Where Restoration Plans Came True

This weekend, the Oakland Heritage Alliance offers a first-ever walking tour through Shepherd Canyon.  When the trains stopped running, decades ago, the State considered and abandoned highway development plans.  It’s time to imagine what might have been, and to appreciate how long-term, low-impact plans came true.

In 1975, the City of Oakland prepared the first Shepherd Canyon Corridor Plan and Environment Impact Report.  The documents covered a wide range of development and criteria for the canyon.  Some 12.6 acres were set aside for the Railroad Trail, along with another 5.4 acres allocated to the Shepherd Creek Trail.  There’s been slow, but steady, restoration progress since then.

Mother Nature has pushed projects along this year, especially to improve driving and walking conditions.  In 2011, the City has been installing necessary storm drains along with guard rails.  Some openings in the rails, for walker access, are getting cut soon.  Even with budget crunches, Oakland’s Measure B made this nearly three-quarter million spend possible.

The Shepherd Canyon Park and trails have come alive through local volunteers, like all of our Montclair nature-scapes.  Beyond the actively used soccer play fields, there have been efforts to remove trash, clear brush, build benches, install signs and create welcome gates.  The trails are (always) a work-in-progress, yet are very nice already.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) has awarded Shepherd Canyon with a Partners In Preservation award, especially for its interpretative signs and improvements.  For their Saturday tour, they have asked Mike Petouhoff to lead a two-hour tour on the trails.  As Shepherd Canyon Homeowner Association (SCHA) president, Mike is our resident expert on all-things Shepherd Canyon — and you’re guaranteed to learn a lot!

More info: The Shepherd Canyon walking tour takes off from the Montclair Recreation Center (map).  You will need comfortable walking shoes, though it’s not a difficult trek.  This tour runs from 10 am-noon, and may end up with a lingering lunch in the Village.  Please show up a few minutes early to register.  As an OHA benefit, donations are requested:  $15/non-members; $10/members; $5/kids; free/kids under 10 years old.

Update: Our Oakland took the Shepherd Canyon walking tour and reported it here. Also check out all the accompanying photos.

Take One Of Jane’s Walks

In honor of Jane Jacobs, there are several walking tours planned around Oakland this Saturday.

You should set aside a couple hours and join one of the neighborhood tours, to appreciate all the human-level interactions in an urban setting – and to understand how Oakland presents a perfect case study of older, transitional centers.

Meet Urbanist Jane Jacobs, RIP

Almost fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs pushed against the old-school urban development parlance of high-rises surrounded by open spaces.  She recommended street-level retail and mixed uses in neighborhoods, and challenged the orthodox zoning concepts which separated uses.  She believed people would properly populate these mixed environments, and make them vibrant and safe.

In her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs explained:

The bedrock attitude of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.  He must not feel automatically menaced by them.  A city district that fails in this respect also does badly in other ways and lays up for itself, and for its city at large, mountain on mountain of trouble.

Tour Oakland On Foot, This Saturday

What kind of Jane’s Walks have been planned this Saturday?  Some trace stairways and hidden pathways, mostly in the hillier areas.  Others examine the remnants of our Key System train routes.  Still others embrace and celebrate Oakland’s original core.

All the walking tours are free to the public, and are well-organized by Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, Oakland Urban Paths and the City of Oakland’s Tourist Program.  Here’s the official line-up:

  • Old Oakland – Walk through what was once the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad!   See great, restored commercial buildings. – Runs 10:00 am – 1:00 pm.  Starts at G.B. Ratto, 821 Washington St (map), ends at La Borinquena, 582 Seventh St (map).
  • An Advocate’s Walk – Ever thought a scenic walk was too far away?  Walk from BART through Temescal, Echo Creek, Rose Garden, Whole Foods and Lake Merritt. – Runs 12:30 pm – 2:30 pm.  Starts at 555 40th St (map), ends at 1900 Broadway (map).
  • The Oakmore Stairs – The four sets of stairs in Oakmore were rebuilt as part of the original development.  Hear stories from residents and get a primer of the Key Route System. – Runs 10:30 am – 1:00 pm.  Starts and ends at Leimert and Arden Place (map).
  • Lake Merritt, Roses and Glen Echo Creek – Take several footpaths criss-crossing the city, connecting some of the city’s most stunning settings. – Runs 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm.  Starts at Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Ave (map), ends at Grand Tavern, 3601 Grand Ave (map).
  • Mills College, A Creekside Oakland Gem – Learn about current efforts to restore the creek, then tour around the college campus. – Runs 10:00 am – 12:00 pm.  Starts and ends at Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd (map).
  • Crocker Highland, Grand Lake Stair Walk – Check out four historic neighborhoods, and traverse secret stairs and paths that were cut-throughs to the Key Route. – Runs 10:00 am – 12:00 pm.  Starts and ends at Azirmendi, 3265 Lakeshore Dr (map).

Honor Oakland’s Heritage All Year

Well beyond a single tour day, Oakland offers a terrific series of historical and cultural walks each year.  The Oakland Heritage Alliance organizes fee-based walking tours which are top-notch, attracting historians and experts as local docents.  Last summer there were over 20 weekend events, capped off by a neighborhood open-house in Storybook Fernwood.

In addition, the Mountain View Cemetery leads interesting docent tours twice monthly.  Introductory tours visit Millionaire’s Row and get a lay of the land.  Other tours are surprisingly creative, based on who’s resting there for eternity.  You really must check out this Frederick Law Olmsted creation.

The City of Oakland also organizes twice-weekly, free tours around the city for visitors and residents.  Local historian Annalee Allen oversees these tours with volunteers, but the whole program might get cut at this Thursday’s City Council meeting.  If you’re a tour-lover, then email your council rep now:   Jean Quan at jquan@oaklandnet.com, or Jane Brunner at jbrunner@oaklandnet.com.

Oakland’s still fortunate to have many residents who revel in our local heritage.  These experts make sure our historical, cultural and other local knowledge doesn’t vanish from memory – and you can meet some of them during Jane’s Day!

Fernwood, Perfect For Oakland Founder Hays

Come take a peek at the Fernwood area on Sunday, when Montclarions will open their historical homes to the public.  The legacy of Fernwood makes this a “must see” place in Oakland – as a unique little enclave.

Back in 1852, Colonel John Coffee Hays decided the Temescal Creek was a perfect place for a homestead which, for obvious reasons, he called Fernwood.  If the place was good enough for Oakland’s founding father and first mayor, then there must be something special about it.

Fernwood - Storybook House

Fernwood Gets Settled

Colonel Hays built a large estate at Fernwood, which Wood’s History of Alameda County called “one of the most beautiful of the State and located at the base of the verdure-clad hills of the Coast Range, in a quiet nook [with] lordly oaks and a handsome building and exquisite art.  Indescribable views in every direction.”

After Hays died, two other landed gentry occupied the area.  The Dingees lived there first, until their opulent home burned down.  Later the Percy family lived a little more modestly there.

The fun began after Marion “Borax” Smith and Frank Havens decided to develop this tract.  These were the guys running “Realty Syndicate,” which also developed the Key System and the City of Piedmont.

This time, they wanted to create a place where homes were lovely yet more whimsical.  They marketed the heck out of this new tract as well.  George Duncan, who’s been lucky enough to live in Fernwood for some 45 years, shared more about the development over the years:

The beginning: The 100 (or so) lots development of Fernwood was in 1924, when Havens started selling off the Dingee Estate after an ad campaign that included naming a ferry boat “The Fernwood,” and conducting motorized sales tours from the ferry for potential buyers from San Francisco.

Hood location: The area of the ‘hood is basically one long block surrounded on the east by Mountain Blvd, between Thornhill on the south and Florence Terrace on the north and Fernwood Dr, on the west.  The area lies about equidistant between Lake Temescal to the north and Montclair Village to the south.

Highway destruction: When Landvale Ave. became State Highway 13, following WWII,  it wiped out all the houses on the west side of Fernwood Dr. that backed on the freeway as well as a neighborhood swim club and three or four tennis courts located on Florence Terrace.

Railroad phase-out: The neighborhood organization, “The Fernwood Club,” came into being to hire attorneys to help protect it when The Sacramento Northern RR stopped running and the intersection at Thornhill and Moraga was remodeled to accommodate a freeway exit and an underpass from the highway.

Spared in 1991: In The Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, we were spared almost certain damage when the fire was controlled a block or two to the north at Broadway Terrace as it climbs up the ridge of hills to Skyline Blvd.

Fernwood - Spanish Hacienda

Fernwood’s Still There Today

The Fernwood neighborhood honors its roots, with vestiges of the original Dingee and Percy estates scattered around the properties.  According to the Oakland Heritage Alliance, Dingee’s legacy includes remains from waterfalls, terraces, fountains, orchards, and vineyards in local yards and gardens.  Percy’s legacy includes various creek-side landscaping, plantings and trees – with some species from the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in 1915.

While most homes were built before WWII, they range from the 1920s through 1960s on the street.  There’s a range of styles instead of cookie-cutter development, yet Fernwood still seems cohesive and natural in its landscape.  While the area’s best known for storybook styles, you can also spot Tudors, Spanish, Mission-Revival, Mission, Regency-inspired and Japanese modern homes there.

The houses emerged from different sources.  In the 1920s, the Spanish homes were designed by Oaklander Roger Blaine who worked with Timothy Pflueger, the architect who created the Paramount Theater.  Another home was designed by a young John Carl Warnecke, who went on to design JFK’s gravesite at Arlington Cemetery.  And several homes were even moved here from the Treasure Island World’s Fair in 1939.

Since fire danger has always been part of our history, some of the homes are fire-proofed fortresses.  After one of the largest fires, the Berkeley Fire of 1924, one notable specimen was constructed with double-brick walls and a slate roof.  The early Fernwood homes look like they were built to last, and have done so.

Fernwood - Old Tudor

Oakland Heritage Alliance’s Tour

Please visit the Storybook Houses of Fernwood this Sunday afternoon.  The Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) has organized a self-guided tour through the neighborhood, featuring nine Period Revival homes from the 1920s.  The hours are from 1:00 to 5:30 pm, and you may visit all the homes by walking along Mountain Blvd and Fernwood Drive.

Just show up at 1600 Mountain Blvd, in the Montclair District.  The tour costs $35/person for the tour, or $25 if you belong to the Alliance.  It’s worth every dime, as a major benefit for this group which “advocates the protection, preservation, and revitalization of Oakland’s architectural, historic, cultural and natural resources.”

With a part-time administrator and nine-person volunteer board, the OHA organizes nearly two-dozen walking tours and a dozen lectures annually.  Doug Dove, who’s an OHA board member and Fernwood House Tour chairman, said that tour attendance was very high all summer long.  He expects at least 500 people at Fernwood, including the 60 docents and/or homeowners!

The Fernwood neighbors will be a congenial and welcoming bunch.  They still operate the Fernwood Club, which taps ino the proceeds of invested money from their old freeway fights.  While the Club meets for picnics or dinners, they have also made donations over the years.  Most notably they contributed the brick fireplace for Montclair Library, another storybook structure.

Thus it’s not surprising that nine Montclarions are sharing their Fernwood properties, and supporting the Oakland Historical Alliance this year.  If you have been on any of the historical walking tours before, then you already know the OHA prides themselves on finding experts and having them share their Oakland knowledge.  Fernwood’s open houses are the final tour event for the season – in a cool place to live that we call home.

Taking A Montclair Appreciation Tour

We decided to take an historical tour featuring Montclair today, but wondered how anyone could schedule 2.5 hours for such an event.  After all, we’re a far cry from ancient Rome.

After taking this walk and talk, we understood and have become disciples of the Oakland Heritage Alliance.  There’s plenty to learn about our area, the first Euro settlers, village development, landmarks and even buildings that usually go unnoticed.

Montclair Appreciation Tour - Firehouse Stop

Docent Kathleen diGiovanni is an Oakland librarian who clearly knows her craft.  She researched everything well, and told us what was documented versus hearsay.  She explained what “was there” or “happened there” all over the village.  And she brought along old photos so we could compare yesteryear with today.

Here’s some of what we learned this afternoon:

  • Texas Ranger John Hayes was the first Euro settler who owned all the land from north of Berkeley through part of Hayward.  He was legit, having purchased (rather than stolen) his land from the Peraltas.  He didn’t actually live in our hills, though.
  • The first Montclarion settlers were perched near the Thornhill-Moraga exit, on the Thornhill side.  Back then, they lived on Hayes Road.  The name later changed to Thorn Road, honoring logger Hiram Thorn.  When realtors hit town, they decided on Thornhill.  Today there are some stones along the northern reaches that might have edged the first settlement, but no one’s exactly sure.
  • Folks from a hundred years ago really didn’t understand the value of trees. It seems that everyone was obsessed with blue-gum eucalyptus trees.  After all the original growth redwoods were logged out, these trees were planted because they were supposed to remove malaria risks in the swamps and provide good hardwoods for building – but they were not particularly useful after all.
  • Original real estate developers wanted Montclair Village to look like Carmel, at least from an architectural perspective.  There are a few vestiges left in the village, such as the Spanish style bus depot that now houses Le Bonbon.  There also used to be a really nice building housing the Montclarion, but it was razed to build a gas station.  So much for preservation ideals back in 1961!
  • Fortunately, some of the original buildings stayed intact. The 1920s and 1930s storybook charmers remain in Fernwood, as well as the Montclair Library and old Fire Station.  Other later era structures have gotten covered up, such as a wood-clad, hip 1950s building where Noah’s Bagels sits.  As we walked south on Mountain, we looked at original buildings near Luckys – and realized they might seem nicer as time marches on.
  • Vestiges of the trains running through Montclair are prominent, when you poke around Montclair Park and Mountain Avenue.  You can imagine where the massive berm was located, as verified by Montclair School alums who used walking tunnels through it.  After the Sacramento Northern trains ceased operations in the 1950s, the earth-berm was removed entirely.

Anyway, kudos to the Oakland Heritage Alliance.  While there were a few dozen people appreciating Montclair on the tour, we’re pretty sure that most Montclarions would have gotten a big kick out of the stories told about our little burg today.

Greet Mountain View Cemetery Denizens, This Saturday

You probably drive past Mountain View Cemetery frequently, just running errands around the city.  If you have stopped by the place, then you know this huge cemetery feels like an oasis.  Our Frederick Law Olmsted legacy also features spectacular views that visitors and denizens appreciate together.

Mountain View Cemetery Millionaires

Whether you have been to Mountain View before or not, we think it’s worth taking an official cemetery tour.  Join the Oakland Heritage Alliance’s annual visit this Saturday, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm.  You will be introduced to old movers and shakers interred here, along with some interesting monuments.  This hilly tour meets up at the Chapel of the Chimes (4499 Piedmont Ave, map), and costs $15/head to benefit the Alliance.

The Genesis of Mountain View

Well, Dr. Samuel Merritt and his buddies didn’t want to be buried downtown in the depressing, Webster Street burial ground anymore.  After Christmas Day 1863, Merritt organized a fateful meeting of city elites along with up-and-comer Rev. Isaac Brayton, who owned some lovely hillside acreage.  Brayton willingly sold this land, used his proceeds to finance the College of California (later Berkeley) and, of course, now rests peacefully at Mountain View.

These Oaklanders wanted a fabulous place for eternity, and asked Frederick Law Olmsted to design his first-ever cemetery.  According to The Monthly, Olmsted “recommended a handful of Mediterranean plant species and one indigenous tree – the evergreen oak – to create a more formal, low-water, low-maintenance landscape.  He was more than a century ahead of his time in thinking about drought-resistant and native plants.”

Who’s Buried At Mountain View

You’ll find former captains of industry, politicians and other famed Westerners.  The ones you probably know best are railroad titan Charles Crocker,  chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, architect Julia Morgan and murder victim “Black Dahlia.”  Notable Oaklanders include industrialist “Borax” Smith, poet laureate and Jack London mentor Ina Coolbrith, and even Leland Stanford’s brother Josiah, who produced the first Californian champagne.

We poured through a Mountain View site, and discovered other interesting denizens.  Foodies will appreciate the mother of olive oil, Freda Ehmann, or the father of the Pacific fruit industry, Henderson Luelling.  Educational leaders there include U.S. kindergarten movement founder Emma Marwedel and California’s public education system founder John Swett.

Plus two folks who left a nice legacy are Sarah Plummer, who made the poppy our state flower; and Glenn Burke, the A’s ballplayer credited with inventing the high-five!

Of course, hearing cultural and historical perspectives from the Oakland Heritage Alliance will shed far more light.  We’re fortunate to have some real experts, historians and architectural buffs who care about Mountain View.  If you can’t make this Alliance tour, then no worries – check out the cemetery schedule for other docent-lead, free tours.

More info:    Mountain View SiteCemetery EventsTomb with a ViewLives of the Dead:  Mountain View Cemetery PeopleOakland Museum’s Online ExhibitCemetery Book PreviewCemetery Book OrderOakland Heritage Alliance