On the first day of December the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group had what seemed like a summer hike. It was another sunny, warm day, with no opportunity to test the first part of their “we walk, rain or shine” mantra. A now typical, good turnout of 29 walkers were at the Exedra at their normal start time.
As the end of 2021 is near, the group wanted to go to some of the streets that they had not walked this year. They had gone to the lower, commercial part of Grand Avenue, but they hadn’t gone to its upper portion and its parallel Lower Grand Avenue. They could walk the entire length of Grand Avenue in Piedmont, so it was selected for the morning’s destination.
There was also some history that could be shared along the way. Drawing from a set of past articles by the Piedmont Historical Society in the Post, the group learned about the important roles Walter Blair’s public transit horse and later cable cars, and then “Borax Smith’s” Key System trains, played in the development of Piedmont. The group could also see some of the spots where the Key System trains ran in Piedmont on their way to Grand Avenue.
The walkers headed out going down Magnolia Avenue. They past and admired the now almost complete, new high school buildings, and turned up Bonita Avenue. They past the Victorian Wetmore House that Jesse Lamereaux Wetmore built in the late 1870s, and is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The group passed children playing in the Havens’ school yard, who wondered what this long parade was, and then crossed Oakland Avenue. Bonita Avenue lives up to its Spanish name, “pretty.” The homes are lovely and their cedar shake shingle exteriors convey a bygone time. The homes and yards were candy for the walkers’ eyes, but the need to watch out for Piedmont’s common, uneven sidewalks kept their eyes bouncing up and down.
At the street that carries Walter Blair’s name, the group went down it and turned on to Dracena Avenue. Off to the left was Dracena Park, which was once a quarry that Blair also created. Unfortunately, there was no time to visit this Piedmont park treasure; they had to continue on to Park Way. However, before they got to it, their sidewalk checking provided a surprising reward. In a patch of relatively new concrete were three sets of young lady characters from the Disney Frozen movie. They somehow had been stenciled into the sidewalk. The walkers imagined that they were there for the enjoyment of some young ladies who live nearby, and would also be enjoyed by them and their parents later in their lives.
The walkers turned down Park Way and Sherry Jacobs made an observation that she shared with the group. Sherry lives on Magnolia Avenue, but she said this street should be “Magnolia Avenue.” On her Magnolia Avenue there are few magnolia trees, but this street is lined with them. The street could also be named “Cedar Shake Shingle Street” because most of its homes have this charming exterior. Retired architect Jim Kellogg said this architectural style was popular in the early 20th Century when these homes were built, but in time the shakes became expensive and stucco homes were often built instead.
At the foot of Park Way the street takes a sharp right and suddenly becomes Monticello Avenue for no other reason than that there is a sharp turn. Happily, the magnolias continue on Monticello and led the walkers to Lorita Avenue. This an uphill cul-de-sac with a number of ginkgo trees now with bright yellow, fall leaves. The street also has its own little surprise. At the top of its hill, on the left, is an almost invisible, hidden, narrow pathway that goes behind homes to Arroyo Avenue. Some walkers wondered if the path was private and part of the homes, but it actually was another one of the shortcut paths that early Piedmonters took to catch street cars and Key System trains. Only a barking dog in one of the homes objected to the walkers passing down the path.
As they emerged on to Arroyo the group took note of a pyracantha bush covered with bright, red/orange berries. There was also a particularly beautiful cedar shake shingle home with a unique rounded gable and a beautiful, leaded glass window made up of small, diamond shaped panes. By chance, the homeowner was coming out of the house and she talked with the group about it. It was also noted that the Key System’s Number 10 line’s route ran at this spot on its way between Piedmont Avenue and Crocker Park.
The walkers went down Arroyo to Manor Drive, a street they hadn’t walked this year, and down it to Holly Place, a street that seems to have only the backs of homes and none with its address. The street took the group to the foot of Lower Grand Avenue, and the walkers made their way up it also for the first time this year.
At the top of Lower Grand the history of Grand Avenue was shared from some of Piedmont Historical Society articles. As far back as the 1870s, todays Grand Avenue was known as Pleasant Valley Road, which described the area well. It ran from Lake Merritt to the Piedmont hills. Today, the street in Piedmont is Grand Avenue until it crosses the Oakland city line where it becomes Pleasant Valley again. At what is now Grand and Linda Avenues in 1892 a restaurant named “A Mon Chateau” (My Castle) was built by Axel R. Gruggel. Over time, it had a number of owners and a trouble history with the City and police because of owner and patron behaviors, which included no liquor licenses and gambling. In 1914 the building became the Grand Avenue Grocery Company and in 1922 the Del Monte Market. In the 1930’s Piggly Wiggly, as division of Safeway, opened a second grocery store up the street at the corner of Sunnyside and Grand. The competition was stiff for the Del Monte Market; it floundered and closed, and the A Mon Chateau building was torn down. A series of gas stations later occupied the site. Finally, in 1987 the block-long, current Piedmont Financial Center was built there. Further down the street, some long-time Piedmonters remembered the site as a not-very-successful “Big T” grocery store, which eventually became today’s Ace Hardware, and a nearby hamburger restaurant.
The group safely crossed Grand Avenue at the stop light at the top of Arroyo, and made their way, three quarters of a mile, down Grand to the Piedmont/Oakland city line at Wildwood Avenue. On the way, they were impressed by the large amount of concrete being used in the foundation of a new home under construction on an uphill lot that has been vacant for decades. They stopped at a home on the corner of Greenbank Avenue that is being completely renovated. The walkers used its stairs to stack themselves for the attached group photo.
The walkers came to Linda Avenue and the site of the former A Mon Chateau restaurant and wished its beer garden was still open on this warm day. They continued on to the cross walk at Ace Hardware. On the other side of Grand they could see an Oakland City Limits sign that confirmed they had walked the entire Piedmont length of Grand Ave. The walk had taken more time than usual and it was time to take the fastest route back to the Exedra via Wildwood and Magnolia Avenues. Unfortunately, the Key System trains up the hill were long gone too. The temperature was rising, and the walkers felt the unusual, summer-like December heat as they made their climb up the hill. However, no complaints were heard. It had been a good walk of almost five miles that included Piedmont’s Grand Avenue, other grand Piedmont streets, and good fun with good company and good friends.