An old house has many stories to tell, not only about events that happened in the house itself, but also about the neighborhood and why certain things developed the way they did. In our last article, Part 8, we learned what a wondrous playground the old Alameda shoreline was for young Phil Plant and his friends, before the Utah Construction Company arrived in the late 1950s to forever change that landscape. His boyhood home, at 1240 St. Charles Street, once stood just steps from the beach and San Francisco Bay, before the beach was moved a number of blocks south by landfill.
Stuck in the middle
There is an oddity in early Alameda land tract history that eventually led to the existence of a community pool in the St. Charles Street neighborhood where our Alameda Treasure is located. In the 1890s, when this tract of land was first being developed, the lots leading to the bay were still divided into strips, split between these three landowners since the 1870s: Christian Heinrich Strybing, H. Haussmann, and Charles Baum. Strybing’s tract faced St. Charles Street, Baum’s tract faced Bay Street, and Haussmann’s tract was landlocked in the middle. The existence of this middle tract, which Haussmann was unwilling to sell, delayed development in this area because of the narrowness of the lots, and created uncertainty about what would happen with that 100-foot-wide landlocked tract. As the Alameda Daily Argus noted in March, 1896: “The Strybing property is a strip having but one hundred feet of depth. The danger is that this may be purchased promiscuously and covered in little cottages and shanties because of its shallowness. The strip behind is owned by a man who lives in Hamburg and who seems not desirous of selling.”
From Victory Garden to pool
Despite the narrow lots and uncertainty about having to possibly live among “cottages and shanties,” development proceeded on these narrow tracts, including 1240 St. Charles Street, which was built in 1897 for the Bruton family. Initially the properties had just 100-foot depths, but by 1901 Haussmann’s strip had finally been sold, giving most parcels 150-foot depths. One homeowner, just to the south of the Bruton house, retained his central strip as a vacant lot. During World War II, this plot became a Victory Garden. After the war, Frank Weeden, who lived at 1236 St. Charles Street, and several of his neighbors developed this parcel with a pool where he gave free swimming lessons to children. This pool is still owned by adjoining property owners, a strange quirk in Alameda real estate that dates back to the late 1890s and the three investors who once divided this tract into strips.
Pool families and non-pool families
Since the Plant family had not participated in the Victory Garden—a communal garden dedicated to growing vegetables that were otherwise unavailable during the war due to rationing—they were not part of the conversion of the garden into a swimming pool after 1945. As Phil recalls in his book, 1240 St. Charles – A Homecoming, “A majority of the gang members (his friends) were from pool families, and when they spoke of upcoming social events, I felt left out and envious. I wished that our family could somehow gain admission to this select club. Nothing came of my fantasy; I always assumed we just weren’t good enough to be a pool family. In this circumstance at least, I felt I was a victim of unequal treatment.”
More memories sparked
These articles in the Alameda Post have stirred up our readers’ memories of 1240 St. Charles Street and the pool next door. A friend of Phil Plant’s sister Margot, Anne McFaddin, writes: “I was happy to read the article about the Plant residence as it brought back a certain memory. It was the large home of my older sister’s good friend Margot Plant. I remember so well the house and the fabulous backyard with a great swing that took me high in the air, enough to see over the fence and see the huge swimming pool next door. The pool was owned by several neighbors, and Frank Weeden started his swim team there. I was enthralled by the sight of the blue pool and the swimmers and divers. My sister Jackie was only too happy to deliver me to be in Frank’s charge every afternoon and that was my introduction to a long career in swimming. As you know, the pool is still there but the swim team has moved on.”
This story casts further light on the story of the community pool, revealing that it was visible from a swing in the backyard at 1240 St. Charles Street, making it all the more tantalizing to the Plant family, who were not a “pool family.” The sting of this exclusion must have played a part in the Plants building their own pool in the mid-1960s when Phil was away in the Army and Margot was grown and living away from home as well. The pool may have come too late for the childhood dreams of Phil and Margot, but their parents Felix and Marjorie were at least able to enjoy finally being a “pool family” and giving their grandchildren Jennifer and Jessica a pool experience as well.
Requiem for a pool
The pool remained in place for the next 35 years, until the arrival of the fifth owners of the house, Jeannie Graham and Bruce Gilliat. As part of their extensive and tasteful restoration of this historic home, they removed the pool, had the house moved four feet forward, and created a beautiful backyard garden retreat.
As Phil Plant describes in his book: “She (Jeannie Graham) did two fundamental things that really made the backyard a work of art: she eliminated the swimming pool and she highlighted the stately oak tree that dominated the center of the backyard. The swimming pool was an eyesore to begin with and I’m sorry to say it was put in during the Plant family’s watch. It was installed in the mid-1960s when I was away in the Army. The moment I saw it, it struck me as a forced feature that didn’t fit in. While Jeannie diplomatically explained the filling in of the pool as an economical way to dispose of old bricks and cement from the original foundation, I think the elimination of the pool restored a natural symmetry and proportionality to the backyard grounds.”
How ironic that Phil had longed to be part of a “pool family” in his younger years, but when a pool finally did arrive it was too late, and was seen by him as an eyesore.
Helen Bruton at the pool
Looking through family photo albums while visiting the Plant family home in Sausalito, I noticed a photo of what looked like a Helen Bruton mosaic piece hanging on a wall near the pool. Though the 1970s vintage photo is not as clear as I’d like it to be, what is clear is that the image looks very much in the style of the Bruton sisters, in particular Helen Bruton, who specialized in mosaic tile murals. The Bruton sisters didn’t leave any art pieces behind when they left 1240 St. Charles Street in 1944, but the Plants did collect some Bruton art, so the discovery of this piece, which once graced the pool area, is significant. What happened to the piece after Felix Plant died in 1999 and the house was later sold is not known, but Felix’s long-time girlfriend Eileen did inherit many of his possessions. More about her, a colorful character in her own right, will come in later installments of this series.
There are still many stories to tell about 1240 St. Charles Street and the neighborhood it has stood in for the past 126 years, and while we can’t tell them all, there are some that shouldn’t be missed. Like how Phil’s grandfather, Bryant Fields, had no appreciation for historical preservation, and whose household projects all too often involved painting over natural wood with oil-based paint. As Phil describes it, his projects “reeked of rank amateurism” and resulted in Phil’s mother coming home from work most days shouting, “You did WHAT?!” Or the time Phil’s oldest daughter Jennifer was visiting her grandparents at 1240 St. Charles Street and got her hair tangled in the blades of a Mixmaster mixer. The tangled hair had to be cut from her head with scissors, and the resulting comb-over didn’t go over well with Jennifer’s mom Liz, who wasn’t initially told about the incident. The resulting tension spilled over into her already somewhat tense marriage with Phil, and was just one more incident leading to their separation in 1978. All that and more as we continue to explore the varied and surprising history of our Alameda Treasure, 1240 St. Charles Street.
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.