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Temple Beth Sholom

642 Dolores Avenue
San Leandro, CA 94577
Office: (510) 357-8505
Fax: (510) 357-1375
Preschool: (510) 357-7920

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Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Pieces of the past paint picture of area's history

By Wanda Fox

San Leandro and San Lorenzo are rich in the heritage of their western settlers, thanks to some far-sighted people who stepped in at critical times to save major landmarks.

Doris Marciel, known by many as the unofficial historian of San Lorenzo, conducts tours for her adult school local history classes in which she describes the town of her childhood so vividly that listeners can almost visualize what she is remembering. They have to do that, because much of what she remembers is gone -- paved over or torn down to make room for economic progress. The effort to preserve the rest has not been easy.

Perhaps the grandest of the old homes left in the area is the Meek House, at Hampton and Boston roads on the edge of San Lorenzo.

Built in 1869 by William Meek, it incorporates beautiful elements of various architectural styles into its principally Italian villa style. Once surrounded by 3,000 acres of orchards, it sits in the area dubbed "Cherryland" because of the extensive cherry orchards planted by Meek and his nearest neighbor, Henderson Lewelling. The house contains 19 rooms on three floors and is dominated by a "oeil de boeuf," a bulls eye window in the central tower.

Dr. Milton P. Ream purchased what was left of the estate from the Meek family in 1940 and made a few alterations to the mansion, but the house remains largely unchanged. It is being restored by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, which purchased it in 1964 to save it from being demolished to make room for housing.

The estate now consists of the mansion with a working fountain and large, old trees, nine surrounding acres, caretaker's cottage and a carriage house that was recently restored. A considerable amount of repair work has been done on the mansion's exterior but progress is hindered by the high cost of the meticulous craftsmanship involved.

The house, which is a state and national landmark, will not be open to the public until the restoration is completed, but the surrounding nine acres are a public park.

The McConaghy House is a beautifully restored 12-room Victorian that was built in 1886 by Neal McConaghy, who owned a mill and farmed land from Hesperian Boulevard to Roberts' Landing at the foot of Lewelling Boulevard.

The house is furnished in period style and provides a snapshot of the lifestyle enjoyed by San Lorenzo's wealthy landowners. After Neal's son, John, died the estate was purchased by the Hayward Area Recreation and Parks Department, which undertook the restoration work of the dwelling and carriage house. The estate is open to the public Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

The Ygnacio Peralta House, now the Alta Mira Club is the first brick dwelling built in Alameda County. The house was built in 1860 by Peralta's son-in-law, William Toler, who deeded the land back to his father-in-law after the house and grounds were completed.

The walls are made of 14-inch bricks that were manufactured at the Alameda Brickyard Slough. The house passed out of the Peralta family's hands in 1875 and its next owner, A.C. Peachy, built an addition.

The exquisite interior, with Italian marble fireplaces, stained glass windows and curved ceilings painted with murals was left intact. The building was bought in 1926 by the Alta Mira Club, which has preserved its valuable history. The Ygnacio Peralta House is open to the public by appointment and can be rented for cultural and social events.

Much of San Leandro's history is connected to Casa Peralta, the home of one of the city's most interesting families. Ludovico Peralta Ivey, eldest daughter of Ygnacio Peralta, purchased the original house at 384 W. Estudillo Avenue in 1874.

In 1901, after being widowed, she built a "new large house" on the site and lived there until her death with her sister, Maria, also a widow. It is not clear if any of the original structure was retained.

When Maria died in 1926, their niece, Herminia Peralta Darjie, widow of Oakland Tribune publisher William Darjie, became the next owner and summoned an architect from Spain to renovate the house into a Spanish-style villa.

After Herminia's death in 1929, the house served as a succession of rest homes until it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. John Brooks, who donated it in 1971 to the City of San Leandro.

Casa Peralta is especially interesting for the Spanish tiles that adorn the exterior and for the garden, which was designed by John McLaren of Golden Gate Park fame.

Family heirlooms and historical artifacts are displayed throughout the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to visitors Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Most of the oldest churches in San Leandro and San Lorenzo are long gone, but in the case of the Little Brown Church and the Little Shul, small pieces of the past remain. These well-traveled old buildings played an important role in the religious scene in late 1800s San Leandro.

The Little Shul was the fourth house of worship in the city, built at 59 Chumalia Street by a small Jewish congregation. When a larger Temple Beth Sholom was built on Dolores Street, the Little Shul was left behind. It passed through several ownerships and was considered by the city for a museum before it was moved to the site of the new temple.

It now serves as a worship and meeting center for small groups and is not open for public tours. Because it is essentially out of sight behind the temple, its existence is often overlooked by many residents.

The Little Brown Church was a wing of the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1867. The wing escaped destruction when the main church was torn down, and was used, among other things, as a missionary school.

In 1970, the San Leandro Historical Society took possession of the building and moved it to its present location behind Casa Peralta. It is now the meeting place for the society.

San Lorenzo's oldest church stands on a quiet corner of Usher and College streets, just opposite the San Lorenzo Pioneer Cemetery. Built in 1875 as the Christian Union Society Church, it was non-denominational until members voted to join the Congregational Church in 1905.

The congregation outgrew the building in 1945 and moved to a larger Quonset style building about a mile away.

The building is now the First Southern Baptist Church. For all the changes that occurred within the church, the building has remained virtually unchanged since it was built.

Many of the oldest commercial buildings in San Leandro did not survive redevelopment, but the Best Building stands as a monument to 19th century success.

Built by Daniel Best at the height of his wealth and influence, this neo-classical style building of matte terra cotta boasted imported marble trim, brass fixtures, inlaid floors and French glass throughout.

Best was exuberant in his plans and spared no expense when he had the building constructed as the new San Leandro State Bank. Now a branch of the California Federal Bank, it is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in the East Bay.

Several historically significant private homes remain in the area, and perhaps the most visible is the Best House. It sits at the corner of Clarke and West Estudillo streets, kitty-corner from the Casa Peralta -- an enduring contribution to San Leandro's architectural heritage.

The Best House was built in 1870 by Daniel DeMonte, an early town leader. Daniel Best bought the house in 1886 and raised his family there.

The Italianate Victorian style house is flanked by a carriage house and workshop and is enclosed by a fence that was erected in 1894. Best's daughter, Viola, also raised her family in the house and lived there for many years.

The last surviving child of Daniel Best, Viola died in 1980. The house is now privately owned by another family.

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