As they stepped into their newly purchased home at 1240 St. Charles Street—the famous Bruton house—Jeannie Graham and Bruce Gilliat knew they had their work cut out for them. Fresh off an eight-year restoration of 2067 San Jose Avenue (see Part 4), the couple was ready to take on their next challenge.
A storied history
When Jeannie and Bruce purchased 1240 St. Charles Street in 1999, the house had had just four other owners during its 102-year lifetime. The transitional Colonial Revival home that had been built for $4,160 in 1897, had just sold for about a million dollars. Yet the years and the generations had taken their toll on the property. Though well-loved over the decades, it nevertheless needed upgrades to its plumbing, electrical, foundation, and other areas. In addition, Jeannie and Bruce had a vision for making the house even more “livable” by adding living spaces to the basement and attic, connecting all four levels with a new staircase addition, remodeling the kitchen, eliminating a bedroom on the second level in order to expand the primary bedroom, and extending a guest bedroom over a rear porch addition.
On top of all those upgrades, they decided to strip the lath and plaster from the studs, install new wiring and seismic upgrades, install new sheetrock, restore plaster ceiling rosettes, remove old radiators, and convert fireplaces to gas. While upgrading the foundation, the whole house was moved four feet forward and three feet south, to create more backyard space and room on the north side for parking. Old brick and concrete foundation materials were used to fill in the swimming pool, and new landscaping was installed. Plans for all of this work began in the year 2000, with the actual work done between 2001 and 2004. With all of this construction and renovation going on, Jeannie and Bruce continued to reside in their San Jose Avenue home until the work was completed.
An elegant solution
With the completion of a finished attic and basement, the new owners now had two new living spaces that were not seamlessly connected to the rest of the house. Entry to the attic required negotiating a steep set of rough steps, something the hardy Bruton sisters evidently did not mind during their years in the home. And entering the now finished basement called for something more graceful than the existing set of steep basement steps. The solution, designed by Buested Construction, was a new stairwell addition to the north side of the house, connecting all four levels. Alameda historian Woody Minor described the addition in his in 2011.
“As originally built, the house had an inset ell at its northwest (left) front corner,” Minor wrote. “This space has been enclosed with a slightly recessed two-story stairwell addition with two front windows and one side window. The front windows duplicate the façade’s original upper stairwell window, with fluted pilasters and egg-and-dart trim. The rear addition consists of a new porch projecting off the kitchen, with rooftop balcony and upper-level bedroom extension. The additions are capped with new hip roofs and a new north facing gabled dormer. In terms of design, materials, and detailing, the additions are seamlessly integrated with the original house.”
A little help from their friends
While Jeannie and Bruce did most of the work themselves on 2067 San Jose Avenue, their St. Charles Street project required help from a larger support team. Designers and craftspeople associated with the property’s post-2000 modifications include Kathryn Mathewson of Secret Gardens, San Francisco, and Iris Watson of Thomsen’s Garden Center, Alameda (landscaping); John Mulligan, Oakland (masonry); Bolinger Design Services, Hayward, and Buested Construction, Alameda (additions); Lorna Kollmeyer, San Francisco (plasterwork); Jerry Wilkins, Custom Kitchens, Oakland (cabinetry); and Si Lewis, Hidden Connections, Alameda (media installation). Jeannie and Bruce worked closely with these professionals on all aspects of the work, while at the same time being busy with their own careers in the telecommunications marketing and internet industries.
A transitional home
The style of 1240 St. Charles Street is described as Transitional Colonial Revival. It was designed and built at a time when the more decorative and fanciful Queen Anne style had dominated most the 1890s, but as the turn of the century approached, tastes were changing. Gone were the towers, turrets, bay windows, sunbursts, fish scale shingles, extensive porches with decorative balusters and spindle work, and steeply pitched roofs with gables. In their place came homes with boxier massing, symmetrical façades with side entry porches, hip roofs, leaded glass instead of stained glass, simple dormer windows, narrow lap siding instead of textured shingles, and an overall more sober and classic look.
But as Alameda historian Dennis Evanosky likes to say, “there are no rules,” and homeowners and builders would combine elements of different styles to match their tastes. (Dennis is also the Historian for the Alameda Post and Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.) In the case of 1240 St. Charles Street, and many other Transitional Colonial Revival homes, vestigial Queen Anne elements include bay windows, stained glass, gabled dormers, varied windows, asymmetrical façades, and wraparound porches with eclectic columns. Dentils, pilasters, egg-and-dart molding, urn finials, brackets, and lunette panels are all classically derived elements, and so are nods to the newer Colonial Revival style. All in all, this home is an excellent example of this transitional style, and stands the test of time as a successful melding of styles as one century drew to a close and a new one approached.
A rare honor
Woody Minor summarized his 27-page Case Report by stating that, “the Bruton House retains sufficient integrity to convey in a meaningful way its architectural and historical significance, and as such appears to be eligible for designation as an Alameda Historical Monument.” Minor had justified these findings earlier in the report by noting that the home is an excellent example of a Colonial Revival style home with vestigial Queen Anne elements, and that it had been built by a notable Alameda building firm of the era.
The home also derives major historical significance by its association with important California artists Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton, who spent much of their lives there during their most active years. Few historically significant artists are connected with Alameda, thus enhancing the significance of this property. Secondary significance is found in the property’s association with a prominent and well-known businessman of the time, Daniel Bruton, whose Irish ancestry also speaks to patterns of immigration in 19th century America.
On April 3, 2012, the Alameda City Council conferred Historical Monument status on 1240 St. Charles Street. There are only 30 buildings on the Historical Monument list, many of them public buildings such as City Hall, schools, churches and theaters, so this is a rare honor for a private home.
Carrying on a legacy
Jeannie Graham continues on her own, safeguarding the legacy of this historic home by keeping up with the constant work of maintenance and upgrades. Caring for a 126-year-old home is not easy or cheap, but Jeannie is dedicated to playing her part in keeping this Alameda Historic Monument in pristine condition. She is also very generous in sharing her house with the community. It has been featured in a number of Alameda Legacy Home tours and has hosted many events. I look forward to another meeting with Jeannie, to learn more about this home’s storied past and see areas of the house I’ve not yet seen. All of that, and more, will be shared as we continue to dig into our Alameda Treasure, 1240 St. Charles Street, the Bruton house.
To learn more about this historically important home at 1240 St. Charles Street, read Woody Minor’s 2011 Alameda Historical Monument Case Report.
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.