An enchanting country house echoes
East Coast follies

Daniella Thompson

20 June 2006 & 24 August 2014

The Anita Fallon House, 1307 Acton St. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

When Maurice Strelinger, aka M.B. Curtis, built the fabulous Peralta Park Hotel, he envisioned it as a hostelry for theatrical companies passing through San Francisco. This dream never came to pass, but Curtis did manage to lure at least one stage star to his new subdivision. In October 1889, the California Architect and Building News (CABN) reported that Lord & Boynton was building for Miss Anita Fallon a two-story frame house on Lot 5 in Peralta Park. Designed by Fred E. Wilcox, the house cost $3,500, to be paid in four stages.

Miss Fallon was a well-known San Francisco actress. In 1890, her city address was 120 McAllister Street. As befits a country residence of the late 1880s, the Fallon House in Berkeley is a beguiling fantasy. The main mass is a rectangular box, set back and surmounted by an enormous Dutch gambrel roof. At the front, a stout round turret flanked by a rustic stone-veneer chimney sports a bell-shaped roof that assumes a saddle shape as it connects to the gambrel roof.

The north elevation (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The exterior is clad in stucco, which is a material practically unheard of in an American house of the Victorian era; yet the 1889 contract notice stipulated a payment to be made after the first coat of mortar was put on. For years, we could only speculate about the nature of the original wall cladding, assuming it was shingles or a combination of shingles on the turret and clapboard on the rest of the house.

In August 2014, we obtained the photograph below (detail on the right), taken in the 1890s. This photograph clearly shows that all the exterior walls, inlcuding the turret, were shingled. A building permit taken out by the third owner of the house on 29 October 1934 specified ”stone porches, plaster exterior, build rail on side porch.” Two years later, on 25 July 1936, the same owner, John E. Wyhs, obtained a permit to install stone veneer over the brick chimney.

Courtesy of Dee Shannon-Lemons

The Fallon-Sanderson House in the 1890s, when it stood at 1304 Albina Avenue. (Courtesy of Dee Shannon-Lemons)

Unique in Berkeley, the Fallon House was kin to the fanciful East Coast villas featured monthly in the Scientific American Architects and Builders Edition. Set in spacious grounds bordered by Codornices Creek, it was the perfect setting for its flamboyant owner, who was no doubt lured by the promised glamour of the Peralta Hotel and its future glittering clientele.

The south elevation (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Anita (Annie) Fallon was born in San Jose on 16 April 1854. Her father, Captain Thomas Fallon (1825–1885), had been a member of the John C. Fremont expedition to Alta California. Later he joined the Bear Flag Revolt and on 11 July 1846 led a volunteer force that captured the pueblo of San Jose. He would serve as San Jose’s mayor in 1859–1860.

Annie’s mother, Carmel Fallon (1827–1923), was the granddaughter of General Joaquin Ysidro Castro and the daughter of Martina Castro Lodge, the first woman to receive a Spanish land grant—Rancho Soquel, comprising 34,000 acres along the coast south of Santa Cruz.

Carmel inherited one-tenth of Rancho Soquel, which she and Tom Fallon parlayed into land investments in the San Jose area. In the center of town they built a 15-room Italianate mansion that stood higher than City Hall and boasted the first bay windows in the South Bay area. Located across the street from the Luís Maria Peralta adobe (1797), the house is now part of the Peralta Adobe-Fallon House Historic Site.

In 1874, Annie Fallon went to Paris to study painting, continuing to Germany the following year. Her pictorial subjects were apparently academic and uninspired, consisting mostly of Madonnas and landscapes. In 1878, she married John F. Malone, a young lawyer and Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney. Participation in local amateur Shakespearian productions propelled the couple to theatrical renown. On 16 August 1880 they made their San Francisco professional debut in Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s drama Richelieu, or The Conspiracy, staged at the Baldwin Theatre on Market Street. John played the title role, while Annie portrayed Richelieu’s ward, Julie de Mortemar.

Anita Fallon at the Alcazar Theatre, 1898 (The Friends of 1800)

The marriage soon went awry, and in 1886 Annie sued for divorce on grounds of neglect and failure to provide sustenance. She soon became a star in her own right, performing at the Alcazar and Golden Gate theatres. For her independent living role model, the cigar-smoking actress needed look no further than her own mother. Ten years earlier, Carmel had caught her husband in flagrante delicto with the housekeeper. After thrashing the errant pair with a fire poker, Carmel promptly filed for divorce and moved to San Francisco with her unmarried children.

An astute businesswoman, Carmel invested her fortune in San Francisco real estate, building the Carmel Hotel and the Fallon Hotel. In 1894, she commissioned a 3-story commercial/residential building at the intersection of Market, Octavia, and Waller streets. It would serve as her home for the next 29 years. Designed by the San Jose architect Edward Goodrich, the trapezoidal Fallon Building survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire through the personal intervention of the 79-year old Carmel.

In the late 1990s , now owned by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, the Fallon Building was threatened with demolition but saved through the efforts of the advocacy group Friends of 1800. It is now a designated landmark.

Following her mother’s example, Annie engaged in building activities. In 1889, Fred E. Wilcox designed not only her Peralta Park house but an extant 4-story building of flats at 270 Divisadero Street. Like the Berkeley house, it features a prominent round turret, this one crowned by a witch’s cap.

The turreted Fallon building (second from corner) at 270 Divisadero St., San Francisco, 1944 (San Francisco History Center)

Little is known about Wilcox. In 1889 and 1890, he had an office in the Flood Building on Market Street and resided at 828 Powell Street, on top of Nob Hill. According to architectural historian Bradley Wiedmaier, Wilcox spent only a few years in San Francisco. Half a dozen buildings in the city are known to have been designed by him, including the Pacific Heights homes of Baldwin Theatre manager Alfred Bouvier (2524 Broadway) and businessman Stanley Forbes (2614 Scott St.), both in Eastern Shingle style. For capitalist Isaac Hecht, Wilcox remodeled and enlarged three Italianate row houses on Green Street.

Annie Fallon’s house in Peralta Park may well have been Wilcox’s only East Bay commission. For over sixty years it was the centerpiece of an oversized lot that extended from Albina Avenue to Fleurange Avenue (now Acton Street), just across Codornices Creek from the Peralta Park Hotel building. This lot, whose address was 1304 Albina Avenue, had been the site of José Domingo Peralta’s adobe, the first house built in Berkeley.

Samuel & Fannie Sanderson (courtesy of Dee Shannon-Lemons)

Charming as her country house was, Annie Fallon did not keep it for more than a few years. The lustre of Peralta Park dimmed when Maurice Curtis was tried for killing a San Francisco policeman and forced to sell all his properties in the tract. In 1893, the Fallon House was acquired by Samuel Augustus Sanderson (1834–1902), a retired San Francisco crockery and glassware merchant, and his wife, Fannie Webb (1851–1925). In 1903, following her husband’s death. Fannie married the sea captain William Day (1846–1911). In 1914, she took a third husband, this time a mining expert by the name of James A. Harrison, and outlived him as well.

Albina Avenue in 1911 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

A 1911 map indicates that the property in the Webb-Sanderson-Day years included a water tower, a coop, and a one-car garage. The outbuildings disappeared slowly over the years, and the garage was replaced with a two-car garage in 1937. The parcel remained intact until 1957 or ’58.

Childless, Fannie Webb Sanderson-Day-Harrison shared her large house with two of her sisters, Francette Webb Leveridge (1840–1930) and Grace Romenia Webb Foss (1861–1928), both widows. Grace’s children lived there, too.

Albina Avenue in 1929 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

The house remained in the Webb family until circa 1933, when it was acquired by John Emil Wyhs and his wife, Sylvia. Of Swiss and German descent, John Wyhs (1881–1966) was a lifelong Post Office employee and a bachelor who lived with his mother until middle age. In April 1929, Wyhs was sued for breach of promise by a Berkeley woman who claimed that Wyhs had wooed her for six years and jilted her for another just as she consented to become his wife. Wyhs, who was at the time head of the dead letters department in the San Francisco Post Office, was said to have made a considerable fortune in real estate in addition to having inherited $100,000. The jilted woman was seeking $25,000 in compensation.

Oakland Tribune, 19 April 1929

In 1930, John Wyhs was still single and living alone in a building he owned at 383 Ninth Street in San Francisco. Apparently, he was in no hurry to wed his new romantic interest, Sylvia Nelson, a middle-aged spinster who was his colleague at the post office. Whether their eventual marriage triggered the move to Berkeley, or whether the purchase of the Fallon House triggered the marriage, the two were first listed as a couple in the 1934 Berkeley city directory.

Albina Avenue in 1950 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

The Wyhses lived at 1304 Albina Avenue for over twenty years. They were last listed there in 1957.

In the late 1950s, the former Fallon property was broken up into seven lots, and the house was turned around and moved to the western corner facing Acton Street. On the Albina Avenue frontage, four modern duplexes went up, and an apartment building was later erected in the middle of the block.

Albina Avenue duplexes for sale (Oakland Tribune, 6 September 1959)

Former site of José Domingo Peralta’s adobe and of the Anita Fallon House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

And what of Anita Fallon? From 1911 until 1929 she was embroiled in a much-publicized dispute with her brother over their mother’s estate, which newspapers estimated at a million dollars. A five-year court case was finally resolved in an out-of-court settlement. Anita died in San Francisco on 14 May 1932.

Carmel Fallon’s will settlement announced in the Oakland Tribune, 19 April 1929

From the 1970s through the ’90s, the Fallon House was the home of William and Helga Olkowski, co-founders of the Farallones Institute and the Integral Urban House project. In 1979 the Olkowskis founded the Bio-Integral Resource Center, whose office was located on the first floor of their residence.

The house is now owned by two writers: Phyllis Kluger, author of A Needlepoint Gallery of Patterns From the Past, and Richard Kluger, author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the American cigarette business, Ashes to Ashes.

The Klugers have been good to the Fallon House. Beautifully restored with no structural alterations and minimal updating, it imparts grace, refinement, and beauty to its surroundings.

This is the final part in a series of three articles on Peralta Park.

Part 1: Peralta Park Grew in the Shade of Giants

Part 2: Maurice Curtis Lent Berkeley Brief Splendor

An earlier version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 23 June 2006.


Copyright © 2006–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.