Upon seeing a beautiful Alameda home in Victorian Homes magazine about a decade ago, San Franciscans Mark White and Henry Villareal started dreaming about living there.

"I told Henry that, if we (ate) beans for the rest of our lives, we could afford that home," White says.

As it turned out, the couple didn't have to change their diet to purchase the place.

For about nine years now, they've lavished attention on gradually restoring the home, and this weekend the public will get a chance to see the results. One of Alameda's most distinctive residences, it will be among six featured Sunday on the Alameda Legacy Home Tour.

All these homes were built between the late 1880s and 1895. They showcase this city's blend of self-taught 19th-century architect-builders and trained professionals.

The White-Villareal house was designed by Charles S. Shaner, working from a George F. Barber pattern book. The Queen Anne-style structure cost $4,000 to build.

Another architect who left his mark on the East Bay island was Henry Meyers, who designed Alameda's Veterans Memorial Building and other landmarks. His home and garden, which today house the Alameda Museum, are featured on the tour, and the museum receives a portion of tour proceeds.

Preservationists say the small city's success at retaining such buildings is part of what gives the community its unique charm.

"You look at Alameda ..., and you think of the richness you get from the architecture," says Erich Stiger, president of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society. "We call it 'Mayberry by the Bay' sometimes. Everything is walkable. It has urban amenities with small-town charm. I think a lot of that comes from the old-fashioned layout."

From the Gold Rush

Alameda's street plan started taking shape during the California Gold Rush, when tradespeople made prosperous by selling supplies to prospectors began to settle on the island. Much of the charm of that era still remains. Alameda Museum president Robbie Dileo cites a study estimating that 3,000 of the community's surviving buildings date to the Victorian period.

However, time did bring some change. With the arrival of World War II and a growing Navy presence, many of the old homes were split into apartments. "We grew from a community of 45,000 people to 100,000 nearly overnight," Dileo says. "People took bedrooms and put sinks in them."

The exterior of one of the six Victorian homes that will be part of the self-guided Alameda Legacy Home Tour on Sept. 22, photographed Wednesday, Sept. 11,
The exterior of one of the six Victorian homes that will be part of the self-guided Alameda Legacy Home Tour on Sept. 22, photographed Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 in Alameda, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

By the 1970s, some of the grand old relics were being cleared to make room for new construction. That's when the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society (the tour's second beneficiary) was launched, under the name Victorian Preservation Society.

This group, then made up mostly of young families who were new to the area, spread the word about homes in need of preservation, and shared information on how that could be done. According to Dileo, "They didn't know how to fix lathe-and-plaster walls. So they got together to talk about ways to (restore and protect) these amazing homes."

Keeping the bones

Villareal and White say they owe a debt of gratitude to their home's previous owners for shepherding the structure through many changes while preserving the original bones. Today, it remains one of Alameda's showplaces. People often pause to snap pictures.

Just one "family owned the house for 80 years," White says. "It was Virginia Battersby (the family matriarch) who really preserved the house."

When he and Villareal first inspected the home in 2004, they were astounded. They recall being especially impressed by the gold-flake detailing on the exterior. It was stunning, and so was the neighborhood.

Inside, the couple found the floor plan largely unchanged since the Victorian period. The home had never been split into apartments or altered drastically to accommodate modern conveniences.

Villareal and White were delighted to discover that they could actually afford to buy the place. The sellers "were looking for someone to save and restore the house," White says, "and we were looking for a single-family home to save and restore." So it was a perfect match.

At the time, many aspects of the interior looked like those found in run-of-the-mill older family homes, including the utilitarian white walls and carpeted floors. "It wasn't the showpiece inside that it was outside," Villareal says. So he and White turned their attention to a gradual interior restoration.

A period restoration

They tore out carpeting to reveal the original wood. And they tracked down craftspeople who could help give the rooms an authentic-to-the period restoration.

The biggest project was installing Victorian-style wallpaper. "We get a lot of ooohs for that," Villareal says. "And most people haven't seen the types of patterns" -- created with sculpted plaster and paint -- "that are on the ceiling."

Seeking out the period decor and the craftspeople who could install it and restore the beautifully grained woodwork was worth every ounce of effort it took, the couple say.

"I don't think you ever really own a home like this -- you preserve it for the next generation," White says.

The kids who grew up in the house now stop by to visit with Villareal and White. Like the house itself, that ongoing relationship is part of the beautiful legacy of Alameda.

Alameda Legacy Home Tour

Benefits the Alameda Museum and the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Six Victorian homes in Alameda
(locations supplied with ticket purchase)
Tickets: $35, $30 if purchased in advance; 510-521-1233, www.alameda-home-tour.org

ONLINE EXTRA

Scan this code with a smartphone or go to www.mercurynews.com/home-garden to see more of the White/Villareal home.