The late night calm on Paru Street was broken by the sounds of crackling wood, breaking glass, and shouts of “fire!” The Alameda Fire Department was summoned to the scene from call box 21, which assistant Chief Steinmetz acted upon immediately by dispatching crews. Was this the end of an era in Alameda, or would the beloved Harmonie Hall be saved?
The past comes to light
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this story, we traced the origins of a cache of around 15 antique stoneware bottles found underground behind 1425 Paru Street, and learned that a large establishment called Harmonie Hall once stood on this site, along with the sites of four other homes spanning Paru and Cottage Streets.
We also traced the interesting history of the Thomson family, who owned the home for 106 years before discovering these artifacts. At first, the presence of so many heavy, stoneware bottles stamped with the words “Koniglich Preussiche Brunnen-Verwaltung” was a mystery. Translated from German, the text reads, “Royal Prussian Spring Administration.”
Further research indicated that these bottles once contained imported seltzer water from the Niederselters region of Germany. That still didn’t explain why so many would be found behind a house on Paru Street, until a look at an 1897 Sanborn Fire Map revealed that a large structure called Harmonie Hall once stood on that very spot. A German-American social hall would be just the kind of place that would go through a lot of Niederselters sparkling water, and at a time before municipal garbage service, refuse was often thrown into pits in backyards.
Alameda’s oldest social center
By 1911, Harmonie Hall was known as Alameda’s oldest and most popular dancing pavilion and social center. Built in the mid- to late-1870s, the Hall was host to numerous events over the decades. The Oakland Enquirer described it as a place where “many of our noted statesmen and celebrities appeared, select dances were given, balls and parties held, large banquets, refreshments of all descriptions served, and many denominations’ festivities held till the breaking of the dawn.”
One of our previous Alameda Treasures, Esther Bruton, of 1240 St. Charles Street (see Today’s Alameda Treasure – The Bruton Houses, Part 2) also attended Harmonie Hall on at least one occasion, and probably more. An article in the Society section of the May 21, 1910 Alameda Evening Times Star reported, “The members of one of the local dancing classes closed out the season with a dance given at Harmonie Hall last night. The young people passed the hours until midnight in the merry whirl, and said good night until the opening of the fall season in September. Those present included Misses Esther Bruton…” Esther Bruton was 14 years old at the time of this dance, and already would have been involved in her art, something that brought her and her sisters considerable success and acclaim in the coming years and decades.
Fire wakes the neighborhood
June 19, 1911 was a Monday. It’s possible there was nothing going on at Harmonie Hall that day and night, or that at least whatever events did take place wrapped up early. Just before midnight, though, flames had erupted from the building, as firefighters arrived and assessed the scene. Judging the building to be too heavily involved to enter or save, firefighters focused their efforts on the surrounding homes, which were in danger from the heat and flying embers.
Local residents got busy with their garden hoses, putting out hot spots on their roofs, while the fire department’s chemical engines sent streams over the tops and sides of houses. After a long fight, the fire at Harmonie Hall was finally put out, and all of the neighboring homes saved. The Hall, however, was a total loss and lay in ruins. Was this the end of an era, or would Harmonie Hall rise from the ashes?
The next day’s newspapers featured headlines such as, “Landmark is destroyed by fire” and “Harmonie Hall is destroyed.” So well-known was the Hall that its destruction was covered in the Alameda Daily Argus, Alameda Evening Times Star, Oakland Enquirer, San Francisco Call, and the San Francisco Examiner, among others. A report in the Evening Times Star stated, “The origin of the fire, while in doubt, is believed to have been some old paint rags in the headquarters of the Phoenix Athletic Club, which had been recently fitted up and painted in the basement of the hall. Another probable cause is given as defective electric light wiring.” These possible causes were provided by Fire Chief Fred K. Krauth, after an initial investigation.
The Hall was the property of Dr. Walter Hughes, who had purchased it from the Harmonie Hall Club just three years prior. On the day after the fire, Dr. Hughes said that his loss amounted to $3,500 above his insurance of $3,000, making the total loss $6,500. Even though his loss was partially insured, $3,500 in 1911 was equivalent to about $113,395 in today’s purchasing power, so it was probably an unsustainable loss for Dr. Hughes. He likely had no choice but to sell his large lot to a developer, who ended up building five Craftsman-style bungalows on the former Harmonie Hall lot in the mid to late 1910s.
As we learned in Part 2 of this series, the new houses that rose up on the site of Harmonie Hall were 1425 Paru Street and its neighbor at 1415 Paru Street, and also three houses on the opposite block; 1428, 1430, and 1438 Cottage Street.
When one door closes…
As the old expression goes, “When one door closes, another door opens,” and this applies to the old Harmonie Hall site as well. As the doors of the old Hall closed forever in 1911, new doors began to open and new lives began to populate the site in the coming years. As the old stoneware seltzer bottles lay hidden underground, possibly added to and further buried by the fire, the land was cleared and graded for new homes.
In 1913, the home at 1425 Paru Street was built, and by 1917 Ralph and Mabel Thomson moved in with their toddler, Kathleen. Other families moved into neighboring and adjacent new homes, and a whole new chapter in Alameda history began, prompted by the loss of an old and well-established Hall. That once-popular social hall was largely forgotten as the years went on, but in these articles I’ve tried to give a glimpse into the past that brings it to life once again, even just for a moment.
It’s all connected
While the destruction of Harmonie Hall was a great loss and a tragedy in its day, it also set the stage for the Thomson family to buy a home at 1425 Paru Street, leading to Kathleen Thomson growing up there, serving in the Coast Guard as one of its first female officers, raising a family, living to 107 years old, and then, in death, prompting the discovery of the stoneware vessels that connect us back over 140 years to the origins of the property. I’m so grateful to Kathleen’s daughter, Rita Hampson, for sharing her family’s 106-year history with the house, and for discovering the only known artifacts from Harmonie Hall—the antique stoneware seltzer bottles from Germany, one of which now resides in the Alameda Museum’s collection. It’s all connected, as we weave the stories of our Alameda Treasures into the story of the city we love, Alameda.
Contributing writer Steve Gorman has been a resident of Alameda since 2000, when he fell in love with the history and architecture of this unique town. Contact him via [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Steve-Gorman.