Home Deeply Rooted in Local History
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Courtesy photo

George Goddard designed South Park, pictured here in 1865, for George Gordon. Goddard, Gordon and A.A. Cohen were all Englishmen. Goddard likely patterned South Park's design — which Cohen copied in Alameda — after London's Berkeley Square, which contains an oval park.

The home at 1178 Park Ave. sits on land that an Alameda pioneer had planned to develop as a haven for the wealthy; that idea never bore fruit. Almost 20 years after that dream faded a prominent Alameda developer built his first homes on four parcels of that same land. His creations included the high basement Queen Anne-style cottage at 1178 Park Ave.

Alfred A. Cohen was born in London, England, on July 17, 1829. His family had just celebrated Alfred's fourth birthday when the British Parliament passed the Abolition Act. The act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire and effectively ruined the Cohen family business, a coffee plantation in Jamaica that depended on slave labor.

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Cohen-Bray House

Alfred A. Cohen

The Abolition Act put the family in financial straits. They could no longer afford to live in London. They moved to Exeter in Devonshire where Alfred attended school until 1841. Four years later the 14-yearold found himself back in London.

The year 1847 found Cohen first in Canada, and then in Jamaica, where he joined his older brother Frederick's mercantile business. In 1849, the thought of striking it rich in far-off California got the better of Alfred, and he headed west. At first he settled in Sacramento where he established the commission firm of Alfred A. Cohen.

By 1852 Alfred and Frederick were living in San Francisco. The brothers had prospered enough to mingle with San Francisco's high society. Alfred cemented his membership in that elite circle when he married Emilie Gibbons, daughter of prominent San Francisco physician Henry Gibbons, in 1854. Gibbons Drive in Alameda is named for this family.

Barely a year into his marriage on Thursday, Feb. 22, 1855, news arrived that St. Louis bank Page, Bacon & Co. had serious financial problems. This news precipitated bank runs and the following day depositors lined up at their banks demanding cash. Many didn't get their money and remembered the day as "Black Friday."

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Alameda Museum

Joseph Leonard

Before Cohen's employer, Adams & Co. opened its doors that day the board of directors made a "quiet run" on the bank, leaving Cohen holding an empty bag. He was made (or offered himself up as) the scapegoat. He was arrested while attempting to escape aboard the steamship Uncle Sam.

After a stint in jail Cohen left San Francisco for Alameda with plans and dreams to build a railroad, a hotel and a place for the wealthy to live. To fashion that exclusive neighborhood, Cohen laid out an oval that imitated San Francisco's enclave for the well-heeled, South Park. He filled in that oval with a park and named the street that encircled his creation for the New York City thoroughfare Park Avenue (never mind the confusion that arose because the road immediately to the west bore the name Park Street).

He built a home for his family on property he called "Fernside.

"He also put up a two-story hotel across Central Avenue from his park. His crowning achievement came in the shape of the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad (SF&A). By 1870 the hotel and the dream of developing Park Avenue were gone (a pair of doctors purchased the hotel and converted the grounds into an insane asylum). This mattered little to Cohen, however. By then he had sold the SF&A (and other assets) to the Central Pacific Railroad. The sale made him wealthy.

In 1870 real estate companies stepped in and subdivided the property along Park Avenue. Another man who made his mark in Alameda arrived 17 years later and purchased four of these lots. Joseph Argyle Leonard was born on Jan. 1, 1850, in Dallas, Tex. He arrived in San Francisco as a 33-yearold trained architect and mechanical engineer. His wife of eight years, Annie Jeffries, and the couple's three children came west with him. The family moved to Alameda in 1887 where Leonard worked selling real estate for Alexander Todd.

That same year Leonard decided he wanted to build, not sell homes. He purchased four lots on Park Avenue and went to work. He crafted four Queen Anne-style high-basement cottages with the addresses 1166, 1170, 1176 and 1178. Only the homes at 1176 and 1178 survive.

Leonard's creations at 1166 and 1170 were demolished in 1968 to make way for a pair of triplexes. Park Avenue developed slowly. No existing homes appeared on the oval's 1200 block until 1888, one year after Leonard built his Queen Anne-style quartet. Only two existing homes stood on the 1100 block when Leonard first put hammer to nail in 1887; one other home rose up that year. The 1200 and 1300 blocks of Park Avenue, those nearest Central Avenue, contain 14 homes that predate Leonrd's efforts and still stand today: the oldest, a pair of 1876 homes that Thomas Hayselden & Son built at 1341 and 1345 Park Ave.

Leonard's initial success on Park Avenue whetted his appetite for more. He began to look for other properties to develop. He approached the Pacific Land Investment Company, the South Coast Pacific's Railroad's real estate arm. The company sold him 12 lots on Chestnut Street equally divided north and south of the railway's narrow-gauge tracks on Encinal Avenue. This development would later burgeon into the neighborhood the Alameda Argus dubbed "Leonardville." The name stuck.

By 1890 the city's brass band was giving concerts in Cohen's oval park. Music lovers and the city commissioned Leonard to build a bandstand. The following year, G. A. Fowler commissioned Leonard to build three more homes on Park Avenue. It cost Leonard $2,500 each to build the houses at 1112 and 1116. The home at 1118 must have had a little something extra as it cost $2,750 to build.

The city wrangled with Park Avenue residents over who should pay for paving and other improvements. The ensuing court battle led to the city's taking over the park. On July 4, 1895, Alameda Park officially opened. In 1909 the city changed the name to Jackson Park. A.A. Cohen's dream of a residential park had become reality, albeit on a different scale, and Joseph Leonard's legacy lives on in the five existing homes on Park Avenue and bandstand he created.

Sources: Alameda at Play, Woodruff Minor; Park Avenue Heritage Area, Woodruff Minor; A Home in Alameda, Woodruff Minor; Documentation of Victorian and Post-Victorian Residential and Commercial Buildings in Alameda, 1854 to 1904; George Gunn.

 

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