The History of Casa Decrepit

One of the most common sorts of questions we get about this house is its history.

The house was built in 1876 by a man named Robert M. Holt, and is listed in the City of Alameda historical society as the Robert M. Holt House even though he doesn't live here any more. The style is Italianate, which is said like "ital-yan-ate" rather than the "ital-ee-ahn-tay" we hear a lot of people say. 1876 is the very very tail end of the Italianate period in Victorian houses, which was centered in the 1850's, so this house was very conservative in style when it was built. It was originally, like most Italianate houses, painted entirely white to look like stonework.

Robert M. Holt was an architect/builder (they were the same thing back then) and built several other houses on the island, including a bunch of identical Victorians further down the island. At the time he built this house he owned the entire block and presumably several others that he developed.

The house was a beach house, probably a summer home for the family to come to to warm up (San Francisco is incredibly cold in the summer). At the time the access to Alameda was via a ferry, and there was a railroad that ran down the street behind our house, along the spine of the island (one of the first things we did in the yard was remove the posts from an old billboard that faced the rail line). The finishes in the house are, therefore, appropriately modest. No fancy woodwork or expensive materials. But there were generous closets in the bedrooms, which is unusual for a Victorian.

The house went through some changes through the years. When originally built, it was just the two-story front portion, possibly with a porch and a lean-to kitchen on the back, but maybe not (it was a beach house). Then at some point not too long after, the ell with the kitchen and dining room was added; the construction details are slightly different but still in the style of Victorian building, so we figure that was in the 1880's or 1890's. Perhaps after Holt began developing property on the island, his family moved here permanently, and they needed a more functional house.

At some point in the early 1900's, the house was divided into a duplex; perhaps during the Depression, but not irreparably so: they seem to have left the connecting door between the dining room and the front hall in place.

The house stayed in Holt's family until 1958, when the Garcia family -- with seven children -- bought it from one of the two surviving descendants. The amusing story is that the two descendants, sisters, had argued over who got the house, and the losing sister bought the (newer, but also Victorian) house two doors away. The two sisters lived two houses away until old age, never talking to one another. Some very nice ladies live there now, so we appear not to be cursed.

Because of the large family, the Garcias did many modifications to the house, including removing the butler's pantry, converting the other pantry into a bathroom, removing the old clawfoot tub, and disconnecting and removing the old gas lighting system (probably a good idea). They also paved half the lot. They closed in the back porch and turned half of it into a bathroom, as well. They put a new roof on the house in 1962, and that is the roof we have now. They gave the house its last paint job in 1958, and that was the paint job on the house when we bought it.

The Garcias lived in the house basically until we bought it: one of the daughters married a man named Saldana, and they raised their four children here. We bought the house from them. The Saldanas moved in in the late 1980's, and put up wood panelling on all the plaster walls. Probably, given the timing, to cover up massive earthquake damage to the plaster. They removed the old fireplace mantel and installed the horrible room furnace through its chimney. They dropped ceilings to hide water damage, and a lot of the decorative plasterwork was removed and lost forever. They also added a large aluminum awning out back. Apparently they did not go in much for landscaping, because the only thing in the yard was grass and some mint that invaded from a neighbor's yard. As one of the neighbors said, they didn't care much for plants.

Between the Garcias and the Saldanas, the interior woodwork got the bright colours. They liked them. I don't fault people for decorating their houses the way they like, even when it's not my style. Of all the decorating sins they committed, pink woodwork is actually a lesser one. The removal of the original fireplace mantel, the closing up of the upstairs fireplace, and the fact they they never repainted the place in forty years bothers me more.

At some point, Mrs. Garcia retired and moved to Oregon, and Mr. Garcia stayed on in the house, living only in the dining room, kitchen, and the converted back porch. He worked on the Webster Tube, the underwater connection to Oakland's Chinatown. His legacy includes several doors painted with battleship paint that has so much lead it is not possible to remove it through conventional means. Eventually he retired and sold the house for a nominal sum to his daughter and her husband, as mentioned.

We bought the house from the Saldanas in 2002. That makes us the third owners of the house, and, not coincidentally, a year later we put its fourth coat of paint on. The previous paint had been white (traditional), then the Garcias painted the place turquoise. The Saldanas repainted a portion of the side porch white when their daughter got married, but nothing else. We painted the house a very pale grey that looks white. In a few years, we will go to a darker grey with purple and green highlights on the details. Because the house is Italianate, it doesn't have much in the way of gingerbread, but there are some fairly ornate moldings and brackets that will take time and energy to restore and replace. Adding colour isn't very period-appropriate, but it's pretty and that's how we modern people like to see Victorians.

When we bought the house, the front steps had collapsed. Apparently in the heyday of the Alameda Naval Air Station, some drunken sailors had broken in the front door (intact today, so I'm not sure about the story), and Mr. Garcia had barred it off. Somehow, over the decades of disuse, nobody noticed that the stairs had become unwalkable, so they never got repaired or tended to. We rebuilt them with temporary steps, and now we're having a carpenter come and rebuild them as originally designed.

In the landscape, the house originally had two large oak trees out front, in a picture from the historical society. Our neighbors tell us that when they moved in, there was a giant pine tree out front that died and was cut down in the 1990's. When we moved in, there was nothing growing on the site but grass and the eternal invasive mint. The only tree was the little street tree, which was barely holding on to life (now doing much better thanks to fertilizer and water, not surprisingly). There's not much evidence of gardening, although we know the Saldanas had a vegetable garden out back at one point (they managed to site it in the shadiest part of the yard, so I doubt it did well). As one neighbor said, "[Mrs. Saldana] didn't like plants."

In landscaping the place, I'm trying to create a garden that is comfortable for us and appropriate to a Victorian house, but not a perfect re-creation of a Victorian garden (I find them kind of dull, actually). I don't want the garden to fight with the house, because the house is very specific about what it is and what it wants to be. Better to just go with it and make something appropriate to the setting.

I'm following the same principles inside. I have a profound dislike for Victorian furnishings, and I'm not looking to live in a museum, so there will be no period interiors here. But I'm not going to try to make a modernist box inside a Victorian; that's crazy and it never works right. The Victorian is always peeping through. So my guiding principle inside is that the decoration should use the lines of the house and simplify them. I don't like fussy, so it will be like somebody removed all the patterns from a Victorian living room. That works well with the Italianate, it being one of the simpler Victorian styles. The hardest part is finding furniture that is the right scale. Big, modern furniture looks out of place and makes the rooms look too small. You really need smaller, more delicately scaled pieces to work in these rooms.

We're trying to be respectful of the history of the house as we work on it, while also making sure that we turn it into a place where we can live the way we want to. I think that's a reasonable approach for renovating (note: not restoring) a house. Buildings change over time, and that has to happen, or they will stop being used and will be torn down. We're trying to keep the house as much like it was while making it as much like we want it to be as possible. We'll see how it turns out if we ever finish.

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posted by ayse on 02/27/06