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My coworker Ricky Rodas hates apartment-hunting.
Growing up in East Los Angeles, he spent a lot of time tagging along with his parents while they sought out a better place for the family, and the task could feel discouraging to the grown-ups and kids alike.
“We’d spend entire weekends checking out different houses and apartments for rent in various cities in LA County,” Ricky said. He and his two brothers would get their hopes up each time they saw a nice place, “but we’d always go back to that crappy apartment building with roaches all over.”
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When Ricky decided to move out of the West Oakland apartment he shared with roommates and find a place of his own this year, he dreaded the search. But then he checked out a little Temescal studio and was enamored with what he saw. He moved there in June.
Near the corner of 40th Street and Telegraph Avenue, the three-story, beige apartment building stands out. It has a name, “Sagamore,” written in chunky block letters right above the entranceway, and there’s an unusual, porch-like balcony on the second floor. Ricky’s studio has some quirky historical features: a narrow wooden plank that’s pulled out of the kitchen wall to become a dining table, and a carve-out in the wall that was probably once used to tuck away a Murphy bed.
“The facade and the sign elicited some kind of importance to me,” said Ricky, who covers economic equity for The Oaklandside. “The whole place has kind of a boarding-house feel. It makes me think of all the countless stories—the lives of the people who’ve been here.”
Ricky’s hardly alone in his curiosity about his home. At The Oaklandside, we hear all the time from readers who want more coverage that explores and preserves the history of our city. Like Ricky’s childhood town of El Monte—where the strip mall across the street was replaced by town houses—Oakland has undergone rapid change in recent years and decades. There’s a desire, among both newcomers and old-timers, to document what’s been lost—or changed for the better—and to understand how we got to where we are now.
As The Oaklandside’s housing and homelessness reporter, I see the city’s history and future playing out through its homes—what gets built, who lives there, and who leaves, or is displaced. Others have told the story of Oakland through its housing, too. Recently, I’ve been moved by Katie Ferrari’s deep dive into the Moms 4 Housing house, and how its trajectory is a product of the racist and capitalist forces that transformed West Oakland, and by Brock Winstead’s quest to trace the entire history of his new North Oakland home.
In this spirit, we’re launching a new series, “The History of My Oakland Home,” where we’ll tell stories about Oakland through its buildings and residents. And we want you—our readers—to help. Are you curious about the place you live, whether that’s a house you own, an apartment you rent, or the land where you park your RV or have pitched a tent? Whether you know a lot or a little about your home—and whether its story is poignant, spooky, touching, random, or significant—we’re interested in hearing from you.
For this and future stories, I’ll be relying on public records, newspaper archives, Facebook sleuthers, and the treasure trove that is the Oakland Public Library’s history room, to piece together the past.
First, let’s visit Sagamore and find out about Teddy Roosevelt, neon crosses, and the time a pool cue sent someone to Highland Hospital.
It was built in the 1920s. No, wait…
Ricky’s apartment building is located at 485 40th St. and sits on what used to be known as the McCourtney Tract—a reference to the prominent North Oakland land-owning family.
Among the many historical documents stashed away in the Oakland History Room are tax assessor “block books,” with hand-drawn maps of Oakland blocks, noting the owner and assessed value of each property for different years. The 1915 book shows that the south side of 40th Street, between Telegraph and Clarke, was owned by “J.F. + A.T. McCourtney.” That’s James Francis and his wife Anna. James was a portrait painter of modest renown in his time, and his parents were John Hamilton McCourtney and Margaret Evoy, a member of another prominent East Bay family; 40th Street used to be called Evoy Avenue.
There’s nothing listed for 485 40th that year, but by 1925, that block was divided into several properties. That year’s block book shows an H. Fox and P.T. Healy as joint owners of both 485 and 489 40th. The property was valued at $3,600.
The library also has old city directories, listing information like the home addresses of residents and their lines of work. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find Fox or Healy in the directory, but it was fun to peruse. Librarian Dorothy Lazard, who runs the history room, said the best occupation she’s seen listed in a directory is “chocolate dipper.”
Advertisements in the Oakland Tribune in 1921 and 1922 refer to “Healy Apts” and “new” apartments for rent at 485 40th St. All these records indicate the building was constructed in the early 1920s. But that rang false to some members of the Oakland History group on Facebook, who’ve dug into Sagamore as well. The tall windows, indicating Victorian-era tall ceilings, and the wood exterior, make the property look older than your typical stucco 1920s apartments, noted Jason Trout.
Karen McNeill, an architectural historian, came up with a theory. She noticed a nearby building that appears on insurance maps as early as 1903 and looks suspiciously similar in its layout to Sagamore. James McCourtney lived in that building until he died in 1918, she noted. “I think the McCourtney building was moved, turned, and raised to create the 12 new apartments,” she said. Today there are 16 units in the building, but McNeill’s theory would explain why the weird balcony on the second floor looks more like a porch.
The street is part of the Temescal area, formerly home to many Italian immigrants, that was annexed by Oakland in 1897. Early on, Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, the mining mogul who established the Key System—streetcar, and later bus, lines that ran throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties—“had forecasts that this would be a great place to develop,” said Lazard. He opened Idora Park, the amusement park complete with a roller coaster, roller skating rink, theater, and a bear pit, in the early 1900s, by Telegraph and 56th Street. (It was razed in 1929.)
“People started milling around Temescal, saying, ‘Oh, this is a nice area,” said Lazard. “It wasn’t as developed as Oakland, but it was near downtown. It had trees and a creek.”
Car crashes and neon crosses
Newspaper archives seem to indicate that lots of bad things have happened to residents of 485 40th St. (sorry, Ricky). Or maybe a multi-unit apartment complex that’s been around for a century is simply bound to come in contact with misfortune?
There were the two brothers who lived there, who got shot by their stepfather. Other occupants got in car crashes and motorcycle accidents, and someone’s cat escaped. One day in 1943, renter Gus Dames went for a walk and passed a nearby pool hall. A woman standing outside was being attacked. Someone in the hall heard her screams, ran outside with a pool cue, mistook Dames for the assailant, and attacked him with the stick, sending him to Highland Hospital with “head lacerations.”
The Sagamore has housed at least one famous resident, and I’m not referring to M.H. Chappell, deemed “Trainman of the Month” by the Key System in 1951, who also lived there. No, Edward Hebern, inventor of the Hebern Rotor Machine used to encrypt messages, lived there too. Hebern’s company had its offices at 829 Harrison Street, a striking building you’ve probably noticed before.
Assessor records show Sagamore was owned by an Ellie Hebern until 1983, when it was sold or given to the Salvation Army, which quickly sold it to optician Mauro Revelli.
Alastair Johnston lived there then, paying $150 a month for a “run-down” studio. He said the new owner tried to evict the tenants, but one sued the landlord and won.
“The place was trashed,” he told me in a message. “One tenant had a sign on his doors: ‘No TV: Thieves took everything.’ My main memory is laying in bed (a foam pad on the floor), I could see the revolving neon crucifix of the pentacostal church on Telegraph. A friend stayed one night and I put him in the attic, which was a large, empty, dusty space, with a votive candle and a pot to pee in.”
Why is it called Sagamore?
What’s with “Sagamore”? Some have mused about a connection to Teddy Roosevelt, whose “summer White House” on Long Island, New York was called Sagamore Hill. But nobody’s found a link yet.
Sagamore is an Algonquin word for chief, and it was appropriated by the Improved Order of Red Men, an organization of white guys who dressed in what they thought was Native American garb and performed rituals they believed to be indigenous. Unfortunately, there was an active chapter in Oakland. But there’s nothing showing a link to the building.
Sagamore could also be intended to evoke the East Coast. In a 1955 ad, real estate agents boasted about the East Coast elegance of a Livermore housing development with names like Sagamore and Saratoga.
It’s unclear when Ricky’s building got its name, but records show the small building next door at 489 40th St.—now the landlord’s office—was a market called Sagamore Grocery in 1953.
485 40th St., today
In 2013, Sagamore was bought by Jonathan Moon and his family, who own other Temescal residential properties, too. Moon owns the restaurant Hawking Bird as well.
He said he was attracted to the neighborhood “before it was gentrified,” guessing it would get built up more soon, since it was by a BART station. He has a soft spot for old buildings with character, like Sagamore.
“I love the high ceilings, the moldings—they don’t make them like that anymore,” he said. Some units still have old pie chests, Moon mentioned.
The building is now worth about $1.5 million, according to assessor’s records. There is…eclectic…art hanging in the hallways: collections of ceramic plates, decorated mirrors, and landscape paintings. From the fire escape, you can see the new luxury highrises towering above the MacArthur BART station. Apartments there now rent for something close to that original 1925 $3,600 assessment for the whole 485 40th St. property, when it was owned by Fox and Healy.
Ricky likes his new spot, as well as the neighborhood—mostly. Because he saw his old East LA surroundings change so tremendously, what he calls the “hipness” of Temescal feels both familiar and irksome to him.
“I think it’s also why I’m so curious to know the building’s history, and how the area used to be,” he said.