Modesto these days may be dominated by rather ordinary-looking tract houses, but that wasn’t always the case. A walking tour Sunday revealed some of the city’s architectural gems, tucked in a nearly century-old neighborhood near downtown.
From provincial manors and Norman chateaus to airplane bungalows and storybook cottages, stylistic variety abounds on the streets around Graceada Park.
“In general, this place is beautiful, well-preserved and historic,” said Ilse Craane, the volunteer tour guide who led the two-hour trek. She will repeat the tour Saturday as part of the Modesto Architecture Festival, which continues through next weekend.
Sycamore and Magnolia avenues, and the streets around them, have long been considered prime real estate for Modesto homes. Craane shared a little of the architectural history that makes that neighborhood special.
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“This was a wheat field until 1908, when it was carved into Modesto’s first housing subdivision,” Craane explained. Those first lots ringed Graceada Park, which was created by the same guy who designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The Modesto elite who built custom homes there apparently enjoyed architectural diversity. There are classic craftsman bungalows next to mission revival homes, stark Bauhaus designs and neo-classical creations.
“The bungalows here are fun because there are so many variations of them,” said Craane, noting the sloping gable roofs, pillars and porches that define that style. She explained how the so-called airplane bungalow got its name because its small second story resembled the cockpit of early planes.
Next to one of those homes on Sycamore is a 1923-vintage colonial revival owned by David Leamon, who was sitting out front when the tour group walked past.
“This is a fabulous home,” assured Leamon, who purchased the four-bedroom house two years ago. He praised the quality of its original double-hung windows that “go up and down with the touch of two fingers.” Leamon also loves its old hardwood oak floors.
There’s a lot to love, too, on nearby Lottie Avenue, where one side of the street is all provincial manors. Craane said those designs are inspired by the look of European manors from the 1600s, but “some places have been renovated so much they are unrecognizable.”
Recognizing and recording architectural history is something the Modesto Art Museum is trying to do. Its website includes a Modesto architecture database (http://modestoartmuseum.org/pages/databasehome.htm), where online visitors can look up design details about homes in the community.
Craane said the public is encouraged to submit background information about their homes – like who designed them and historically significant things that happened in them.
Already in that database is the home at 430 Magnolia. It’s notable as the first Modesto house ordered out of a catalog.
“Built by Mr. Rhodes in 1919. He ordered the material from Sears Roebuck and did a lot of the work himself,” the database explains. “It is built of redwood and has hardwood floors.”
It’s cute, but to see something darling Craane took her group over to Elmwood Court to view the storybook homes.
“This style started in Hollywoodland, which was developed for rich movie stars who wanted to live in homes that looked like the ones in storybooks,” Craane said. The Modesto versions may not have as much architectural gingerbread, but some are pretty fanciful.
The tour also crossed over the Modesto Irrigation District canal to get to the 600 block of Magnolia, where there’s a modernist-style home surrounded by hedges.
“There are more than 100 (buildings) in Modesto that were built by leading modernist architects” from 1939 to the 1970s, Craane explained.
On the opposite end of the architectural scale is the chateau-style Hawke mansion on Magnolia, which was inspired by 11th and 12th century castles in Normandy. That house cost $200,000 to build back in 1929.
Taking the architectural tour was sort of a walk down memory lane for Pauline Grenbeaux.
“My grandma lived in one of those bungalows here,” said Grenbeaux, who grew up in Modesto but moved away for college in 1968 and hasn’t lived in town since. “It feels good to be here again on these beautiful tree-lined streets.”
She and her husband, Jerry Rogan, came from Sacramento for the tour, bringing along their 16-month-old granddaughter, Serafina Spear.
“Now I’m walking these streets with my granddaughter, just like my grandmother and I did here years ago,” Grenbeaux said. “It makes me feel grounded in history.”