Temescal might just be the Pluto of North Oakland neighborhoods.
Not only does it lie outside the orbit of tonier, cozier, better-known residential districts—Rockridge, Piedmont Avenue, Montclair—but some might even argue that it’s not a neighborhood at all, just another stretch of the flatlands between the hills and Emeryville.
Even its name has been banished in recent decades by some realtors who persist in assigning imaginary appellations such as “Lower Rockridge” to this distinct district
But, rather like Pluto, Temescal has its ardent defenders, including residents of the neighborhood and the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA).
Temescal is indeed a real neighborhood, a vibrant and historic part of the East Bay, and it’s worth a lingering visit, not simply a passing glance from the freeway.
Such an opportunity is provided this Sunday during this year’s OHA historic house tour, “A Take on the Temescal.”
The afternoon tour will visit historic houses, from an 1880 Victorian Italianate to early 1900s Classical Revival, bungalows, and even a “mid-century modern.”
Some of the 10 properties on the tour display unusual features and contents including a water tower, Chinese antiques, and several eras-worth of historic renovations.
Organizers also note that the neighborhood has become somewhat of an informal center of “alternative communal or cooperative living situations,” two of which will be on the tour.
Most expansively interpreted, the Temescal district runs roughly from Oakland’s stretch of Shattuck Avenue east to Broadway and from MacArthur north to Claremont and College.
That’s a broad area, but the tour itself will concentrate in a smaller zone, including homes on Glendale, Avon, and scattered between 51st and 41st streets.
Drive along 51st Street between Broadway and Telegraph and you’re bisecting the tour district.
The Thursday evening before the tour, Temescal resident Jeff Norman will give a talk on his new book, Temescal Legacies; Narratives of Change from a North Oakland Neighborhood.
The roots of Temescal lie in a Huchiun-Ohlone native settlement going back for thousands of years on the gentle littoral of the North Oakland plain.
The name itself derives from a Spanish word for a native lodge house found along the banks of the creek that once defined the area, before streets and freeways.
Spanish soldier and California immigrant Luis Marie Peralta gained the district—and most of the rest of the East Bay, west of the Berkeley Hills—in a land grant from the Spanish Crown.
In the 1830s, the enormous ranch was divided between Peralta’s four sons and the youngest, Vicente, took up his share in what is now North Oakland. He built an adobe house along Temescal Creek 170 years ago.
The Peralta dwelling is long since vanished, but the site lies on Telegraph Avenue, just south of the Grove-Shafter freeway overpass, where a historical plaque stands at the sidewalk edge of a gas station parking lot.
Peralta cattle roamed the fields, and orchards and gardens were planted along the nearby—now largely culverted—creek.
After the United States acquisition of California and the Gold Rush, the Peralta holdings dwindled as American settlers, speculators, and swindlers began to lay claim to the fertile plain.
American era settlement in Temescal began in 1855, the same year that Oakland incorporated as a city.
Soloman Ellsworth Alden, “a successful San Francisco restaurateur,” began to purchase property in the area and, by 1868—the same year that the University of California was established—had laid out the town of Temescal and put lots on the market.
In 1870 the Oakland Railroad Company ran a streetcar line up to Telegraph and 51st Street and Temescal Creek.
Not long thereafter, the University of California moved from downtown Oakland to the future Berkeley. The streetcar line was extended north to Strawberry Creek, and Temescal became a residential outpost of the new and then rural campus.
The University Echo newspaper noted in the fall of 1873 that the few rooms to be had for rent in Berkeley were “scarce and costly,” and that “a party of hilarious seniors and juniors have taken a home at Temescal.”
That home was presumably one of the Victorian houses, large and small, that dotted the North Oakland landscape by the 1880s.
A surprising number of those Victorian era dwellings—some included on the tour—survive amidst more numerous houses of later periods.
“The Temescal region began to thrive as a commercial and residential area with close ties to both Oakland and Berkeley,” writes historian Michael Crowe in an introduction to the neighborhood.
Temescal was an independent community at the time, but many extra-urban settlements in the United States were “eager for the police and fire services, schools, and other institutions found in the nearby larger city,” Crowe adds.
Overtures to join with Oakland failed in 1885 and 1894. A sweeping annexation succeeded in 1897, and Temescal officially became part of Oakland.
By the end of the 19th century the district was also becoming identified as an Italian immigrant neighborhood, a character that still persists in some blocks and a few street names and businesses.
In the early 20th century, Temescal built up along the streetcar lines.
Houses in a wide variety of styles—including Arts and Crafts, Shingle, Spanish and Mission Revival, and “Tudoresque”—filled in the residential blocks.
In the 1960s modernity cut a literal swath through Temescal when the construction of the Grove-Shafter Freeway—Highway 24—and BART carved away and built barriers across parts of the neighborhood.
In recent years, however, Temescal has resurged as a residential district and undergone some of the gentrification—positive, benign, or unwelcome, depending on your viewpoint—that has spread through much of North Oakland and South Berkeley.
The commercial district around Telegraph and 51st Street has been spruced up with new construction, renovations, and an array of old and new businesses.
The Temescal House Tour runs from 1-5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15. Start in front of Acorn Kitchens and Baths, 4640 Telegraph Ave.
Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 on the day of the tour, and $25 for OHA members.
Refreshments are provided at one of the houses along the “self-guided and easy-to-walk” tour route. Most houses have stairs. Volunteers for the tour are sought and will receive complimentary admission.
Contact 763-9218 for information or to make a reservation, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.oaklandheritage.org.
In a related event, Jeff Norman presents highlights from his newly published book, Temescal Legacies: Narratives of Change from a North Oakland Neighborhood, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave. in Oakland. Tickets are $8 OHA members, $10 general public.
Proceeds benefit the Oakland Heritage Alliance.
Photograph by Steven Finacom
This handsome early Oakland home, complete with backyard water tower and marble-lined entry staircase, is one of the buildings on Sunday’s Temescal tour.