One of the best things about an old house is how many stories it has to tell. Just by virtue of how many years it’s been around and how many lives it’s sheltered, an old house is bound to contain countless stories and memories. 1240 St. Charles Street is one such house.
Since houses can’t talk—at least the un-haunted ones—we have to rely on people to tell the stories, to preserve the photos and memories, and to bring the past to life. Finding those stories and memories can be a challenge, but fortunately for Alameda Post readers and for Alameda history in general, Phil Plant’s memories are a treasure trove.
I’ve come to think of the Plant family ownership of 1240 St. Charles Street as the middle years. They lived here during the lengthy period spanning 1944 to 1983, while the early years featured the Bruton family and their residency from 1897 to 1944. Other families, including current owner Jeannie Graham, filled out the period I think of as the later years, commencing in 1983 and continuing to the present day. While a fair amount of history is known about both the early and later periods, this middle period was more of a mystery, at least until the emergence of Phil Plant’s book and my subsequent visit with him and his family in Sausalito.
Phil Plant’s self-published book, Tales of 1240 — A Homecoming, was inspired by a 2015 visit to his boyhood home, a place he had not seen in many decades. “This visit rekindled memories long forgotten, and prompted me to assess anew the role my family had in my life,” Phil says. The visit was made even more impressive by the breathtaking improvements made by Jeannie Graham. As Phil recalls in his book, “The original owners, the Brutons, built the house in 1897. Few of its original features had been changed or improved when we moved in.” What this means, essentially, is that the Plant family was moving into an original 1897 vintage house, with all of the charms and limitations a nineteenth century residence would suggest.
Nineteenth century hygiene
One of the vintage limitations of 1240 St. Charles Street was the single full bathroom. Located on the second floor, it featured a claw-foot bathtub with no shower. The only other facility was an outdoor toilet accessed off the back porch, which was unheated and had no wash basin. Visiting this water closet in winter, when temperatures could be in the 30s or 40s, was a chilly experience. As Phil says, “However satisfactory this arrangement might have been for nineteenth century standards of personal hygiene, it plainly didn’t cut the mustard for a mid-twentieth century family of six.” This same bathroom setup remained in place for the first two decades of Plant family ownership, before any upgrade was made. Why did it take the family so long to improve the facilities? Phil ascribes it to the “infamous backwater value system and lax standards” that harkened back to his grandparents’ roots in rural Indiana and Missouri.
Sibling rivalry goes ballistic
In Part 7 of this series we described the cast of characters living in the house during this period, including Phil’s only sibling, his sister Margot. With a four-year age difference between them, teasing and fighting were common occurrences. Phil describes an incident from the late 1940s: “We were in the St. Charles St. house, and Margot was sassing me. I threw a metal box at her which accidentally ended up going through the dining room picture window. Mother loved this window, not only because it was the largest window in the house, but also because she believed it was the oldest. It had minor flaws producing wavy lines when looked through at a certain angle, and mother thought that proved it was one of the original windows installed when the house was built in 1897. Needless to say, Mother was not pleased that her prize window was no more. When called upon to explain my misconduct, I proffered the unsuccessful defense that I had thrown the box at Margot, who was standing in front of the window, and I would have hit her rather than the window had she not ducked. Both of us had miscalculated in this fiasco: Margot erroneously thought she could taunt me in the house and I wouldn’t dare throw anything at her; I had wrongly assumed that I would connect with her when I threw the box.”
Life before South Shore
Phil describes growing up in Alameda during the 1940s and 1950s as a time and place that was “special and exhilarating.” In addition to the national mood of liberation and optimism that characterized the post-World War II period in America, the neighborhood itself offered unique freedoms and opportunities for exploration. This was before the Utah Construction Company began filling in the tidelands along Alameda’s south shore, and San Francisco Bay came right up to the end of streets like St. Charles and many others.
As Phil remembers it, “There were empty lots with abandoned piers, bathhouses, and other structures that had once been used when Neptune Beach, Alameda’s answer to Coney Island, was still all the rage. There was a seawall at the end of the street which served as an incredible repository of marine life and a fantastic scaling challenge. We had a ‘gang’ of neighborhood youths from a handful of households who engaged in organized adventures in this setting. We’d systematically dismantle those abandoned sheds and bathhouses to the point of collapse, just to discover how they were constructed.”
Phil and his friends also spent a lot of time traversing the seawall running from St. Charles Street all the way to the original Encinal Yacht Club, located on a pier that extended out into the bay from the southern end of Grand Street. This adventure was made more formidable by the series of obstacles put up by property owners trying to block the passage of these kids along their sections of the seawall. Phil’s group always managed to overcome the obstacles, and their adventures illustrate the laissez faire attitude of parents at the time, whose only requirement was that their kids answer the call to dinner.
In contrast to today’s organized playdates and supervised recreation, these memories remind us of a time when kids were told to simply “go out and play,” only to return hours later dirty, scraped, hungry, and ready for dinner. Each family had a different dinner call to which their kids were expected to respond. Phil’s mom used a certain whistle, while another mom employed a cowbell, and yet another emitted a “warble-like yodel that would be the envy of any red-blooded alpinist.” These memories of what life was like along Alameda’s south shore when it was still a natural shoreline, and not the man-made beach and lagoons that it is today, bring to mind another time and place. One that is long-gone, but not forgotten—a time of “magical freedoms,” as Phil Plant remembers it.
Shots fired at 1240 St. Charles Street
Speaking of laissez-faire parenting and magical freedoms, Phil receiving a .22 caliber Remington rifle for Christmas from his cousin Win Paget might have set off alarm bells with other parents, but not his. Phil was 11 years old when Win’s interest in vintage firearms led him to start sending a rifle to his cousin each year for Christmas. As Phil recalls, “I responded predictably, as any red-blooded eleven-year-old boy would, with a burning desire to shoot at things.” Since no adult in the household had ever used a firearm, Phil’s dad Felix brought him to a gun shop where a basic briefing took place, along with the purchase of a box of ammunition. A trip to the city dump then allowed young Phil to shoot off a few rounds, and upon returning home the rifle was stored in his closet.
Phil was unable to get anyone in his family interested in marksmanship after that, and there was no point in trying to interest the neighborhood kids since no one else had any kind of gun. In fact, the neighborhood mothers had banded together a few years earlier to enforce a no-guns policy, when all of the boys had asked for Red Ryder BB guns. These guns looked like the Winchester rifle featured in the westerns they watched every Sunday, and which later played prominently in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, along with the admonition, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Fortunately, Phil didn’t shoot his eye out, but he did take matters into his own hands when he could find no one to assist him with marksmanship. Setting up a bunch of tin cans in the backyard, he began shooting at them from the third floor attic studio window. As the crack of gunfire echoed and the bullets flew around 1240 St. Charles Street, the housekeeper of neighbor Frank Weeden noticed. That evening, Mr. Weeden himself showed up at the doorstep and gave Phil a stern lecture about his dangerous actions. While he learned his lesson and did no more shooting, Phil later reminisced that it was noteworthy that even after that incident, his parents didn’t confiscate his rifle or ammunition, which remained in his bedroom closet. Moreover, they didn’t ask Win to stop sending him rifles, which he continued to do for five more years. The restored German Mausers just got stacked up with the Remington in the closet.
The story took a strange turn when, after Phil Plant moved out of the house in 1968, his former brother-in-law showed up at the house and removed the rifles, telling Felix that Phil had authorized him to do so, when in fact he had not. Margot, who was no longer married to him, was totally in the dark as to what was happening. Phil, after filing a lawsuit, was eventually compensated for the wrongful taking of his firearms. The lessons of this story are many: Don’t give minors firearms as presents, practice gun safety, supervise your children, and don’t steal. This tale, titled “Trigger Happy” in Phil’s book, is just one more colorful anecdote that sheds further light on the interesting past of this historic home.
1240 St. Charles Street still has many stories to tell, including how the neighborhood was divided between “pool families” and “non-pool families” and why a vagary in 19th century Alameda land ownership resulted in a narrow strip of land between lots on St. Charles Street and Bay Street. This strip of land, once owned by German investor H. Hausmann, was finally sold in the late 1800s or early 1900s and resulted in a shared plot that became a Victory Garden and then a community pool. That pool still exists, and was once supervised by neighbor Frank Weeden, the swimming coach who confronted young Phil about his backyard shooting spree. All of that, plus the discovery of an original Helen Bruton mosaic appearing in an old Plant family photo, will be included as we continue to explore the stories of this Alameda Treasure, 1240 St. Charles Street, the Bruton house.
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.