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Looking Back: "Modest Mansions" Now Martinez Landmarks

"Storybook" architectural styles of the 1920s and '30s retain their charm and coziness in a downtown neighborhood,

I never drive (north) down the Pine Street hill and turn left (west) onto Brown Street  without appreciating the cozy homes on both sides of the street, recognizably old yet somehow timeless. For years I passed them by, paying little attention but somehow calmed by the varying styles that look like a picture of happy families. Now I know it was intentional that I and others should have those feelings.

You may not be aware that there is a reason those two blocks and a number of others in Martinez and the East Bay look like “home” three-quarters of a century later. They were designed that way by Walter W. Dixon, an Oakland architect who was the unsung but energetic proponent of “storybook style” homes throughout the country during the 1920s and 30s.

I first learned about them three years ago when the Martinez Historical Society Home Tour featured one home thought to be based on a design by Dixon, the Alan and Katherine Hern home at the corner of Pine and Brown Streets. It was originally built for prominent 1930s Martinez businessman Les Mullen.

Nearby is Sharon McNally’s Brown Street home, originally owned by volunteer fireman and Shell Chemical plant supervisor Frank “Red” Harrow and his wife, Grace.  Sharon loaned the Martinez Museum the original plans and some other information for a exhibit on the 1930s.

A dozen or more other examples of “Storybook” houses exist in the three or four blocks of Pine and Brown bordering the site of the original Christian Brothers winery.

The Storybook style was a reaction to modernism, the carnage of the First World War, the influenza pandemic, and societal upheaval and change.

The standard Period Revival house built for middle-class families in the 1920s evoked a rather dreamy version of cottage life in previous centuries in England, France, Spain or the American colonies.

Storybook heightened the detail in those styles, including gables, turrets and vaulted ceilings, and borrowed, in the words of one writer, from lands that existed only in imagination. The end result was homes that Father in Father Knows Best could have been raised in. Indeed, “Hansel and Gretel,” “Disneyesque” and “Romance Revival” are other descriptors used for the style.

Dixon and his partner, builder R. C. Hillen, were tract-oriented, developing in communities such as Oakland and Alameda neighborhoods that exist intact to this day.

Dixon was also a skilled marketer whose popular book of plans for small homes, Home Designer Magazine: A Book of Plans, touted  the style and made it accessible to individual builders, including those who built the houses on Pine and Brown Streets. He sold house plans based on his own designs and those of other Bay Area architects who specialized in the style.

As the years passed, Dixon added unusual amenities for the time, including two-car garages and automatic garden sprinkler systems. He and another builder coined the terms “miniature mansions” and “modest mansions” to describe their homes.

Proclaiming himself “an authority on small home design,” Dixon believed that everyone should have a home who wanted one.

His designs focused on small five- or six-room homes of just over 1,000 square feet which often seemed larger because of the open-ceiling living rooms, rounded fireplace nooks and ample windows.

No space was wasted with the possible exception of the barrel-vaulted living room ceiling he fancied. He often included built-in buffet and china cabinets in the dining room, if there was a dining room.

Dixon occasionally used a breakfast nook design, thereby leaving space for a larger living room. The breakfast nook might have foldaway tables and seating, and he frequently used hidden wall beds, even in the living room. French doors separated the rooms in the living area and all rooms featured large windows, often with a curved wooden molding over the top as in the Hern home.

He loved light and curves as well as gables and nooks and window seats. Although small, many of the homes are “one-and-a-half story,” with the second story smaller than the first thanks to a steeply pitched roof.

Another favorite Dixon style is the split level with living rooms on one level, the master bedroom five steps up and an additional 10 stairs leading to an attic, either unfinished or built as a bedroom.

However, Dixon’s real success was in not over-doing the fairytale theme.  According to one writer, “His storybook style was quieter than that of some of his contemporaries -- less ragged brick, fewer wrought-iron grills. His magazine inveighed against too much ornamentation. His interiors were often plain stucco walls with restrained moldings. He avoided plate rails.”

As is inevitable with design fashion, Storybook Style went out of style at the end of the 1930s, not so much because of World War II as the growth of post-modern architectural design and the rapid growth of large suburbs instead of small neighborhoods. But as with some design, Storybook became timeless with landmark Bay Area neighborhoods being preserved and new owners in Martinez such as McNally and the Herns excited by their homes and committed to restoring and preserving their early 20th century charm.

(Adapted from an article written for the Martinez Historical Society Newsletter in 2008.)

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Kristin Henderson November 26, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Harriet, these are Tudor/Chateux revivals typical of nicer suburbs of the 1920's & 1930's. May I ask what documents actually correlate the homes to WW Dixon? Do the actual plans of that one house specifically correlate WW Dixon to the House? WW Dixon is associated with "Provincial Revivalism" and the homes look like Hansel and Gretle, not just run of the mill Chateaux or Tudor revivals. I really do not know the answer, but I want concrete information. Just as the plaques in the Shoreline are correct, except their dates, and 630/Sharkey built in 1926 (not 1930's), and the Post Office is not WPA, its US Treasury New Deal, I suppose I have to play the curmudgeon. And, btw, "Disneyesque" is a post modern design that has to do with total urban planning. But anyway....as someone said about the recent home tour, its anecdotal. Even the author of "Braveheart" said "there's history and then there's truth". However, governmental authorities have an obligation to the public to be accurate. Fantasize all you want while walking down Brown Street, there's also some cool (and accurate) sidewalk stamps there. And the creek adds to the enchantment.
Harriett Burt November 27, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Kristin: The Hern house was identified as from a Dixon plan. So is the Harrow house (pictured) as it was built as I suspect most if not all the Martinez ones were from the plans he sold in his magazine. The owner of the Harrow house has the plans with Dixon's name on them and something framed and hanging on a wall of the house with Dixon's name in big letters (I gave the 2008 Home Tour binder back to the Museum so can't drag up the pic at this point). There is still a display upstairs in the Museum about him and the houses. Disneyesque came from an arficle on Dixon that I googled three years ago .. that's why it is in quotes with the other descriptors and why I note they've been called that without saying that's what they are. And as for WWDixon being solely identified with Tudor Gothic Revival I am sorry but neither you nor I can control what appellations real estate and architectural commentators might hang on something so it gets passed down. And as savvy a marketeer as Dixon appeared to be, I bet he didn't object.
Pat Keeble November 27, 2011 at 08:14 PM
Good stuff, Harriett. I like "Looking Back" and especially liked this one as I've walked that strip so often. Is there any truth to the rumor that Maybeck had influence on some of the homes in Martinez? If so, perhaps a possible future column...
Kristin Henderson November 28, 2011 at 07:49 PM
Probably NO on Maybeck. If you prove me wrong, could you please show me the actual documents that prove Maybeck influenced homes here. And I still challenge that Brown St. homes are Storybook, but I will--for now--let it go for now. However, what I came back to say is this: If the Brown and Pine folks, regardless of their "true" architect, would like to nominate themselves to the Office of Historic Preservation as a district and have all the benefits that a District gets, plus the California Historic Building code, and more (and in this town there's almost no burden on the property owner because there is no municipal codification on the treatment of such properties and no one would probably care if they alter their properties except their fellow neighbors), they can use the Knapp/KVP Historic Resources Inventory (tax payer funded for $50,000) historic context as their historic signficance if they can show their homes are associated with a significant development "event" in Martinez listed in the KVP/Knapp context. They may find some other historic significance, such as architecture they can use as well. I have put up that historic inventory and its historic context on public googledocs and I know after our law suit subpoeaned it, Andrea Blachman took it for her use at CoCo Hist. Soc. Ask me any one. Here are financial incentives for Historic Preservation: http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24626. I am going to erase some of my posts above just for clarity's sake.
Kristin Henderson November 28, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Ask me or the City or Andrea Blachman for the Knapp Historic Resources Survey. And do not mind that the City Attorney wrote "Draft" on its corner. He did that because Council asked him too, not because the professional architect and historan firms thought their survey incomplete. Andrea Blachman of both the county and Martinez Historic Socity elicited corrections from people in the community, be sure to ask her what they are and then fact check to see what is really correct.

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