Two white men in their forties stand with their arms around each other in front of a gray building, where "Jelly Bean Court" and "947" are painted above the entrance. A dog stands between their legs.
When Nick Robbins (left), Robbie Powers, and pug mix Tati moved into their loft apartment in 2020, they started hearing tidbits about the building's unusual past. Credit: Amir Aziz

This story is part of the Oakland Home Histories series, which explores residential buildings and the people who’ve lived in them. Want us to feature your home? Let us know.

It’s not often that a Republican president’s patronage helps a business boom in Oakland, but that’s the story of Ronald Reagan and Jelly Belly.

The candy manufacturer was located for decades on a corner in a mostly residential North Oakland neighborhood. As he was preparing to run for California governor, Reagan reportedly swapped cigarettes for the sweets produced by the company, and later ordered three tons of jelly beans as décor at his 1981 presidential inauguration. 

Reagan’s endorsement of the product caused sales to “multiply” for the Oakland company, launching the little colorful globs of sugar into fame, media reported at the time.

These days, you’d never know that the boxy gray-blue apartment building on 61st and Lowell streets was once the Jelly Belly headquarters, except for the words “Jelly Bean Court” painted above the entrance.

“I thought it was a cutesy thing some developer had come up with,” said Nick Robbins. He moved with his husband Robbie Powers to a two-bedroom loft in the building in December 2020, and soon started learning tidbits about the structure’s history. 

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Jelly Bean Court residents gather in the courtyard between their units. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the couple was apartment-hunting in Oakland, the main amenity they were looking for was a window. They’d spent years in a cramped one-bedroom in New York City, where their view was a brick wall. 

This was “pandemic part two,” as Powers calls it—the second lockdown, during which it was difficult to see apartments. At Jelly Bean Court, which they were able to check out in person, they found the coveted window, along with a skylight, a deck, and a secluded plant-filled courtyard where neighbors convene. 

“It felt special,” Powers said. “It didn’t look like anything else we’d seen in the area.”

The entire 15-unit building at 947 61st St. is a window, in a sense—into a bygone era. And the transformation of the property over time mirrors major phases in Oakland history. What started as a Key System site turned into an industrial factory. Later, it became an artist warehouse called Hella Jelly until it was finally converted to lofted apartments in a changing neighborhood.

Jelly beans in outer space

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A bowl of Jelly Belly beans on Nick Robbins’ and Robbie Powers’ table pays tribute to the building’s long history as a candy factory. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the early 1900s, the corner of 61st and Lowell was owned by Realty Syndicate, like countless properties across Oakland. The real estate company was led by Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, the mogul who also started the Key System of streetcars and later bus lines. The future Jelly Bean Court site was some kind of Key System outpost, according to old tax assessor maps. Trains and streetcars ran on nearby roads. 

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In 1922, Herman Goelitz, a man from Illinois, selected Oakland as the city where he’d situate his new candy company. He built his factory at 947 61st St.—the road was previously called Golden Gate—and later bought additional buildings in the vicinity. One on 61st Place still bears a faded sign with his name on it.

Candy-making continued there for decades, with a pause in 1964, when candy worker unions across the East Bay went on strike over wages.

Eventually, the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. began producing a new kind of jelly bean for a Southern California candymaker, one where not only the outside, but also the center, was flavored. Reagan, who was best known as a celebrity actor but starting to get involved in Republican politics, became a fast fan of the treats. He apparently kept jars of the stuff on his various desks over the years and passed them out to diplomats at meetings. 

The three tons of Jelly Bellies shipped to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration were red, white, and blue, and the company invented the blueberry flavor specifically so that color scheme would be possible, according to the Library of Congress. The president also sent jelly beans on a mission to space.

While First Lady Nancy Reagan was coaching kids to “just say no” to drugs, her husband was receiving shipments of 50-100 pounds of beans each month.

By 1985, the company—only later renamed Jelly Belly after its star product—had outgrown its North Oakland digs. Herman Goelitz’s grandson, who shared his name, relocated the factory to Fairfield.

Punk shows and pornography sets

Blurry red picture of a packed party
One of the many parties hosted at Hella Jelly in the early 2010s. Credit: Courtesy Sophie Strosberg

“I wouldn’t trade those years for the world,” said Bianca Stone, about her time living at 947 61st St.

Around 2011, Stone was in her early twenties and new to Oakland from Santa Cruz, where she had run with a crew of artists and leftist activists. Landing in temporary lodgings, Stone “had to find something fast, but even then it was pretty hard to find affordable housing.”

Stone, who’s a pornographer and porn performer, had a vision of an “inclusive, diverse, affordable space” for artists to live and work. The bouncer at Berkeley’s Missouri Lounge, where Stone worked as a bartender, told her about an Oakland warehouse that used to be a candy factory. Some skaters had taken up residence there, building a halfpipe, and a mechanic rented another apartment. A five-bedroom unit was available.

Stone said her Santa Cruz friends were hesitant at first. The place was a mess.

It took Stone posting a “manifesto” on Facebook about the kind of community she wanted to create, but her friends soon came around, she said.

They cleaned up, tore down walls, and installed appliances. Five people moved in.

Under the name Hella Jelly, the space became a home, party zone, artist workspace, and community gathering place. There were punk shows, poetry readings, birthday bashes, block parties, drag performances, book readings, and open mics. 

“Those parties would get so wild,” sometimes drawing hundreds of people who’d spill out into the street, Stone said. “We felt so free.”

Stone used the space to make queer pornography, often featuring performers known in the local indie scene. They’d film on the roof, which was painted silver to reflect light. 

Despite the parties and porn, some of the residents’ favorite memories from Hella Jelly are the mundane moments. 

“Once our internet got cut off because our roommate had forgotten to pay, so all of us came out of our rooms and hung out together and made shadow puppets,” said Sophie Strosberg, another original tenant. “We goofed around. I haven’t lived with five people since then. It was special.”

It’s clear the unit wasn’t supposed to be rented as a residence at the time. The building was listed as a warehouse in county tax records until 2014 and didn’t receive a certificate of occupancy from the city, enabling it to be used as a living space, until 2017. The Hella Jelly renters had leases but were required to have a business permit, Stone recalled. The property manager would stop by but “looked the other way” regarding the occupants, she said.

The building has been owned by the same family since 2002, and managed by Advent Properties for at least a decade. Bay Area-based real estate company Advent manages 850 rental units, according to its website. Advent declined an interview request for this story.

A young woman pours a box of wine into a bowl of chopped fruit and nuts
Sophie Strosberg prepares charoset for a Hella Jelly Passover seder in 2011. Credit: Courtesy Sophie Strosberg

Stone and Strosberg moved out after a bit, and don’t know exactly how Hella Jelly ended. A 2014 post on the space’s Facebook page said, “As some of you have heard by now we have been evicted from our warehouse on 61st, in order to allow the owners to make ‘improvements’ to the space.” There’s only one more post after that, from 2018: “Hella Jelly is closed. For overpriced rent for 1/3 of the space contact Advent Properties.” 

The demise of Hella Jelly coincided with the elimination of similar artist warehouses across Oakland, along with the displacement of many other long-time residents and communities. 

In the mid-2010s, rents rose tremendously and demographics changed in North Oakland and beyond. In the census tract where 947 61st St. is located, the Black population decreased by 41% between 2010 and 2020, while the white population doubled. The area had been predominantly Black for decades, and was one of the “redlined” neighborhoods in the 1930s-40s where mortgage lenders often withheld financing from homebuyers. A 1949 newspaper ad for a home next to Jelly Bean Court was marketed to “colored folks.” 

Both Stone and Strosberg also mentioned the tragic Ghost Ship fire in 2016. After that event, cities started to crack down on other artist warehouses where safety measures were not up to code or habitation was illegal, some of the only affordable homes for creatives. Looking back, the Hella Jelly residents think they may have narrowly avoided a catastrophe at their makeshift, self-renovated residence, “where people were willing to look away from building safety because they wanted artist autonomy,” Stone said.

Only one of the original members is still in the Bay Area. 

“I wish it could go back to those days, but I know they’re kind of done,” said Stone, who’s in Tennessee. “I’m sad it ended but it was inevitable.”

Finding community in a pandemic

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The view from the upper level of the apartment, where Nick Robbins and Robbie Powers have enjoyed hosting relatives, fellow gamers, and friends. Credit: Amir Aziz

By the time Powers and Robbins stumbled on Jelly Bean Court in late 2020, the building’s punk era was ancient history. And the property had a lot to offer the New Yorkers searching for something spacious yet friendly.

“When we were looking at places, a lot of them were large, cold complexes,” said Robbins, who works in film and TV production. “Beggars can’t be choosers, but we wanted something that had a little more personality, not 100 units where we weren’t going to meet neighbors.” 

They landed in the right spot.

“I’m a really extroverted person, so the courtyard has been phenomenal,” said Powers, a UC Berkeley employee. Someone strung up lights, making it feel like a “backyard restaurant” where the tenants gather often.

“There are other queer people we’re close with, single parents, young people out of college, young couples, people born outside the U.S., all ethnicities, East Bay-ers for life, and transplants,” Powers said. “It’s been especially helpful during the pandemic when it was hard to meet people—that became our friend circle.”

The unit is roomy enough to host Robbins’ family members who live locally, and Powers’ board game group. Sometimes their visitors remark that they long ago attended a party at an artist commune in the building. 

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A sign on a warehouse around the corner is one of the only visible vestiges of the block’s history as a candy-making headquarters. Credit: Amir Aziz

The couple has decorated with a mix of the quirky and practical: a huge portrait of comedian Carol Burnett by local artist Kelly Inouye, scooped up at Urban Ore, hangs near a shelving unit they got at a restaurant supply store. And they’ve fallen in love with the neighborhood, where they can walk their pug mix Tati to shops on San Pablo and Adeline, and hop over to their favorite bar Eli’s Mile High Club. 

On a recent morning in the apartment, a bowl of Jelly Belly beans sat on the coffee table, though it was clear they’d been purchased for this reporter’s benefit. However, Robbins and Powers did give away gummy bears as wedding favors in 2014.

“I’m definitely the sweet tooth of the two of us,” said Powers. “If there’s chocolate in the house, it’s gone.”

Correction: This story previously said the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. invented Jelly Belly beans. A candymaker named David Klein came up with the product, and later sold the trademark to the company that produced them for him, Goelitz.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.