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A.A. Cohen’s Fernside Estate

Alfred Cohen played a major role in depriving San Francisco of a most-coveted prize: the terminus of the transcontinental railroad. In September 1869, the transcontinental railroad was set to arrive at San Francisco Bay. A.A. Cohen was happy to learn that Leland Stanford had, at last, agreed to bring the history-making trains into Oakland. There was one problem, however.

Alameda Post - A.A. Cohen's Fernside Estate, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge
This view, part of an Eadweard Muybridge stereoscopic pair, shows the approach to Fernside’s porte-cochere from Versailles Avenue. The entrance to the estate was near the intersection of today’s Versailles and Buena Vista avenues.

The San Francisco and Oakland Railroad (SF&O) wharf at Gibbons Point was not yet ready to accommodate the trains. The first train would arrive on September 6 in Alameda on “his” tracks—the Cohen line. He and Stanford would ride to San Francisco aboard Alfred’s brand new ferry, the appropriately named Alameda.

Cohen was a transportation man. He built the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad (SF&A) in 1864. He had taken over the SF&O and its ferries from his uncle-by-marriage Rodman Gibbons. In 1868, Cohen sold both railroads to the Central Pacific Railroad’s Big Four: Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins.



The sale made Cohen a wealthy man who could afford the best. In 1872, he and his wife, Emilie, hired the architectural firm of Wright and Sanders to help express their affluence. The following year John Wright and George H. Sanders—variably spelled Saunders—completed the 70-plus-room mansion that anchored the Cohens’ palatial estate. In social registers, such as the San Francisco Blue Book, the Cohens listed their residence as “Fernside, Buena Vista & Versailles Ave., Alameda.”

Join the Alameda Post’s Adam Gillitt and Dennis Evanosky at 10 a.m., Sunday, August 6 or 10 a.m. Saturday, August 12, for an informative stroll through Alfred A. and Emilie Cohen’s impressive Fernside estate. We’ll meet at the property’s former entrance on Buena Vista and Versailles avenues and discover the exact location of the impressive home, the bowling alley, stables, and other outbuildings. Dennis will talk about Alfred and Emilie’ seemingly contradictory backgrounds—enslavers on Alfred’s side and Quakers on Emilie’s.

The Cohens had hired no ordinary men to build their home. Five years before they submitted their design to the Cohens, Wright and Sanders had designed the State Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Berkeley on today’s Clark Kerr Campus at the University of California.

Alameda Post - Fernside Estate, photographed by Eadweard Muybdridge
Sometime in the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge photographed the Cohen estate. In order to capture the villa in all its glory, the photographer probably stood on the roof of the carriage house, the smaller building in the inset sketch from the 1888 Alameda Argus map.

The architects first designed a stone Gothic Revival building for the asylum. When a fire destroyed the structure in January 1875, Wright and Sanders returned to the drawing board. They designed new buildings that included an educational building, dormitories, support facilities, and a private residence for the principal. The asylum’s successor, the California Schools for the Deaf and Blind, used these and later-built facilities until 1980.

In 1868, Wright and Sanders won the prestigious competition to design the buildings for the University of California’s new campus in Berkeley. The pair backed out when they learned the regents would not permit them to involve themselves in the building process, a step that would have considerably reduced their fee.

Wright and Sanders’ Italianate design for the Cohens towered over the 109-acre estate. The home with all its trappings was said to have cost the staggering sum of $300,000. In Ultimate Victorians, Elinor Richey describes the Cohens’ home as, “the most splendid of all Italianate villas in the East Bay.” Richey says that Wright and Sanders—no doubt with some input from London-born A.A. Cohen—used Queen Victoria’s summer home on the Isle of Wight as a model.

Richey describes the home as a “vast towered three-story rectangular structure with its sweeping carriage entrance and porte-cochère.” She says it “rather resembled a luxury hotel at a luxury spa.” The home so impressed Mark Hopkins and his wife, Mary, that they hired Wright and Sanders to design their towering Nob Hill home. Crocker and Stanford also included some features of the Cohen villa into their own Nob Hill homes.

One impressive feature: Visitors could stroll through the Cohens’ art gallery—which took up an entire floor—and ogle paintings by such artists as Albert Bierstadt. Portraits of the Cohen family by Charles Nahl also graced the gallery.

Read more about A.A. Cohen’s unsavory ancestors.

Cohen remained the president of the SF&A. He also served as the Central Pacific’s attorney. Richey says that he could scarcely abide members of the Big Four. He looked down on them as “men whose habits, modes of thought and conversation were not calculated to advance me.”

Cohen often clashed with these men. They once ordered the tracks removed in front of Cohen’ private rail car in the rail yards near today’s Fruitvale BART station. He resigned as the Big Four’s counsel in 1876 in protest over what he called unfair tariffs and practices.  He advocated the first bill in California to regulate freight rates.

In 1880 Cohen represented the City of Oakland in a case involving allegations that the Central Pacific had no right to that city’s waterfront. This case and its appeals would lead to the railroad losing that right.

A.A. Cohen died on November 6, 1887, aboard his private railroad car near Sydney, Nebraska. He was on his way home from New York. William, who served as his father’s secretary, was by his side when he passed. The railroad commissioned a special train to bring Emilie to Nebraska and carry the widow and her dead husband back to Alameda. She laid him to rest at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Alameda Post - a black and white photo of the ruins of the Cohen mansion
A. A. and Emilie Cohen’s son Edgar, who lived in the Cohen mansion as a child, photographed the house after the devastating 1897 fire. Emilie was living with Edgar and his family in their home on the site of today’s Edison Elementary School when the fire destroyed the mansion.

On March 23, 1897, the New York Times reported the Cohen family’s second devastating loss in 10 years: the fire that destroyed Fernside. “The handsome residence of the late A. A. Cohen was destroyed by fire from a defective flue,” The Times told its readers. “The house was filled with elegant furniture and works of art. Many of the pictures in the art gallery had been bought in Europe and represented a large outlay.”

Fortunately, Emilie was living across Versailles Avenue with her son Edgar at the time of the fire, and the mansion was vacant when the fire broke out. Emilie remained at Fernside after the fire, moving into a less-elegant building on the estate grounds—the bowling alley. She had survived the death of her husband, and now she survived the fire.

When Emilie died in 1925, the children subdivided the estate and sold the property to developer Fred Wood. All that’s left to remind us of the grand estate’s existence in Alameda is the neighborhood’s name and a boulevard that echoes it, “Fernside.”

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Dennis-Evanosky.

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