The strikingly distinctive Howden Building on 17th and Webster streets in Oakland is a one-of-a-kind landmark. A new business has opened there called Howden Market. The enterprise is a market-deli-cafe serving fresh local produce, organic groceries and carryout foods. The owners of Spice Monkey next door renovated the vacant space and are stocking the store with house-made sauces from the restaurant, dips, teas and spices.
According to the landmark files, the Howden Building was built in 1925 as a commercial showroom for Robert Howden & Sons; the business sold floor tiles, wall tiles and mantels and grates. The corner building's exterior is clad in square, glazed ceramic tiles, primarily bluish-black in tone, with eye-popping orange glazed accents. The Howden name appears prominently above both the 17th Street and Webster Street entrances. Other polychromed details, including colorful exotic bird motifs, Moorish and Spanish Baroque in feeling, contribute to making the building an outstanding example of its type and individually eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building is also a designated city of Oakland landmark. It is a popular stop on the Oakland Tours Program Uptown Walking Tour. "Folks on our tours are always fascinated with the Howden Building," says Don Tyler, a volunteer guide with the program. "With the Market opening, there will be one more reason to make time to stop in."
Tyler remembers when there was a used bookstore where Spice Monkey is today. "The interiors are just as interesting as the outside," he said. "The decade of the 1920s was the golden age for tile manufacturing in the U.S., and this building is the only tile showroom from that era we know of that survived nearly intact."
Kanitha Matoury and her husband, Guy, opened Spice Monkey in 2008. The restaurant Web page describes their feelings about being able to refurbish the interior spaces "to create a beautiful atmosphere for the community to enjoy; to create a downtown oasis, where you would feel like you were in another place, but still in your hometown."
They worked to wash the tiles, piece by piece, and to replace missing wall tiles with originals found in the basement. They scrubbed the fireplace, once a focal point when the space was a showroom, to clean the decades of blackened surfaces.
In their main ground-floor restaurant space, the couple added a bar built from scratch out of recycled wood and done in such a way that if it were to be removed in the future, the original tiles beneath would not be damaged. On Saturday nights, the downstairs features comedy acts, and meals are served upstairs in the loft area.
The Matourys are using the same care and attention to refurbishing the next-door market space. Now the clerestory windows feature stenciled letters, spelling out the Howden name and allowing more natural light to come in. Local artist Jack Chappel has created an eye-catching fruited tree branch mural on one wall. White subway tiles, similar to those used in popular 1920s-era markets, cover the other walls.
For more on Spice Monkey and the Howden Market, go to www.spicemonkeyrestaurant.com. To view photographs of the Howden Building's colorful exterior, go to https://localwiki.org/oakland/Howden_Building, and to learn more about free Uptown walking tours, go to www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours.