Island of the Victorians
More Per Capita Than Anywhere? Maybe
It’s said there are more Victorian-style homes in Alameda, based on our population, than anywhere else in the country.
And George Gunn knows each and every one of them, whether an Eastlake cottage, Queen Anne or Colonial Revival. Two decades ago, he spent a year walking the streets of Alameda documenting each house that dates from 1854 to 1909. And then he wrote a book—Documentation of Victorian and Post-Victorian Residential and Commercial Buildings, City of Alameda, 1854–1904 (a second volume covers 1905–1909)—listing all of the Victorian-era houses on the Island.
“I always considered the houses a museum artifact, even though they’re out in the environment,” says Gunn, curator of the Alameda Museum. “They’re obviously a clue that people existed here before us.”
There are about 3,000 Victorian-era homes in Alameda, one for every 25 people who live here. In addition, there are another 1,000 historic buildings, including City Hall and many of the shops along the Park Street and Webster Street commercial corridors.
Stroll down the tree-lined streets of Alameda today, and you can see the town hasn’t changed too much since many of the houses were built more than 100 years ago, when the Island was known as the “City of Homes and Beaches.”
Back then, development of Alameda followed the railroad. Once trains began serving the Island in the 1880s, houses came next, and Alameda became one of the original suburbs. Builders boasted that every house was a three-minute walk from a train station.
In 1890 alone, 305 houses were built—a housing boom, says Gunn. Most are still standing. Around that time, builder Joseph Leonard built rows of Victorian-style houses in the neighborhood around St. Joseph Catholic Church. The area, near the Encinal stop on the train, became known as Leonardville.
“You could get off a train and walk home,” says Gunn.
And the houses were elaborate. They had tall ceilings, enormous bay windows, swirling millwork detail. They had all of the latest conveniences, including indoor plumbing and gas lights. Central heat was making inroads, and there were fewer fireplaces. Some houses, like the Queen Annes, were downright flamboyant, with turrets and wraparound porches.
“In some cases, they were affluent areas when they were built, and they still are,” says Gunn.
Many people moved to Alameda to raise families and to escape the density of San Francisco and Oakland, he says. A few houses were built as summer homes, but most were occupied year-round.
Later, after the Bay Bridge opened in 1936, the trains went out of business. The neighborhoods remained, but by the 1950s and 1960s, the Victorian homes were seen, in some cases, as shoddy old houses. Dozens of Victorians were demolished, and in their places were built the apartment buildings that still stand today among the old houses. In the 1970s, the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society, then called the Alameda Victorian Preservation Society, formed to protect the old houses. The group helped pass a local initiative, Measure A, which prohibits the construction of buildings with more than two housing units.
In the mid- to late-1970s, something else occurred that helped preserve the old houses. People once again developed an affinity for the Victorian-style homes, and the beginnings of the home renovation movement began in Alameda. It is full-blown today.
Just ask Ayse Sercan and Noel Cragg. They came to Alameda five years ago specifically looking for an older house. And they found it. Sercan and Cragg live in an 1876 Italianate cottage on Pacific Avenue. When they bought it for $553,000 in 2002, the front steps had collapsed, the exterior hadn’t been painted since 1958, and there was a gas leak in the basement. “We saw the space, and it had good bones,” says Sercan, who received a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University in December 2007.
In a step toward modern times, Sercan and Cragg, who are married, write a blog about their rehab efforts on their old house. It’s become quite a hit, and they have 300 to 400 regular readers and receive 3,500 visits from new readers each month. Their blog has been mentioned in the New York Times Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Their musings, which can be read at casadecrepit.com, chronicle the hilarious and the frightening stories of renovating an old house, such as when they had a new foundation built. Other entries include “9 Ways to Save Money on Your Renovation” and “Marriage Tips for Renovators.”
Renovating their house will take at least 25 years, the couple says. And they’re in it for the long haul. “It’s our permanent hobby,” says Cragg.
Today’s Victorians are well-loved, and some are well-known. Perhaps the most-photographed house on the Island is at the corner of San Jose Avenue and Willow Street. The great green Queen Anne with the turrets and gold accents is something of a poster child for Alameda.
“It does have a very public presence,” says owner Mark White, “but for us, it’s a home.”
White sees people taking photographs and even setting up easels and painting images of his house all the time. He has lived there for four years, and he and his partner are restoring the interior of the house to reflect its Victorian glory days.
“I think you have to have a special love for a Victorian,” says White, a nurse. “There are certainly some odd things about the house, and you wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’ ”
Gunn says other towns and cities have been encroached on by industry, but Alameda remains mostly the same.
“What is unique about Alameda is that many of these Victorian houses exist in their original setting,” he says. “Many neighborhoods are like they were 100 years ago.”
And what about the veracity of the claim that Alameda has more Victorians per capita than elsewhere in the United States? Gunn has joked that the assertion may be urban legend, but he supports it because he finds no reason to think otherwise. It’s an often-repeated fact, and apparently there is no other town claiming this distinction.
—By Mary McInerney
—Photography by Terry VanderHeiden
MORE INFOAlameda Architectural Preservation Society,
(510) 986-9232, www.alameda-preservation.org.
Alameda Museum, 2324 Alameda Ave.,
(510) 521-1233, www.alamedamuseum.org.
Meyers House and Garden Museum, 2021 Alameda Ave. Open 1 p.m.–4 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month.