Research yields the ‘truth’ of MacGregor homes

#289 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 1999, Hills Newspapers

We are putting a new listing in Albany on the market this week, a house on Carmel Avenue, which, I was surprised to find when looking at city records, was built by C.M. MacGregor.
In Albany especially, there are many houses that agents refer to as “MacGregors,” but our new listing doesn’t seem to match them. The MacGregors I remember seeing have a Spanish look to them with their stucco exteriors and full or partially tiled, red clay roofs. Many have exposed brick chimneys, stucco or plaster arches, and ornamental ironwork. All that I can recall are built on at least two partial levels, and sometimes three, which is why they’re called “split-level” houses.

Our new listing didn’t look to me like a MacGregor; I thought of it as a bungalow. The exterior is covered in stucco, as is the brick chimney; there is no tile on the roof or ironwork And, while the house is a split-level with one room up a few stairs and another a few stairs down, and it contains a wide plaster arch between the living and dining rooms, I began to wonder if the term “MacGregor” is used as a general style or if, in fact, Mr. MacGregor actually built theses houses named for him.

So, I went to the Albany Library where I learned that Charles Manning MacGregor was born in Nova Scotia in 1871; he immigrated to Boston where he worked as a carpenter before joining his brother in California. Mr. MacGregor married and he and his wife had six children; the family lived in a house built by MacGregor on 32nd Street near Telegraph in Oakland. He made his living, the books I found said, building apartment buildings and houses, many in Piedmont.

One history said that MacGregor began to buy lots and to build houses in Albany in 1936. As city records show that our listing on Carmel was built in 1925, I don’t know what to make of this. Perhaps the book I read is incorrect, or maybe the city records are.

MacGregor is credited with being one of the first builders to build several houses concurrently. In an interview after his death, MacGregor’s daughter says that her father was one of the first “mass builders.” He would build four houses at a time, “but you would never know,” she said, “that they were all built by the same person because his plans were different.”

Maybe that explains why our listing isn’t the same in style as houses that I have thought of as MacGregors. I didn’t find any further description of the houses MacGregor built, although his daughter went on to say that “He tackled the 25 foot lots, of which there were very many, and it was very hard to do anything with them.”

The daughter described Albany in the “early days” (date not given): “I remember going out Grove Street and turning onto Solano Avenue. Here was this great expanse of land – there was nothing. Some one house would stick up like a sore thumb. My father looked at it and said, ‘I think this will be a good town – a family town. I am going to start building out here.’”

MacGregor did start building in Albany and continued for many years. According to “The Story of Albany,” there are more than 1500 families enjoying living in MacGregor homes in Albany, an astonishing number representing close to half of the 3800 single family homes existing in this city with a population of about 17,600.

He hired a designer and a building crew; he never used sub-contractors but had his own painters, plasterers etc. And he made quite a reputation for himself. At one time there was an annual MacGregor Day in Albany, the first one for Albany families. There was a parade, a program and a free dinner. After that first year, in honor of MacGregor who, it is said, provided shoes for Albany children and groceries for families during the depression, the party was for children only who were treated to a movie and ice cream.

A few weeks ago, for a listing on Woolsey Street in Berkeley, I did some research about Mr. Woolsey for whom the Berkeley street was named, and found conflicting information. I became particularly curious to know where the Woolsey family home was located as one book said it was in Berkeley, another said Oakland. After I wrote about this, I received a most welcome phone call from the last remaining Woolsey granddaughter who, at 92, still resides in Berkeley.

No wonder the historians could not agree on where the Woolsey house stood; according to the granddaughter who visited the house frequently as a child, it was originally built on an unpaved Berkeley street that had no name. The house faced east, unlike houses on Woolsey Street; however, the Woolsey’s used a Woolsey address for correspondents. When the granddaughter was around 8 years old, the house was moved a short distance and faced 66th Street in Oakland.

The granddaughter met her grandfather only once; he was much older than his wife who outlived him by many years. The granddaughter’s family home was on Ashby at Regent (land on which part of Alta Bates Hospital now stands) and she remembers visiting her grandmother on her ranch which extended above Telegraph Avenue and below to Deakin Street. Sitting in the branches of apricot trees on the portion of the ranch west of Telegraph, picking and eating the fruit is her fond memory.

She told me that she has some large framed photographs of the Woolsey family and the Woolsey house, and she promised me that she would get in touch with the Bancroft Library which recently received some family photos and papers. Perhaps she will be of assistance in identifying the people in the pictures and in adding to the family story.

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