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Oakland's Pardee Museum director on living alongside history
- Sam Whiting
Sunday, April 6, 2003
David Nicolai lives in a neighborhood of one.
As director of the Pardee Home Museum in downtown Oakland, he sleeps alone in this historic old house. Across the street are 15 more in Preservation Park.
But these are offices. After hours, it is just Nicolai, and he is confined to a fold-up futon in the servants' quarters.
"You have to be an eccentric, sort of like myself," he says.
The Pardee Home, which Nicolai describes as "the most intact Italianate villa estate left in Northern California," was built from 1868 to 1869 by Enoch Pardee, an eye doctor who became mayor of Oakland. For 112 years, the Pardees held their ground against the encroachment of Interstate 980 on one side and the City Center on the other. The last resident Pardee - Miss Helen - died in 1981, and the next resident was Nicolai, who has spent the past nine years in "social isolation," he says.
When not giving tours or doing office work, Nicolai, 49, keeps to his living quarters. He doesn't entertain in the parlor and he doesn't run around in the upstairs bedrooms, where frilly dresses are still in the closets.
"I'm not welcome to go sit in the furniture and relax," he says. "It's a museum now, and I'm a museum professional, so I don't touch objects."
To escape into the Preservation Park Historic District, Nicolai goes out the back door of the Pardee Home, past the water tower and through the carriage house. He throws open a sliding barn door onto a perfect stage set of an American Main Street in the early 1900s.
Preservation Park - which opened in 1991, as did the Pardee Home - is made up of 15 houses in seven distinct styles, built between 1870 and 1911. Some were here all along, and others were dragged here to make way for the submerged river of I-980, which roars by below. Paid for as mitigation for the freeway, it is a cluster of nonprofits on an L-shaped street with a fountain at the angle.
Nicolai goes through a wrought-iron gate and into a village of lawns, vintage lampposts, a bandstand and benches around the fountain. Little signs in front of each house give its owner's name, year and architectural style. Robinson House, 1891, Queen Anne Cottage, is next to Standeford House, 1893, Eastern Shingle, and so on. At the fountain is Rio California, a Brazilian lunch spot where Nicolai orders a chicken tostada and sits on the patio. The view is across 19th century wooden homes backdropped by 21st century glass-and- steel office buildings.
Crossing to the City Center, he passes through the 13th Street gate that frames the twin towers of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building.
Nicolai has never owned a car. But he appreciates a hidden parking garage, and one of the best is here, disguised as the back side of an amphitheater.
"I have a strong interest in urban design," he says, "so whenever I can find a beautifully designed parking garage, I think that we've really achieved something. And this is one."
On weekdays, he cuts through the rotunda of the Federal Building. Most people look up at the stain glass in the dome, but he likes to look down at the granite floor, which is an abstract map of the Bay Area.
"It's a perfect circle, and the very center of the circle is this building, " he says, stepping on the bas relief that represents it. "It all centers on downtown Oakland."
Coming out the opposite door he turns onto 14th Street. To his right is the Beaux Arts wedding cake that is City Hall, completed in 1914. To his left is a strip of random urban decay and renewal. Straight ahead is Happy Burrito No. 2.
He can't vouch for No. 1, but No. 2 has "long lines and some of the best burritos available in the Bay Area," he says.
At the corner of MLK and 14th, he stops at the African American Museum & Library at Oakland, which opened last year on the building's 100th anniversary.
January marked the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of George Pardee (Enoch's son) as governor of California. The centennial makes Nicolai think of another Oaklander. Not long ago, Nicolai was riding his bike on 14th and passed Jerry Brown.
Nicolai introduced himself - one rare bird to another - and said, "There are two men in the history of our state who have served both as mayor of Oakland and governor of California."
Mayor Brown didn't even break stride. "Yeah, I know; I'm one and George Pardee was the other," he said. "But I'm the only one who did it in reverse order."
Walking home, Nicolai can't avoid seeing the condo complex rising next to the Pardee Home. It won't be a neighborhood of one much longer. "Sometime this year, I'll have 100 new neighbors," he says.
Preservation Park and the Pardee Home Museum are in downtown Oakland.
E-mail Sam Whiting at email@example.com.
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