A story that began with a historic house in my neighborhood, 1630 Lincoln Avenue (see Part 1), has over these past few months expanded in scope. What I thought might be a two-part series about the home on Lincoln Avenue instead blossomed into a 13-part series that followed the Bruton family from Lincoln Avenue—then called Railroad Avenue—to their new home at 1240 St. Charles Street, built in 1897. Along the way we learned about successful Irish immigrant and businessman Daniel Bruton, and how he and his wife Helen raised three girls who grew up to be the “famous Bruton sisters,” known for their variety of artistic talents and accomplishments.
A story just waiting to be told
Searching for clues, I paid a visit to 1240 St. Charles Street and sat down with current owner Jeannie Graham (Part 4), took a field trip to the UC Berkeley campus searching for the large, outdoor mosaic murals created by Helen Bruton in 1936 (Part 3), explored the history of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, where the Bruton sisters created a very large and prominent mural (Part 2), explored all the different owners the house has had, learned how Jeannie Graham and Bruce Gilliat began a major renovation of 1240 St. Charles Street in 1999 (Part 5), and then, with the appearance of a memoir, Tales of 1240 – A Homecoming, connected back to a former resident of the home, Phil Plant (Part 6). It was Jennie’s lending me this book that opened up a whole new chapter in this series, and a visit to Phil’s home in Sausalito provided a wealth of stories and family photos to continue the story and add depth to the human history of the St. Charles Street house (Parts 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12).
1240 St. Charles Street, the main focus of this series, had a very good beginning. Built in 1897 by pioneer home builder Denis Straub (1822-1899), the house was built in the Colonial Revival style, which was in vogue at the time. It was Straub’s stepson, Fred P. Fischer (1862-1951), who designed the home, a testament to Straub’s mentoring and Fischer’s skills. Fred had started out as an apprentice, eventually working his way up to partner, overseeing construction and design. The quality of design and materials is evident as one looks at the house, though it has taken a lot of care and maintenance—mostly by Jeannie Graham—to keep it in the condition it’s in today.
A Bay Area sports connection
Among the many individuals who have lived at 1240 St. Charles Street over the years is Mike White, a former American football player and coach for the Oakland Raiders. It was while working for the Raiders in the mid-1990s that White occupied 1240 St. Charles Street as a tenant. Skip and Nancy Everett owned the house at the time, and after raising four children there, subsequently rented it out for a few years. Phil Plant had actually met White decades earlier, in 1958, while spending the summer at Lair of the Bear, the UC alumni camp near Pinecrest, California. Phil was working as a lifeguard that summer, and upon arriving at camp discovered that one of his fraternity brothers was on staff—Mike White. But it wasn’t until decades later when Phil began nostalgically looking back at his boyhood home, 1240 St. Charles Street, that he discovered Woody Minor’s 2011 Alameda Historical Monument Case Report, which listed White as among the former occupants of the house. As Phil writes in his book, “It was not until fifty years later that I learned Mike and I would have something else in common. Mike and I can both say we called the St. Charles Street house home for a time. Small world!”
The passing of an icon
In past articles the name Dianne Feinstein has come up in connection with 1240 St. Charles Street. With Senator Feinstein’s passing on September 29 this year, it seems especially appropriate to remember her now. Her obituary in the New York Times starts with, “Dianne Feinstein, the grande dame of California Democrats who became the mayor of San Francisco after a horrific double assassination at City Hall in 1978 and then gained national stature as an influential voice in the United States Senate for more than 30 years, died on Thursday night at her home in Washington. She was 90 and the Senate’s oldest member.” Adding to her many accomplishments is that she was the first woman mayor of San Francisco and the first woman from California to be elected to the U. S. Senate.
The connection to 1240 St. Charles Street
Barbara Schraeger, wife of Phil Plant, first came to California from Chicago in 1975. She had previously earned a Masters of Arts degree in literature and taught English in a public high school in Washington, DC. In San Francisco, she began consulting on labor and management issues and taught organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of San Francisco. These skills brought her to San Francisco City Hall, where she worked as the director of the Labor-Management Work Improvement Project for 10 years, under Mayor Feinstein. It was during this time that Barbara got to know the mayor, and worked on her political campaigns. Phil and Barbara didn’t marry until 1991, so much of this was “pre-Phil” times. It wasn’t until 1990, when Dianne Feinstein was running for governor of California, and Phil and Barbara’s relationship was still new, that they became closer to the former mayor and a friendship began.
“Phil and I co-chaired many, many events to help her raise money,” Barbara writes. “I knew her when she was Mayor of San Francisco because of my consulting position at City Hall, but we did not become close personal friends until her big statewide campaigns, which we helped on.” Feinstein ended up losing the California gubernatorial race to Republican Pete Wilson, by a margin of 49.3% to 45.8%. In November 1992, Feinstein won the U. S. Senate special election, taking the seat Pete Wilson vacated when he won the governor’s race. In the interim, the seat had been held by Wilson-appointee John Seymour.
1992 came to be known as “the year of the woman,” as Barbara Boxer joined Dianne Feinstein and three other women to take their places in the United States Senate. Though Senator Feinstein never visited 1240 St. Charles Street, her close relationship with former resident Phil Plant and his wife Barbara Schraeger adds another interesting footnote to the record of this historic and storied home.
An enriching experience
This deep dive into the Bruton Houses at 1630 Lincoln Avenue and 1240 St. Charles Street has added to our understanding of the architectural and human history of these historic homes. As I wrote in Part 11, “When I pass by the house now, it’s no longer just a house with a particular architectural style. Now, it has come to life with the very real presence of all the characters we’ve gotten to know over the course of these articles.”
We were very lucky with 1240 St. Charles Street, in particular, to have such a generous soul as Jeannie Graham, who provided so much background and historical information about her house, and then shared with me Phil Plant’s book. In addition, Woody Minor’s 2011 Case Report contained a wealth of information, sketching out a detailed timeline of the history of the neighborhood, the house, and the people who’ve called it home over the generations.
And finally, it has been such a privilege to meet and get to know Phil Plant and Barbara Schrager, who graciously opened their home and family photo albums, sharing Phil’s life growing up at 1240 St. Charles Street in the 1940s through the 1960s. With this wealth of historical information to draw upon, it’s no wonder this series has gone to 13 parts.
Connections between stories
I’ve only written one other house-history series that has gone as far as 13 parts, and that was the story of 2242 San Antonio Avenue, the Fargo House. It’s noteworthy that these two rich histories also connected at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, where both current 2242 San Antonio Avenue resident Gretchen Lipow and former 1240 St. Charles Street residents the Bruton sisters found themselves at the same place and time, for related reasons. The Brutons were there working on their massive 144-by-57-foot mural that graced the Court of Pacific during the exposition, their largest commission ever. Gretchen was there attending the school for the children of artists working at the fair. Her father, David Kittredge, was an artist working with Diego Rivera on his mural Pan American Unity (see Today’s Alameda Treasure – 2242 San Antonio Ave., Part 11). It’s possible that a young Gretchen Lipow even crossed paths with the Bruton sisters on her way to and from school on Treasure Island.
Will the next house-history story be this long? Probably not. Most times I don’t strike this rich a vein of gold. Most of these series are a little shorter, and that’s OK too. But when I do strike gold again, you’ll be sure to see it here in the Alameda Post, as we continue to tell the hidden histories of our Alameda Treasures.
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.