Berkeley Landmarks :: Beta Theta Pi Chapter House

Beta Theta Pi Chapter House

2607 Hearst Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Beta Theta Pi chapter house, seen from the corner of La Loma & Hearst Avenues
(photo: E. MacLean Crocker collection, BAHA archives)

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Beta Theta Pi was the fifth Greek-letter fraternity to make an appearance at the University of California. Its Omega chapter was established in Berkeley in 1879, but it wasn’t until 1893 that the chapter constructed its home at 2607 Hearst Avenue (then College Way), across the road from the campus, in the newly subdivided Daley’s Scenic Park tract.

At the time, the northern edge of the campus was heavily wooded with stands of mature eucalyptus trees, and the residential area immediately to the north was still largely unbuilt. The new chapter house, located on a grassy hillside slope, served the 23 undergraduate members and over 100 retired alumni. At the time, the chapter membership included none other than Charles Keeler (“Fratres in Urbe, ex 93” according to The Blue & Gold yearbook); John Bakewell, Jr. ’93; Loring P. Rixford, ’94; and Arthur M. Brown Jr. ’96. Two years earlier, Keeler had been made director of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and met Bernard Maybeck. His 1904 book The Simple Home would serve as the manifesto of the Hillside Club. The other three Betas would become prominent architects, and two of them—Bakewell & Brown—would design Berkeley’s City Hall and two future expansions of the Beta Theta Pi chapter house. Brown would go on to design San Francisco’s City Hall and Opera House and in 1938 would be appointed the University of California’s supervising architect. Curiously, none of the four merited a mention among the famous or prominent Betas in their fraternity’s website.

The design first contemplated for the chapter house may have been quite different from what was eventually built, if one is to believe Edwin S. Moore’s sketch in his Bird’s-eye View of Berkeley, published in the Berkeley Herald in 1891.

“To be built 1892, Beta Theta Phi” [sic]
(Edwin S. Moore’s Bird’s-eye View of Berkeley)

Ernest Coxhead (photo: John Beach collection)

Luckily, common sense prevailed, and the architect chosen was Ernest Albert Coxhead (1863–1933), one of the leaders of the First Bay Region Tradition. Coxhead was born in England and received his architectural training at the Royal Academy and Architectural Association in London. With his older brother Almeric (1862–1928), Coxhead established a practice in San Francisco three years before the Beta Theta Pi commission.

Coxhead’s work often draws on medieval and vernacular English precedents, and the Beta Theta Pi chapter house is no exception. In his book On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the Turn of the Century, Richard Longstreth describes the building thus:

[...] the mass is divided into four parts, each treated as if it were an individual building along a street in a northern European town. Opposing masses—the tall stuccoed “tower” and the low pavilion adjacent to it—are balanced by the comparatively unobstrusive shingled wings at either end. The four sections are staggered so that the building’s aspect changes considerably when viewed from different angles. In contrast to many of Coxhead’s other buildings, the external differentiation reflects distinct internal functions.

As designed by Coxhead, three of the chapter house’s four parts were clad in wood shingles (as were the roofs) above an exposed brick foundation. The building is an early seminal example of the First Bay Tradition, built around the same time as Maybeck’s residence at Grove & Berryman Streets and two years prior to Keeler’s house.

It has been speculated that Maybeck, who apparently worked in the Coxhead brothers’ office in 1893, may have had a hand in the design. Richard Longstreth points out that Maybeck’s early concept drawings for Keeler’s house bear a great resemblance to the Beta Theta Pi chapter house. It is noteworthy that the Coxhead brothers’ San Francisco residence (see photo at right from the John Beach collection), also built in 1893, is very much in the same style.

The Berkeley Weekly Herald announced the chapter house’s imminent opening on 22 February 1894:

Owing to the feeling of rivalry which exists among them, the “Frats” are constantly aiming at some end by which they may distance their rival in the race for popularity.

The Beta Theta Pi, one of the most prominent of these societies, now feels that it has accomplished a masterly stroke, for this week an elegant house was finished, which they can proudly point to as their own.

The house is situated on the corner of Le Roy avenue and College way and was erected at a cost of $9000 by the Alumni Association of the fraternity.

This association was formed some years ago and purchased six lots, on which it was the intention to build. Then a building and loan association was joined, from which they drew $9000, payable in eight years. Thus it will be seen that the house and lot will be entirely free from mortgage or other incumbent in eight years. Then it is the intention of the alumni to make a free gift of it to the active chapter.
It appears that the mortgage was not retired in eight years. The 1910–12 Biennial Report of the President of the University includes among the properties received from the Jane K. Sather Trusts a mortgage given by the Beta Theta Pi Hall Association for the sum of $7,000. The U.C. benefactor had gone to her grave before the debt was paid.

Le Roy Avenue fašade with 1909 addition at left (photo: John Beach collection)

According to the Berkeley Weekly Herald,

The house is of the old English style, slightly reminiscent of Ann Hathaway’s cottage. It contains eight bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, reception room, library and a large chapter hall, which can be used for dancing.

While the fraternity was in residence, the building underwent several expansions and alterations. In 1909, a three-story dormitory wing designed by Bakewell & Brown was added on the east end. In 1921, the same architects were responsible for a new dining room block at the northwest corner. A one-story flat-roofed block was added in the 1930s east of the dining room addition. At the same time, some of the wood shingle exteriors were replaced with clinker-brick veneer on the ground floor and stucco with wide boards simulating half-timber construction on the upper floors.

Hearst Avenue fašade clad with original wood shingles; 1909 addition at rear right (photo: Picturing Berkeley)

Hearst Avenue fašade clad with clinker brick & half-timbered stucco (photo: ARG)

By the 1950s, it appears that no trace of the early Betas’ high mindedness remained among the residents of the chapter house. In his book A Cheap Place to Live: A Biography of the University Students Co-operative Association, 1932–1971, co-op historian Guy H. Lillian III reveals that during the 1950s and ’60s, an ongoing feud raged between the Betas and their nextdoor neighbors at the Cloyne Court co-op. Lillian quotes former Cloyne Court house manager Dan Eisenstein: “The Betas had two things going for them: there were a lot of jocks in [their] house, and they couldn’t stand kikes, wops, niggers, and chinks. They were thoroughly insulted by the fact that right next to them was a house full of kikes, wops, niggers, chinks, and Japs, too.”

In Cloyne Court—a Personal History, we learn:

Fraternity men, in the late 1960s, were assumed to be rich, well-dressed, thick necked, thin skinned, racist morons who took easy classes and didn’t care about anything beyond Friday’s keg party. Most of the frat men didn’t fit the stereotype, although the men in the Beta Theta Pi house, directly across the street from Cloyne, did.

The Beta Theta Pi chapter house was now located across the street rather than next door to Cloyne Court because the university had purchased the 2607 Hearst Avenue property in 1966, and the Betas moved to a modern building at 2621 Ridge Road. However, they didn’t remain there long, for in 1969 the Jesuit School of Theology relocated to Berkeley, and the Beta Theta Pi house became Chardin Hall in the summer of 1970. The Beta Theta Pi Omega chapter is now based at 2782 Channing Way, on the Southside.

Le Roy Avenue fašade with 1929 dining room addition at left, before renovations
(photo: BAHA archives)

In 1969, the university’s newly established Graduate School of Public Policy moved into the old Beta Theta Pi chapter house. In 1997, after receiving a $10 million donation from the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the school adopted the Goldman name. Between July 1997 and January 1999, the building was seismically retrofitted and extensively renovated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The architects, Architectural Resources Group (ARG) of San Francisco, retained most of the original woodwork, including the paneling, stair rails, window frames, ceiling beams, and front door.

Southwest fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

South fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Southeast fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The Goldman donation also financed the school’s expansion, and an annex building designed by ARG was constructed on the berm at the western part of the site along Le Roy Avenue. The Goldman annex, designed to resemble the older structure and completed in 2002, effectively obscures the Coxhead landmark. The latter recently became partially visible again from Hearst Avenue, owing to the demise of an old elm tree.

Former Le Roy Avenue fašade after renovations (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

GSPP annex (built 2002), Le Roy Avenue fašade (photo: David Wakely)

The Beta Theta Pi chapter house was designated a City of Berkeley in November 1982.

Former Le Roy Avenue fašade viewed from GSPP stairwell (photo: David Wakely)
The only public view of the old building is available from Hearst Avenue.

The Goldman School of Public Policy (bottom right-hand corner) from the air in 1994, before the new addition was built in front of it. Cloyne Court is to the immediate left, and Allanoke is at the bottom left-hand corner. The large white square at center left is the Jesuit School of Theology’s Chardin Hall, home of the Beta Theta Pi chapter during the 1960s. At the top right-hand corner with tennis courts on the roof is the upper Hearst parking structure, former site of College Hall. The parking lot to its left is the former home of Newman Hall.. The two structures at top left are 19th century residences. Click the photo for an aerial view of Daley’s Scenic Park.



Copyright © 2003–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.