Edifice Rex: Reigning Buildings in Oakland

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By Helen Metz Lore ’43

[Ed. Note: There are a thousand and more fascinating buildings in the city of Oakland. Many date from the early pioneer days; some were designed as recently as last year.

We asked Helen Metz Lore, ’43, Director of the Oakland Heritage Alli­ance, to do the impossible. Describe a few of those kingly buildings to give us a flavor of the rich presence of architecture in our city. Her choices from private and public structures do exactly that. In addition, her narra­tion gives us glimpses of the tremen­dous damage done to Oakland by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It also gives us a sense of the intricate ties between Mills and her city.]

Oakland YWCA

The YWCA is one of architect Julia Morgan’s finest buildings in Oakland. An outstanding woman architect in the first half of the 20th century, Morgan is responsible for several historic buildings on the Mills campus, namely: El Cam­panil, the former library (now Carnegie Hall), the Student Union, the former Gym and Dance Studio (demolished in 1960), and Alderwood Hall (originally the Ming Quong Orphanage). One of the first women to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, she is perhaps best known as the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon Castle.

Built in 1913, the Oakland YWCA was the first of many Y’s designed by Morgan in California. It is an Oakland City Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In a modified Italian Renaissance style, the building has a steel frame with grey-beige, pressed brick on the exterior base and brick-bor­dered stucco with terra cotta trim on the shaft and attic. Its cornerstone is “Dedi­cated to Nobler Womanhood.”

The interior is highlighted by a large, central two-level atrium with small­-paned skylights. Originally the atrium court contained a fountain surrounded by potted plants. Galleries on the upper floors led to classrooms and offices. The top floors were dormitories later changed into individual bedrooms and class­rooms. In the lobby, oak alcove seats located next to a large fireplace lent warmth and informality.

In 1980-81, considerable restoration was done to the building. However, as with so many downtown Oakland build­ings, the Y was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and its restora­tion is just now completing. The city is looking forward to the removal of the scaffolding that has covered the building for nearly three years.

Oakland YWCA (Photo courtesy of the Oakland Public Library)

Paramount Theater

Oakland’s restored Paramount The­ater is the premier Art Deco building in the city’s distinctive 1920’s-1930’s retail and entertainment district that has one of the finest collections of Art Deco and terra cotta buildings on the West Coast. Designed as a movie palace in 1931 by architect Timothy Pfleuger, the Para­mount is a jewel in Oakland’s uptown district. It is an Oakland City Landmark, a California State Landmark, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Paramount was the first major motion picture house in the West to be renovated as a theater of the arts. In 1973, a massive restoration brought the theater back to its original glory both inside and out. The exterior is dominated by a monumental Paramount sign. Flank­ing the sign are two giant Byzantine-style figures in glazed tile maroon mosaic, whose hands control marionettes repre­senting the theatrical and motion picture industries.

The spacious grand lobby is 60 feet in height. Its ornamentation is truly spectac­ular and includes seven tall, grilled win­dows rising from the base to the ceiling on two sides and an illuminated green ceiling that stretches from the entrance door to over the double stairways leading to the mezzanine foyer.

The auditorium has huge bas-relief murals in stamped metal depicting nude figures posing in an earthly paradise. All textiles in the restored theater—draper­ies, carpeting, and upholstery—are exact reproductions of the originals.

The Paramount owes its 1973 resto­ration to the monumental efforts of the Oakland Symphony Association and other concerned citizens to raise $4 mil­lion for the restoration work. For many years the Oakland Symphony used it as its symphony hall. Home to the Oakland Ballet, it is also booked for musicals, clas­sic movies, travelogues, organ concerts, and special events.

City Hall

Damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and unoccupied since then, Oakland’s historic 1914 City Hall still sits majestically at City Hall Plaza in the heart of the city’s downtown. When it was designed in 1914 by Palmer and Hornbostel of New York, this Beaux Arts building was the first skyscraper city hall in the United States. A three-part steel-­frame structure clad in granite and terra cotta, and ornamented with rich Renais­sance and Baroque detail, the building consists of a grand, classical, three-story base housing a rotunda and council chambers, a nine-story tower for city offices and a multi-stage penthouse and lantern with a clock and cupola. At one time there were a flagpole and a red light that blinked from a spire signaling police officers to call in for assignments. City Hall is an Oakland Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The main damage to the building by the earthquake was in the cupola. It will be restored, not torn down, as was the cupola at Mills Hall, which was removed because of damage by the 1906 earth­quake. When the 1989 earthquake hit and no one could go into the building, the city scurried around to find office space. For a few weeks staff was ordered to stay home and wait for instructions by phone. Heads of departments operated out of their cars with cellular phones. It was particularly hectic in the Planning Department which had no records of building permits, etc. The city almost ground to a halt. But it didn’t, and the displaced staff is now in rental offices throughout the downtown district until the City Hall restoration is completed in 1994-95.

This was not the first City Hall to face disaster. Oakland’s third City Hall, designed in 1867 by S.C. Bugbee, who was also the architect of Mills Hall, burned to the ground in 1877.

Although there was some contro­versy in the beginning as to whether to demolish City Hall or to restore it, it is gratifying to know it is being saved and will once more be the heart of the city.

Broadway Building

Sitting across City Hall Plaza from City Hall is one of Oakland’s finest and most visible landmarks—the Broadway Building. A flat-iron structure situated at the most important intersection in the city, it was designed in 1907 by San Fran­cisco architect Llewellyn B. Dutton for the First National Bank and pioneered reinforced concrete construction in downtown Oakland. An elegant Beaux Arts building with Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation, it has a base of California white granite and ivory terra cotta on the upper stories. Its signature sculpture is the richly carved clock and figures in the second level above the one­time corner entrance.

The interior boasts an Italian Pavonazzo marble lobby with floors, walls, columns, newel posts, balusters, and benches all in marble of different hues and colors. Wall panels are trimmed in glass mosaic bands. Upstairs corridors have marble floors and wainscoting. In 1964, the grand banking hall was remod­eled for retail. However, the building still has retained its beauty and grandeur despite the modernization of the first floor exterior.

Unfortunately, the Broadway Build­ing was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and has been boarded up since then. The owner wishes to demol­ish the structure in order to build a high rise in its place. Local preservationists have marshalled their forces to prevent this from happening. Recommended as an Oakland Landmark by the Oakland Preservation Advisory Board, the build­ing is still under consideration for land­mark status by the Oakland City Council. It is considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

So often seen and photographed that its image is deeply associated with that of the city itself, the threat of its destruction has roused wide-spread concern in the city.

Dunsmuir House

Dunsmuir House and Gardens is one of two historic houses owned by the City of Oakland that are open to the public as house museums. (The other is the Camron-Stanford House on the shores of Lake Merritt.) It is located in the East Oakland hills near the San Leandro bor­der.

The house has an interesting history. Alexander Dunsmuir, who built the ele­gant Colonial Revival house in 1906 for his bride-to-be, Josephine Wallace, was destined never to live in it, as he died on his honeymoon in Europe. His widow, eventually to become Edna Wallace Hop­per of Hollywood fame, sold the house to

I. W. Hellman, Jr., scion of a prominent San Francisco family that founded the Wells-Fargo Bank, as a summer resort for his family. Oakland was considered “country” at that time and was noted for its ideal weather.

J. Eugene Freeman was the San Fran­cisco architect who designed the 37-room mansion, which features wood-paneled public rooms, 10 fireplaces, and a Tif­fany-style dome lighting the staircase. The front facade is noted for its three enormous Corinthian columns support­ing the pediment above. A widow’s walk, expansive veranda, and porte-cochere soften the effect of the imposing columns.

Today, perhaps Dunsmuir House’s most popular event is its annual Holiday Open House, when it is decorated with more than 20 large freshly cut Christmas trees adorned with nostalgic ornaments, festoons of garlands, festive packages, and dolls and toys galore.

Over the years it was Mrs. Hellman who developed the estate to its great potential. She was also a benefactor of Mills, donating the 1923 swimming pool still in use at the College.

In 1961, the City of Oakland purchased the property. In 1971, concerned citizens formed a non-profit organization to restore the house and grounds to their original condition. Dunsmuir House is an Oakland City Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dunsmuir House, where alumna Lynda Layton Guthrie is executive director (Photo courtesy of the Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library)

The Camron-Stanford House

The Camron-Stanford House, last of the splendid houses that once ringed Lake Merritt, is one of two historic houses owned by the City of Oakland that are open to the public as house museums. (The other is Dunsmuir House and Gardens in the East Oakland hills.) An 1876 Italianate Victorian, the house was constructed for speculation by Samuel Merritt, a mayor and key devel­oper in Oakland’s early years. It was lived in by five families before becoming the property of the City of Oakland in 1906. Owners included the William Camron family, the Josiah Stanfords (he was a brother of Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University), and industrialist David Hewes. Because of extensive documentation of the Hewes residency, the Camron-Stanford House, although not named for Hewes, has been decorated in the period of his residency. Hewes was also a staunch friend of Mills College. In addition to being a trustee for many years, he donated the bells for El Campanil on campus.

The City of Oakland bought the house in 1906 for its history museum. In 1967, when the museum moved to its quarters in the new Oakland Museum, the house was threatened with demoli­tion. A group of concerned citizens formed the Camron-Stanford Preserva­tion Association to save the house and eventually to restore it to its former glory. Restoration began in 1971 with addi­tional support from the Oakland Junior League, and in 1978 the house museum was opened to the public.

The Camron-Stanford House is a beautiful example of Italianate residen­tial architecture with its classical brack­eted roofline cornice, slanted bay win­dows, and a large veranda at the rear overlooking Lake Merritt. It has recently had a major facelift funded through 1980’s California State Bond monies. Its widow’s walk has been restored (it was given as scrap iron for World War I), and its foundation, which was slightly dam­aged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earth­quake, has been repaired. An Oakland City Landmark, the Camron-Stanford House is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chryst House

To choose one private residence for this story was difficult. I decided on the Oakland Landmark Chryst house in the charming hill area of Montclair, because it exemplifies the many homes in Oak­land built in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the Period Revival style. Designed in 1929 for William and Mary Chryst by Carr Jones, it is everybody’s favorite house.

This picturesque Normandy-style home in its creekside woodland setting has a fairy tale cottage ambience, but is

indeed an elegant home. The shaggy slate roof, multiple gables, curving walls, used brick, clay tiles, and hand-forged iron hardware, as well as weathered and pick­led wood epitomize the picturesque. In addition, fragments of decorative tiles and bas-reliefs are inserted throughout the house. On the practical side and per­haps influenced by the 1923 Berkeley fire, Jones used steel girders and double brick walls with concrete poured between for stability and fireproofing.
Builder of more than 50 houses in Oakland, Jones did not travel to Nor­mandy for his ideas-he was inspired by pictures in the National Geographic! After World War I people turned away from the more indigenous Prairie and Crafts­man styles of the early 20th century and looked toward the romantic styles of the past.

The site of the Chryst house itself adds to its romantic aura with natural rock formations and much vegetation left from previous owners of the property. The house emphasizes the flexibility and airiness of indoor-outdoor living: there are no halls. All rooms open onto a log­gia, originally open, but now glassed-in, to allow for greater ease in moving from room to room.

This beautiful home is nestled in the Provincial Revival neighborhood of Fernwood that lost one side of its street to a freeway in the 1960’s. However, the street has retained its charm as vegeta­tion has been allowed to grow and screen the houses from the world rushing by.

The Oakland Museum

By far the most important contempo­rary building in Oakland is the interna­tionally acclaimed Oakland Museum. This highly imaginative, unique complex is essentially an urban park with a museum underneath. It occupies 7.7 acres spreading over four city blocks on the southern edge of Lake Merritt. It was designed in 1969 by Kevin Roche, for many years chief assistant to Eero Saarinen, who took over the museum project after Saarinen’s death.

The plan is deceptively simple: Oak­land’s three city museums (Art, History, and Natural Science) are housed in a three-level, stepped-back plan which gives each individual museum its own floor. They are tied together by a broad, open staircase. The exterior construction is reinforced concrete with sand-blasted finish. Glass windows and doors are framed in oak. The interiors have sand­blasted concrete and oak paneled walls. A monumental space was created for large exhibits from the Art and History Museums-the Great Hall, a baronial room that can be designed and adapted easily for these exhibits. This has to be one of the most exciting galleries in any museum. Entering it from the heroic staircase, which is cantilevered from the wall, is breathtaking.

An integral part of the over-all design is the landscaping. In the stepped-back design, the roof of one museum becomes a terrace and garden for the previous level. Outdoor areas are marked by luxu­riant plantings, which soften and comple­ment the rigid geometry of the structure and create a “hanging garden” effect.

It was decided early on that the museum would be a Museum of Califor­nia—all exhibits and programs follow this theme. The museum founders and the architects shared a major concept in the creation of the Oakland Museum: “This building was not to be coldly monumen­tal, but generous and welcoming.” And it has become just that—a museum of and for the diverse population of Oakland and the Bay Area.