Alameda in History: The Cohen estate

Alameda in History: The Cohen estate

Dennis Evanosky

In September 1869, the transcontinental railroad was set to arrive at San Francisco Bay. But there was one problem: the San Francisco & Oakland Railroad’s wharf at Gibbons Point was not yet ready to accommodate the trains. A. A. Cohen was happy to learn that the history-making train would travel arrive not in Oakland, but in Alameda on “his” tracks — the Cohen line.

Cohen was a transportation man. He built the San Francisco & Alameda Railroad (SF&A) in 1864. By 1868, Cohen had also acquired interest in the Oakland Railroad and Ferry Company. He sold both to the Central Pacific Railroad’s Big Four: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntingdon and Mark Hopkins.

The sale made Cohen a wealthy man who could afford the best. In 1872, He and his wife, Emilie, hired the architectural firm of Wright and Sanders to help them express their affluence.

The following year John Wright and George H. Sanders (variably spelled Saunders) completed the 70-plus-room mansion that anchored the Cohens' palatial estate. In social registers such as the San Francisco Blue Book, the Cohens listed their residence as “Fernside, Buena Vista & Versailles Ave., Alameda.”

The Cohens had not hired ordinary men to build their home. Five years before they submitted their design to the Cohens, Wright and Sanders had designed the State Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind in Berkeley (today’s Clark Kerr Campus at the University of California).

The architects first designed a stone Gothic Revival building for the asylum. When a fire destroyed the structure in January 1875, Wright and Sanders returned to the drawing boards. They designed new buildings that included an educational building, dormitories, support facilities and a private residence for the principal. The asylum’s successor, the California Schools for the Deaf and Blind, used these and other, later facilities until 1980.

In 1868, Wright and Sanders won the prestigious competition to design the buildings for the University of California’s new campus in Berkeley. The pair backed out when they learned the regents would not permit them to be involved in the building process, a step that would have considerably reduced their fee.

Wright and Sanders’ Italianate design for the Cohens towered over the 109-acre estate. The home with all its trappings was said to have cost the staggering sum of $300,000. In Ultimate Victorians, Elinor Richey described the Cohens’ home as “the most splendid of all Italian villas in the East Bay.” Richey describes the home as a “vast towered three-story rectangular structure with its sweeping carriage entrance and double porte-cochere. She says it “rather resembled a luxury hotel at a luxury spa.”

One impressive feature: Visitors could stroll through the Cohens’ art gallery — which took up an entire floor — and ogle paintings by such artists as Albert Bierstadt. Portraits of the Cohen family by Charles Nahl also graced the gallery.

Richey says that Wright and Sanders — no doubt with some input from the London-born A.A. Cohen — used Queen Victoria’s summer home on the Isle of Wight as a model. The home so impressed the Central Pacific Railroad's Hopkins that he hired Wright and Sanders to design his Nob Hill home; meanwhile, Crocker and Stanford included some of the features of the Cohen villa into their own Nob Hill homes.

Cohen remained the president of the SF&A. He also served as the Central Pacific’s attorney. Richey says that he could scarcely abide members of the Big Four. He looked down on them as, “men whose habits, modes of thought and conversation were not calculated to advance me.”

Cohen often clashed with these men, once over how they forced him to leave his private rail car in an out-of-the-way place in the rail yards near today's Fruitvale BART station. He resigned as the Big Four’s counsel in 1876 in protest over what he called unfair tariffs and practices, advocating for the first bill in California to regulate freight rates.

A.A. Cohen died on Nov. 6, 1887, aboard his private railroad car near Sydney, Nebraska. He was on his way home from New York. He was laid to rest at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

On March 23, 1897, The New York Times reported the Cohen family’s second devastating loss in 10 years: the fire that destroyed Fernside. “The handsome residence of the late A. A. Cohen was destroyed by fire from a defective flue,” the Times told its readers. “The house was filled with elegant furniture and works of art. Many of the pictures in the art gallery had been bought in Europe, and represented a large outlay.”

Fortunately, Emilie was living across Versailles Avenue with her son Edgar at the time of the fire, and the mansion was vacant when the fire broke out. Emilie remained at Fernside after the fire, moving into a less-elegant building on the estate grounds — the bowling alley. She had survived the death of her husband, and she survived the fire.

When Emilie died in 1925, the children subdivided the estate and sold the property to developers south of a boundary line that became Fernside Boulevard. All that’s left to remind us of the grand estate’s existence in Alameda is the neighborhood’s name that echoes, “Fernside.”

Dennis Evanosky co-publishes the Alameda Sun with Eric J. Kos. He is the president of the Alameda Museum. His book, Alameda: An Architectural Treasure Chest, is available online or at the Sun office, 3215 Encinal Avenue, Suite J. Call 268-1470.


Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Fri, Apr 24, 2015

Great story. I really enjoy this kind of detailed local history.

Is the iron fence at Lincoln Park originally part of the Cohen estate or something else?

Submitted by Dennis (not verified) on Fri, Apr 24, 2015

Hi MJ,

The fence at Lincoln Park was part of R. R. Thompson's estate.
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