The Lost Things of the East Bay
Photos courtesy of Oakland History Room, alamedainfo.com, www.caviews.com
Most cities recognize their treasures and keep them standing, but some are remembered only in vintage postcards and on microfilm. The same way people reluctantly take down old curtains and decide an armchair isn’t worth reupholstering, city leaders make the same decisions, but on a much larger scale. Here are a few structures in Oakland and Alameda that are lost to the world.
Piedmont Baths and Harmon Conservatory
The Whole Foods on Harrison in Oakland was once the site of an 1889 car barn and powerhouse for a cable car system. That’s right, a cable car system! (If you really want to get mad, read the entry on the Key System.)
Pipes brought the steam that powered the trolleys to a nearby swimming tank (at Vernon Street and Bay Place) named Piedmont Baths to heat its waters. Here in the facility that predated Sutro Baths by five years, turn-of-the-century folks swam in their quaint wool bathing suits. With an impressive brick edifice, Piedmont Baths looked more like an asylum than a swimming facility. Inside, swimmers could swing from the ceiling on a trapeze, or shoot themselves down the dangerously angled slide. At one end of the 120-foot pool was a 20-foot-wide man-made waterfall. Visitors could take a Turkish bath, get a massage and do the turkey trot on a spring-loaded dance floor. F.M. “Borax” Smith opened the facility in 1891 to entice people to use his trolley line; at the time the area was still considered the “country.” It was razed to the ground in 1939.
Nearby was the Harmon Conservatory. Built by a Gold Rusher from Maine, the beautiful glass structure was a propagating house for plants and flowers. It sat on Harmon’s property until his 1896 death, when Edson Adams of Adams Point fame moved it (in one piece: yikes) to the corner of Grand and Harrison. It was later torn down so the Veteran’s Memorial Building could be built.
Postscript: The car barn and powerhouse was remodeled as an auto showroom that later became known as Cox Cadillac. It was left vacant and sad for a decade, and then spiffed up for the Whole Foods.
The Snow Museum
Today where Lakeside Drive and 20th Street converge in Oakland, there’s a little patch of grass with a putting green. But once there was a mansion-turned-museum, the Snow Museum, which opened in 1922. Inside, children marveled at gigantic, sawdust-filled animals from Africa. The Snow family donned pith helmets for their big-game safari hunting and brought back stuffed hippos and rhinos, thousands of animal pelts and 50,000 bird eggs.
In the 30-room mansion (the city’s donation in lieu of a fireproof museum, as Henry Snow had requested), two tons of material roared silent veldt howls, while 25 tons sat in boxed storage. Snow considered the three white rhinos the greatest treasure of the collection, since there was only one small band of them still roaming the planet, ironically further decimated by the man who valued them. The largest weighed 5,000 pounds with a 22-inch horn and was never exhibited because, like the giraffes, it was too large to be displayed.
The Snows led exciting lives, one must reluctantly admit. A Kodiak bear charged Henry in the Arctic, and he felled it with a bullet to the eye. He scrambled over upending ice floes, hung out with Roald Amundsen (South Pole discoverer), and found mastodon bones with 11-foot tusks. In 1924, his adventurous son Sidney discovered the bodies of four frozen Canadian scientists who had been caught in an Arctic blizzard. Sidney tried to harpoon whales that (you’ll like this) fought back, nearly tipping over his vessel. An 1,800-pound polar bear he captured lost 300 pounds on the voyage down from the Arctic, which sounds hopefully like this bear was a live exhibit. He also brought back two Eskimos who were culture-shocked over the size of San Francisco.
Upset over the promised, but never delivered, fireproof facility, Henry threatened to donate the collection to San Francisco — while pledging his preference for these eastern
shores. “I am for Oakland first, last and all the time,” he said. (Ah, civic pride! Henry and Sidney showed motion picture films of their African sojourns at the Hotel Oakland in 1922. The crowds cheered the sight of the word “Oakland” on the side of a safari vehicle.) In 1924, a year after his Kodiak bear tussle, Henry and local businessmen raised $1 million, offering it to the city to build the museum. Fox Theater architect Maury Diggs even drew up the plans. But the city attorney deemed such action illegal, although today it wouldn’t be — Oakland might have had the Oakland Museum 50 years earlier. Speaking of that facility, it does display a few of Henry’s creatures, auctioned off when the Snow Museum closed in 1967.
Another scheme, which also did not come to fruition, involved a 40-foot-deep cave on the lakeshore edge of Lake Merritt to hold living lions, rhinos, hippos and giraffes. The harebrained aspect? No bars, no cages: just a water-filled moat too wide for them to jump and too deep to wade across. How could that go wrong?
This ridiculously cool theme park in Oakland’s Temescal was built by the cable car line to lure homebuyers to settle in the area. Encompassing almost 20 acres, it sat on the west side of Telegraph between 56th and 58th streets and was entirely walled in. Its figure-eight rollercoaster traveled at 90 mph and was advertised as a “race through the clouds.” Like Las Vegas, Idora Park offered a mock volcano eruption and also had an ostrich farm, roller-skating rink (where Charlie Chaplin won a competition one year), tent shows, a zoo, bear grotto, enormous outdoor amphitheater and a dance pavilion. Celebrities who performed there include Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. In 1906, several thousand San Franciscans fled the earthquake damage and found shelter at Idora Park, sleeping on donated cots for weeks. The Pacific Coast Baseball League also took refuge there, playing in the 3,000-seat ballpark. Reputed landmarks: first radio theater, first use of a P.A. system and largest searchlight and skating rink in the world. Idora Park had a date with demolition in 1929 after attendance waned, thanks in part to the
This amusement park operated 1917–1939, right where Crab Cove is now, in Alameda. It cost a dime to enter, but scofflaw kids could swim into the park and skip admission. Known as the Coney Island of the West, it offered a midway and carnival rides galore. Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and Jack LaLanne (famous for towing boats with his teeth) would hang out and show off their athletic prowess. Two giant pools drew scads of happy kids. The freshwater pool boasted tiered fountains in its middle, while a pump in the belly of a beached ship brought in bay water for the saltwater pool. Neptune Beach is credited for the introduction of the Popsicle, the sno-cone and the Kewpie doll. To demonstrate the park’s scale, its dining hall sat 500. At one unusual attraction called the Monkey Speedway, monkeys drove tiny cars and humans bet on which numbered block they’d stop (live-action roulette). The park eventually failed for many reasons, including the opening of the Bay Bridge, which lessened rail travel, the main way to get there. The Great Depression made even the thin dime entry tough for families, and relatedly, the droves of swimmers circumventing the admission made it unprofitable. The carousel, Ferris wheel and roller coasters were auctioned off in 1940. You can check out what once was at the Neptune Beach Amusement Museum at 1029 Central Ave.
Jack London Village
Not so recently lost, this $3 million shopping arcade up the road from Jack London Square had been built in 1975 to look like a Klondike fishing village. With wood pilings, pedestrian bridges, multilevel outlooks and a view of the working waterfront, the rustic village called to mind Jack London’s youth as a sailor and oyster pirate. Restaurants within it were named for characters in his books, and the Jack London Museum entertained visitors. A faux water tower hovered above it all. Its gardens provided an oasis of greenery in the midst of a concrete downtown, startlingly apparent in aerial photos. In 2001, neighbors banded together to stop the port commissioners from demolishing this unique site, and lost. I’m still peeved. Bagpipers played at a funeral and wake held for the village.
The forested hillside must have been a sight to behold, before the 10 mills in the Oakland hills turned the redwoods into logs. In the Oakland History Room, an 1800s drawing shows an entire dance scene taking place on a single stump: a fiddler and six waltzing couples. One redwood boasted a 33.5-foot diameter, and two stood so tall sailors used them as sighting points to navigate around dangerous Blossom Rock near Alcatraz, 16 miles away.
In these days before chainsaws, men worked much harder to bring down the behemoths. They would carve a notch near the base of the tree and wedge a board into it, upon which they stood to hack away with axe and saw. It would take two men all day to cut down one tree. After stripping off the bark and branches, the tree would be cut into 16-foot lengths by drilling holes and stuffing them with dynamite. These smaller lengths were dragged by oxen to the mill on skid roads, created by greasing smaller logs. Glenview’s Park Boulevard was once a logging road used to transport wood down through Dimond Canyon.
After the redwoods were harvested out, eucalyptuses were planted. It was thought this aromatic Australian tree would do well, as it grows quickly. The redwoods you see today in Joaquin Miller Park are skinny youngsters, part of the 70,000 trees planted by Miller himself. If you’re dying to see the sole remaining original redwood, you’ll have to do some bushwhacking. It’s visible from the parking lot of Carl Munck Elementary School, where there is a plaque in “Old Survivor’s” honor, but not too accessible. As you stare into the hillside, you’ll see the stalwart nature of this tall and sturdy tree, but not necessarily a good way to get over there and hug it. Intrepid hikers on Oakland Heritage Alliance tours can find him once a year.
A.A. Cohen’s Fernside Estate
Railroad attorney Alfred A. Cohen built his amazing Italianate villa in 1874, with an entrance where today Buena Vista and Versailles avenues meet in Alameda. The 70-room mansion sat on 106 acres and was built for $300,000 — quite the price tag for the time. Cohen had earned his fortune by savvy dealings with the Big Four, the entrepreneurs responsible for the west end of the transcontinental railroad. An entire floor was devoted to an art gallery, which included European finds and works by American artist Albert Bierstadt. In 1897, a decade after Cohen died while on his private rail car, fire swept through Fernside, utterly destroying it. His widow moved to an outbuilding on the grounds where she lived for nearly 30 more years. Upon her death in 1925, her children sold the land to developers.
Victorian Train Stations of Alameda
Local historian Dennis Evanosky laments the loss of three special train stations. The 1864 Mastick Station sat on Lincoln Avenue between Eighth and Ninth. Built in 1879, the Willow Station operated at the intersection with Lincoln. Constructed the same year, the Chestnut Station graced the corner of Encinal. Photographs of the latter show an unusual outdoor platform with a florid double-towered roof. Those Victorians knew how to tweak every angle and make even the mundane activity of waiting to board a train aesthetically pleasing.
Borax Smith’s Arbor Villa Estate
A sensational mansion for Oakland’s multimillionaire entrepreneur, Arbor Villa graced upper Park Boulevard (across the street from today’s Oakland High). Photographs show that the estate had an enormous ballroom, bowling alley, billiard room, music room, conservatory, observatory, grotto, tennis court, archery range, deer farm with rabbit hutches, lily pond — and a two-story stable that looked more like a manor house. It was demolished in 1932, the year after Smith died at the age of 85. His widow went to live in an apartment near Lake Merritt. They had already been living beyond their means, and the stock market crash of 1929 did them no favors. The home’s many effects were divvied up; it’s believed Mills College got some of the furniture. Describing the difficulty of identifying pieces from photographs showing the busy, dark-paneled Victorian interiors, Borax’s grandson Steve Beck wonderfully applies an aural metaphor to a visual situation: “It’s like when 20 people are talking.” All that’s left today is a row of palm trees on the hillside that once formed a grand alley to the front door.
Golden State Ostrich Farm
Here 75 birds grew their plumage for ladies’ hats. The farm opened in Oakland’s Fruitvale in 1908 (a different venture than the one in Idora Park). To gather the plumage, wranglers would put a stocking over the bird’s head to calm it. They’d take 24 long plumes from each wing and several smaller ones as well. Of those nearly 50 feathers, only a dozen would be of proper quality. Part of ostrich behavior includes waltzing (presumably not on redwood stumps), which is the habit of spinning around and around crazily when the sun comes up. The birds would often fall and break a leg, an injury from which they don’t easily recover. In fact, in 1892 Africa, ostrich farmers factored in a yearly loss of 8 to10 percent for waltzing deaths. As late as 1968, Piedmont Avenue merchants sponsored an ostrich race between Pleasant Valley Road and Linda Avenue. Six birds competed.
It’s painful to realize residents could once jump on a streetcar from most Oakland neighborhoods and be in San Francisco in minutes. The lower deck of the Bay Bridge was reserved for trains, and before that, trains met ferries for a relaxing trip across the Bay. Commuters remember years-long poker games that took place during the ride. The Key System was an efficient network that made public transportation a green reality for decades in Oakland. Then (cue minor chords), a secret conglomeration of auto merchants like General Motors and Firestone tires bought up the lines and dismantled the rails — often in the darkness of night — so that the bus and car would reign supreme. Sucks, no? They were found guilty of conspiracy by the U.S. Supreme Court but given only a hand-slap fine: a fact to make most molars grind. The Key System had already begun replacing many of its rail lines with buses, and the ghost of that fleet formed the background of AC Transit.
Hands off my treasure!
Here’s three that almost got lost, but were preserved.
• Oakland City Hall: demolition seriously considered post–Loma Prieta
• Fox Theater: some preferred a parking lot to restoration
• Lake Merritt itself: In 1867, the Big Four owned the lake, one of which wanted to fill it in for a grand train station. Luckily, they instead donated it to the city. In July 1890, all the physicians in Oakland petitioned the City Council to drain the lake for health reasons; again, common sense prevailed.
The author would like to extend thanks to Kathleen DiGiovanni and the Oakland History Room for the generous use of the library’s photo collections to illustrate this article.