You can currently choose from four historic homes in Oakland to call yours, for free. The catch? The building is free of charge, but you’ll need to pay to relocate your house of choice to a new lot.
These homes are up for grabs due to historic preservation efforts that require developers to make older homes in Oakland available for relocation before demolishing them. And while the process of picking up and moving an entire house is far from simple, some locals who have gone through it say it can be worth the time, money, and effort.
The houses available right now include one sitting at 2428 Chestnut St., a large residential lot in West Oakland. Once gone, the land will make way for 12 new townhouses. The other homes are in Uptown, and moving them (or tearing them down, if no one takes the free offer) will clear space for a 16-story, 320-unit residential tower with ground-floor retail.
Although the houses are old, none have been deemed by the city’s Historical and Architectural Rating System to be of sufficient historical significance to be saved from the wrecking ball. Two of the houses were designed by prolific East Bay architects Leo Nichols (265 24th St.) and A.W. Smith (2343 Waverly). Smith alone designed several hundred buildings of all types over his 40-year career. Both homes were built around 1908; at that time, the Waverly house was valued at $1,500.
“There’s actually a long history of house moving in Oakland,” said Naomi Schiff, board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA).
Back in the 1990s, Oakland updated its rules to require developers to make a good faith effort to move historic properties slated for demolition to a new location acceptable to the city. Developers are required to advertise the availability of buildings with signage on the site, in local media, and by contacting neighborhood associations and for-profit and not-for-profit housing and preservation organizations. The advertising must be in place for a minimum of 90 days. Making the building available at no or nominal cost is also mandatory.
Schiff was involved in a grassroots campaign over 40 years ago that eventually led to these city regulations. The effort centered on saving a “marvelous old mansion” known as the Metcalf House in Adams Point from a developer’s plans to tear it down and build condos on the land. A neighborhood group sued the city for permitting the developer to build without first completing an environmental impact report. The effort became a focal point in the creation of OHA in the early 1980s.
A compromise was eventually reached: The developer could move ahead with their project, but they had to offer the house for relocation. A buyer eventually stepped forward and the home was split into three pieces and moved on large trucks to its present location at 14th and Brush Streets, where it was reassembled with its original sphinxes still flanking the entryway.
Schiff says this effort to save the Metcalf House (owned by Victor Metcalf, secretary of the U.S. Navy under Teddy Roosevelt), was her introduction to historical preservation in Oakland. It also led the city to make this arrangement city code nearly a decade later.
The most ambitious house-moving project in Oakland was the public-private partnership that created Preservation Park in downtown Oakland, now home to nonprofits and small businesses. Located between 12th and 14th streets, this Victorian neighborhood includes 16 historic buildings, 11 of which were moved to avoid the demolition required to clear a path for Interstate-980 in the 1970s and 1980s.
Other major house-moving ventures were recounted in a 2017 episode of East Bay Yesterday, a podcast documenting the history of the East Bay. It recounted how even massive structures like the Oak Knoll naval Officer’s Club and a Buddhist church have been transported in Oakland.
Those who have gone through the process of moving an older home admit it can come with a lot of stress and money, but they also felt it was worth it.
“There are some virtues to moving the houses—the hard part can be finding a lot,” said Schiff.
Indeed, in a city with few vacant lots, securing one can be costly and time-consuming.
Despite the challenges, Schiff believes there’s an appetite for finely crafted houses and preserving the old materials that went into them, like first-growth redwood. “You’re never going to find wood like that again,” said Schiff. “I hope someone will move these available houses. They’re imminently usable.”
Bruce Loughridge, who lived in San Francisco in the 1980s, was given an “Award of Merit” by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein for his work salvaging old Victorians in danger of being demolished for housing developments. He then moved to Oakland in 2000, purchasing and developing properties, and eventually getting into house moving yet again. His adventure relocating a two-story Victorian duplex from Chinatown to West Oakland was documented in a 2007 episode of HGTV’s “Haulin’ Houses” series.
“It is a lot of work,” said Loughridge. “Even if they give it away, you can still lose a lot of money.”
Left: The former location of Bruce Loughridge’s Victorian home in Chinatown. / Right: Loughridge in front of his home at its new location in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz
Only companies specializing in these moves can take on such projects, and depending on the route and what’s involved, the costs can easily run upwards of $100,000. As an example, Solares House Movers, which specializes in this area, recently gave an estimate of $65,000 for moving a house three miles.
For Loughridge’s ordeal, he had to figure out a way to pull the 120-year-old house out from between two modern buildings —with less than three inches of clearance on each side, and traverse downtown Oakland and Chinatown. The police department oversees these complicated maneuvers, which are only permitted to take place on Sundays.
“Do you know how busy Chinatown is on a Sunday?” Loughridge said. “Are you kidding?”
The planning and care involved in navigating 90-degree turns, steering around stoplights, crossing weight-restricted overpasses, dealing with rain and people who ignored the “do not park here on this date” signs, and having to deposit the house after dark in its final resting place, were just a few of the challenges.
Government agencies and companies that needed to be part of the process included Southern Pacific (regarding railroad tracks that needed to be crossed), the Highway Patrol (for crossing a freeway), PG&E and the cable company (for the utility lines that had to be limboed under), OPD and the city (for swinging stoplights and hanging power lines out of the way and holding impatient drivers at intersections), someone to trim trees along the way, and a moving company that’s familiar with the business of house moving.
Loughridge recalls a major football game was on TV the day they moved the Victorian, and it was lightly raining. When the power unexpectedly went out on his route, neighbors came out of their houses and cursed him, even though he says his operation wasn’t at fault. Other folks weren’t upset, but were more intrigued. Many walked behind the house for its entire journey, enthralled.
“It was like a parade,” Loughridge said. The two-mile trip took more than 10 hours.
Would he do it again? “Yes, now that I know how,” he said. “It’s not about the distance. It’s what’s in the way.”
Chris Buckley is another Oaklander who has moved a historic home. He served as an Oakland City Planner from the mid-70s until 2006. Now he consults and does pro-bono work for OHA in their efforts to advocate for the preservation of historic properties, based on first-hand knowledge from back in 1954 when his grandmother’s home was bought by developers of the former MacArthur-Broadway shopping center.
“They actually moved the house with all of the furniture in it,” he said, including the family’s grand piano. The one-story Victorian had a tall roof, the top six feet of which had to be cut off to clear power lines. Buckley lived at times at the house’s new location on East 27th Street. “The rules were simpler then,” he said about regulations regarding moving buildings.
And while vacant lots aren’t the easiest to come by, Oakland still has plenty that can play host to houses in need of land. The problem is there’s no system currently in place to help regular people, not just realtors, identify them. Buckley says that advocating for changes to these structures is on OHA’s “to-do” list.
After tackling the challenges of finding a viable relocation site and a route that avoids or minimizes conflicts with overhead utility lines, he says that the biggest expense is building a foundation for the new site, and then any other renovations an owner will want to do.
Relocated homes also must be renovated up to strict current code requirements relating to electrical, plumbing, energy, seismic safety, windows, and stairways, and this can prove prohibitively expensive. OHA is currently trying to convince the city to broaden its rules to be more in line with the California Historical Building Code, which provides alternative (and less stringent) standards, making the process much more affordable. Buckley said that the city seems agreeable to this proposal, and is planning to confirm the details soon.
Passionate when talking about the environmental advantages associated with moving historic properties instead of building new, Buckley said moving old homes means using less new material, including increasingly expensive lumber, and the absence of a manufacturing process that uses resources including chemicals and energy. There is a lot of embedded energy in an existing building and energy is also required for demolition.
For Buckley, moving existing houses is more than just a historic preservation issue; it’s also about conservation. “The benefits are spread pretty widely,” he said.
Loughridge is currently working on four restoration projects, all Victorians in Oakland, and is also keeping his eye on any that might be offered for just the price of removal. “I like restoration—I don’t even mind paying more,” he said. “It’s about the history.”
Historical houses currently available to be relocated in Oakland:
2428 Chestnut St.
265 24th St.
2342-44 Waverly St.
2346 Waverly St.
For information on the Waverly and 24th Street houses, contact Kevin Ma at 510-227-6689.
For information on the Chestnut Street house, contact Alex Walker at 609-707-7644.