The popular Whole Foods Market has been a familiar sight for six years at the edge of Oakland's Adams Point neighborhood, but its location has a much longer history in the city.
The first Whole Foods store opened in 1980 in Austin, Texas, with a staff of 19. After expansion and acquisitions of other natural food chains, the company in 1999 opened its 100th store. It's located in Torrance.
Oakland's Whole Foods opened in September 2007 in a refurbished 100-year-old landmark building with a complex history.
The structure was constructed in the 1890s as a powerhouse and car barn for the short-lived Consolidated Piedmont Cable Co. -- yes, Virginia, Oakland once had cable cars. Bankrolled by two prominent Piedmont landowners, Walter Blair and Mark Requa, the line ran along Broadway, starting at Eighth Street, over to Harrison Street, then up Oakland Avenue to Highland. It was built to accommodate commuters residing in what would soon be the independent city of Piedmont.
Standing on the adjoining lot was a cavernous, turreted structure known as the Piedmont Baths, a popular destination for pleasure-seeking Oakland residents of all ages. It was an immense indoor swimming pool with water drawn from nearby Lake Merritt and heated by the coal-fired boilers that operated the cable system for the cable cars next door. It was an ingenious and early example of cogeneration.
After only three years, the little independent cable car company was acquired by the Realty Syndicate, controlled by financier F.M. "Borax" Smith, and consolidated with other transit companies to become the famous Key System of the East Bay.
By the 1920s, more and more people were buying and driving automobiles to reach their destinations. In 1925, the obsolete car barn/powerhouse had a new owner -- an enterprising Cadillac dealer from Michigan, Donald Musgrave Lee. His company also had showrooms in Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Francisco, Fresno and Sacramento.
Lee hired Clay Burrell, a local architect and the son of one of Oakland's founders, to transform the old utilitarian car barn into an elegant Mediterranean-revival style showroom with big picture windows that would showcase the prestige automobiles for sale.
The converted car barn/auto showroom functioned at the Bay Street location for several decades before closing in the 1980s.
For the next several years, the vacated building faced an uncertain future as preservationists, neighborhood activists and potential developers debated its next use. At one point a fire, thought to be caused by homeless squatters, nearly spelled the end. The city's Landmarks Board found it eligible for landmarks status, which offered some protection.
Whole Foods broke ground on the conversion to a commercial grocery outlet in April 2005. After two years of construction, including the creation of a rooftop parking lot, the building reopened as Whole Foods on Sept. 26, 2007. Many of the architectural features of the showroom facade were incorporated into the new complex.
Today, what was formerly a blighted, forlorn corner is a bustling place, especially during the holidays. Several times a year, the store holds community giving days when 5 percent of the store's sales are earmarked for designated local nonprofits or educational organizations. A list of the benefited groups is posted in the café area of the store.