Ellen Kenna, Oakland, California 1

Ellen Kenna house, circa May 2016

Ellen Kenna House 1890s

Ellen Kenna House is a large Victorian mansion named after its original owner, Ellen Kenna, at 1218 East 21st Street in the Clinton neighborhood. Designed by architect Augustus Laver and built in 1888. 1

On June 23, 1992 the Ellen Kenna House was designated Oakland Landmark #111, under Zoning Case #LM 91-129.

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The following is from the "History of an Old House" by Gabe Sheridan:

"The fabulous silver bonanza of the Comstock Lode, the "Big Four," a Wild West shooting, a Gold Rush baby born in a covered wagon --- all are in the background of that big house overlooking 13th Avenue on E. 21st Street."

"On April 8, 1874, in an alleyway in Virginia City, Thomas Smith was murdered by an unknown gunman. It was rumored that his mining partner was behind the shooting but the connection was not proven."

"... his widow, Ellen, a rich woman when she returned to San Francisco with the remains of her late husband and young daughter, Blix. There she met a young Irishman, Patrick Kenna, who had been born in a covered wagon en route to the California gold fields."

Sometime in the late 1870's Ellen Smith and Patrick Kenna married. The couple lived on Hobart Street, Oakland in 1879, then moved to Fruitvale in 1880.

Ellen used her own money to buy property in her own name the one-third of the block on East 21st Street, between 12th and 13th Avenue for $14,000 in gold coins, then spent $16,000 in 1888 to build her family home. During the era, large houses in Oakland would typically cost $3,000 to $5,000 for construction, so $16K resulted in a spectacular home.

In choosing an architect, Ellen Kenna, through her association with silver baron James Flood, decided upon Augustus Laver. The architect had previously designed James Flood's San Francisco home on Nob Hill, which is currently the Pacific Union Club and Linden Towers in Menlo Park.

During the 1890s Ellen Kenna competed with the Valentine's whose nearby mansion cost even more than the Kenna home. On September 24, 1903 Ellen Kenna's daughter Isabel married Irving Burrell in the front west drawing room of the home, with over 150 guests filling the four downstairs parlors. The guest list was a Who's Who of the time, with Adolph Schilling, Borax Smith, John J. Valentine and Father Robert E. Kenna (Patrick Kenna's brother who was a distinguished Jesuit educator). The entire house shone with candlelit to enhance the mood of the ceremony and subsequent reception.

Ellen Kenna continued to live in her home until her death in 1925.

After the Kennas

The home was bought by the Pacific Protective Society.  The organization's purpose was to "rehabilitate problem girls" through the "the cultivation of an opportunity for the higher and nobler things in life that characterize true womanhood." 2 From 1928 to at least 1932, Beatrice G. Prosser was the superintendent.2,3 The Pacific Protective Society sold off five lots on the 13th Avenue frontage, where five bungalows were built.

At some point, according to online title records, the property was purchased by Kendall Ray and Rhoada Simmons. In 1980, the Simmonses sold the property to Gabe Sheridan and Frank Rapp, who worked to restore the house into a private residence with some of its former elegance.

In 1982 the house was sold to Bill Brainer and Don Boultinghouse, who continued with additional interior renovations.

In 1990, the house was sold to Center of Third World Organizing (CTWO), who used the home for training and a retreat, with the spacious rooms utilized for meetings and workshops.

The Ellen Kenna Home was recently purchased in early 2013 by Steve Kopff and Josh Stenzel who have begun the lengthy process of lovingly restoring the home to its original glory.

The Ellen Kenna Home has had six owners: Ellen Kenna; the Pacific Protective Society; Gabe Sheridan and Frank Rapp; Bill Brainer and Don Boltinghouse; the Center for Third World Organizing; Steve Kopff; and, currently, E.J. Blumberg.

On June 23, 1992, the Ellen Kenna House was designated Oakland Landmark #LM 91-129.

The Kenna Family

  • Patrick J. G. Kenna, Ellen Kenna's second husband, died February 8, 1910 and is in Saint Mary’s Cemetery
  • they had three children, 2 daughters (possibly Isabel/Isabelle and Ada) and a son James
  • Ellen liked to play whist on Thursday afternoons
  • after Patrick J. died, several of their properties fell into tax default in 1914

Links and References

  1. There Again: The Renovation and Restoration of the Ellen Kenna House
  2.  Oakland Tribune.  May 23, 1932.  
  3. Polk's Oakland 1928