2021 was a pivotal year for sisters Patty and Nancy Donald, the president and vice president of Cohen Bray House, an 1880s Victorian home in Fruitvale that’s an official Oakland Landmark and also a nonprofit preservation center that hosts public tours and community events. In the spring of that year, the home’s longtime caretaker, Kenneth Christopher Gilliland—a descendant of the Cohen Bray family who’d lived at the house for 30 years—passed away, leaving the sisters with the daunting task of finding someone new to care for the 141-year-old home.
As it was for Gilliland, Cohen Bray House is more than a historic building to the Donald sisters. It’s their family home, built for their great-grandparents Emma and Alfred. It’s why the siblings dedicated themselves to leading the house’s nonprofit and overseeing its preservation. But unlike most homes that require regular maintenance for wear and tear, taking care of Cohen Bray House, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, means restoring it to its original 1880s glory days.
How the Cohen Bray House came to be
The house was constructed and furnished between 1882 and 1884 as a wedding gift from Julia Moses and Watson Augustus Bray to their daughter Emma Bray and her husband Alfred H. Cohen, who married in 1884. The home was furnished with high-end pieces typical of New York mansions at that time. All of the original furniture remains in the home today.
Watson Augustus Bray was one of many businessmen who built their wealth in the East Bay during the Gold Rush. Wealthy families like the Brays were able to acquire land in Oakland following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 and the California Land Act of 1851. That law required Californios—descendants of California’s early Spanish settlers—to prove their land titles in United States courts, and many, including the Peralta family, which owned much of the East Bay, lost their land.
In 1885, the year after Emma and Alfred Cohen moved into their house, Watson Augustus Bray had to prove that the parcels where the house now sits were, in fact, gifted to his daughter. After a series of legal battles with debtors and employees who embezzled money from the family business, Bray was forced to auction off much of his land—then called Oak Tree Farm—and lost 200 acres.
Emma and Alfred lived at the home for the rest of their lives, and their four children were born at the house. The youngest daughter, Edith Emelita, continued living at the home until her passing in 1990. Gilliland, a cousin of Patty and Nancy Donald, was the last family member to have lived and died at the home.
The start of a massive undertaking
About a year into the pandemic, and with no one living at the house for the first time in memory after her cousin’s passing, Patty Donald decided to dig into the home’s blueprints and began the arduous task of going room by room to determine how much of the home needed restoration.
“Because of COVID, I was able to just sit at home and zoom in on each of the rooms,” she recalled. “Thank God Nancy is still around… [we] piecemealed it together.”
While Patty has overseen the preservation and restoration efforts, Nancy has been documenting and categorizing all of the items inside the home, working with volunteers, and taking care of administrative duties.
The home’s extensive list of needs has included replacing the original flooring in various rooms, uncovering and restoring the original Locke and Montague range in the kitchen, restoring the intricate mortise door locks throughout the home, installing UV film on the windows to prevent the sun from continuing to damage the original furniture and rugs, and rebuilding the wooden window frames. According to Patty, there are over 80 windows throughout the home.
The sisters decided that the next caretaker would need to not only know how to care for and restore historic homes—they’d need to love the house as much as the family had. This was the first time in history that a non-member of the family would be taking over.
“There needs to be transparency when you’re working with people, and they’re living in your house,” said Patty. But when it came to finding the right match, the sisters didn’t quite know where to begin. So they enlisted the help of Heather Kraft, the caretaker of another historic home across the bay, the Haas-Lilienthal house in San Francisco.
“She was so helpful and gave us so much of her time,” said Patty.
After consulting with Kraft, the sisters posted the job and received eight applications. All were qualified, but the duo that was ultimately chosen, Mark and Elizabeth Saint Gaudens, came to the sisters by a stroke of luck. Patty was working on a project at her own house in Albany, and she’d hired Mark to do some woodwork. While she was gathering supplies to take back to Cohen Bray House, he noticed and asked her what it was all for. Patty explained that she was looking for a new caretaker. Mark and his wife, Elizabeth, sent in their application the next day.
“We got a twofer because he’s skilled with working with wood and has all the tools,” Patty said of Mark, who came to live and work full-time at Cohen Bray with Elizabeth seven months ago. “After my cousin died, his friends took everything, and we were left with no tools to begin any restoration,” Patty continued. “And his wife [Elizabeth] is very much a naturalist and loves animals. So she’s been documenting all of the 35 or 36 bird [species] that are in this half acre,” she said of the expansive garden behind the home, which is filled with native plants.
Restoring a historical home doesn’t come cheap
Even before the Saint Gaudens moved in, Patty had begun doing some restoration work of her own in the kitchen, including on the original 1883 coal-burning stove, which had been covered and used as a cabinet since the early 1900s. She also removed the kitchen’s asbestos flooring and grime from the coal that had accumulated on surfaces and applied fresh paint. When the Saint Gaudens moved in, Mark took on the task of repairing and restoring the kitchen windows and door.
Patty had also started making appeals for donations to the nonprofit’s members through its newsletter to support the restoration. “Our membership growth is imperative to our being able to meet our basic costs,” Patty said. Although the siblings have been documenting the home’s history on the website for the last 20 years, those efforts didn’t take flight until she began posting photos of the work on the Cohen Bray Home’s Facebook and Instagram pages, especially among what she calls “DIYers.”
“We did a lot of asking for donations, and the funny thing was, we didn’t get any. And then, donations started rolling,” she said. “People saw what we were doing and knew we meant business. A single individual donated $10,000, and that’s like a million dollars to us.”
As the work in the kitchen got underway, Patty looked into replacing the original patterned linoleum flooring in the butler’s pantry, back hall, and upstairs linen closet. A former board member, Hank Dunlop, connected her with Spicher and Company, a vintage vinyl flooring specialist. Patty cut up a section of the old flooring and sent it off to get it recreated.
Once the Saint Gaudens were hired and settled, Patty’s next move was to work with the Cohen Bray House board members to come up with a budget and figure out what aspects of the restoration project to prioritize. Revenues have been down due to all of the nonprofit’s programming being put on hold in 2020; its tours and other events didn’t restart until May 2021. And without a dedicated grant writer at the moment, said Patty, the nonprofit has relied heavily on donations and memberships for revenue.
So far, Mark has been able to rebuild eight of the home’s windows. But there are over 70 to go, and Patty estimates the nonprofit will need to raise around $3 million to complete the entire restoration, including addressing the foundation, which is sagging due to water damage, and a crumbling chimney, both of which are causing cracks on the walls.
“We desperately need the help of wise people who know how to raise money and can do construction work,” Patty said.
Preserving a piece of Oakland history, and a community resource
Although the Donald sisters never lived in the Cohen Bray House, they fondly remember celebrating Easter weekends, work parties, Fourth of July celebrations, and Christmas gatherings there.
When Edith Emelita—the youngest daughter of the Cohen Bray’s—passed away in 1990, the family had to decide what to do with the home and all of its furnishings, and that’s when the Cohen Bray House nonprofit, the Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland, was formed.
“Do we throw it all out and sell the house? Or do we create something to show people the history of our family and the house?” Patty said about the family’s decision to turn the home into a community resource.
The Cohen Bray House became an Oakland Designated Landmark on Jan. 7, 1975 (listed as the “Alfred H. Cohen House”) and is one of 145 such landmarks in the city.
Patty said the events of 1885 that almost resulted in their family losing the house have played a role in their decision to now restore it to its heyday. Her vision is for the house to remain accessible to local history fans and Oakland students so they can learn about the garden and all of its native plants. It will also continue to be a preservation and study center for builders, architects, interior designers, and others interested in late-19th and early-20th-century architecture and Victorian aesthetics.
“As more people are interested in the work that we are doing, I’m hopeful that we will be able to preserve the home,” Patty said. “And make our Fruitvale neighbors be part of it.”