Home & Garden Columns

Historic Holiday Houses On View Around East Bay

By Steven Finacom
Friday December 07, 2007

Stately older houses can be at their best when festively decorated for the winter holidays.  

Up and down the East Bay shore this holiday season there are several historic homes—particularly Victorians—decked out for special tours and events, starting today and tomorrow. 

One of the most impressive is the Patterson House, a wedding cake white Victorian in the midst of the historic Ardenwood Farm in Fremont, a property that embodies Alameda County’s agricultural roots. 

The Patterson House itself was built as a big country farmhouse in the 1850s. In the late 1880s Samuel Newsom, of the Newsom Brothers of San Francisco, redesigned it as an expansive Queen Anne style country manse of some 7,000 square feet, with a main façade embellished with carved wooden scrollwork, balcony, corner tower and turret. 

Inside, there’s an ornate entry hall flanked by two massive sliding doors to formal parlor (left) and family parlor (right). A spindled wooden arch frames a switchback main staircase to an ample second floor with master, guest, and children’s bedrooms and baths. 

The twisty back stair descends to a well-stocked rear kitchen with a working iron stove. A pantry connects to a long formal dining room with elaborate place settings laid, adjoined by a smoking room, which was the original dining room. 

Most of the furnishings are family pieces original to the house. There’s even a side library with generations of books collected by the residents. 

As a “Forty Niner”, George Washington Patterson was an informant for, and early subscriber to, the seminal series of western histories produced by Hubert Howe Bancroft. 

His wife Clara later traveled extensively, and son Henry went to the University of California, while son William attended Stanford. See if you can spot the Cal yearbooks. 

The staff and volunteers who keep the Patterson House open are outgoing, friendly, enthusiastic, and know everything about the house. Dressed in period wear, they invite visitors to examine the household objects and talk about the family and earlier eras. 

In one room during our visit, a staff member cranked up a working Victorola next to copies of postcards sent from around the world by the well-traveled Clara Patterson. The kitchen smelled of fresh baking. In the guest bedroom a costumed volunteer did embroidery and explained her technique to curious children. 

An early Cal songbook sat on the piano in the family parlor, while logs crackled in the fireplace. Stained glass windows sparkled across the hall in the formal parlor, starting point for tours, where a guide invited children to count the number of Christmas trees throughout the house. 

Christmas decorations are up, and the house is open for tours this weekend as well as Dec. 15 and 16. Saturday and Sunday tours are on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. Today, December 7, and next Friday, Dec. 14, there are also tours at 1, 2, and 3 p.m. 

Today, there’s also a 5-8:45 p.m. “Christmas Evening at the Patterson House” event with holiday music. 

For all events there’s a small admission charge, $5 or less. 

It’s wonderful this house and property have survived. George Washington Patterson, the builder, grew up in Ohio and Indiana. In 1849, age 26, he headed to California as a gold seeker, joining a company that made an arduous trip down the Mississippi, then by sea and land to San Francisco. 

He prospected awhile, then relocated to the Bay Area and turned to farming. He leased, later purchased, land of his own in what was then called Washington Township. 

Patterson gradually developed a vast holding of nearly 6,500 acres, making him one of the largest property owners in Alameda County. The fertile alluvial plain produced abundant harvests, and a nearby creek inlet provided convenient access to ship the output of the farm across the Bay. 

The property typified the extensive and productive farms that spread across southern Alameda County in the second half of the 19th century, and have now almost entirely vanished beneath housing tracts, office parks, and highways. 

Ardenwood almost suffered that fate. It remained in the Patterson family until a sale to a developer in 1971. Seven years later a complex arrangement resulted in the acquisition of 205 acres, including the house, by the City of Fremont. The East Bay Regional Park District was enlisted to operate the historic farm, which formally opened in 1985. 

The surviving land tract is large enough to retain the open character of an early California farm, including views to the distant hills. It includes fields and orchards, a deer park, stands of eucalyptus where monarch butterflies overwinter, a horse-drawn railroad, and a complex of outbuildings—from blacksmith shop to water tower—forming a demonstration farm with numerous activities and programs throughout the year. 

Free range peacocks, an aviary of white doves and brilliant pheasants, and penned goats, sheep, draft horses, cows and calves lend diversion to the grounds. 

Highway 880 provides a direct route to Ardenwood, about 30 miles from Berkeley. Take the exit west towards the Dumbarton Bridge. The road hugs the Ardenwood grounds on the right. Keep to the right, and watch for the entrance signs to the farm. 

Coming or going, an alternative to part of the freeway is a drive or bus ride down Hesperian Boulevard. Although the street sprouts several decades of housing tracts, a few miles north of Ardenwood on Hesperian you’ll find the McConaghy House, built in 1886, and now operated by the Hayward Area Historical Society.  

I wrote about this historic home exactly three years ago in the Dec. 7, 2004, issue, which you can find in the Planet online archives at www.berkeleydailyplanet.com. 

The Christmas decorations are up again this year, and you can tour the house on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 30. The house is open 1-4 p.m., with the last tour at 3:30 p.m. There’s a small admission charge. 

Further north, and closer to Berkeley, there are also holiday decorations and events at Dunsmuir House in Oakland, also discussed in more detail in the 2004 Planet article. 

This year, Dunsmuir is open for tours of the opulently decorated house on December weekends through the 23rd. There’s a Holiday Breakfast on Dec. 16, and Holiday Teas on various days.  

Dining tickets should be purchased in advance and entry to the house is strictly timed, so plan accordingly. 

In Oakland, the Cohen-Bray House is a remarkably pristine 1884 Victorian that, like Ardenwood, preserves the décor, furnishings, and traditions of the family that built it. 

It’s open on the fourth Sunday of the month for tours (call to confirm) and has two special holiday events. On Dec. 29 there’s a $25 per person Christmas Tea and Tour (repeated at 1, 2, and 3 p.m. in the afternoon), and on Twelfth Night—Jan. 5, 2008—a gala celebration with a five course meal for $125 per person.  

Space is limited, and reservations are needed, for these events. 

Tomorrow—-Saturday, Dec. 8--there’s a 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Holiday Home 

Tour in Alameda, a community that’s both close by and rich with period houses, particularly Victorians. The event is sponsored by the Alameda Family Services League. 

Tickets to visit the holiday decorated private homes are $30 on the day of the tour. There’s also a separately priced lunch at the Encinal Yacht Club, a Holiday Dessert Tea, and a Boutique and Gourmet Shoppe. 

Tonight, Dec. 7, a 6-9 p.m. “Candlelight Preview” visits the houses after dark and includes a “post tour party (with) champagne a light supper, and dancing” for $75. 



Ardenwood Historic Farm is at 34600 Ardenwood Boulevard in Fremont. 

General information can be found at www.ebparks.org/parks/ardenwood. Call 791-4196 for Patterson House information. 

The McConaghy House is at 18701 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward, next to Kennedy Park. Check www.haywardareahistory.org or call 276-3010. 

Dunsmuir House information including hours and ticket prices and purchase details can be found at www.dunsmuir.org 

The Cohen-Bray House is at 1440 29th Ave. in Oakland. www.cohen-brayhouse.info Call 843-2906 for availability of event tickets and to make reservations. 

Alameda Holiday Home Tour details are at 222.alamedaholidayhometour.info/ or call 510-522-8363 x 165 for tour information. 


IMAGE D: “Costumed staff and volunteers greet visitors in the fully stocked Patterson House kitchen.” 


IMAGE E: “The elaborate Patterson dining room is arranged for a festive, Victorian era, family meal.”