Frank Bette: The Man Behind the Art Center

Adam de la Torre Frank Bette

 

Many people who stop by the Frank Bette Center for the Arts are curious about the history of the big golden yellow building at the corner of Paru Street and Lincoln Avenue. They also ask about the man behind the center. 

According to Alameda Museum curator George Gunn, the architectural and construction firm of Hyde & Cox built 1601 Paru St. in 1894 for grocer William A. Gunn (no relation to George). The 1896 Polk-Husted Directory listed William as living at the address.  In An Architectural Guidebook to San Francisco and the Bay Area, architectural historian Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny refers to 1601 Paru St. as the “Gunn Building.” 

In Documentation of Victorian and Post-Victorian Buildings in Alameda, George Gunn notes that the year before they built the commercial structure at 1601 Paru St., Hyde & Cox built the residence at 1725 San Jose Ave. Contemporary records also show Hyde & Cox built at least one house in Berkeley. 

By the mid-20th century Alfred Huntoon was using the building as an appliance repair shop. In 1962, Frank Bette purchased the building and converted it to suit his antique refinishing business.  

Frank Bette was born “Franz Josef Bette” on May 26, 1903, in Siedlinghausen, Germany, about 175 miles east of Cologne. He lived in Siedlinghausen until he immigrated to the United States, leaving for America aboard the Bremen on April 1, 1927. 

Bette went to Chicago, where he lived with his maternal uncle, cabinetmaker Rudolf Schieber, on Winthrop Street. The 1930 census shows that Bette had Americanized his first name from Franz to Frank. On April 19, 1933 he applied for American citizenship. 

Bette was still living in Chicago when he registered for the draft on Oct. 1, 1942. He listed his profession as a “skilled painter.” He served in the Air Force during World War II, working as a mechanic fashioning wooden propellers. After the war he settled in New Orleans, where he lived until 1949. He next moved to San Francisco, where he found a job as a furnisher refinisher for Gump’s. 

The 1957 telephone directory listed Bette as living in a flat above the businesses on the 1000 block of Central Avenue, between Weber and Ninth streets. He opened his first shop on that block. Five years later Bette purchased 1601 Paru St. 

Bette died on June 5, 1999, just eight days after he celebrated his 96th birthday. He bequeathed his building “to be a place for meetings, readings, showings and other creative doings.” Seventeen years have passed. Were Bette to see how artists are using his building today, he would be pleased. 

Bette rests at the Centerville Pioneer Cemetery in Fremont. A street at Alameda Landing bears his name.  

Learn more about Frank Bette at www.frankbettecenter.org/the-frank-bette-legacy.html. Learn more about the Frank Bette Center for the Arts at www.frankbettecenter.org/the-frank-bette-center.html.

The center is currently at a crossroads in its history. View the letter to the editor section to learn more.