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Hills covered in beautiful homes

on May 15, 2012

“Rock Ridge—a part of the city below, yet apart from it.”

“Rock Ridge—a city beautiful where dreams come true. Where successful men are building their homes apart from the noise of a great city.”

“Rock Ridge—a private park residence place built to an ideal—planned in the Broadway hills for successful men.”

These advertisements were a part of a 1910 campaign by the Laymance Real Estate Company which spent the then-whopping sum of $38,000 to attract the rich to buy in a new part of Oakland, in the hills among sandstones known as “Rock Ridge.”

The advertising strategy was devised by Fred Reed, a young realtor who had designed communities in Southern California and was employed by Laymance to attract buyers to Rock Ridge. He saw that Oakland’s population was booming—it had more than doubled over the first decade of the 20th Century to 150,000 people, due in large part to the exodus of people from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Reed knew of undeveloped land in the hills near the recently established Key Route train system. At the time, the land was mostly prairie, with a few farms and homes. The land was near the pricey Chabot Road neighborhood, which had large, expensive villas. Nearby College Avenue was also developing as a commercial district, having recently been annexed to Oakland.

The area of “Rock Ridge” had actually been established a few decades earlier, and the name appears on maps of the area as early as 1878. The land had previously been owned by Jack Coffee Hays, an eccentric former San Francisco sheriff who was said to row across the bay to get home when he missed the ferry. The source of the name “Rock Ridge,” according to early accounts, came from an exposed rock formation located there which was later called “Cactus Rock” and ultimately blasted to make room for further development.

Reed developed the land for homes on Rock Ridge as he had in Southern California, not with a grid system, but by designing streets that curved with the contours of the hills. The lots were large and pedestrian walkways were also installed. He advertised a $28,000 water supply system, which would pump in water from Piedmont, which he called “the best water in Oakland.”

Reed took great care with the aesthetics of the area, installing large white stone pillars with globe tops, carved in the Italian Renaissance style, which marked the entrance to the development on Rock Ridge Boulevard and Broadway. He planted Arizona Date Palm trees along Rock Ridge Boulevard. The homes all had spacious gardens.

Reed sent engraved invitations to buy land in Rock Ridge to the rich and elite around the Bay Area, including the architect Julia Morgan. Advertisements listed three areas in which to buy—“Rock Ridge Place” was just inside the entrance of the gates and lots went for as little as $3,500; the more moderately priced “Rock Ridge Park” was slightly higher in elevation, with homes fetching up to $10,000; the most expensive homes in the tract were found in “Rock Ridge Terrace” where home prices went as high as $20,000. According to a historical report in The Montclarian from 1982, Reed also “placed strict limits on the race and religion of those who could buy.”

“Never before in the history of transbay real estate have the owners of the property done so much to get it in perfect shape for the buyers,” Reed told The Oakland Enquirer in June of 1910.

The tract developed by the Laymance Company was completed by 1912, and they continued to advertise heavily to attract buyers. One strategy was to use a fleet of motor cars on Sunday afternoons to pick up potential customers on College Avenue and ferry them to look at the beautiful homes.

Reed was right about the burgeoning real estate market—he sold $186,000 worth of lots on the first day. Oakland’s population continued to grow, and by 1920, there were 215,000 people living in the city. The tract he designed still contains some of the most expensive homes in Oakland, and Rockridge, which the area became known as soon after, remains one of the city’s most affluent areas.

When Reed was designing Rock Ridge, he was known to say, “Money is no object” when it came to expenses. “We have a definite plan in mind to beautify this property until it is the only thing in its class on this coast,” Reed told The Oakland Enquirer in 1910. “And nothing is going to stop us.”

Image: Courtesy of the Oakland History Room.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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