Diana Toomajian (right), c.1955
courtesy her daughter, Suzanne Vasgerdsian
via Oaklandside 1

The Peck House was a Julia Morgan-designed house at 652 Spruce Street, and the home of the family of attorney James F. Peck and his family from 1912 until 1944. It was built in 1906-1907 for Mae Burdge Miller and her family, 2 and demolished in the mid-1950s for the construction of St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church.

The home was 2 stories, with a 3-story octagonal tower. It was estimated to cost $12,000 to build, and had 11 rooms. Like many Morgan-designed homes, it was covered in wood shingles. It was constructed by W.T. Veitch and Brother, 2 and completed in 1907. Correspondence in 1986 between noted Julia Morgan historian Sara Holmes Boutelle and the Bucks County Historical Society suggests the home included tiles from the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania, the creation of Henry Mercer.

When constructed, there were few homes and few trees on that part of Cleveland Heights, which had been divided as the Clinton Mound Tract in 1869. 4 As a result, the house can be seen in the background of photos of the Mary Smith Home for Friendless Girls near Park Blvd., and would have been easily visible from "Borax" Smith's Arbor Villa estate. It was built on multiple lots (12-14) within block C of the tract. Note that on early maps, McKinley Avenue was named Lincoln, MacArthur Boulevard was named Excelsior, and Capell Street was named Pine. The latter was renamed following the death of city council member James R. Capell in 1896.

Home Club and Cottages. Peck House is the left house on the ridge.
Cheney Photo Advertising c.1914 3

Excerpt from Map of the Clinton Mound Tract 4
(Peck House was on Lots 12-14, Block C)
1912 Sanborn excerpt1950 Sanborn excerpt

Miller years, 1906-1912

In February 1906, Borax Smith gifted lots 12 through 15 to Mae Burdge Miller, who had been a ward of the Smiths. 13 Miller hired Julia Morgan to design the house for her and her husband, Bernard P. Miller; 2 the Millers moved into the newly completed house in July 1907. 9

In October 1907, Mae Burdge Miller's sister Winifred Burdge held her wedding to Walter Cole at the house. 8

The 1910 census shows Mae and her family living there, along with her sister Winifred and her family, plus 2 servants, for a total of 10 people.

  • Bernard P. Miller, age 36
  • Mae Burdge Miller, age 30
  • Frank Miller, age 5
  • Harry P. Miller, age 2
  • Bernard C. Miller, age 1 month
  • Walter D. Cole, age 30
  • Winifred Burdge Cole, age 29
  • John A, Cole, age 3 months
  • Laura Anderson, age 24, cook
  • Margaret Anderson, age 24, upstairs girl

Peck years, 1912-c.1944

James Peck and his family moved into the home in November 1912. 7 James and Emma Peck had 3 sons, Charles Peck, J. Forrester Peck, and J. Lydell Peck. Charles was at law school, but J. Forrester and J. Lydell moved into the house with their parents in 1912. They both married at various points and moved out, but moved back later.

Emma Peck died at home in 1926, after a short illness. In September 1927, J. Lydell Peck married actress Janet Gaynor at the house. 15 After a honeymoon in Hawai'i, they returned to Hollywood. Charles Peck died in December 1927; he was living nearby with his family at 3200 Park Blvd. So the 1930 census lists just James (widowed) and J. Forrester (divorced) living at 652 Spruce, along with a housekeeper, a maid, and a lodger.

James Peck died at home in 1939, age 79, and then J. Forrester Peck died suddenly in 1940 in Santa Barbara. His death was late enough in the year that he is still listed in the 1940 census and 1941 directories at 652 Spruce, with his brother J. Lydell.

In 1941, J. Lydell remarried; the 1942 and 1944 voter registrations show him and wife Ruthmarie Laumeister Peck living at 652 Spruce. J. Lydell Peck and his family bought a house in Lafayette in late 1944.

Final years

The 1949 directory lists Louise Jilson living at 652 Spruce. The 1950 census shows a rooming house run by Louise H. Jilson, with a number of lodgers. (It's unknown whether Lita Hardgrave was living in the house, or at 652 1/2 Spruce, which was the building in the rear of the lot.) It's unknown who owned the property at that point.

1950 census

An article in 1952 describes the "old Lydell Peck mansion" as "large, old and deteriorating." 14

St. Vartan's purchased the property in 1955, and had razed the house by the 1956 ground breaking for the new church building. The retaining wall and the stairway up from the corner of Spruce and McKinley are visible in the 1955 photo, and were kept when the church was built.

"Borax" Smith connections

While the St. Vartan's site says the lot had "a large home and carriage house from the estate of F. Borax Smith," he owned the land early on, but not the house. There are numerous other connections to Smith, though.

Mae Burdge Miller, who had the house constructed, and her sister, Winifred Burdge Cole, were part of the "Solid Six", wards of Borax and Mary Smith. Mae's husband, Bernard P. Miller, was an assistant manager of the Realty Syndicate, and manager of Idora Park for a time. Their wedding was held at Arbor Villa.

Borax Smith and Evelyn Ellis Smith dined at the home on various occasions, along with other members of the "Solid Six." 10

In December 1911, Borax Smith bought the lots on the adjacent corner of block C (lots 8-11), at 880 McKinley. 5 Winifred and Walter Cole moved there in November 1912. 11

Also in November 1912, James F. Peck and his family bought the house at 652 Spruce and moved there from Berkeley. Peck was an attorney, including for Borax Smith's West End Consolidated Mine company. 6

But wait, there's even more. In June 1910, Borax Smith's brother Byron Smith married Clara Meiser in Chicago. Following their marriage, they made their home in Oakland. Sadly, Byron died less than a year and a half later "at his home on Capell Street." His funeral was held at Mae and Bernard Miller's house at 652 Spruce. 12 The exact timing isn't known yet, but it seems likely that 675 Capell was built in 1911 for Byron and Clara Meiser Smith, and Byron died there. (Another obituary says his home was at the corner of Capell and Excelsior, but that home wasn't built until 1922, so "at the corner" should probably read "near the corner.")

The 1912 and 1913 directories list Clara's father Frank Meiser and brother Victor Meiser living at 675 Capell Street (lot 7 of block C), and the 1914 phone directory lists Clara J. Smith living there. The 1916-1918 directories list Clara Smith and Marion Smith Oliver at 675 Capell, Marion Smith Oliver being the adopted daughter of Borax Smith, and another member of the "Solid Six." (She divorced Roland Oliver in 1913.)

Remaining questions

A few things possibly worth following up on

  • The 1906 Enquirer article mentions that the lot for the Millers' house is 132x180 feet. That means it included Lots 15 and 16 in Block C, in addition to Lots 12-14. All of those lots are now part of the St. Vartan property.
  • All of the Sanborn maps show the house at 684 Spruce as if it's on the same property as the Miller/Peck House, but it's on the southern portion of Lots 1 and 2 -- so the Sanborn maps are not consistent with the 1906 article.
  • County records (yeah, they're often inaccurate) as used by Redfin et al. say the 684 Spruce house was built in 1910, and the City's records say it was built in the 1900s.
  • Google Street View shows that 684 Spruce has a front porch entrance that is consistent with the Sanborn maps, although the current house has a second floor that does not appear on the Sanborn maps.
  • A 1939 classified ad says that 684 Spruce is the "newest house near Lake Merritt" and is "utterly modern." (The ad also says it's only a five minute walk to Lakeshore shops, so can we believe anything in the ad?!?)
  • A 1941 classified ad said 684 Spruce was "like new" with a marine view, and was being sold as part of closing an estate.

Links and References

  1. At an Oakland church, Armenians have been keeping their culture alive for 100 years Oaklandside October 5, 2023
  2. Will Have A New Home Oakland Enquirer June 30, 1906
  3. BANC PIC 1983.123:20--PIC UC Berkeley Bancroft Library collections
  4. Map of the Clinton Mound Tract, Brooklyn, Redivided Feb'y 1869 Recorded Clinton Mound Tract map.pdf
  5. Official Records Oakland Tribune December 27, 1911
  6. West End Mine In Fine Shape San Francisco Journal and Daily Journal of Commerce April 3, 1912
  7. Move to East Oakland Oakland Tribune November 16, 1912
  8. Cole-Burdge Wedding Oakland Enquirer October 12, 1907
  9. Move Into New Home Oakland Enquirer July 6, 1907
  10. Parties On Thanksgiving Day Oakland Tribune November 21, 1910
  11. Takes New Home Oakland Enquirer November 9, 1912
  12. Brother of "Borax King" Succumbs Oakland Enquirer September 30, 1911
  13. Real Estate Transfers Oakland Enquirer February 3, 1906
  14. Council OK's Pay Boost for City Employees Oakland Tribune June 27, 1952
  15. Janet Gaynor and Peck Wed Oakland Tribune September 11, 1929 (p2)