Alamo man turns home into castle
A MAN'S HOME is his castle, especially for an Alamo carpenter whose quirky home improvement project gives true meaning to the phrase.
T.J. Baker may not be royalty, but he has king-sized plans for his pad.
The master craftsman is transforming his 50-year-old tract home on Hemme Avenue into a bona fide King Arthur-style castle. "I'm not an engineer, I'm not an architect.
"But I am a dreamer," said Baker, a brawny, middle-aged contractor with a soft spot for fairy tales. Children squeal with delight at the sight of his house, which faces Rancho Romero Elementary School.
Baker's unorthodox approach to home improvement has sent shock waves through the upscale bedroom community and has raised more than a few eyebrows. Baker's biggest fans are among the younger generation.
Drivers slow down, stare at it and scratch their heads.
"It's cool!" said 5-year-old Rancho Romero student Leyla Lewis, eyes wide. "It's make me think of the castles where princesses live."
The partly completed renovation on 27-Oct-2007. Click for bigger.
Photo: Alamo (Un) Incorporated?
Hemme Avenue residents began noticing changes in their neighbor's ranch house about two years ago. First came the Roman columns, like a row of soldiers guarding Baker's front door. Soon, stone cherubs and statues of Greek gods began popping up around his yard. "Is it the Parthenon? I don't know what's going on down there," said Laurie O'Dwyer who lives a couple doors down.
Her mom, Susie Lewis, rolled her eyes. "It's the Winchester Mystery House of Alamo," she said, referring to a Victorian mansion in San Jose famous for its offbeat, rambling design.
"It's different, it's definitely different. But I don't think he's hurting anybody by doing it," she said with a smile. "It doesn't exactly blend in with the neighborhood, does it?"
Rancho Romero parent Karen Taggesell said with a giggle. "It sort of gives you something to look at as you drive by."
In an era of Space Age home design, Baker is going full speed in the opposite direction, about a thousand years to be exact.
"I believe every man should have his castle and/or kingdom of heaven," said Baker, who shares the house with his girlfriend, "Queen Becky," and his 19-year-old son, T.J.
A lifelong romantic, the Southern California native fell in love with medieval architecture during a stint in Europe in his early 20s.
A job led him to the Bay Area about 10 years ago. He took a liking to Alamo and bought a house there.
Because he will probably never own a palatial estate in the English countryside, Baker says he will turn his suburban lemon into lemonade. He works on his house in between managing his own construction company, reading Shakespeare and hacking out an idea for a book he has about humans struggling to survive in the DigitalAge.
For design inspiration, Baker draws on storybook illustrations and his own imagination. He built his version of a parapet, or fortress wall. To the roof, he added crenulations --the technical name for notches like those found in a king's crown.
Eventually, he hopes to add a second story with a Romeo and Juliet-inspired balcony. He also wants to turn his garage doors into drawbridges and build a moat around the house.
County approves, sort of
Contra Costa County officials say he is within his rights. "We really have no control," said senior planner Aruna Bhat.
"He can paint his house purple if he wants to, as long as he is complying with county regulations."
Unlike many parts of unincorporated Alamo, there is no homeowner's association setting housing restrictions where Baker lives. The county's regulations focus mostly on safety rather than on aesthetics.
"What he plans should be compatible with the neighborhood. It's hard to say that about a 9-foot parapet," said Preston Taylor, chairman of the Alamo Improvement Association.
The citizens committee makes recommendations to the county on Alamo issues.
Earlier this year, a county zoning administrator made Baker tear down part of his parapet after neighbors complained it exceeded by three feet the county's 6-foot height limit for residential fencing.
Baker responded by planting the piece of broken wall in his yard. He plans to cover it with cannon balls to create the illusion it has been bombed out by an invading Celtic army.
"People enjoy the freedom that Alamo represents ... yet, whenever these sorts of things happen, it raises the question again of whether Alamo should be incorporated so there can be those standards," said Roger Smith, chairman of the AIA's planning committee.
"I think it's just about the strangest thing I've ever seen in my life," said Saz Ahern, office manager at Rancho Romero. "I keep waiting for Sleeping Beauty to come out."
Fernando Olivas, 70, a 25-year resident of Hemme Avenue, says more people should look at his neighbor's house through the eyes of a child.
"He took this suburban, old-time cracker-box house and turned it into a great talking piece in the community," Olivas said. "It's different. What's wrong with that?"
If I end up in favor of Incorporation, I don't want the TJ Baker's of the town to have more trouble than they have with the County. This is in-line with my recommended background reading.
There is fair concern it's not finished in nearly 3 years.