The ‘Second Empire’ in Alameda

File Photo

The ‘Second Empire’ in Alameda

In 1891, the Croll family bought the Britt Hotel and lent the building the name we call it today: Croll’s, which is both an Alameda Historical Monument and a California State Historical Landmark, pictured at right. Homes in the Second Empire style, also have an Italianate (or Stick-style) flavor with square decorative window crowns, brackets and single-story porches.

Edward Childs built this home in 1880 for Adolph Schnabel. Childs’ design combines Italianate and Second Empire styles. The full Mansard-style second floor lent the home its Second Empire flavor.

Dennis Evanosky

Progress was kind to Patrick and Ann Britt. In the 1870s, they were supporting themselves and their four children, Ellie, Pat, George and Mattie, on a farm on Alameda’s West End — a place historian Woody Minor calls a “hinterland, a wind-swept forest encompassed by marshland and bay.”

Alameda County built a bridge on the other side of the peninsula in 1871, which crossed the estuary at Webster Street. Minor says the bridge brought a “true end to isolation” and provided easier access to the city of Oakland. The following summer, the city opened Webster Street, which led directly to the Britts’ farm.

Then in 1878, James Fair — known as “Slippery Jim” or “Sunny Jim,” depending on your point of view — and Alfred “Hog” Davis began running their South Pacific Coast trains on Central Avenue right along the Britts’ property.

The following spring, the Britts sold their bucolic seven-acre spread for the lofty sum of $21,000; the buyers transformed the farm into Long Branch Baths. Pat and Ann spent $6,000 of their profits to build a handsome hotel in the Second Empire style right where the South Pacific Coast Railroad tracks intersected Webster Street. They named it the Britt Hotel.

The 1880 federal census tells us that the Britt family had grown from four to nine children and now included Martha, Mary, Loretta, Willie and Richard. Pat — as he was known to his friends — and Ann needed more income to support such a large family. They realized that they were in the right place at the right time to do so.

Minor says that the Britt Hotel remained the costliest building on Webster Street for years to come. In 1885, the South Pacific Coast obligingly built a station on Webster Street at the hotel’s front door.

In 1891, the Croll family bought the hotel and lent the building the name we call it today: Croll’s, which is both an Alameda Historical Monument and a California State Historical Landmark.

“This building is closely associated with sporting events significant to the history of the City of Alameda, the San Francisco Bay Area and the State of California,” says the state landmark plaque. “Croll’s is important in the early development of boxing during the Golden Age of Boxing in California,

Along with this roof, homes in the Second Empire style, like the one at 2233 Santa Clara Ave., also have an Italianate (or Stick-style) flavor with square decorative window crowns, brackets and single-story porches. The pipettes on the bay windows give the Schnabel home an unmistakable Italianate appearance. Remmel’s cottage has a Stick-style bay window and fish-scale shingles that anticipate the Queen Anne style.

It’s the Mansard roof that really sets these three buildings apart. François Mansart, for whom the roof is named, was born is 1598 in Paris. Mansart did not invent the roof but perfected it and widely used it to crown his creations.

He began with a hip roof and added dormers. As time went on, Mansart gave his eponymous roof two pitches — a flatter pitch on top, and a much steeper pitch on the sides.

Mansart worked as a master carpenter, stonemason and sculptor. He began studying architecture in his early 20s. He was such a perfectionist that he would sometimes tear down his own buildings and start over. Consequently, only the wealthiest patrons could afford to work with him. The only surviving example of his early work is the chateau of Balleroy. The best preserved example of his mature style is the chateau of Maisons-Laffitte.

When Louis XIV became king in 1643, Mansart lost many of his commissions to other architects. For example, he had commissions to redesign the Louvre and the royal mausoleum at Saint-Denis; neither was executed.

The Second Empire style became very popular because Mansart’s roof efficiently allowed complete use of a building’s top floor. This feature may have attracted Pat and Ann Britt, as the Mansard roof allowed more space for hotel rooms and the revenue they would generate.

At the same time the Britts were building their hotel, architects and builders had already turned to the more austere “Stick” style, the subject the next part of this story.

Dennis Evanosky is the publisher of the Alameda Sun. Reach him at editor@alamedasun.com.