Saturday was the second to last Oakland Heritage Alliance walking of the 2012 season. Picardy Drive: A Step Back in Time was led by nearby resident Andy Carpentier and focused on the unique storybook homes in what was once known as Normandy Gardens.
We started by viewing houses on an adjacent street that were built just a few years earlier. Most of these were typical California bungalows from 1924 or earlier, but a few houses had features hinting at what was to come, such as steeper, curved roofs. The houses in the area were mostly built on what had been a number of larger estates along Seminary near Mills College, including the F.F. Morse estate. One of the houses near Seminary has the remains of the original fountain from that estate.
A few years later, builder Robert C. Hillen's created his collection of "modest mansions" on Picardy Drive. He was an experienced builder who had put up dozens of Arts & Crafts bungalows in Alameda, but this was something different. Aficionados of the storybook style, which features quirky designs and features unique to every house may be wondering how a whole neighborhood of storybook houses was built. R.C. Hillen and architect W.W. Dixon did it by using a variety of floor plans (occasionally flipped) and by using a wide variety of details. Some of the houses have towers (either round or octagonal), others crenelated parapets; still others use variations of roof lines. While some feature arched windows, others have smaller, rectangular windows (and wooden beams) reminiscent of the Tudor style of architecture which influenced the storybook style. It all adds up to a quite a bit of variety amongst the 70 or so houses in the neighborhood.
Despite all the differences between the houses, Hillen and Dixon used several techniques to tie them all together. Besides all the houses being of the same basic style, they had a number of features in common. First, they were built close together, no more than a driveway's width apart. Each house has short side walls to
visually connect it to its neighbors, and all the homes were originally built with shake roofs and tinted stucco applied in a unique fashion. The result was a group of unique homes that were all connected. The legacy of that lives on today, as the neighborhood seems more connected than most. Each holiday season, the entire neighborhood displays Christmas lights for all to enjoy, and everyone seems to know everyone and keep an eye out for each other.