Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: An Enchanting Country House Echoes East Coast Follies

By Daniella Thompson
Friday June 23, 2006

When Maurice Strelinger, aka M.B. Curtis, built the fabulous Peralta Park Hotel, he envisioned it as a hostelry for theatrical companies passing through San Francisco. This dream never came to pass, but Curtis did manage to lure at least one stage star to his new subdivision. 

In October 1889, the California Architect and Building News (CABN) reported that Lord & Boynton was building for Miss Anita Fallon a two-story frame house on Lot 5 in Peralta Park. Designed by Fred E. Wilcox, the house cost $3,500, to be paid in four stages. 

Miss Fallon was a well-known San Francisco actress. In 1890, her city address was 120 McAllister Street. As befits a country residence of the late 1880s, the Fallon house in Berkeley is a beguiling fantasy. The main mass is a rectangular box, set back and surmounted by an enormous Dutch gambrel roof. At the front, a stout round turret flanked by a rustic stone chimney sports a bell-shaped roof that assumes a saddle shape as it connects to the gambrel roof. 

The exterior is clad in stucco—practically unheard of in an American house of the Victorian era—yet the 1889 contract notice stipulated a payment to be made after the first coat of mortar was put on. One can only speculate about the nature of the original walls. They may have been clad in an early form of stucco. Alternatively, the turret may have been shingled, the rest of the house clapboard.  

Unique in Berkeley, the Fallon house was kin to the fanciful East Coast villas featured monthly in the Scientific American Architects and Builders Edition. It was the perfect setting for its flamboyant owner.  

Anita (Annie) Fallon was born in San Jose on April 16, 1854. Her father, Captain Thomas Fallon (1825–1885), had been a member of the John C. Fremont expedition to Alta California. Later he joined the Bear Flag Revolt and on July 11, 1846 led a volunteer force that captured the pueblo of San Jose. He would serve as San Jose’s mayor in 1859–1860. 

Annie’s mother, Carmel Fallon (1827–1923), was the granddaughter of General Joaquin Ysidro Castro and the daughter of Martina Castro Lodge, the first woman to receive a Spanish land grant—Rancho Soquel, comprising 34,000 acres along the coast south of Santa Cruz. 

Carmel inherited one-tenth of Rancho Soquel, which she and Tom Fallon parlayed into land investments in the San Jose area. In the center of town they built a 15-room Italianate mansion that stood higher than City Hall and boasted the first bay windows in the South Bay area. Located across the street from the Luís Maria Peralta adobe (1797), the house is now part of the Peralta Adobe-Fallon House Historic Site. 

In 1874, Annie Fallon went to Paris to study painting, continuing to Germany the following year. Her pictorial subjects were apparently academic and uninspired, consisting mostly of Madonnas and landscapes. In 1878, she married John F. Malone, a young lawyer and Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney. Participation in local amateur Shakespearian productions propelled the couple to theatrical renown. 

On August 16, 1880 they made their San Francisco professional debut in Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s drama “Richelieu, or The Conspiracy,” staged at the Baldwin Theatre on Market Street. John played the title role, while Annie portrayed Richelieu’s ward, Julie de Mortemar. 

The marriage soon went awry, and in 1886 Annie sued for divorce on grounds of neglect and failure to provide sustenance. She soon became a star in her own right, performing at the Alcazar and Golden Gate theatres. For her independent-living role model, the a cigar-smoking actress needed look no further than her own mother. 

Ten years earlier, Carmel had caught her husband in flagrante delicto with the housekeeper. After thrashing the errant pair with a fire poker, Carmel promptly filed for divorce and moved to San Francisco with her unmarried children. 

An astute businesswoman, Carmel invested her fortune in San Francisco real estate, building the Carmel Hotel and the Fallon Hotel. In 1894, she commissioned a three-story commercial/residential building at the intersection of Market, Octavia, and Waller streets. It would serve as her home for the next 29 years. 

Designed by the San Jose architect Edward Goodrich, the trapezoidal Fallon Building survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire through the personal intervention of the 79-year old Carmel.  

In the late 1990s , now owned by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, the Fallon Building was threatened with demolition but saved through the efforts of the advocacy group Friends of 1800. It is now a designated landmark. 

Following her mother’s example, Anita engaged in building activities. In 1889, Fred Wilcox designed not only her Peralta Park house but an extant 4-story building of flats at 270 Divisadero Street. Like the Berkeley house, it features a prominent round turret, this one crowned by a witch's cap.  

Little is known about Wilcox. In 1889 and 1890, he had an office in the Flood Building on Market Street and resided at 828 Powell Street, on top of Nob Hill. According to architectural historian Bradley Wiedmaier, Wilcox spent only a few years in San Francisco. Half a dozen buildings in the city are known to have been designed by him, including the Pacific Heights homes of Baldwin Theatre manager Alfred Bouvier (2524 Broadway) and businessman Stanley Forbes (2614 Scott St.), both in Eastern Shingle style. For capitalist Isaac Hecht, Wilcox remodeled and enlarged three Italianate row houses on Green Street. 

Anita Fallon’s house in Peralta Park may well have been Wilcox’s only East Bay commission. For over 60 years it was the centerpiece of an oversized lot that extended from Albina Avenue to Fleurange Avenue (now Acton Street), just across Codornices Creek from the Peralta Park Hotel building. This lot had been the site of José Domingo Peralta’s adobe. A 1911 map indicates that the property (the address was 1304 Albina) included a water tower, a coop, and a car garage. It remained intact until the early 1950s, although the house had undergone some renovations, most likely in the ’20s and/or ’30s. 

How long Anita Fallon retained ownership of the house is not known. From 1911 until 1929 she was embroiled in a much-publicized dispute with her brother over their mother’s estate, which newspapers estimated at a million dollars. A five-year court case was finally resolved in an out-of-court settlement. Anita died in San Francisco on May 14, 1932. 

In the early 1950s, the former Fallon property was broken up into seven lots, and the house was turned around and moved to the western corner on Acton Street. On the Albina frontage, four modern houses went up, and an apartment building was later erected in the middle of the block. 

From the 1970s through the ’90s, the Fallon house was the home of William and Helga Olkowski, co-founders of the Farallones Institute and the Integral Urban House project. In 1979 the Olkowskis founded the Bio-Integral Resource Center, whose office was located on the first floor of their residence. 

The house is now owned by two writers: Phyllis Kluger, author of Needlepoint Gallery of Patterns From the Past, and Richard Kluger, author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the American cigarette business, Ashes to Ashes. Mr. Kluger has just completed his next book, Seizing Destiny, in which he examines how the United States amassed its territories. The book will be released by Knopf next year. 

The Klugers have been good to the Fallon house. Beautifully restored with no structural alterations and minimal updating, it imparts grace, refinement, and beauty to its surroundings. 


This is the third and final part in a series of articles on Peralta Park.