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Walking with Wallace

Last Wednesday was another beautiful day for our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group. This lovely, early fall morning brought out a strong turnout of 42 walkers and two K-9 best friends at the Exedra.

There were announcements regarding a blood drive this Saturday at the Veterans Building and the 10th Annual Beer Festival fundraiser on Friday night for the Piedmont Center for the Arts at 801 Magnolia Avenue. Matt Gerhardt will be providing his home brew at the latter.

Walkers were also reminded that on October 26th we will have a tour of the Mt. View Cemetery. After the announcements, it noted that while some of Piedmont's early, important residents, like Walter Blair, Hugh Craig, Egbert Beach, and Frank C. Havens, have streets or schools named after them, there is one person who made very significant contributions to Piedmont, but has nothing in the city named after him. This person is Wallace Alexander.

Drawing on information in past Piedmont Historical Society articles in the Post, the group learned that Alexander's contributions were many. In 1912 he was instrumental in the construction of Piedmont's first commercial center, which was just across the street from where we were. Prior to that, Piedmont was known as the "store-less city." But by 1913 Piedmont had a grocery store, a drug store, and a "Sweet Shop" with its candy store, fountain and lunch room. A gas station and bank were added in the 1920s.

In 1916 Alexander also arranged for the purchase of land for the Piedmont Interdenominational Church, which is now the Piedmont Community Church. He hired Albert Farr, the architect who designed much of the center of Piedmont, for this project. Next Alexander organized the purchase in 1921 of two acres of upper Piedmont Park land from the widow of Frank C. Havens for Piedmont High School. Additionally, Alexander helped establish the Piedmont Boy Scout Council in 1921.

We decided to see some of what Alexander created. We crossed Highland and went past the Piedmont commercial center that replaced the one Alexander developed. We went up to and down Highland Way, where a bus was parked in the middle of the street blocking traffic, and we passed the Piedmont Boy Scout Council office and the Community Church as we went. We turned up Mountain Avenue and climbed a little over half a mile to its intersection with Sea View Avenue. Along the way we passed a Honey Bucket being serviced with a smell that caused us to pick up our pace.

We went down the street in search of 87 Sea View. This was the northern edge of Alexander's former estate, which ran from there down to Hampton Avenue. At 87 Sea View more of Alexander's history was shared. He was born in Maui in 1869, and his family was a leader in the creation of the Hawaiian sugar industry. However, the family moved to the Bay Area so that Wallace and his sisters could attend school in Oakland. He married his Oakland High School classmate, Mary Baker, in 1904, and they chose a large site on the corner of Sea View and Hampton, which was then called Union Street, for their home. The Alexanders built a three-story mansion that they named "Brown Gables" for its large, brown painted dormers. There was also a carriage house to the west which is now the home at 84 King Avenue. The Alexanders created a bit of a family community in this area. In 1911 Alexander's mother built her own home at 92 Sea View across the street from Brown Gables, and Mary's mother built a home further down the street at 236 Sea View. These homes are still there, but Brown Gables no longer exists. After Alexander died from a stroke in 1939, his wife followed his wish that the mansion be torn down, and the land subdivided into 13 lots that were sold, so that more families could live in Piedmont.

The six, current homes from this spot on the west side of Sea View down to Hampton were built from 1936 to 1956. They are of a newer architectural style than the large, older homes that were built north of the Brown Gables estate. The group continued on and found 92 Sea View, Alexander's mother's beautiful, 15,650 square foot home, and posed for the attached photo in front of it.

Peter Persoff called out an interesting reminder of the Alexanders in front of the home. Inlays in the sidewalk spell the word "Kailani." Lani means heaven, or heavenly in Hawaiian. So, Kailani means "heavenly sea", or "heavenly seaside." This message was undoubted left by the Alexanders as a reminder of their original Hawaii home. We also noted the home next door to the south. Some long-time Piedmonters remembered that this home was built in 1970 on land that was part of the estate. We then crossed Hampton and continued up Sea View to see the home of Mary's mother.

We then retraced our steps back up Sea View to Hampton, and crossed the street to see the long, short brick wall that once marked Brown Gables' boundary. The wall goes all the way down to and around the corner at King Avenue. This street was the western border of Alexander's estate, which went from Hampton to the current 64 King. We went to see the former carriage house at 84 King, and discovered the interior is being extensively remodeled.

This completed our tour of the different Alexander creations, and it was time to return to the city center. We walked through Crocker Park to Crocker Avenue. However, we couldn't resist stopping and seeing the excavation that is being done in the front of a Crocker home just before Wildwood Avenue. A three story addition that includes a new garage is being built. We were impressed with the depth of the hole, concrete retaining walls, rebar steel rods, and the whole project.

Going down Wildwood on the way back, the red brown, fall colors on the trees' leaves were one more thing to enjoy on this two mile walk. We came back with a better understand of Wallace Alexander and his service to Piedmont. His contributions continue to be seen and experienced, and will be for as long as Piedmont exists.


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