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The architecture of Oakland: Howden and Sons building

on December 28, 2012

Many of the reporters at Oakland North are new to the Bay Area, and one of the first things we noticed while touring the city was its beautiful and sometimes unusual architecture. On the reporting team for this series, one of us is from Brazil and one is from Southern California. We decided it would be great to learn more about some of the structures that represent Oakland’s beautiful landscape.

With a great deal of assistance from the representatives at the Oakland Library History Room, Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey and Oakland Heritage Alliance, we were able look at a wide array of old city maps, photographs and drawings to learn more about how Oakland’s most notable buildings once appeared. You can scroll the photo at the top of the screen from left to right to toggle between the older photo of the building and the one from today.

For the next six weeks we will showcase some of the buildings we liked the most—both as they used to look, and what each is like today. Some are more familiar to Oakland residents than others. Each has helped enhance the city’s reputation and some are considered the “crown jewels of Oakland.

The Howden Building was designed and constructed in 1925 by McWethy and Greenleaf for Robert Howden. An early 20th Century commercial structure with stylized Spanish Baroque/Moorish ornamentation, this space was once used to showcase the mantels, grates and floor and wall tiles sold by Robert Howden and Sons.

Located at 337 17th Street, between Harrison and Franklin, it is difficult to miss the brown and black color palette of tiles or the name “Howden,” which is integrated into a section of tile above the window in Art Nouveau style lettering. Each letter has a swirl or curl to give it a more dramatic look.  This same style is used on the front of the building above the doorway where the letters spell out “Robert Howden and Sons.”

As is the theme with most baroque styles, the focus is on extravagant details in the ironwork or in the light and dark shades of colored tiles and textures used on the exterior of the buildings.  Here, the front of the building has bluish-black background tiles. Orange and white tiles are used to add decorative details to the structure. The original wood sign boards and awning boxes have been replaced or covered with orange aluminum panels that extend around the building creating a natural divide between the first and second floor. Other tiles in white with accents of gray draw the eye to the top of the building.

The Howden family business operated in the building from 1925 to 1927, when the company moved to a location in Piedmont. Not surprisingly for a tile business, most of the tile was installed by the owner.  Except for the old wooden window frames that were later replaced with aluminum most of the original tile remains intact.

Today, the building lives on as a space for the Spice Monkey Restaurant, a beauty salon, a bookstore and a psychic reading office on the first level.

The images shown here are of the project drawing from the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey book located in the Oakland Public Library History Room and a photograph recently taken of the building.

Music used in the audio portion of this article is by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons by Attribution 3.0




  1. Mr Freely on December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Does “the Bay Area” include North Oakland?

  2. Allan Feinstein on December 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Interior of Spice Monkey well worth seeing. More Intricate tile work. We saw more of the interior on a Tile tour of Oakland. Worthwhile.

  3. Allan Feinstein on December 31, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    O you tricky guys! I just received an invite from Oakland Historical Society to visit Howden and Sons, brunch and conversation with experts :


    Robert Howden & Sons Tile Showroom
    Tour and Brunch

    OHA presents a special tour of the Howden & Sons Tile Showroom with owner, Dan Fichte. He will speak about the building’s history, dazzling decorative tile and efforts to care for this unique local architectural treasure. Brunch will be hosted at Spice Monkey Restaurant with special guest and historic tile specialist, Riley Doty.

    Date: Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013

    Time: 10AM-noon
    Am I your straight man or what?

  4. NAParish on March 22, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    I don’t think it is correct to say that Howden & Sons moved to Piedmont in 1927. I’ve found some Oakland Tribune ads from the mid-30s that say that the Howden Tile Company was still located in this building. Is it possible that the elder Mr. Howden (who lived in Piedmont) retired in 1927, and his sons changed the name of the company at the same time?

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

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