Alameda: An Architectural Treasure Chest

Alameda: An Architectural Treasure Chest

There are homes built in seven Victorian-era styles. Each blossomed and faded during Queen Victorian’s reign from 1837 to 1901. Alameda’s examples begin with the Gothic Revival and end with the Craftsman styles. They include the Italianate, like the one on the left. Read more about the Gothic Revival style on page 12. Then join Dennis Evanosky for a first-hand look at most of these styles. Meet Dennis at Franklin Park at 9 a.m., this Saturday, Sept. 11.

Dennis Evanosky - Abram and Caroline Rich moved into this Gothic Revival-style home on May 20, 1865. This home is one of four surviving examples of this style in Alameda.

The rustic Gothic Revival style and its urban counterpart, the Italianate style, stem from the fertile minds of Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis.

Dennis Evanosky

Our homes reflect the attitude and feelings prevalent at the time they were built. The Greek Revival style recalls that time when — reeling from the British invasion during the War of 1812 — America turned with admiration to a contemporary revolution taking place in the very cradle of democracy.

The rustic Gothic Revival style and its urban counterpart, the Italianate style, stem from the fertile minds of Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis. These two men did more than any others of their time to express and then shape mid-19th century taste.

The simpler Stick Style reflects the Machine Age and the invention of new tools — especially the scroll saw — and development of the balloon frame.

The exuberant Queen Anne style celebrates the spirit of a time that Samuel Clemens called the “Gilded Age.” At the same time and in the very same place — the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia — Richard Norman Shaw introduced the Queen Anne style, a cleaner, simpler style made its debut.

The Colonial Revival style not only celebrated our country’s roots, but gave architects an alternative to Queen Anne’s gaudiness. The Shingle style did much the same, erasing gingerbread and replacing it with uncomplicated shingles.

As the 19th century came to an end, history stepped in and played a role forcing architects and builders to go from the elaborate to the simple. Just eight years before Queen Victoria’s death brought an end to the era that bore her name, a run on the gold supply precipitated the Panic of 1893 — the worst economic crisis to hit the United States to that point in its history.

Customers invaded their banks attempting to redeem silver notes for gold. When the gold supply reached its statutory limit for the minimum amount in federal reserves, people could no longer redeem paper money. Some 500 banks closed their doors; deposits (and life savings) evaporated.

Major railroads failed— among them the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. More than 15,000 companies went bankrupt, including Alameda’s Joseph Leonard and Company, which closed its doors in 1898.

Small companies, like Leonard’s, and their workers bore the brunt. In 1890 unemployment stood at an acceptable 4 percent; three years later it stood at 11.7 percent. It peaked at 18.4 percent the year after the Panic. It fell to 13.7 percent in 1895 but remained in double digits through 1898. The economy finally recovered in 1900. Everyone took a breath, but six years later the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire struck, followed closely by the Panic of 1907.

In the meantime, artisans stepped in. Gustav Stickley brought us the Craftsman style with its simple, straightforward approach; things got even simpler with the coming of the bungalow.

Let’s look at these styles in turn over the coming weeks. By 1878, four Alameda families were living in homes built in a style that was already more than 100 years old when Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. The Gothic Revival style began in England in 1733 when Henry Pelham built Esher Place in Surrey. Alexander Jackson Davis introduced the style to America in 1838 with his creation “Lyndhurst” in Tarrytown, New York.

Some think that Pelham and Davis were drawing on a style that had never died, so no “revival” was necessary. During a visit to England, I toured York Minster, the largest Gothic-style church north of the Alps. There a stonemason spoke to us on a tour through the Minster.

“Construction on the present church began in 1220 and has never ceased,” said the stonemason. “So how can we speak of a revival?” He pointed with his cone-shaped mallet to the 21st-century corbel he was shaping.

Taking the stonemason’s enthusiastic and pointed argument at face value, one can still speak of a revival, however. According to Megan Aldrich in Gothic Revival, the word Gothic did not describe any style until the 17th century. Then, scholars — looking to the Renaissance as the apex of thought — applied the term to a style they saw as rooted in the “Dark Ages.”

Renaissance scholars associated the Goths and their invasion of Europe as the beginning of these shadowy times and applied the term “Gothic” as a pejorative.

Aldrich points to Sir Henry Wooton’s description of the Gothic arch as one of “natural imbecility.” Sir Christopher Wren, who designed London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Neo-Classical style, saw Gothic architecture as “full of fret and lamentable images.”

American Gothic: Andrew Jackson Downing promoted the Gothic Revival style in America. His 1842 book Cottage Residences, mixed Romantic architecture with the Pastoral Picturesque architecture of the time.

Alameda Gothic: One of Alameda’s Gothic Revival gems, the Webster House, began life in New York as an A. J. Downing-designed home. John Nelson Webster had the home milled in New York and shipped around Cape Horn in the hull of the bark Henry Harbeck.

In March 1849, Webster joined the Mohawk Mining Company and sailed to California. Each member of 28-man company put in $100 worth of goods as his share.

The Henry Harbeck sailed around Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco after a 193-day voyage on September 17, 1849. It took the Mohawk Mining Company until about Dec. 1 to sell its goods. It no doubt delighted the company’s members to learn their $100 shares had increased in value to $500. Each member took his profit and struck out on his own.

In December 1850 Webster returned to New York for a visit. While there, he married Caroline Washburn. The couple returned to California on the same ship that had taken John Nelson Webster to California in 1849.

This time John Nelson and Caroline had their new home tucked in the Henry Harbeck’s hold. Gothic Revival style arrived in Alameda in 1854 when John had his ready-made home assembled on what was then Madison Street.

Three more homes in this earliest of styles would appear on the scene. On May 20, 1865, Abram and Caroline Rich moved into their Gothic Revival home on what would become Fourth Street.

At about the same time William Jaquith built a Gothic Revival home on Walnut Street at Buena Vista Avenue.

And by 1872 the Witgen family was living in their Gothic Revival home along the tracks on Railroad Avenue (Lincoln). about two blocks from Webster Street.

At about the same time William Jaquith built a Gothic Revival home on Walnut Street at Buena Vista Avenue.

By 1872 the Witgen family was living in their Gothic Revival home on Railroad Avenue, todays Lincoln Avenue, not far from Webster Street

In 1902, the Jaquith home was moved a few doors south on Walnut Street toward Pacific Avenue.

Next time, we’ll have a look at the Italianate style and its presence in Alameda.

In last week’s story I mentioned that there were no examples of Greek Revival domestic architectree in Alameda. There is one example of this style on Post Street.

Dennis Evanosky is the publisher of the Alameda Sun.