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It’s hard to believe, but the four-story, Italian-style apartment building at 1732 Webster St. was the only residential property on its block until seven years ago.
Called the “Mentone Arms Apartments,” the building was constructed in 1926 and “capitalized on the growing popularity of elegant downtown apartment living” at the time, wrote Oakland planners in a 1980s report. For nearly 100 years, residents have walked through its arched entryway and peered out its French-door-style windows.
Now, the property has found itself in the middle—literally—of another trend toward high-end living in downtown Oakland. Since 2016, nonstop construction in the neighborhood has left Mentone Arms surrounded on most sides by sleek new apartment buildings that tower over the 26-unit complex. The old brick-facade building is a bit of a funny sight now, nestled below the new construction.
“People always say this reminds them of the movie Up,” said Tod Booth, the resident manager of Mentone Arms. In the animated Pixar film, a stubborn widower watches skyscrapers rise along his block but refuses to turn his little old house over to developers. (He also attaches thousands of balloons to it and flies it to South America, but Booth said he has no such plans.)
But the recent building boom is hardly the only transformation that this Oakland block—which was briefly a cemetery—has undergone. From regal residences to automobile central to a high-rise hub, the story of Webster and 17th is a story of downtown Oakland.
Tearing up downtown
“Mentone apts open today,” announced an Oakland Tribune headline in early 1927, with the article below it describing in painstaking detail the 26-unit building’s design and amenities.
“Plumbing of the most advanced type,” it promised, with rooms “finished to suit the individual tastes of leasees,” building materials imported from Rome, and reinforced concrete to withstand earthquakes like the big one that had brought thousands of San Francisco refugees into Oakland 20 years before. Rents started at $55.
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Decades later, Oakland city planners noted that Mentone Arms is “an unusually faithful adaptation of an Italian renaissance palace.” The name likely comes from the Italian version of the French Riviera city of Menton, which used to be part of Italy. “Arms” was added to many old buildings to convey prestige, referencing a coat of arms like those often displayed on old British inns.
Mentone was the last Oakland building by prolific architect Charles McCall, who designed other prominent Oakland structures including the Wakefield Building and the Lake Merritt Lodge. It was built for Robert Farmer, who may have previously run a grocery store at that site, and who managed the new apartments with his wife.
Below that Tribune article is another declaring Oakland the “fastest growing city,” in an “era of growth and expansion.” Old assessor maps show that the Webster Street block had some single-family homes at the beginning of the 20th century, but 10 years later, numerous apartment buildings and boarding houses had cropped up. Apparently none of the residents cared that they were living on the site of a former graveyard. The Old Lake Merritt Cemetery accepted burials from just 1855 to 1864, then moved all the bodies to the new Mountain View Cemetery.
An ad from 1919 promotes a Chinese herbalist, Dr. Po Kwong Shew, located at the future site of Mentone Arms. But a few years before the structure was built, he’d moved and continued practicing at several Telegraph Avenue locations until his death in the 1950s. A turn-of-the-century map also depicts a Chinese laundry on the block of Webster, and a house that assessors felt the need to label “Chinese” too.
“Oakland Chinatown moved around a lot over the years,” said Oakland History Center librarian Emily Foster. The block could have been a community hub.
By 1950, most of the residences were torn down to make way for commerce—and cars. “The east side of the 1700 block of Webster was largely dedicated to automobile parking, with the exception of the Mentone Arms apartment building” and a gas station, according to a historic resource analysis conducted when the project next door was proposed a few years ago.
The ensuing years saw major upheaval downtown, with Oakland razing some 15 blocks of homes and businesses in an attempt to clear “slums,” attract a wealthier and whiter shopping clientele, and keep pace with two vastly different competitors: San Francisco and suburbia. Mitchell Schwarzer, architectural historian, describes “coordinated, mass destruction” that displaced hundreds of low-income residents and shuttered their shops.
“The city’s business elite, along with several mayors, city planning heads, and the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, believed that sweeping urban renewal was a necessity if the central business district was to keep up with the vehicular-inclined suburbs,” he writes in his book Hella Town.
Steven LaVoie lived at Mentone Arms at the end of that tumultuous era, in the mid-70s, shortly after BART opened.
“Oakland was suffering that postwar collapse of the inner city because of the suburbs,” said LaVoie, now an Oakland librarian. “BART was supposed to save downtown Oakland but it didn’t—it provided access through it.”
LaVoie published a literary magazine, using a mimeograph in his studio apartment. It was appropriately called Famous, given that many of the writers featured went on to achieve some renown. “Oakland was very community-oriented and much more diverse than it is now,” said LaVoie, who frequented bars like Smitty’s and the Alley. “A friend started a poorly attended poetry series at a little cafe run by Catholic monks on Harrison and 15th,” he said.
LaVoie paid “ridiculously cheap rent,” but even then, “speculators were taking over buildings and doing all these underhanded things to get tenants out,” he said. An earthquake cracked the ceiling in his apartment and the landlords tried to blame him.
The Mardikian family, which owns Mentone Arms through its Mardikian Enterprises, seems to have bought it way back in 1960, according to a real estate log. Swiss corporation Harwal S.A. is also listed as an owner in some places. Mardikian’s other Oakland property is on Telegraph and 23rd, which has housed art galleries and the Telegraph Beer Garden.
One night on Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, Tod Booth and his son were jolted awake. “It felt like an earthquake but sounded like a bomb,” he remembers.
It turned out the scaffolding from the project next door had collapsed on Mentone Arms, obliterating the exit stairs and shattering tenants’ windows. The fire department tagged the property as an emergency but it’s taken two years to get approval to rebuild, according to Mardikian.
From Booth’s perspective, “construction was a daily nightmare” on the block, up until the early pandemic put a pause on building.
In recent years, the Bay Area has begun to grapple with its legacy of building too little housing. In the past decade, Oakland gained 50,000 residents but only 9,000 housing units. City and regional leaders have set ambitious construction goals, and Oakland has blown past its targets for market-rate development. But the city is deeply behind on building affordable housing.
The new buildings around Mentone are the kind that many people want: dense housing in the heart of a city, near transit. They didn’t require existing homes to be torn down, creating new apartments that didn’t directly displace existing residents. But they’re also unaffordable to many who want to move there.
Because Mentone was built before 1983, it’s subject to Oakland’s rent control law, meaning tenants can’t get hit with large rent hikes after they move in. (One tenant has lived there since the ‘90s, resulting in an unusually affordable monthly bill.) But the new complexes aren’t covered by the policy, and studios on Webster Street go for $3,000 a month.
Booth welcomed the initial development: “In a way it was like, why isn’t anybody building in Oakland?” he said. At the time, “it was pretty desolate over here. It felt like we were the only people living downtown. On one side of us there was this vast surface parking lot and it felt kind of dicey.” (He has fond memories of teaching his kid to bike on it, though.)
That’s the dynamic that Jerry Brown wanted to change with his 10K Plan in the late ‘90s, bringing 10,000 more residents downtown, with the idea that they’d live, work, and spend money in the area, and fill the streets with people, making it safer. “The twenty-first century downtown would generate its commercial activity from its own residents and those in nearby neighborhoods,” writes Schwarzer. The plan succeeded in creating many housing units and making downtown more active, but it’s been criticized for neglecting affordable housing and working-class residents.
What’s next for Mentone Arms?
Booth now has hundreds of new neighbors, but he says the street can still be unsettlingly quiet.
Robin Levitt, property manager for Mardikian, said the block still hasn’t emerged from its mid-century automotive legacy.
Next to Mentone on one side is a four-story parking structure attached to a new 24-floor tower. Booth said the developers there were great to work with and agreed to lower the parking lot so it didn’t rise above his building. But like with BART and previous revitalization attempts, ambitions to create a thriving downtown through development may have resulted in some unintended consequences.
Levitt, who’s an architect, said he thought the new housing would “activate the neighborhood.” Instead, “people get in the elevator, go down to their car, drive out, already disrupting the pedestrian flow, then they drive away and go someplace where they can park and do shopping. Their feet never touch the sidewalk in the neighborhood.”
Mentone doesn’t provide parking, and for tenants who have to travel by foot or bike, the location has a lot to offer, Booth said. “We’re right next to the lake, Snow Park is around the corner, there’s restaurants, the arts district, and the library.” On the ground floor of Mentone is Molcajete, the 10-year-old Mexican restaurant, which has painted murals on the facade.
Between the construction noise and the pandemic, Mentone lost several tenants last year, many of whom fled to their hometowns for more spacious digs, Booth said. There were eight vacancies at one point, but they’re filled again.
Other renters have feared that the property will have the same fate as the neighboring lots: sold, demolished, and redeveloped, capitalizing on high land values and rent potential.
Levitt said that’s unlikely. “I haven’t heard [Mardikian] mention any interest in tearing down the Mentone and developing it,” he said, noting that its historic value could make any such project a headache to get through the city. (The building is not landmarked, however.)
“You see situations like that in Manhattan, where someone doesn’t want to move, so you have a tiny little house in between two skyscrapers,” said Dorothy Lazard, History Center director. “If you don’t want to move you don’t have to! Isn’t that what American property is all about? Unless the state comes in and does eminent domain, which is what they do for a lot of minority communities.”
Levitt said Mentone is simply a “nice building,” despite the century-old electrical and plumbing systems that require immense upkeep. “It’s got architectural character. It’s not a cookie-cutter building.”
Maybe more of a cannoli, or a tiramisu.