What’s in a Name? Croll’s Garden Court

Alameda Museum    A drawing likely commissioned by a newspaper gives an idea of the layout of Neptune “Croll’s” Gardens.

Crolls Garden Court traces its name to a resort called Neptune Gardens, which later bore the name of the man who put the resort on the map, John G. Croll. 

Neptune Gardens likely traces its beginnings to 1878, when the South Pacific Coast Railroad began running past its doors. The resort was established enough by the spring of 1880 to attract the attention of a successful Oakland restauranteur and his sons. On May 24 of that year, Italian-born Pietro Pagge ran an advertisement in the Daily Alta California. He announced that he and his sons were opening the Aux Bon Vivants restaurant at Neptune Gardens. Pietro owned Barnum Restaurant, which stood catty corner from the Southern Pacific Railroad station at Seventh and Broadway in Oakland. 

Pietro met with such success that the 1881 D. M. Bishop & Co. directory listed him and his sons as the proprietors of Neptune Gardens. The directory also mentioned Leonard J. F. Scnutenhaus as the owner of a saloon and bowling alley there. According to the directory, Scnutenhaus lived on the north side of Santa Clara Avenue between Second and Third avenues.

In 1884, Neptune Gardens’ owners (possibly the Pagge family) put the property up for sale. They hired Grant I. Taggart and William J. Dingee as brokers. The firm of Taggart & Dingee ran an advertisement in the May 16, 1884, edition of the Daily Alta California praising the gardens’ virtues. The announcement included a detailed description of the property, located “on Central Avenue, Alameda, between the Long Branch and Terrace Baths.”

Taggart & Dingee told the newspaper’s readers that Neptune Gardens included “one acre of high land and nine acres of tide land.” Improvements consisted of large 12-room house, fitted up for a restaurant. Summer houses stood on the grounds, as did a shooting gallery, a bowling alley, a stable, as well as a windmill with a water tank.  The gardens’ beautiful sandy beach was suited for surf bathing and the grounds were handsomely planted and laid out, the advertisement extolled. All this made for a “most attractive resort.”

“The narrow-gauge cars stop opposite the property,” the advertisement said. “Secure a catalogue and go and see the property.” James Fair, who had built the railroad that carried those narrow-gauge cars,  did just that. He purchased the property. 

Fair refurbished and reopened Neptune Gardens complete with a balloon ascension on June 28, 1885. Long Branch Swimming Baths disappeared when Fair purchased that property as well and incorporated Long Branch into Neptune Gardens. He hired John G. Croll away from Oakland’s Union Pacific Restaurant to first to manage the restaurant on the grounds and not long thereafter, to run the entire operation. 

“Croll was just the man to run such a place, historian Nilda Rego relates. “He was a nonstop promoter, devising all sorts of attractions to bring in customers.”

Croll learned that New York had banned bare-knuckled boxing — a sport that was not legal anywhere in the United States at the time. Alameda sports historian Brian Higgins writes that he “seized the opportunity to tout Alameda, specifically Neptune Gardens, as an ideal training grounds for boxers.”  The resort “was a wonderland for outdoor exercise; and more than a few of the sport’s rising stars were coming out of the West Coast anyway,” Higgins writes. “One of them was a San Francisco-reared heavyweight who would come to fame as “Gentleman Jim Corbett.”

Higgins writes that Neptune Gardens “soon became known and referred to as Croll’s Gardens” — the name that Crolls Gardens Court recalls. He explains that “boxing began to embrace the Queensbury Rules that govern the sport today.”  These rules “limited rounds to three minutes, invoked a 10-second count for fallen fighters and, most importantly, promoted the use of boxing gloves.” 

However, all was not well. Rego tells us that Fair spent $60,000 on his pavilion that accommodated dancing, roller skating, theatrical productions and broadsword contests on horses. “Jonny” Croll ran it all. 

Sunday was the busiest day. The churches scarcely appreciated that the west end of town was hosting what the San Francisco Call described as “hideous orgies.” The City of Alameda stepped in not only banning Sunday sports, but imposing a $500 a year license fee on all entertainment houses that charged admission.

Business came to an end. Croll lived with his wife, Nellie, and their family on the grounds of Neptune Gardens until 1891, when they moved into the old Britt’s Hotel. John renamed the place the Encinal Hotel and Saloon. That same year he applied for a liquor license. The application “was met with vigorous protest,” the newspapers reported. Despite the neighbors’ disapproval, the county granted John the license. On Feb. 17, 1892, he began dispensing alcohol at the saloon he christened “Croll’s,” for his family. 

In a later installment, the Alameda Sun will explore how Britt’s Hotel evolved into today’s Croll’s Building.