Our Home: The Howden Building in Oakland

Howden BuildingThe building that Spice Monkey Restaurant & Bar is located in was once the home of Howden & Sons Tile Company, owned and operated by master tiler, Robert Howden, Sr. from 1893 to 1926.

The 1920s were a “Golden Age” for tile manufacturing in the U.S., and this building is the only tile showroom from that era known to survive nearly intact. During the years his company was in business, Mr. Howden and his team of tile setters decorated the interior and exterior walls of the building with tiles donated from a vast array of tile manufacturers from around the country.

Mr. Howden’s intention was for his sons to continue the operation of his tile business in years to come, but his sons declined and the building was later sold. The building was declared an Oakland Historic Landmark on November 13, 1984. Fortunately, during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the building’s unique design and structure remained unharmed.

A downtown oasis

The vision for Spice Monkey Restaurant & Bar has been to create a beautiful atmosphere for the community to enjoy, and the Howden Building has served as a perfect backdrop for this vision. Spice Monkey owners, Kanitha and Guy wanted to create a downtown oasis, where you’d feel like you were in another place, but still in your hometown. They knew that the best way to accomplish that would be to restore the building back to its original atmosphere of the premises from the 1920’s.

At the time of the purchase, the restaurant was buffet style with several steam tables, televisions showing the news, silk drapes and magenta colored walls. The interior was dirty, unkept and unloved; other historic fine arts & craft period of tile detail and décor were covered by sheet rock walls.

Kanitha and Guy, knew that brighter walls, an inviting dining area and restoration of the building’s original tiles would bring back the beauty of this forgotten hidden treasure. The majority of the project was completed by Kanitha and Guy with help from building owner, Dan Fichte.

Creating harmony with history

A few enhancements were made to the space so as to work in harmony with the original design.

These included:

  • Using a commercial pressure washer and hot water to clean 20% of the tiles. The other 80% of the tiles were more delicate, some of which were covered with paint; they needed to be cleaned by hand.
  • Replacing missing wall tiles with originals found in the building’s basement and other areas of the restaurant.
  • Reassembling and reconstructing many of the broken tiles back together.
  • Re-running pipes underground to make the water fountain functional.
  • Stripping paint and plaster which had covered the tiles inside of the fountain.
  • Scrubbing the fireplace to remove blackened and greasy areas and restore the original color.
  • Hiring a specialty artist craftsman to faux finish the walls using towels by hand in order to create a historic look.

In order to create a modern day feel, Guy and Kanitha added in a bar area. The bar was built from scratch out of recycled wood and has its foundation built above the tiling using anchors between the grout. This was done so that if the bar were removed, there will be no trace of damage along the tiles which lie beneath.

Stained glass was framed and installed onto the upstairs loft windows to diffuse the view of the parking lot across the street. And, an outdoor garden on the ground floor was added to create a more inviting entry.

Today, the Howden Building stands as a testimony to past, present and future, a setting that enlivens the senses and fosters happiness, inspiration and human connection.

*For those fascinated with the architecture of our building and others in downtown Oakland, Tile Heritage Foundation hosts periodic walking tours which include an exclusive tour of our building and others locally.