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Walking with Wallace Alexander

Last Wednesday was another beautiful day for the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group. The morning clouds had cleared and the air quality was much improved from what the area had experienced recently.

Two weeks earlier, during the group’s walking tour of Julia Morgan homes conducted by Will Adams, Jay Russell, the Post’s Question Man reporter, asked some walkers what unique piece of Piedmont history they had had learned from their walks. One response was that early Piedmont philanthropist Wallace Alexander made some very significant contributions to Piedmont, but he does not get the recognition that he deserves. The group was interested in learning more about Alexander and seeing what he and his family created.

Drawing on information in past Piedmont Historical Society articles in the Post, the group learned that Alexander’s contributions were many. First, he was instrumental in the construction of Piedmont’s commercial center. In 1916 Alexander also arranged for the purchase of the 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. Alexander organized the purchase in 1921 of two acres of upper Piedmont Park land from the widow of Frank C. Havens, saving it from development too. Additionally, Alexander established the Piedmont Boy Scout Council in 1921.

Alexander was born in Maui in 1869. 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 Avenues (then called Union Street) for their home. They 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 on what is now 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 a 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 walkers were interested in what Alexander had developed and decided to make his creations their destinations for the day. The first was easy. The group only had to look across Highland Avenue to see the relatively new real estate and bank offices that are now on the commercial site that Alexander once helped build. The group crossed Highland at Highland Way and started up Mountain Avenue where they admired Alexander and Farr’s Piedmont Community Church. The walkers climbed a little over half a mile up Mountain to its intersection with Sea View Avenue. They went down it in search of the north edge of Alexander’s estate, which ran from what is now 83 Sea View to Hampton Avenue. The six, current homes from this spot down to Hampton are of a newer architectural style than the large, older homes that were built on Sea View, north of the Brown Gables estate.

The group continued on and soon found 92 Sea View, Alexander’s mother’s beautiful home.

The walkers saw an interesting reminder of the Alexanders in front of the home. Tiles inlaid in the sidewalk spell the word “Kailani.” According to an authoritative Hawaiian dictionary by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, which one walker said is very highly regarded in Hawaii, 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. The walkers also noted the home next door to the south. Some of the long-time Piedmonters remembered that this home was built in the middle of the last century on land that was part of the estate.

The walkers crossed Hampton and continue up Sea View to see the home of Mary’s mother. They also noted the Julia Morgan designed home just up the street that they had seen a couple of weeks before. It was now put in another context and provided an appreciation that every Piedmont home has its own unique history. The group went down Farragut Avenue, passing more Julia Morgan homes that they recognized from their earlier walk.

The group has an informal objective of walking all of Piedmont streets during the year. So, rather than immediately going back up King Avenue to see Alexander’s carriage house, the group took a little detour to see a couple of nearby streets that they had missed on a previous walk. The walkers went down LaSalle Avenue and then up the one-block Muir Avenue. They noticed a small cabin-like structure at the side of one of the homes at the corner of LaSalle and Muir. The group humorously wondered what its asking price would be in our current, hot real estate market. Muir ends in Lafayette Avenue, which was another new street for the walkers. They went up it to Crocker and Hampton, past Crocker Park to King. The street was the western border of Alexander’s estate, which went from the current 64 King to Hampton. The walkers went to and admired the lovely home at 84 King that was once his carriage house.

At the end of King, the group turned down Lincoln Avenue and made their way back to the Community Hall parking lot. They arrived back after a three-plus mile walk at almost exactly their noon return time target. They came back with a better understand of Wallace Alexander, as well as his service to Piedmont. The walkers agreed his contributions continue to be seen and experienced; and will be for as long as Piedmont exists.


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