A Photograph of Bygone Days

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There is one rather distinctive photograph that you can’t help notice when you pay a visit to the California Genealogical Society and Library. Antique autos and a streetcar with its network of overhead wires tell you right away that this is a scene from a different era. And while time has marched forward some seventy-eight years since the image was created, the bustling Oakland street corner in the photo is in fact the same one on which the CGS library now stands. The photograph shows the large signs that shield the construction site from passersby and announce “Ready October 1st” and “New 8 Story Home of Breuner’s!”.

To be precise, the photograph isn’t actually inside the library, but is displayed in the hall just outside the entrance to the society suite. And though the story it tells is pertinent to its placement, what makes this particular photograph special is its size.

The blown-up photograph is a wall mural in the hall beside the elevators on the “lower level” of the Breuner Building. It serves as an impressive welcome to visitors to the basement location of the society.

The California Genealogical Society moved to its present location in the historic Breuner Building in March of 2007. At the time, Annalee Allen, well-known Oakland Tribune historical landmark columnist, program coordinator of the Downtown Oakland Walking Tours and author of Oakland Postcard History and Selections from the Oakland Tribune Archives, reported:

The society’s new home is an eight-story reinforced concrete building with a distinctive variegated sea-green glazed terra cotta front facade, constructed in 1931 to house the John Breuner Company Furniture Store. Other noteworthy features of the building include Art Deco motifs, and a pair of stylized figures crafting a chair located over the front entrance. Locally prominent architect Albert Roller designed the structure, according to history files.

The Breuner’s Furnishings Web site states that the company pioneer was a German cabinetmaker turned gold miner, who “founded the company in 1856 in Sacramento, California when he realized selling to gold miners was more lucrative than mining gold for himself.” The company expanded and opened stores in San Francisco and Oakland. According to Allen,

Several decades later, Breuner’s sons Louis and John Jr. moved operations to 22nd and Broadway — despite the onset of the Great Depression — to join fellow retailers H.C. Capwell and I. Magnin, and the grand and elegant Paramount and Fox Oakland movie palaces, records show. By the 1950s there were seven stores in the Breuner chain, in Stockton, Richmond, Berkeley and Vallejo. In the 1970s, the Oakland flagship store on Broadway was closed and sold off. It later underwent a major renovation by new owners and reopened as commercial offices in the late ’70s. For the time, it was considered an innovative adaptive reuse.

Today a flag pole sits atop the building instead of the large neon “Breuners” sign. The only reminder of days past is the large mural photograph on the wall outside CGS.


1. Wall mural photographs, Breuner Building, Oakland, California, Kathryn M. Doyle, 31 July 2008.
2. Annalee Allen, Historical Building to House Society, Oakland Tribune, April 22, 2007, Accessed at, 08/08/2008. Update Link broken; Accessed at NewsModo 3/3/2010.
3. Exterior photographs and illustration, The Breuner Building, digital images, e-mail from Christopher C. Curtis, Metrovation Brokerage, Oakland, California.
4. Annalee Allen, Genealogical Society Marks 110 Years of Researching Family, Oakland Tribune, Feb 24, 2008, Accessed at, 08/08/2008.
5. Breuners Company History, The Breuners Home Furnishings Web site, Accessed 08/10/2008.
Written for the Fourth Edition of Smile For The Camera ~ A Carnival of Images which takes its word prompt from the Ace of Hearts. I Smile for the Camera



  1. Unknown  September 8, 2008

    I have a question about the photo-mural showing the building under construction. Do you have any knowledge about the copyright status of the mural? For example, was it ever copyrighted by the original photographer, and if so was the copyright ever renewed?

    I ask because I found the photo of the mural being used in the Wikipedia article “Breuner Home Furnishings”; the person who uploaded the photo asserted that it was in the public domain. I assume it was taken in or around 1931, since the article states that’s when the building was constructed, but that may not be quite old enough for the picture to be considered in the public domain.

    — Chris Wesling

  2. Kathryn Doyle  September 8, 2008

    This is interesting. The photo of the mural is mine and the contributor to Wikipedia gives a link to my post. I don’t have any information about the source of the original photograph. I’ll contact Metrovation to see if they have any information. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  3. Unknown  September 8, 2008

    Yes, I’d noticed that too. Does that mean you have the copyright of the photo of the photo? Since you didn’t seem to have edited or touched up the photo, I wasn’t sure if that applied.

    To be scrupulously correct, I suppose whoever uploaded it should have taken their own photo of the mural and released it to the public domain. Though I guess it doesn’t really matter if it turns out the original photo-mural isn’t public domain yet!

    — Chris