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Historic homes: Stories etched into century-old houses, and the measures to preserve them

Learn more about two marquee Pleasanton homes, then and now

An example of a downtown historical home in Pleasanton, the Victorian at 4432 First St. is unique in that it retains its historical architectural integrity despite having undergone major renovations. (Photo by Erika Alvero)

If walls did have ears, the sidings at 309 Neal St. have collected an earful of stories over the past century.

And the stories continue to grow, as the former downtown home of Jean Jones enters a new phase of existence -- being renovated and revitalized after having fallen into disrepair.

It's just one of dozens of historical homes scattered around Pleasanton, homes that are deemed to have historical and architectural significance in the ways their structures have been preserved. And they serve as a reminder of decades past, harkening back to horse-and-buggy days when the city was just emerging.

"Historic homes are an irreplaceable nod to our past," said Linda Garbarino, president of the Pleasanton Heritage Association. "They define the roots of our city's past while enriching our lives each day with their unique architectural styles."

309 Neal St.

The house itself is a pretty, "Queen Anne" style bungalow, with beige and green walls made of wood from redwood and Douglas fir trees -- hatchet marks are still visible from when it was originally constructed. A barn in the backyard is framed with tall oaks and giant eucalyptus trees.

Jean Jones lived at 309 Neal St. until her death in January 2015, but its story precedes her.

The house is believed to have been constructed around the turn of the 20th century, though the builder and its original owners are currently unknown. In December 1930, it assumed the role of Pleasanton's first hospital, with a nine-bed capacity, two wards and a "modern" surgery room. The hospital was operated by Dr. M. E. Eastman and a nurse named Florence Conrad, who had served in Europe during World War I, according to Ken MacLennan, curator at the Museum on Main.

But the hospital ceased operation about a year later, for somewhat unclear reasons -- history can be hazy.

At this point, the house was bought by George West, a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur, who ran a smattering of businesses in Pleasanton at various points in time, including a barber shop, the Valley Creamery on Main Street, a taxi company during World War II and the Greyhound bus station at the intersection of St. Mary and Main streets. He also served as assistant fire chief for two decades.

But it was his only daughter Jean who perhaps had the greatest role in ensuring the original home's preservation and longevity. Born in 1930, Jean West Jones graduated from Amador Valley High School and briefly moved away when she married former classmate Robert Jones. The two divorced a few years later, though, and she returned home to live with her family.

She worked as an AT&T operator, and would stay at that house for the rest of her life.

"She was very, very sweet, very kind, very easily persuaded by people," said Christine Bourg, vice president of the Pleasanton Heritage Association. "I can see why at one point she was taken advantage of by a fellow who was helping her." A man who lived nearby for a time connived her out of some precious antiques, and even took over her bank account. The former Pinole police officer would later be arrested and charged for the scam.

Jones was somewhat of a recluse, Bourg said, and neighborhood children came to call 309 Neal St. the "Boo Radley house" -- a bungalow nestled amid trees and overgrown bushes, with a mysterious resident.

Local historians who knew Jones like to call her a "collector" of everything from knick-knacks she bought after seeing a television advertisement to QVC jewelry.

"An avid -- some would say over-the-top -- but I would say, a real avid collector of many, many things," Garbarino said. "It was just hard for her to give everything away or get rid of it. And as you age, that becomes harder to do."

She loved animals, feeding squirrels and cats -- the engraved historical plaque outside the home right now is testament to that. At one point, she had over 20 cats living around her home, with a small structure for them in her backyard. And as she aged, the upkeep of her home proved too much, and it slowly fell into disrepair.

Despite the defrauding catastrophe, the last few years of Jones' life were very happy, Bourg said, as she befriended her neighbors, who looked out for her and took her into their lives; the Baileys across the street even posted a "Jean Crossing" sign on the Neal Street curb.

She died in January 2015 at the age of 84.

Upon her death, Jones left her house to the city of Pleasanton, with the express desire that the structure and its contents be preserved, perhaps to be converted into a museum, under the advisement of the Museum on Main and the Pleasanton Heritage Association. She wanted it to serve as a reminder of the city's past, of its everyday life.

But due to the high price-tag of repairs, along with neighbors' concerns about traffic associated with a prospective museum, the city decided to sell the property and use proceeds for an endowment in her memory. Bourg, along with Jones' executor Peter McDonald and the Museum on Main's director Jim DeMersman, formed a committee to determine what should be done with Jones' belongings and what was necessary to do in order to preserve the house and barn -- in accordance with her wishes, and because of the historical significance of the building.

"We wrote up a very tight contract that anyone who bought the house would have to restore it, in a more thorough way," Bourg said, meaning more stringent guidelines than many other historical homes in town.

The exterior front and sides would need to remain the same, though the committee acknowledged that some repairs were necessary. "What they replace has to be replaced with 'like,'" Bourg said. "So if it's a certain kind of wood, it has to be like that. Windows cannot be new, modern windows, they have to be exactly like they were."

Additions to the back were allowed, though.

They decided that the museum would take the items that represented Jones' life and Pleasanton's past. These items are now clustered in a corner of a museum gallery that now bears Jones' name, a corner with old newspapers and dolls and Alameda County Fair award ribbons, memorabilia both reminiscent of a bygone era and also specific to Pleasanton.

The rest of the collection was sold at an estate sale, organized in conjunction with the Valley Humane Society in recognition of her affinity for critters, with proceeds benefiting both organizations. The mystique of the home drew many curious locals.

"Like any old house that exists in a city, people are curious about what it looks like inside," Bourg said. "It was a very, very popular event."

The home was ultimately sold, and the new owners are now in the midst of necessary renovations -- to make the house livable, while adhering to the regulations drawn up by Bourg's committee. While the front and sides of the house's exterior must remain the same, the interior is now undergoing a significant remodel, from the foundation to the piping. The backyard barn will be converted into a garage, and an addition will soon extend off the kitchen in the back.

The new residents will preserve a few of the rooms in the front, though, for history's sake.

They hope to move in this spring.

4432 First St.

A stone throw's away, another historical home has become a Pleasanton landmark. A blue and white Victorian, with gingerbread-like ornamentation, the house at 4432 First St. has stood for over 120 years.

Nancy and Craig Gieringer moved there in 2012 from Ruby Hill, after deciding they wanted to be closer to downtown.

"We went to the open house and just fell in love with the house, especially our girls," Nancy said. "Because it's so charming on the inside."

The house was built in 1895, after the Central Pacific Railroad came to town and the Joshua Neal land tracts were subdivided and aligned with the railroad tracks -- becoming First, Second and Third streets.

A particularly unique aspect of the home is that it has maintained its architectural significance, despite undergoing major renovations.

"The people that had it before us, and maybe even the people before that, had (put) a lot of care and money into restoration," Nancy said. "I mean, the house was in perfect condition when we moved in."

So exact were the renovations that it qualified as being historically significant in a 2015 survey requested by the city of Pleasanton and downtown neighborhoods. The survey, conducted by Katherine Petrin Consulting and the Agricultural Resources Group, evaluated homes within the Downtown Specific Plan area to determine those eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources -- though eligibility doesn't necessarily mean designation.

The consultants analyzed homes built before 1942 -- after World War II started, construction and construction materials were more restricted, and homes were built with less attention to architectural amenities, according to analysts.

In order to qualify for the register, the analysts looked at how particular homes were associated with historical events or people, or how they exemplified distinctive characteristics of a particular era or method of construction. They also needed to show that the house had retained its architectural integrity -- meaning that old homes in which owners had drastically changed the design layout or materials were no longer eligible.

Garbarino noted that the 309 Neal St. home was just out of the geographic range of the planning area. However, the home was surveyed later as the city prepared to place it on the market, she said, and "several covenants were established to protect the architectural integrity of the home and outbuildings."

But the previous owner of 4432 First St. had stayed true to the original design in his renovations. Many features are reminiscent of the early 20th century, from the door's peacock stained glass window to the chandeliers and light fixtures. A horse-shaped hitching post stands sentinel along the sidewalk, harking back to a time when a visitor might actually pull up on horseback and tie up.

Though not history buffs themselves, the Gieringers know that their eye-catching house holds a special place in the community. Craig once met a photographer out in front snapping photos. They also happened upon a painting of their home in the Museum on Main, which they bought.

"We're well-documented," Nancy said.

The empty-nesters are preparing to move out, though, with the house soon to be on the market. They leave behind many fond memories of the home, they said.

"I never actually saw myself living in a house built in 1895," Nancy said. "And it's definitely a different experience living in a historical home."

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