I have zero time to do it right now, it will have to wait for another day!]

The Decline of the City: 1955-1995
By the mid-1950s, the Eisenhower Interstate system was falling into place—and into cities—across the country. In Oakland, existing cross-town thoroughfares expanded into divided roadways, and two new freeways carved out huge swaths of the city, displacing countless residents and fundamentally altering the fabric of many of the city’s neighborhoods. Interstate 580 had a particularly significant impact on Auto Row, as it cut right across the northern edge of Upper Broadway; Interstate 980 also ran parallel to Auto Row a few blocks to the west. As travel to and from the suburbs became faster and easier with the new roads, families—and especially white families—began leaving the city. The streetcars stopped running in the late 1940s, and in 1958, the Key System rail lines shut down. The system was eventually sold in 1960 to the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, a newly formed public agency that would manage buses for Alameda and Contra Costa County. Ironically (at least given their own demise as America’s auto fascination waned in recent years!) GM played a major role in bringing down the Key System when its affiliate National City Lines purchased the system in the late 1940s and began pushing to have it shut down. The East Bay cities actually tried to buy the system themselves in the 1950s to keep it running after GM and its associates had been convicted of criminally conspiring to create a monopoly, but they failed….and, as they say, the rest is history.

The 1960 Census also recorded a drop in population for the first time in Oakland’s history. Over the next two decades, the city’s population continued to plummet, falling from a Census high of 385,000 in 1950 to a low of 340,000 in 1980, even as the Bay Area overall continued to grow significantly. By the time the 1980 Census was taken, Oakland was also a majority minority city, with white Oaklanders constituting only 39 percent of the population.

Not surprisingly, Oakland’s Auto Row took an economic nosedive as Americans across the country fled to the suburbs and took their dollars with them. Article after article in the Oakland Tribune during the 1960s and 1970s notes the move of this auto dealership or that parts store to Walnut Creek or Lafayette or parts beyond. During this time, some of the residential areas along Auto Row also deteriorated significantly as homes were razed in some areas and disinvestment spread; the crack epidemic also had a dramatic effect on many of these areas throughout the mid-1980s.

By 1964, both Oakland and Auto Row were in decline. You know it's time to worry when you're excited about the new used car lot that just opened....

By 1964, both Oakland and Auto Row were in decline. You know it's time to worry when you're excited about the new used car lot that just opened...

The New American City: 1995 and beyond
In the early 1990s, Oakland finally stopped bleeding population, and some areas of the city began to stabilize as new residents trickled in. By the 2000 Census, the population trend had wholly reversed, and for the first time, Oakland exceeded its 1950 population. Much of this growth came in the city’s communities of color: the 2000 Census captured a snapshot of an incredibly diverse city, with a number of new immigrant groups establishing communities in Oakland neighborhoods and contributing to the revitalization of some of the city’s older commercial districts. The housing boom was also ramping up, fueling gentrification in some neighborhoods.

I didn’t live in Oakland during the early Brown years, but friends remember lots of conversations about Auto Row at that point: was there a future for central city auto dealerships? Should Auto Row be expanded northward? What about alternative futures? Streetscape work and new medians shone up the old district, and briefly the future of Oakland’s dealerships looked a bit rosier as some of the big names renovated their showrooms.

Today, of course, it’s another story altogether. Enter the housing bust and the “Great Recession” (as the New York Times has taken to calling it). Some—although notably not all!—of the economic energy in the city has tapered off. Scores of storefronts along the Auto Row corridor are empty; decals for defunct car brands and auto parts stores line the windows next to the “for lease” signs. Chrysler recently severed its franchise relationship with Bay Bridge Chrysler Jeep Dodge, putting them at risk of closing. (Bay Bridge Auto Center, their parent company, also runs the GM and Nissan franchises along this stretch of Auto Row, and seems to do brisk business in used car sales, so they may well hang on for a bit on that front too.) Broadway Ford is already gone, and the Kia building has been sitting empty forever.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing, though. Dedicating a prime commercial corridor near the heart of downtown to auto sales—something the average American buys only once every few years (and, I’d wager, far less frequently in dense urban areas where households may only have a single car, or none at all)—has never made a lot of sense to me. It’s not that I don’t think Oakland should have car dealerships—I do. They bring substantial tax revenues into the city, and are a significant part of our industrial history. It’s just that I don’t think they belong here. It looks like the auto mall on the old Army base may be stalled or dead in the water, but I actually thought that made a lot of sense (as would a similar mall over near Hegenberger, where there are also several dealers). The area along I-880 is already industrial in nature in most spots, and given that car dealers like large surface parking lots and freeway access, it seems like the prime place to drop them.

So what do I want to see on Auto Row instead? I’ll hit that topic next—and you should go to Thursday’s meeting to share your own ideas, whether you live in the neighborhood or not!

[And on that note, this is also a good time to remind folks that yes, lots of people do live in the Auto Row neighborhood---I was a bit taken aback by a few comments from participants at the first meeting who noted that this corridor was a good place for various uses that wouldn't fly near other residential areas because "the only neighbors are the hospitals and auto shops." While it's true that there aren't too many Pill Hill residents---although even there you'll find a few condo buildings---there are a lot of residents in Glen Echo, Westlake, HarriOak, Adams Point, and more by the day in Uptown. You can read a little more on the history of these neighborhoods and their relationship with Auto Row here. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be regional uses along this corridor---but it does mean that a need for local-serving retail and services also exists, and that any traffic-generating uses will indeed have impacts on residential neighborhoods.]

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The once and future stimulus: What the WPA brought Oakland

March 4, 2009

With all the talk of what the economic stimulus bill might hold for Oakland in the coming months and years, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this little piece of history: a retrospective on the New Deal and its legacy for California. The Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) recently hosted a lecture at Chapel of the Chimes by Gray Brechin, an historical geographer at Berkeley, on the  WPA and the Oakland park system. (Incidentally, if you want to know about upcoming OHA events, they just updated their website to include, of all things, a Twitter feed to keep you up to date. Huh.)

WPA: Work Pays America!

WPA: Work Pays America!

Anyway, Dr. Brechin’s current work, California’s Living New Deal Project, actually extends far beyond the legacy for Oakland parks. He’s got a pretty cool interactive website up that allows you to map and learn more about the various New Deal projects across the state. Even more exciting (for me) is that the project is documenting personal experiences with New Deal projects during the 1930s—a veritable public history of the era (and not unlike the oral history projects that the original New Deal funded, something I really wish the current stimulus had included!)  The New Deal changed the face of the East Bay pretty dramatically, and reshaped life in Oakland as we know it. I was amazed to see some of the projects that came out of the 1930s jobs programs: FDR’s plan for American helped pay for everything from OAK to Highland Hospital to the courthouse to our parks and gardens.

Oakland Rose Garden (Morcom Amphitheater of Roses)

Oakland Rose Garden (Morcom Amphitheater of Roses)

The list includes:

Know of others? The project’s interactive map lets you add new projects or others that you’re curious about—the project team will look into them and add them to the map if they are indeed New Deal projects.

Woodminster Theater in 1941

Woodminster Theater in 1941

The best part of the project, though, is the gallery of interviews. The website only offers a taste of the stories so far, but even that’s enough to begin to get a sense of the history. For instance, one of Dr. Brechin’s subjects writes:

“I grew up in the 1930s in the Rockridge district in Oakland. Construction of the New Tunnel Road began sometime early in this period just over the hill from our house with WPA workers using wheel barrows and shovels. They worked in this fashion for a year or two until somebody decided to get serious and earth movers and tractors arrived and the project moved ahead at a much faster pace.

Lake Temescal Regional Park was developed at this time near our house with WPA labor. The reservoir edge was rip rapped and trails were built on the west hillside. There was a playing field at the upper end of the lake. I used to ride my bicycle over the trails to the field as a boy.

Growing up in the 1930s, in retrospect, seemed like a renaissance period with so many useful and handsome public facilities and buildings being built. After the war, There was less interest in funding parks and public buildings. I am sure that there was much economic distress during the period, but to me, the many civic projects brought a feeling of well being and optimism which I have not experienced since.”

— Ralph Anderson, Boulder, Colorado

Visit California’s Living New Deal Project for more interviews and an interactive map of New Deal projects in California.

More fun with the WPA:

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The ultimate renovation project

February 6, 2009

Hopefully I’ll have a little time to write more regularly once a couple of intense projects at work finally slow down next week….but in the meantime, here’s a little neighborhood flavor to brighten your weekend (if you like historic restoration as much as I do!)

The Fox Oakland Theater is an incredible art deco theater in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, a short walk from our house. It opened in 1928 amidst a wave of theater-building in the city: two of the other three deco theaters near our house—the Paramount and the Grand Lake, both still in operation after restorations—were built about that time as well. (The Piedmont, the last of our neighborhood movie houses, opened in 1917, and is Oakland’s oldest operating theater today. Its deco look comes from an extensive 1934 remodel….not unlike our kitchen’s!)

Fox Oakland on opening night (from Flickr)

Fox Oakland on opening night (from Flickr)

The restoration of Fox—in addition to a number of other incredible historic restorations in the neighborhood, nicely documented here—was part of what drew us to this ‘hood. This is an amazing story of preservation—the Fox has been battered and burned and tagged over the years, and in the 1970s, the city wanted to tear the theater down to make room for a parking lot. Even as the restoration neared completion this winter, the theater had its windows shattered in the January riot. But this is a story of triumph over tragedy: over the years, dozens of Oaklanders have gone to bat for this theater. First Erma and Mario DeLucchi bought it at auction to save it from demolition in 1978; then the City of Oakland got in the game in 1996, buying the Fox from the DeLucchis in the hopes of restoring it.  It took over a decade and lots of pressure and support from Friends of the Oakland Fox and other preservationists across the country, not to mention a lot of funding and faith from Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the design firm that developed the master plan; Phil Tagami of California Commercial Investments, the lead developer; the National Trust for Historic PreservationBank of America; the Charter School Development Corporation; and lots of private donors.

Fox interior (from the Trib)

Fox interior (from the Trib)

Today, the theater is an Oakland City Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Oakland School for the Arts, a public charter school offering instrumental and vocal music, visual art, dance, theater, and literary arts, moved into new digs there over winter break. And last night, with great fanfare, the theater finally reopened with a gala celebration, just a few months past its eightieth birthday and just in time for the February First Friday Art Murmur. I can’t wait to go see it in person—sadly not this weekend, which is packed with other wonderful things, but hopefully later this month! Check out the schedule of upcoming shows.

As someone with a passion for both history and the creation and restoration of the built environment, this project blows my mind. The architecture and attention to detail are phenomenal, of course, as are the period fixtures and intricate art. But what’s most significant, to me, is the restoration of the Fox as a community space. I’m of the school that historic preservation is not just about the physical, but the functional. Sounds funny, but this is actually an idea that’s hotly debated by historic planners and preservationists. On the one hand you have preservation of a physical space: the architecture, the details. Most people are pretty familiar with that concept. On the flip side, though, is the notion that places play a cultural role in communities. A downtown, for instance, could be perfectly preserved from a physical standpoint, but might not be able to fulfill its function as a city center with the historical spaces. Which is more important?

There’s a big balancing act involved here. I see little value in preserving buildings that no longer serve a role in our communities simply for the sake of preserving them (apart from an appropriate sprinkling of museums). But the Fox is a great example of how preservation can marry historic form and modern function. The old Fox was a first-run movie theater, but sadly the number of historic first-run theaters (especially with single screens) is dwindling, and it’s difficult to make them economically viable when they’re up against multiplexes. (Check out nearby Alameda’s recently-restored and expanded historic theater, which took another approach to that dilemma.) So we take the same building and we repurpose it in a way that both preserves the architectural integrity and allows the building to participate in the changing community around it. In this case, we throw in a school, live theater, and a cocktail bar. It’s not exactly the same as it once was, but it’s more viable as an element of the community. In my view, that’s the perfect form of preservation: adaptive reuse of our historic spaces.

Check out some other Oakland examples of repurposing historic buildings:

Make what you will of these individual projects, but one thing they’ve all done successfully is to give the buildings a renewed lease on life by shifting their functions. And if you ask me, that’s one of the best things you can do to preserve our city’s history. (I’d argue the same principle also holds for updating homes and other structures in ways that both acknowledge the past and embrace the future….but that’s a diatribe for another day!)

So welcome back to the neighborhood, Fox Theater! Here’s to the next eighty years of Oakland theater.

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What’s in a (neighborhood) name

December 17, 2008

So last week, V Smoothe over at A Better Oakland sparked a big debate over Oakland neighborhood names when she asked where East Oakland was. Where do neighborhoods begin and end, and what are they called? Earlier this year, Brooklyn Avenue and the DTO wrote about their neighborhoods’ many names and borders, and I’ve actually been wondering the same thing about my own neighborhood. Since I was already poring over old editions of the Oakland Tribune in my house genealogy, I decided to tackle a project I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while now: figuring out exactly what my neighborhood was called, back when it had a name. It occurred to me that with the society columns, school reports, and real estate listings, the Trib would be a great place to look for signs of neighborhood identity. This weekend, I did just that.

Reading through the old real estate ads is like peering through a window into an alternate universe. In 1917, key selling points of homes in Oakland included proximity to train lines and whether or not there was a chicken house in back. Scout troops ran bicycle safety classes at the schools on weekends. People swam in Lake Merritt. Not bad! It’s a bit sad to see how much of the Trib’s coverage once focused on Oakland youth and schools, though. This coverage drops off pointedly in the 1960s—perhaps a harbinger of what was to come for OUSD. I focused my hunt on newspaper listings and articles between 1907 and 1960 on the theory that the coming of the freeways fundamentally changed Oakland’s neighborhood identities and organization. Obviously our neighborhoods have grown and changed in the intervening years, and names and identities are dynamic things, but I primarily wanted to see what secrets the history held.

A few caveats: first, early Oaklanders used the term “district” with abandon. Some districts were within other districts. Others were tiny. Several overlapped. Some were formally defined. (Residents of Peralta Heights held a community meeting in 1926 to decide whether to expand their neighborhood’s boundaries!) Schools typically commanded districts of their own, which added to the confusion because there were both elementary districts and junior high school districts. Developers sometimes named districts when they built on tracts of land. There wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to what was called a district and what wasn’t—it primarily seems to have been a way to refer to your community in relation to key landmarks. Also, this post is based only on surveying real estate and society listings in the Trib, which means it may or may not be an accurate reflection of actual usage, though I did exclude names that didn’t appear consistently. And lastly, neighborhoods change over time, so some of these names have since vanished, while others have moved. (The transition of Eastlake from an area name to a micro-neighborhood is an especially interesting one.) So this is a snapshot of a moment in time.

Oakland neighborhoods in the 1930s (revised)

Oakland neighborhoods in the 1930s (revised)

Area: The Lake District
In the beginning, it was all about the lake. From the post-quake years through the 1960s, “the Lake District” referred broadly to all of the development around Lake Merritt, our neighborhood included. It seemed to extend north to the Piedmont Avenue area, west to Broadway, and east all the way to Park, where it transitioned to the Park Boulevard District. Adams Point, Lakeshore, and Grand Lake were in the north Lake District, while the west Lake District was home to the Lakeside Apartment District and my neighborhood. Trestle Glen was sometimes called the upper Lake District (and included an assortment of neighborhoods). By the 1920s, the Eastlake District was its own entity, with fifteen member neighborhood organizations.

An early zoning map around the lake allowed apartment houses against the lake, but not in the residential area to the west and north

An early zoning map around the lake initially allowed apartment houses against the lake (hatched line), but not in the residential area to the west and north (solid line), where we live.

District: Westlake (part of the Lake District)
West Lake or Westlake (and in real estate ads, “Westlake District,” which explains why the modern-day MLS uses that) was a sub-area of the Lake District. The name was reinforced by the existence of Westlake Junior High School in the midst of the area. Oakland society in the 1920s and 1930s largely revolved around youth and the schools, and a number of neighborhoods were referred to by their junior high school or park names (Mosswood, Bushrod, Westlake, Golden Gate, Cleveland, Bella Vista, and more). Before the school came into being, the paper more commonly listed the area as “west of the Lake District,” but after the school’s creation, this gets merged into “Westlake District.” By the 1930s, there were also apartments along Grand near Bay Place advertised as being in “Westlake.”

Zoning debates didn't always work out so well....d'oh!

Zoning debates didn't always work out so well....d'oh!

Neighborhood: Oak Park (a neighborhood in the west Lake District)
It’s hard to explain how cathartic it was to to discover that once upon a time our neighborhood really, truly had a name of its own. I didn’t find it right away—many of the real estate listings used street names to denote location, and there are very few references to the neighborhood itself in the real estate pages. (On occasion, listings near my house did call it the “Edison district,” a reference to Edison Elementary, which still stands but is now condos. The school served our neighborhood and Adams Point from 1927 until 1975, when OUSD was forced to close it because they could not afford needed seismic retrofitting. However, many of the staircases cut through the hill to provide access to the school still exist.)

From the 1920s through until the 1960s, though, our ‘hood did indeed have a name: the Oak Park District. There was even an Oak Park Improvement Club that met on Richmond Boulevard. The neighborhood seems to have stretched from Oakland Avenue to Broadway, and extended north to Moss Avenue (now MacArthur/I-580). The southern boundary is less clear, in part because the street grid has changed dramatically since then. (For instance, Richmond Avenue and Richmond Boulevard once connected, and Napier Avenue, a side street, evaporated when the freeways came.) In the mid-1950s, the city wanted to put a highway in over Glen Echo Creek, which runs down the center of Richmond Boulevard, as the “ultimate answer” to community complaints about crime along the creek bed. (This was proposed after repeated resident complaints about overgrown vegetation and trash, which probably sounds frustratingly familiar to those who live nearby today!) The fight to stop that plan seems to be the last point at which the uphill and downhill residents organized collectively. Use of the neighborhood name vanishes from the Trib archives by the mid-1960s, and I’ve certainly never heard it used, though there is still an Oak Park on Kempton. For now, I stand by my theory that dropping the 580 into the neighborhood fundamentally changed how the Richmond Boulevard area relates to the hill above, and thus the neighborhood lost cohesion. I’m going to have to ask around and see what some of the area’s older residents remember, though.

As a postscript, though: after years of preparation, construction of Oakland’s first urban creek reserve along Glen Echo Creek finally started this fall. The project will restore riparian habitat along the section of the creek on Richmond Boulevard and 30th Street. Additional restoration of the creek above MacArthur is planned as part of the Kaiser project, as well.

Some other interesting finds along the way…
Broadway Auto Row (part of the Downtown District)

Wow: I knew this name had been around for a while, but it turns out that Upper Broadway has actually been “Broadway Auto Row” for most of its existence. References to the “upper Broadway automobile row” appear regularly by 1913; this is soon shortened to Broadway Auto Row. “This street is growing at the rate of 25 percent per year,” one developer ad notes. “Get busy.” In 1917, the Trib hailed the opening of the jewel of Auto Row at 3331 Broadway—the Studebaker building. Today Honda of Oakland’s used car lot sits on the site; the Studebaker building is long gone. (Incidentally, the same edition of the paper calls for reader suggestions on a new name for the then “pleasure car,” noting that “a motor car is no longer a vehicle that is bought or operated solely in the pursuit of ‘pleasure’….the automobile has ceased to be a plaything.”) However, the name seems to have been reserved exclusively for the commercial properties.

Linda Vista District (part of Piedmont District)
This also isn’t exactly my neighborhood, but it is commonly used up until mid-century to refer to the neighborhood along Harrison Street and Oakland Avenue north of the 580. I’ve never known that neighborhood’s name either, so it was interesting to discover. (Today, it typically gets lumped into either Grand Lake or Piedmont Avenue.)

And here’s how realtors thought about Oakland in the 1930s:
Downtown District:
Estuary to 29th Street, Fallon [western edge of Lake Merritt] to Market

North-of-the-Lake District:
Broadway to Park Blvd, Lake Merritt to the Piedmont limit

North Oakland:
29th Street to Berkeley limit, Market/West to Piedmont limit

East Oakland: Estuary to Hopkins, Park Blvd. to Seminary

Elmhurst District: Estuary to Foothill, Seminary to San Leandro limit

Hillside District: Bounded by Grizzly Peak to Lake Chabot, Piedmont, Hopkins, and Foothill

West Oakland: Estuary to Alcatraz, Bayshore/Emeryville limit to Market/West

And finally, an amazing resource for Oakland street and geographic changes: http://www.stephenmorse.org/census/

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