There’s a time warp in Oakland, nestled on the gentle slopes at the base of Dunsmuir Ridge, overlooking San Leandro to the west.
It’s called Sheffield Village, though a film buff might immediately think of Pleasantville, the 1998 Gary Ross movie contrasting the black-and-white small town sitcom world of the ‘50s with today’s more conflicted reality.
And today, it’s on its way to becoming Oakland’s newest landmark.
Like Pleasantville, Sheffield Village is a world of modest, immaculately maintained two- and three-bedroom homes, of white picket fences and meticulous landscaping, making it a perfect setting for a film set in the era of the post-World War II boom.
Lots are generous, 5,000 square feet and more, and each one unique according to its placement on the gently sloped terrain and along the pleasantly winding streets. Sheffield Village lies just east of Highway 580 about a mile south of the Oakland Zoo, and consists of about 300 homes.
“It truly is a village,” said Chris Barker, a three-year resident who bought his home in January 2001, from the original owner, who had lived in the house for 60 years.
“People know each other and participate in the homeowners
association,” Barker said. “There’s an annual picnic, Christmas caroling and food drives. People love their homes and they want to preserve the look and character and feel of the neighborhood.”
The move to landmark the community began eight months after Barker moved in “when one homeowner basically leveled his house to build something much larger and totally out of character with the neighborhood. It sparked a lot of outrage.”
The proposal sailed through the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and now rests in the hands of the city’s Planning Commission, which holds the landmarking authority in Oakland.
All Sheffield Village homes feature hardwood floors throughout, built-in bookshelves, glass-fronted china cabinets, fireplaces and a host of other amenities—and if buyers made their purchases before their homes were finished they could pick and chose color schemes, paint and wallpaper.
The builders even allowed for design modifications for those who bought before construction had commenced, so that rooms could be made larger or smaller.
And then each home received its own unique ornamentation, details ensuring that no two structures were alike.
As Irwin Johnson, one of the subdivision’s architects, told a researcher for the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey in 1991, “Embellishments didn’t cost much then. Many tradespeople were available then to do craftwork.”
Completed homes with landscaping installed cost $4,750 to $5,950 when built, and buyers could move in with a ten percent down payment.
Today those same houses sell for close to 100 times the original sales price—when they come on the market. A recent weekend tour of the subdivision didn’t produce a single “For Sale” sign sighting.
Launched in 1939 to great fanfare in the Oakland Tribune, the 98-acre subdivision was built with $1.5 million in Federal Housing Administration funding, a noteworthy sum in the waning years of the Depression.
At the time E.B. Field and his construction company launched the project, they boasted that it was “the greatest single group housing project in the West.” It was the largest FHA project of its day.
While some homes have been expanded and second floors added, Sheffield Village remains largely intact, save for the 23 homes that were demolished in 1968 to make room for Interstate 580.
There is one notable change from the original plans, as explained in a 1941 brochure distributed to prospective home-buyers.
“First and foremost at Sheffield Village you have the guarantee of home protection. Everything has been done and is being done to safeguard your investment. You have the guarantee of a Declaration of Restrictions to be in force for 40 or more years. . .You are protected against the incursion of undesirable neighbors or unsightly homes.”
Any possibility of mistaking the intent of the passage was resolved in the following page, which laid out the pluses of living in the development: “High type Caucasian neighbors proud of their homes.”
Racial covenants were actually required by the Federal Housing Administration in all housing projects they financed.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-0 in 1948 that the covenants couldn’t be enforced in court, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in housing sales.
Architect Johnson became one of the most prominent architects in the East Bay, with commissions including the home of Alameda County District Attorney and future U.S. Supreme Chief Justice Earl Warren, the San Leandro City Hall and the Salvation Army Building in downtown Oakland.
Johnson designed many homes in the Piedmont and Rockridge neighborhoods, and several in Berkeley. Gail Lombardi of the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey described him as “a significant architect in the Bay Area.”
Some of his homes were destroyed in the 1991 fire, but many others remain. One of his San Leandro creations was featured in the September 1939 edition of House Beautiful.
“We think very highly of him,” Lombardi said. “The Mid-Century architects are only now starting to be valued.”
One of Johnson’s Berkeley buildings is currently up for consideration by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the 1946 Colonial Revival style office building at 2040 Fourth St. that now houses Celia’s Restaurant.
The architect kept working right up until he died in 1998, at the age of 95. Lombardi predicts he will become more prominent with the passage of time.
One thing is certain: For anyone old enough to remember the 1950s, a trip to Sheffield Village is certain to evoke waves of nostalgia.
For more information on the village, see the neighborhood website, www.sheffieldvillage.org/index.html.