If You Save These Houses, You Can Have Them for a Dollar

These amazing 19th-century structures only have a week to find a new home. Will they be rescued in time?

Bettencourt House

Photo Courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District You can help save Bettencourt House. Or you can turn the page. 

It's the oddest offer, and it's only on the table until Sept. 30: If you would like one of three historic, unique houses dating from the 19th century, the East Bay Regional Park District would be grateful to have you take them off their hands.

Of course, you say "free house" in the Bay Area and people freak out. Chief of Park Planning Brian Wiese has had the frustrating task of telling caller after caller that no, they can't come move into the Ardenwood Regional Preserve. "They would need to look at the houses, then provide us with a letter of intent showing they have the money to relocate them and a place to put them."

What a long, strange trip it's been for these houses. Each was donated to the parks department in the mid-'80s by developers who needed them out of the way; the intent was to create a historic village and educational center around the Ardenwood Historic Farm, but the cost of renovation proved to be too great, and they have languished ever since.

The Brown House

Photo Courtesy of the East Bay Regional Parks Department Solid in construction, this rare example of an everyday farmer's home is already up on risers and ready to be moved. 

  • The Mowry Schoolhouse, built in 1884 for the children of mostly Swiss and Portuguese immigrants working the local dairy farms, was converted from a one-room schoolhouse into a two-bedroom home in 1939. The city of Newark had it assessed in 2012 and found it was a “particularly rare surviving example of a rural 'one-room' school building." In fact, a local centenarian remembers going to school there and is heartbroken that it might be demolished. 
  • The Bettencourt House is a “particularly distinguished example of the Queen Anne Style in Washington Township” and a “rare and interesting example of how the form of a 19th [century] farmhouse grew and evolved over time." Originally owned by a Portuguese farmer in Fremont, it started out in the 1850s as a simple, small house in the classical revival style. A gable-roofed section was added in the rear in the 1860s, and a Queen Anne-style front came along in the 1880s. All in all, it's a two-story, four-bedroom house with a brick fireplace.
  • The Brown House was built in the 1850s, probably by a tenant farmer who ended up buying his land from the original owner of the Ardenwood Historic Farm. It is one of very few surviving examples of box or vertical-plan construction, and may be eligible for the National Historic Register. It's a very simple two-story, three-room house.

"These are three very different homes, with very different uses and possibilities," says Wiese. "The Mowry House and the Bettencourt House are big enough to live in quite nicely; the Brown House would make a very nice outbuilding." The parks department can't afford the risk of having them around anymore — "they are what we call an 'attractive nuisance,'" he says, noting that local kids have hopped the fences surrounding the houses. "We don't want the liability anymore, but these are wonderful buildings that have a lot of historic significance. If someone can find a home for them and restore and preserve them, we would infinitely prefer that."

Otherwise? Well, if a buyer doesn't show up by the end of September, all three houses are slated for demolition at the end of the year. There has to be an eccentric tech-tifarian or dot-commist who can foster these lovable elders, don't you think?

Interested parties can visit the City of Newark's site to download information about the homes, and may contact Ira Bletz at (510) 544-3290. You have your assignment, Bay Area history geeks.

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