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Benicia’s growth rings

by Steve McKee on July 23, 2006

Carquinez Straits

While meeting some new clients in their home on Mills Drive I recognized the house as the same model as one I had worked on recently on White Chapel Drive and also like one I knew on Ardmore. It was as if there was a strata of these homes along this band of the hillside. So this was the extent of Southampton in the seventies, I thought. At that time a group of new homes was being built along this section of the various streets creating a swath of growth that expanded the outer limits of Benicia. The Mills Drive house I was visiting suddenly seemed to have a kinship with its Ardmore Way brethren despite the mile of distance between them.

I fancied the image: While I was busy in high school doing things like learning bass guitar and summonsing the courage to ask Sue Tleimat out to a movie, builders were at this spot standing stud walls and sweating copper pipe, pausing perhaps to glance at the empty hills behind them.

Then a few years later another band of growth took place as even newer models went in further up the hill. And so it went, like growth rings in a tree. Today we have the “Waters End” homes marking the latest ring of growth. Perhaps the tree ring analogy isn’t perfect, because uniform rings don’t always result. Even with trees, burls occur in which the growth rings become convoluted and jumbled.

A few days later, with this tree analogy still fresh in my mind, I was on a bike ride with Melody out on Rose Drive near the Waters End area when we turned up Panorama to head back home. The houses on Panorama were not spanking new like the Waters End houses, but they still felt like fairly recent vintages with their large size, three car garages and fancy rock accents on the front. Very nineties feeling. I knew from previous visits that the kitchens inside had islands and the ceilings were taller than in the older homes.

Standing up in our pedals and breathing harder, we passed the summit and rolled into an older era of houses. These houses had wider wood trim on the windows and areas of plywood siding used as an accent on their stucco facades. Down we went, passing the little park and turning onto Chelsea Hills. Up and over the hump we pedaled and then came the big downhill. Now the homes were flying by. Watching for cross traffic on Dundee, there was no time for thinking about much else but holding the road. In our time-machine we were now passing into the early seventies.

We slowed and waited for the light at Raleys and then turned left down the hill under the freeway towards West Seventh. Up to the left were the “Bridge View” homes and to the right the “Hamann Hills” subdivision. Then came the 1950’s houses on Carolina Drive: modest and box-like but with killer water views. Across from them was the 1940’s subdivision called “West Manor” complete with its modest stone entrance signs that bear its name. I know the West Manor neighborhood has some of the same floor plans as “the Highlands” subdivision on the east side of town, both born in a time of Glenn Miller music and war bond posters.

Crossing Military, the clarity of the growth ring concept became muddied. Because the downtown area had its street grid laid out all at once in the 1847 but then had the houses fill in very slowly and sporadically over the next hundred and fifty years, there is a diverse mix of styles and eras within these city blocks that surround downtown. This wide range of age for the houses within individual city blocks is actually fairly unique to Benicia. Although the founders didn’t anticipate the slow rate of infill, this ultra slow simmer ended up creating the rich stew that is now Benicia’s architectural heritage.

In terms of quality and quantity of architectural significance, there are other towns that handily beat us (you need only go as far as Vallejo for this) but what we have is a unique gentrification of fifteen decades of architectural history within almost any given city block. An 1880’s Victorian cottage will sit next to a 1940’s four-plex next to a 1960’s split level next to a 1910 craftsman. All this variety living in harmony infuses the neighborhoods with a diversity not easily found in other places. Such eclecticism might feel forced if it wasn’t actually the result of real life forces at work over many years.

If I had kept riding towards town (instead of going home to shower, read the paper and watch the Tour de France) I would have eventually got to the centermost ring, the little dot at the center of all the rings. That would of course be the von Pfister adobe, which most of us know as the largely collapsed mud and wood hut under the tarp and the metal roof at the end of the alley that really looks more like a parking lot (on the west side of First Street between C and D streets.) They say that in 1848 this is where the guy blabbed about the gold they were starting to find on the American River (and we all know how well they kept that secret.)

It just occurred to me that perhaps an onion analogy could also be used to describe our town. You know, peeling back the layers to try and find the real Benicia only to discover that all those layers actually were the true Benicia, only now you have a torn up onion and everybody’s crying from the onion fumes and so on. The growth ring idea works so much better, wouldn’t you say? The mighty oak growing from the little acorn. Maybe not the mightiest oak ever, but certainly a distinguished one.

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