In Berkeley, Seth Babson gets no respect.
4 April 2006
The Bartine Carrington house at 2323 Bowditch Street, 1905 (photo: BAHA archives)
Seth Paris Babson (18261907) was one of the most eminent Victorian architects on the Pacific coast. A native of Maine, he set sail for San Francisco a year after the discovery of gold in California. Having rounded Cape Horn, Babson arrived in the spring of 1850. A brief sojourn among the dissolute gold miners of Coloma so disgusted the temperate Babson that he soon decided to move to Sacramento. There, according to his youngest son, he developed his native skill as a carpenter and eventually became a most capable architect and designed and constructed many of the homes of the pioneer families...
Among Babsons still-standing landmark Sacramento buildings are the Leland Stanford Mansion (1857), the Crocker Art Museum (18691873, described as the single finest Italianate building in the West, if not in America, and the Italianate-Stick style Llewellyn Williams Mansion (1885).
The Bay of San Francisco, Vol. 2 (Lewis Publishing Co., 1892), gave the following account of Babsons career, including some inaccuracies:
Seth Babson, of San Francisco, one of the oldest architects on the Pacific coast, is a native of Maine and was reared in Massachusetts. Upon the discovery of gold in California he came via Cape Horn, and arrived here in April, 1850. Two months after arrival he went to Sacramento and opened an office and engaged as architect and for more than a quarter of a century held a leading position in his profession. After the floods in Sacramento he took a prominent part in the methods adopted in bulkheading the levee and for protection of the city. He designed and erected many of the most notable buildings in the citythe residences of Governor Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Judge C. B. Crocker, the Crocker Art Gallery and many others. In 1875 he removed to San Francisco and opened an office, and since then for the past fifteen years he has resided there, although he still does a large amount of work in Sacramento. He has been actively identified with the architectural and building interests of this State for over forty years, and enjoys an enviable reputation in his profession, being one of the most prominent architects on the Pacific coast. He was a member of the I. O. O. F. in early days; also a prominent member and support of the Sons of Temperance, being one of the original members of that organization.
In 1874, when he was almost fifty, Babson married Juanita Josepha Smith (18551940), thirty years his junior. The following year, the couple moved their residence to Alameda, where their three children were born. Babsons office was located in the Phelan Building on Market and OFarrell Streets in San Francisco. He was a major force in the establishment of the Northern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and served as its president in 1890 and again from 1896 to 1903.
There are only two Berkeley buildings known or believed to have been designed by Seth Babson. One of those was the Southside home of Juanitas sister, Miss Eleanor Mary Smith, a teacher who over the course of thirty years taught at Emerson, Whittier Grammar, Dwight Day, Willard, and McKinley schools. Her simple brown-shingle house, with interior redwood paneling and a clinker-brick chimney, was constructed in 1902 by Mr. Martin, an independent builder who was said to have lost his money through bad investment in an asbestos mine. The retired Babson may have contributed to the design.
Located at 2529 Hillegass Avenue on land now owned by the American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Smith house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in January 1980. However, the designation didnt protect it from demolition after it had been damaged by fire, when ABSW wanted to create a dormitory and parking lot where it stood.
A lookalike cottage on Vine Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)
In 1893, Babson and the builder R. Wenk erected for Bartine Carrington a house at 2323 Bowditch Street, just south of Durant Avenue. This was a charming, raised-basement cottage clad in redwood shingles. An embodiment of the transition from the Victorian style to the First Bay Region tradition, the cottage featured the roof-ridge ornaments and fishscale shingles of the former with the unpainted exterior of the latter. Box-like corner window bays with small panes lent it a picturesque aspect. A very similar cottage, built in 1891 and unaltered with the exception of a modified entrance porch, still stands at 2277 Vine Street in north Berkeley.
Bartine Carrington (18711926), a clergymans son born in China, worked in real estate for many years and apparently built the house as an investment, for he never lived there. Next door at 2600 Durant Ave., Hiram Brasfield built a rooming house, where his family occasionally lived until 1911, when they moved into a newly-constructed boarding house for women, designed by Shea & Lofquist at 2520 Durant Avenue. From 1906 to 1916, Hirams brother-in-law Jim Davis resided in the Carrington house. At the time, Davis was the manager of the U.C. Associated Students Store. By 1917, Davis had moved to 2525 Durant Ave., across the street from The Brasfield.
It was probably during the Davis residence that the Carrington cottage was jacked up and gained a new ground floor. The enlarged house retained all its old charm, blending well into its village-like neighborhood of shingled homes set within flower-bedecked gardens.
The enlarged Carrington house; to the left is the Brasfield rooming house on the corner of Durant Ave. (photo: BAHA archives, courtesy of George A. Brasfield)
Over the ensuing decades, the character of Durant Avenue and of the Southside gradually changed. In 1928, the six-story Hotel Durant replaced Brasfields first rooming house. To the east, the nine-story U.C. Unit 1 dormitories went up between 1956 and 1959. A faceless apartment block completed the scene just south side of the Carrington house. Isolated on its block, the house was subdivided into apartments, the redwood shingles were painted white, and the small-pane windows replaced with aluminum. Neglect set in.
In the photos below, the Carrington house is dwarfed by the Hotel Durant on its north (left) and by the Unit 1 dorms directly behind (right).
The Carrington house in 1939 (photo: Ormsby Donogh, BAHA archives)
The Carrington house in 1979 (photo: Anthony Bruce, BAHA archives)
As in the case of the Eleanor Smith house, the Carrington houses fate was sealed when its location was coveted by the hotel for a parking garage. In March 1982, the house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark, Structure or Merit. The designation saved it from outright demolition but not from degradation. In the late 1980s, the upper story was moved to 1029 Addison Street, just west of San Pablo Avenue. There it was insensitively restored and sold to a new owner, who doesnt know that he lives in a designated structure. The houses present appearance is testimony to the toothlessness of Berkeleys preservation enforcement.
The restored Carrington house at 1029 Addison Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)
This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet, 7 April 2006, under the title Architect Seth Paris Babson Gets No Respect In Berkeley.
Copyright © 20062011 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.