A Walking Tour of Downtown Oakland, March 3, 2007

by Susan Schwartz

Oakland’s city center boasts architectural gems of three successive city centers, each with its own style, set among exciting pedestrian-centered office development and so much condominium construction that the protective black veils make the city look mourning. But the center was shattered by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which exposed a hollowed economy and leadership. It remains to be seen whether the shards can be melded into a revitalized downtown.

Oakland grew from Gold Rush landing to town under the leadership of Horace Carpentier, a scoundrel lawyer who fleeced both the legal owners, the Peralta land grantees, and citizens, as he collected tolls and sold the waterfront for his own profit. But it was laid out thoughtfully in 1852 by prominent Swiss engineer Julius Kellersberger (he also worked on Central Park), with a planned downtown on Broadway between 4 th and fifth and symmetrically placed neighborhood squares. Though legally a city, Oakland had only a few hundred residents until 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, with its western terminus on Seventh Street. The Mission-style Central Pacific station remains, flanked by bail-bondsmen.

Rails boosted the population from 500 to 5000 in ten years. By 1880, the area north of the station was a brick city center of rental rooms above high-ceilinged stores, slim 3- and 4-storey buildings joined in blocks, with tall doorways and ornate Victorian trim. Gargoyles or other decorations covered the ends of of iron reinforcing bars that made it possible to build up several stories. (You can see the undecorated rod ends on backsides.) The brick, also used in sidewalks, came from the Remillard Brick Company, founded in the 1860s by three Canadian brothers who mined clay first from the south shore of Lake Merritt and later throughout the Bay Area. Pierre Remillard’s blue Eastlake frame home is in Preservation Park, at 13 th and Castro. Nearby is the 1868 Pardee mansion, home to two Oakland mayors, one a governor during the San Francisco Earthquake. (Five of the 16 Victorian houses in the “park,” now used as offices, are original to the site. Others were moved starting in 1970 to escape freeway construction or urban renewal.) Downtown businesses served these elegant homes – examples include Ratto’s, started by a Genoese immigrant in 1897; the now-vanished Housewive’s Market, and Swann’s Market, now restored.

With the turn of the Century, Oakland had outgrown this first downtown. The ornate, classically inspired Beaux Arts style favored by the City Beautiful movement was in fashion, terra cotta provided inexpensive decoration, and steel reinforcement let buildings reach for the stars. The center moved north of 10 th Street. Oakland’s first “skyscraper” was the 15-story Union Savings Bank, built at 13 th and Broadway in 1903, even before the San Francisco Earthquake. After the quake, this center and Oakland boomed, as people and businesses fled San Francisco to what they thought was stable ground.

The lacy white city hall was built as a skyscraper from 1911-13; the triangular Flatiron and Cathedral Buildings in 1910 and 1914 respectively, and Julia Morgan’s Italian-Renaissance-style, light-filled YWCA in 1915. Perhaps most stunning is the 115-foot dome of the Rotunda, built as a department store in 1911. This was a center of streetcars and wagons -- the Latham Memorial Fountain at Telegraph and Broadway, at the top of the narrow Cathedral Building, honored the donors’ parents, but also provided water for tired horses.

In the late 1920s and the 1930s, the center shifted north again, with a focus on shopping and recreation and a new style, Art Deco. Between 1924 and 1926 came Sweets Ballroom with big band music, the Leamington Hotel with its elegant ballroom, and Spanish-Moroccan fantasies like the White Building and Howland Building. The more futuristic side of Art Deco was favored on Broadway. Capwell’s opened in 1927, followed by striking green I. Magnin and the seven-story Breuner’s headquarters in the 1930s. Smaller gems include the black-and-gold floral market (later Newberry’s) and the Dufwin Theater, opened for live performances in 1928 but soon used for movies. Also in 1928, the huge Oakland Theater, later the Fox, opened, followed in 1931 by the last of the Art Deco movie palaces, the Paramount.

By the 1950s, the original downtown had become a skid road. Attempts to reinvigorate the beautiful Victorians and save other prominent buildings have been underway since the 1970s, with mixed success. Significant numbers of historic buildings have been rescued by conversion to senior or low-income housing or nonprofit uses (the Alice Arts Theater, Preservation Park, YMCA, and the magnificent Hotel Oakland are examples.) Both the Beaux Arts and the Art Deco “uptown” centers remained vital, at least in appearance, until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake emptied many buildings.   Despite extensive redevelopment based on government offices, and payouts to developers, many buildings remain empty or have not been repaired. In recent years, Asian capital and growth outward from Chinatown, as well as city efforts to attract condominiums, have brought hope along with controversy. Boutiques and restaurants in Old Oakland are doing better. Perhaps Oakland’s center will realize its wonderful potential.

This walk is a quick overview. I strongly recommend the walking tours sponsored by the city and the Oakland Heritage Alliance. I’m especially indebted to the city-sponsored walks for much of my information and ideas on how to summarize. The responsibility for mistakes is of course my own.


LANDMARKED IN CENTRAL OAKLAND (excluding Chinatown, beyond freeway, & near Lake Merritt)

From list of Oakland landmarks compiled by David Nicolai, Director, Pardee Home Museum

Victorian Row Historic District: 7 th –10 th, Clay – Broadway

Portland Hotel-Henry House, 470-82 9 th, 1877-78

Dunn Block, 721-725 Washington, 1878-9

Oriental Block ( Peniel Mission), 716-24 Washington, 1885-6

LaSalle Hotel, 491-97 9 th, 1877-8

Central Pacific Railway Depot, 464-468 7 th

Bowman Brown Bldg & Annex, 727-35 Washington, 509-13 8 th, 1878-9

Wilcox Bk. & Annex, 821-33 B’way, 459-475 9 th.

Delger Block, 901 Broadway, 1880-85

Lloyd Hotel, 477-87 9 th, 1878-80

Arlington Hotel, 484-494 9 th,

Gooch Block ( Ratto’s), 817-29 Washington, 1876

PreservationPark Historic District: 11 th-14 th., MLK - Castro:

Preservation Park extension historic district, 10-11 th, Jefferson – Castro

Gov. George Pardee House, 672 11 th ,   1868

James White House (now Preservation Park)

Charles S. Greene Library (now African-American Museum & Library), 659 14 th St., 1900

Greek Orthodox Church of Assumption. 950 Castro (originally 920 Brush)

1 st Unitarian Church, 685 14 th St., 1889

Frederick Ginn House, 660 13 th St.

Jefferson Square, 6 th – 7 th, MLK & Jefferson

Lincoln ( Oakland) Square, 10-11 th, Harrison-Alice

Lafayette Square, 10 th – 11 th, MLK – Jefferson

Key System Adm. Bldg., 1100 Broadway

Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, 1911

Cathedral Bldg., 1615 Broadway, 1914

Latham Square Fountain, 14 th and Telegraph, 1913

Tribune Tower, 409-15 13 th St., 1923

Hotel Oakland, 260 13 th St .

YWCA, 1515 Webster, 1915

Maclise Drug Store Bldg., 1633 San Pablo

Alameda Co. Title Ins Co (Holland/ Everis Bldg.), 380-98 14 th, 1400-04 Franklin

Oakland Title Ins. Bldg., 1449-59 Franklin, 401-407 15 th, 1921

Roos Bros., 1500-20 Broadway ,   448 15 th, 1922

Financial Center Bldg., 405 14 th St., 1930

Civic Center Post Office, 201 13 th St., 1932

White Bldg, 327-49 15 th, 1464-66 Webster, 1924

Howden Bldg., 325-43 17 th, 1925

Leamington Hotel & Annex, 19 th & Franklin

Fox Oakland Theatre, 1807-29 Telegraph, 1928

Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, 1931

Also notable, apparently not landmarked (my list):

Rotunda ( Kahns/Libery House), 1911 & later

Dufwin Theater, 1928

Floral Market ( Newberrys)

Breuners, 1930s

I Magnin, 1930s

Other Art Deco/Art Nouveau above 16 th

17 th St., Franklin - Webster

Sweet’s Ballroom

Union Savings (1 st Skyscraper), B’way & 13 th

Flatiron (Lionel Wilson) Bldg., 1910