A generous offer from Nancy and Dave DeRoche provided the opportunity last Wednesday for the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group to have a second tour of architect Albert Farr Piedmont buildings conducted by Will Adams. Will is a Piedmont planner, urban designer, architect, and Post feature writer. The Wednesday before he had taken the group to see Farr’s Piedmont City Hall, the Community Church, and three Piedmont homes that Farr designed, but there still more to see.
Nancy and Dave shared that Albert Farr lived in their Oakland Avenue house for 25 years in the early 20th Century. He didn’t design it, but made major modifications that Nancy and Dave thought the group would find interesting. Additionally, Dave has collected ancient artwork from Africa, Oceania, and The Americas for decades at their house; and the group was sure to enjoy this too. The DeRoches invited the group to come see it all, and the invitation was happily accepted. Will Adams was available to come back, so this also provided the opportunity to see more Farr-designed homes before visiting Nancy and Dave.
There was another large turnout for the walk and tour. Thirty-seven walkers and two K-9 best friends were at the Exedra on a lovely, mid-spring morning. The day before had been “Piedmont hot,” but as the group gathered there was a nice breeze.
As the group assembled, another offer from Dave and Nancy was shared with the group. Their upper Oakland Avenue portion of Piedmont, which continues up to Blair and Scenic Avenues, was a bit of bohemian neighborhood in the early 20th Century. Writers and painters like Jack London and Xavier Martinez lived there in some unique homes. The DeRoches know the area well and offered to lead a walk of it the following Wednesday. The invitation was again happily accepted.
Will Adams writes the biweekly “Walking Piedmont” feature in the Post in which he observes “the built environment of a beautiful city.” In his remarks at the start of the day’s walk, Will complimented the Wednesday walking group as being a model for community walking. The walkers appreciated Will’s kind words.
It was now time to start walking and visit two homes, one on Crocker Avenue and another nearby on Lincoln Avenue that Farr designed for the same man. However, the walkers’ route to Crocker, up Highland and Sheridan Avenues, allowed the group to revisit the recently sold mansion at Sheridan and Wildwood Avenues that they saw the week before. The walkers stopped to admire it again, and Will encouraged them to comment on what they saw in Farr’s design. Among other things, the less formal, asymmetrical design Farr used in this house, rather than a more formal symmetrical approach, was appreciated for the visual interest it creates.
The group continued up Wildwood to Crocker to a house just off to the right from where the streets meet. Referring to research done by the Piedmont Historical Society, it was shared that Farr designed this house for Henry Drew Nichols, who was born in 1874 in New York and moved to Oakland in 1890. In June of 1900, he married Ethel Kellogg, the granddaughter of Hiram Tubbs who founded the Tubbs Cordage Company. This business was started during the Gold Rush and was the first to manufacture rope west of New England. Nichols was an insurance salesman when he married Ethel, but by 1910 he was working in the Tubbs family business. In 1905, Nichols contracted Farr and builder Charles Stockholm to build the two-story frame house on the east side of Crocker Avenue. The cost of construction was $11,370. Henry and Ethel moved in just two months before the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Will Adams said the house has an eclectic style, and that architects will often blend features of different styles to create their desired effect. Farr designed this Craftsman house high on the lot to provide views of San Francisco Bay from all the west-facing rooms. It is a six bedroom, four and a half bath, and 7,818 square foot home. Large curved bays in the living room and dining room provided expansive views of the bay and a bridge-less Golden Gate in 1905.
The walkers noted one deficiency in the house that wasn’t an issue in 1905. It doesn’t have a garage for cars. Sherry Jacobs shared the house’s new owner is in the process of rectifying this. Tree clearing has started on the right side of the lot to build a two-story garage with work space above.
Nichols lived in the house until 1922 when he again hired Farr to build a second home around the corner on Lincoln. Nichols also owned the lot to the south that was used for a garage and servants’ quarters. That lot was sold off in the 1950s and a house was built on it in 1957.
The walkers continued up to the second Farr house on Lincoln. It wraps around to Crocker, where there is a driveway leading to a gate with a garage, and the back of the house. The front of the house is on Lincoln, and the entrance is less visible with an ivy-covered wall and columns providing privacy. Less was known about this home’s history, but it was noted the house was the childhood home of actress, writer, comedian, and Saturday Night Live cast member Chloe Fineman. She graduated from Piedmont High School in 2006, and impersonated a peafowl on the Late Show with David Letterman after winning the PHS bird calling contest.
All of this was very interesting, but it was time to get over to visit with the DeRoches. The walkers made their way to Oakland Avenue, going by a house at Mountain and Pacific Avenues that Nancy said is reported to also have been a Farr Piedmont residence. The group arrived at Nancy and Dave’s house, and before climbing the front stairs they posed for the attached group photo.
Nancy gave the walkers some of the house’s history. It was built in 1897 for a member of Frank C. Havens’ family. She and Dave led the group past Pre-Columbian Aztec and Mayan art objects into the house. A set of stairs with a 19th Century feel to them took the walkers to the living area where there is a countless number of museum-quality pieces of what Dave said is now described as “Tribal Art.” Some are 2,000 years old, and the oldest is about 3.000 years old. Many of them were burial pieces from Africa, as well as Central and South America. They are all attractive and remarkably well preserved.
Nancy and Dave said that Farr probably removed some walks from a parlor and opened up the area that became the living room. He may have also built an addition with a room that is now filled with more art and a bust of Dave’s father on a high shelf, who Dave says continues to watch over him. Attached is photo of Dave talking with walkers.
Outside, at the back of the house, Nancy had beverages, cakes, and other refreshments ready for the group to enjoy while they continued to talk about the DeRoches’ amazing art collection and lovely home; as well as the memorable day they had together. Appreciation was expressed to Will Adams and Nancy and Dave DeRoche for making it possible.