The Cohen Bray House, also known as the Alfred
H. Cohen House, was built as a wedding present
Julia Moses and Watson A. Bray, a
successful grain merchant with Blue Medal Flour,
gifted the land and constructed the
seventeen-room home for their daughter Emma
and her new husband Alfred H. Cohen, the son of Emelie Gibbons and A. A. Cohen, a railroad lawyer. Both sets of parents made abundant fortunes during the Gold Rush by providing commodities and transportation to and from the Bay Area for the gold miners.
In 1863, A. A. Cohen purchased a failing system which was the first railroad and ferry system in Alameda County. He made it successful and then sold it to the Central Pacific Railroad for a fortune. Because of this and his extensive law experience, in 1865, he became the chief attorney for the Central Pacific Railroad, which completed the western portion of the trans-continental railroad. The new railroad brought its first passengers across North America in 1869, dropping them at Cohen's rail depot in nearby Alameda, (because the Oakland terminus was not completed until three months later) where they could make a connection to San Francisco on the his ferry service.
The senior Cohens furnished the public rooms of the house with high end furniture typically bought by fabulously wealthy elites from New York City. Tiffany's, Herter Brothers, and the firm of Pottier and Stymus provided the furniture. The interiors including the lighting, wallpaper and rugs in the rooms were styled and designed according to the latest 1883 fashions.The Cohens were well suited to the task because of their experience purchasing furniture and designing rooms for the 70 room Italianate mansion on their Alameda estate, Fernside.
Emma had come as a baby to Oak Tree Farm, her new house would be located "where the asparagus patch had been," on the property across the road from her parents' home.
More than three hundred guests attended the wedding reception in her parents home on February 24, 1884. When Emma and Alfred left their wedding reception, they slipped across the street and watched their wedding reception "wind down" from their brand new home instead of going directly to the honeymoon suite awaiting them in Del Monte.
The Cohen Bray House offers visitors the rare opportunity to imagine Oakland's home life as it was a century ago. The house typifies the Stick-Eastlake architectural style common during the 1870s and '80s, but the interior of the house is its most distinguishing aspect. It remains appointed to this day with original furniture in the Aesthetic style inspired by Charles Eastlake, author of the influential Hints of Household Taste. It has remained intact for more than a century in a home occupied until recently by descendants of its original owners, making it one of the few surviving examples of the Aesthetic interiors popular in the U.S. and England in the late nineteenth century. Visitors standing in its halls, parlors and bedrooms thus see a period home with wall papers, woodwork, carpeting and wedding presents as they were for the honeymoon in 1884.
Emma and Alfred lived at 1440 29th Avenue for the rest of their lives, and their four children were born there: Alfreda, Douglas, Marion, and Edith Emelita. Alfred died in 1925, but Emma stayed in the house until her death in 1945. Edith Emelita, their youngest child, lived in the house for ninety years until her death in 1988. Emma's great-grandson Kenneth Christopher Gilliland lived in the home for 30 years, and the great-grandchildren of Emma and Alfred continue to volunteer weekly to keep the house alive. Their personal knowledge and connection to the house enhances the experience of visitors. They work with the caretakers who inhabit the house today.
The Cohen Bray House was designated an Oakland Landmark #8 in 1975 under Zoning Case #LM 74-335. The home is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.