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When you walk into Judi Townsend’s home, a headless butler greets you with a tray of candy.
Okay, the butler is a mannequin dressed in an apron and a bowtie, and the candy is for Halloween. But the pleasantly spooky display fits the aura of the 111-year-old Adams Point triplex, originally built as a single-family house in 1910 and converted to apartments around the 1950s.
“I could always feel some spirits in the bedroom,” said Townsend, who bought the place in 1985. “I kept thinking I’d find some buried treasure. Sometimes you feel this energy—there is just a sense of character.”
While no ghosts appeared during a recent visit to the Orange Street home, vestiges of the past were everywhere. It’s the sort of place where you can feel the history as soon as you walk in the doors, and where you can easily imagine the generations of residents who’ve called it home.
Sprinkled throughout the building are several old features that used to be practical but are now quirky curiosities. There’s a laundry chute with what looks like an intercom, possibly for domestic workers to communicate with each other. There’s a separate door on the side of the house, for the milkman to deliver his products, naturally.
Removing an ornate mirror from the bathroom wall, Townsend revealed a fusebox, where old room labels still refer to the maid’s quarters and a “music room.” (The electrical wiring itself “has been upgraded!” she assured us.) When she first moved into the property, she found a drawer full of skeleton keys, and still regrets throwing them away.
Other old features have a timeless beauty: colorful stained glass lets light into the stairwell, dark wood paneling wraps around the living room, and original sconces still hang in an upstairs unit. The kitchen in that apartment is surrounded by large glass windows that provide views of the hills and seem to enclose what was once a porch.
“There was a lot more craftsmanship and attention to detail back then,” Townsend said. “People cared a lot more.”
Townsend lives in one of the units and rents out the other two. She uses the basement as a short-term rental. One of her tenants, Madison Alig, said the oldness of the place is what sold her on the unit: “I used to work in real estate, so I was attracted to the architectural details and high ceilings.”
The preserved history of the Orange Street home is also a large part of what made Townsend fall in love with the property when she arrived in Oakland in the ‘80s from Los Angeles, where “they turn everything into something new” and buildings can feel “disposable.” But there are also elements of the past she doesn’t care to carry on.
The earthquake and the war that transformed Oakland—and this house
The house on Orange Street was built in 1910, according to historical insurance and assessor’s maps.
“In general, there was a huge boom after the 1906 earthquake—houses were being built everywhere,” said Emily Foster, librarian at the Oakland History Center. Oakland’s population more than doubled between 1900 and 1910, growing from 67,000 to 150,000, driven by displaced San Franciscans moving across the bay after much of their city was leveled by the fires that followed the quake.
But Orange Street was already getting built-up before that tragedy, said architectural historian Stacy Kozakavich.
“This isn’t one of those classic grassy fields that was filled in after the earthquake,” she said. “This was a wealthier neighborhood of larger homes on hills overlooking Oakland. But the neighborhood probably changed more after the earthquake, with more modest single-family dwellings for people moving out of San Francisco.”
Adams Point is named for Edson Adams, one of Oakland’s three founders in 1852, who leased land from the Peraltas then illegally sold it.
Townsend’s home was designed by Frederick Soderberg, an architect and politician who designed several Oakland fire stations and institutional buildings as well as residences for prominent people. The house on Orange Street (we’re not naming the house number because of privacy concerns) was a “very typical early 20th century colonial revival” home, said Kozakavich, but there are “idiosyncratic flourishes,” like the “fanciful” balcony above the entrance, which could have been Soderberg signature pieces, or may have been added on later. Mysteriously, there appears to be a crest or something similar on the entryway that was painted over.
Soderberg built the house for the Bernhard family. A 1907 Oakland Tribune story referred to Christian Bernhard as a “well-known Oakland businessman,” who co-owned the grocery chain Bernhard & Erickson.
They were a well-to-do bunch: in 1912, a resident at the address posted a classified ad looking for a lost “mink neckpiece.”
The Bernhards lived there for years, but in 1929, the Orange Street home got a new dignified owner: Richard de la Guardia, real estate executive and vice-consul for Panama. He and his wife Guillermina moved there so their children could attend the local schools, newspapers reported. It’s unclear whether any official business was conducted at the house or whether it was simply his residence, but Townsend thinks de la Guardia may have held meetings in the large living room, where the sliding wood doors offer some privacy from the rest of the house.
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But the future the family imagined for itself there didn’t pan out. The vice-consul died just two years later, at age 46.
In 1942, Guillermina reportedly became the first Oakland resident to lease her property to the federal government to house defense industry workers during World War II. Washington was desperate to find housing for workers, especially on the booming West Coast, and put a call out to property owners. Guillermina, who wanted to move back to Panama anyway, responded.
“There was a housing shortage not unlike there is now,” Townsend said. Local shipyards and factories grew rapidly during the war and led to another huge population explosion in Oakland. Many of the new residents and workers were Black, with that population growing from around 8,000 people in 1940 to 48,000 in 1950.
It was rare that working-class people would have been able to settle somewhere like Orange Street, said Kozakavich. A Tribune article said the government planned to house 12-15 war workers in the widow’s house. The program gave “the government full control of her home” for seven years—and they even paid the property taxes!
Old insurance maps show the house wasn’t officially converted into a triplex until the 1950s. These days it’s one of the few properties on the block that has only a few units. Most are larger apartment buildings.
Possibly the biggest change to the neighborhood came in the 1960s with the construction of the MacArthur Freeway. The home is just below that portion of I-580, which severed many neighborhoods in Oakland, creating a literal, and often social, divide roughly between the hills and flatlands.
When Townsend moved in, “people would say, ‘Are you below the 580?” she recalled. “It was almost like redlining.”
Honoring history without romanticizing it
When Townsend bought the building in 1985, she was enamored with its location. It was a solidly residential neighborhood, with trees and greenery, but it was so close to downtown and almost anything you’d need.
The home itself was deceptively roomy. “It’s not what you’d think of when you think of a one-bedroom,” Townsend said of her unit. “That’s another thing about older buildings: they have space.” There’s a full dining room, living room, and separate kitchen.
While the property has been largely preserved, neighbors have changed. “I’m starting to feel like a senior citizen,” joked Townsend, since the apartment buildings on the block often house young people who come and go.
And “you certainly see a lot fewer African Americans in the neighborhood, and particularly owning places,” she said. Over the past decade, the Black population in her census tract has decreased by nearly a third. Home prices and rents, on the other hand, have increased dramatically.
But Townsend, who’s Black, is acutely aware that she wouldn’t have been able to buy the building in many past decades, either.
“I wouldn’t be living here in the era that this was built,” she said. And in the decades that followed, racial covenants attached to home deeds, segregation policies like redlining, and racial income disparities continued to prevent Black people and other residents of color from owning and renting in many of Oakland’s neighborhoods.
So while Townsend is delighted by the historical features that give her home character, she doesn’t romanticize olden times.
“We always like things the way they were, but you also need to embrace change,” she said. “This house reminds me of some of the good attributes of the past, but not the attitudes.”