- Published on Tuesday, 29 June 2004 20:35
- Written by Diego Abeloos
Above, Irwin Wunderman gives a tour of his historic home, which was a 1930's-era speak-easy and bordello. He wears gloves to prevent the oils from his skin from damaging historic memorabilia. Top left, a placard indicates the former occupation of the home. Top right, the home on Eunice Avenue was once run as the Blue and Gold Kennel Club, a front for its illicit activities.
At first glance, Irwin Wunderman's home looks just like any other - quaint, charming and peaceful. Throughout his 42 years of owning the property, Wunderman and his wife, Gilda, raised three children and housed several foreign exchange students there.
To those who know the history of the house best, this home used to be much more. The house served as a speak-easy and bordello during the Prohibition era.
"We figured we'll never get another place like this," said Wunderman about first buying the house. "It's quite unusual."
The 7,200-square-foot, 18-room house, originally built in 1928 by Nicholas Kristmas, has gone through few owners. According to Wunderman, the house was allegedly run by mobsters during the early 1930s as the Blue and Gold Kennel Club, a dog-racing front for the bordello and speak-easy, before it was sold to George White and became Burton's Gold Medal Distillery in 1933.
Sometime in 1937, the federal government took over the property from Burton's and sold it to Harold Skinner in January 1939 for approximately $8,000 Wunderman said.
"(The Skinners) bought it from the federal government, which closed down the gangster operation" Wunderman said. "Of course, the gangsters had a racetrack, a greyhound racetrack. ... Most every vice you can think of, they practiced here."
The Wundermans, who moved into the neighborhood in 1957, became friendly with the Skinners in 1960 and purchased the house in 1962 from the Skinner family through a handshake agreement.
"We lived down the street in a conventional California ranch house for four-and-a-half years before we bought this house," Wunderman said. "Everybody knew of the history here."
Shades of the past echo throughout the house, as the basement still has the original ballroom, (complete with its original 1-inch oak dance floor), and private bar once used by bordello customers during its heyday. The walls are lined with paintings and framed silk portaits of nude women, some of which, Wunderman said, are originals from the speak-easy.
The basement also consists of a chemistry lab once used by the distillery, its walls lined with empty McGregor's Malt Tonic bottles. Next to the lab room, a hatcheck room and another bar with a side entrance once used by customers, round out the basement.
"I knew what the place was, but I didn't realize what was in it ... that it had so much of the original history," Wunderman said. "Frankly, there was no incentive on my part to get rid of the history."
Wunderman said he's tried over the years to maintain the old charm of the home, adding pieces from the Prohibition era, such as an old Edison record player, among other things.
"We did not alter the basement very much," Wunderman said. "It's still very much in tune with the early era of the speak-easy and many of the things that were originally on the property are down there."
Wunderman said many aspects of the house have remained the same during its 78-year existence. The pool, located behind the main house, is still the original one put in during the late 1920s. Behind the pool is the chambermaid's quarters, with an attached four-car garage, which Wunderman said was used to store the limousines and house chauffeurs. Wunderman added that the Skinners also provided housing to several military families during World War II.
"During World War II, the Navy kept (military families) here ... They were short of housing," Wunderman said of the chauffeur and chambermaid quarters.
Upstairs, the house features several bedrooms with a connecting hallway, (now closed), where customers could walk by and peek through windows to catch a glimpse of the women in their rooms.
At the end of the hallway was a casino room, which now serves as Wunderman's library. The room still features a lookout window for police and a wired bell system that rang throughout the house when authorities were approaching the property during Prohibition.
Originally a five-acre property, the Skinners sold four acres to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The sold land used to feature a dog-racing track and a grandstand when the property was owned by the Blue and Gold Kennel Club.
The four acres, as well as Wunderman's home, were a sore point for many years in Mountain View, Wunderman said.
"The city offered (the Skinners) more money for it, to knock the place down," Wunderman said. "I got into arguments. ... We started battling right from day one."
Wunderman said he had several disagreements with the city of Mountain View during the 1960s and 1970s. On several occasions, Wunderman said, the city tried to enforce new building codes on the old structure in an effort to have the house demolished, even though the land was, and still is, an unincorporated area in Santa Clara County.
"I have to point out that in the beginning, when we first bought this place, there was a lot of hostility by the municipalities toward it," Wunderman said. "I never realized why. ... It was my home, I thought it was a great place. I don't see any reason to knock it down just because of its history. You can't erase history by burning the books."
In 1972, Dividend Industries of San Jose wanted to turn the four-acre lot, which it had purchased from the church, into a 13-lot subdivision, including a part of the Wundermans' property (some trees and shrubs). During a meeting of the Environmental Planning Commission in 1972, it was ruled that Wunderman could keep his property intact. Commissioner Emily Lyon stated, as reported by the Palo Alto Times, that the trees and shrubs were "an integral part of the Wunderman property."
The ruling came only after Wunderman spent more than three months fighting annexation of part of his land, with the Wundermans purchasing an extra six feet from the city as a buffer between the subdivision lot and his home.
Wunderman, a former electrical said he's had his share of strange visitors to the house with interesting stories to tell throughout the years.
"When we bought (the house), there was tremendous curiosity to come into the house," Wunderman said. "In fact, the PTA wanted to give a tour. ... But at the last minute, the kids found out and because it was a bordello, they canceled it."
On one such occasion, a gentleman came to the door asking for a girl he used to know.
"Someone once came to the door and asked if Gloria was here ... from the days of the bordello," Wunderman said.
Other visitors included sailors who used to live there during World War II, as well as an old newspaper boy named Milo, who used to deliver the news to the house and take packages from the bordello to a bookie on the corner of El Camino Real and Grant Road, Wunderman said.
While the house may have been a place of drunkenness and promiscuity during Prohibition, to the Wundermans, the place is simply a place they call home.
"I love it. It's home and it's unique," Wunderman said. "I feel very fortunate, in a certain sense blessed, that I can live here. ... I think that its history adds a certain amount of spice and infamy."