One Man's Historic Home Is Another's Eyesore

Special to The Times

Depending on who's talking, John Fowler is either a preservationist or a man who flouts county planning rules.

Fowler is at the center of a controversy over the Harder House, which was built in 1906 for a prominent Hayward judge, a member of a pioneering family in the area.

The house was moved three years ago from downtown Hayward to Fowler's property in this unincorporated community.

That's when Fowler's troubles began.

The Harder House, regarded as Hayward's unofficial city hall from 1921 to 1950, was scheduled to be torn down to make way for an Albertsons supermarket. The Hayward City Council already had voted against moving it elsewhere in the city when Fowler stepped in to save it.

He moved it onto his property, which was already filled with debris from an old auto parts shop; even Fowler acknowledges the site was a mess.

"Basically, this property had a 20-plus year history of zoning violations," said Ron Palmeri, former president of the Cherryland Community Assn. "It was kind of like rubbing salt into the community."

Fowler, 55, ran into one complication after another, including a dispute with the company that moved the house and an estate battle in court over ownership of the site, which comprises three lots.

Initially, he had one year to install a new roof, foundation and landscaping, but several deadlines passed without completion of the work.

Earlier this month, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors gave Fowler until March 1 to finish much of the exterior work and told him the house must be ready for occupancy in a year. If not, he once again faces the possibility of having it torn down. In the last month or so, he has begun making headway.

Palmeri particularly faults Supervisor Gail Steele, who lives in a 1915 farmhouse in Hayward, for coming up with the idea to save the house and place it on Fowler's property.

Supervisor Nate Miley, whose district includes Cherryland, had little patience with the delays; he said he would never have supported moving the house onto Fowler's property if he had been on the board at the time.

"I don't want eyesores brought into my district," Miley said.

Although Steele also has been frustrated by the delays, she supports preserving the house.

"I got into it because that house was a place where government was run for 30 years," she said. "Out of that house people were married, people got driver's licenses, they got certificates."

Fowler, who estimates he has put $120,000 into the restoration so far, said he hadn't liked the house when he first saw it. Homeless people had been living there and it was in disrepair.

But after stepping into the dining room and seeing the embossed ceiling and wainscoting, he said, "I fell in love with it."

The wood-shingled, neoclassical, row house-style home, built in 1906 for the late Judge Jacob Harder Jr. and his family, was modest even for its day.

Fowler, who is doing much of the work himself, plans to replace the wraparound porch, which was partially enclosed over the years, and install a sloped roof. He has also built a full-size basement -- a sore subject with some, including Steele, who believe that delayed the project.

Though Fowler conceded it would have been easier to start from scratch and build anew on the site once occupied by his grandfather's house, the former self-employed carpet-layer said: "I wanted something that had character."

The property mirrors Fowler's penchant for collecting and a love for animals. He has old Rolls Royces, a Bentley and Porsches, as well as two miniature horses, a goose, a duck, two rabbits, a parrot, a dog and four cats.

Fowler said he once knew the judge's deceased wife, Abbie Ellen Webster Harder, who was related to the 19th century statesman Sen. Daniel Webster, and the couple's late son, Don, who owned a Hayward sporting goods store.

Frank Goulart, a Hayward attorney whose office is in a restored 1893 Queen Anne Victorian, supports restoration of the home, although he understands that Fowler tried the county's patience when the home languished on wooden blocks because of a moving problem.

Goulart originally wanted to move the house to the old Harder Ranch property in Hayward, but he was turned down by the City Council after neighbors complained it would bring too many visitors.

Goulart, who researched the judge's background, said Harder was the son of one of Hayward's pioneering families.

Harder, who served as justice of the peace from 1921 to 1950, conducted a range of legal business at his house. Hayward's City Hall was not built until 1930.

"I heard he used to bring in the slackers -- the guys in town getting in trouble -- and read them the riot act," Goulart said. "He kept track of where the jobs were, and he was able to send the slackers out to them."

Both the judge and his father were prominent citizens in the community, and a school and street were named after them, Goulart said.

One of Harder's granddaughters, Judy Osborne, 65, of Castro Valley, recalled that when she and her sister were in their teens, they acted as witnesses for weddings performed by her grandfather at his house.

And Alice Pappas, 91, of Hayward remembers going with her father to the judge's home to get a driver's license when she was 12 -- two years before it was legal -- so she could drive her mother to medical appointments.

She has a suggestion for Fowler once the renovation is complete.

"I think he should have a grand opening of that place and all the old-timers would come out."

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