An Oakland commercial building landmark -- the former I. Magnin building -- soon will come to life again with a new owner and new tenants.

Thomas Henderson, also owner of the Tribune Tower, has acquired the Magnin building for $9.8 million and has leased spaces to two firms that operate call centers.

The distinctive emerald-green, terra-cotta-clad structure, on the corner of Broadway and 20th Street, is in the heart of the historic Uptown neighborhood.

Researchers at the Cultural Heritage Survey in the city's Planning and Building Department cite the structure as "an outstanding example of its style and type" and "one of the major monuments of downtown Oakland's rich collection of Art Deco and Moderne structures."

The structure is considered a primary contributor to a possible National Register historic district. Opened in 1931, it predates its neighbor, the Paramount Theatre, by a few months.

Charles Weeks and William Day, of the firm Weeks and Day, were among the foremost architects in the Bay Area in the 1920s and '30s. During their lengthy careers, they were responsible for well-known buildings such as the Fox Theater in Oakland, and the Mark Hopkins and Sir Francis Drake hotels in San Francisco.

Store founders Isaac Magnin (1842-1907) and his wife, Mary Ann Cohen Magnin (1850-1943), emigrated from Europe in the mid-19th century, along with their seven children, four boys and three girls. An eighth child, son Grover, would be born in the United States.


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Husband and wife were accomplished craftspeople -- Isaac was a woodcarver and gilder, Mary Ann was a seamstress and lacemaker. Isaac was not interested in the business side of things, leaving it to Mary Ann to establish what would eventually be a chain of 21 "high-end" department stores throughout the West.

According to family legend, although the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed their San Francisco store, Mary Ann sold lace and underwear out of her house near Golden Gate Park to hundreds of refugees camping nearby who had lost all their belongings in the disaster.

Family patriarch Isaac passed away in 1907, leaving Mary Ann and sons Samuel, Joseph, Emmanuel, John, Victor and Grover to carry on the family business through World War I and in the '20s. She continued to check on things well into the 1940s, when she passed away at the age of 93.

During the 1950s the chain changed hands several times and it did not survive the fallout of retail industry mergers of the 1990s. The Oakland store closed for good in 1994.

Rich decorative details with geometric, floral and Aztec motifs accentuate the building's facade. At certain times of day, sunlight glints off the surface of the green terra-cotta, much like a jade-colored jewel box held up to the light.

The I. Magnin Building is featured on the Uptown to the Lake Tour, sponsored by the Oakland Tours Program. These free walking tours are offered on Wednesdays and Saturdays through October.

For more, go to www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours, or call the tours hotline at 238-3234.