Berkeley Landmarks :: Hillside Club Street Improvements

Hillside Club left a lasting mark
on Berkeley’s Northside

Daniella Thompson

The 2600 block of Le Conte Avenue circa 1910. The retaining wall and median strip are already in place. (Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)

Friday, 24 November 2006

Few Berkeley landmarks are as repeatedly and unjustly maligned as the Hillside Club Street Improvements in the Daley’s Scenic Park Tract. Designated in 1983, this system of public improvements forms a continuous line that stretches over at least six blocks of Berkeley’s Northside.

Comprising concrete street dividers, planted median strips, stairways, pillars, elevated sidewalks, and retaining walls, the system is invariably derided by opponents of the 1974 Landmarks Preservation Ordinance as “The Wall” and cited as an example of inappropriate designation.

The most recent instance of such intentional tunnel vision appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 21 November 2006, when West Berkeley developer Adam Block wrote: “Most citizens would agree that the crumbling retaining wall on Le Conte [...] do[es] not merit protection [...].”

The “crumbling wall” in front of the Bentley house, 2683 Le Conte Ave. Note the gracefully curving stairs, a feature found in several properties on this block. (Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Block was parroting the decade-long harangues of realtor-developer Mary Hanna. In 1996 (13 years after the Hillside Club Street Improvements were designated a City of Berkeley Landmark), Hanna bought the Bentley property at 2683 Le Conte Avenue for development and resale. Her plans included excavating the hillside on which the house stands and replacing a 30-foot stretch of the street-side retaining wall—part of the designated landmark—with a large garage.

Hanna thought she was entitled to disfigure a designated public resource for private profit. The neighbors disagreed. The Landmarks Preservation Commission disagreed. The Berkeley City Council disagreed. Hanna sued the City of Berkeley and lost. She appealed the verdict to a higher court and lost again.

Yet despite having failed to sway the neighbors, the city, and the courts into believing in the justness of her cause, Hanna had no trouble convincing some of the press. Journalists who apparently did not find it necessary to check the facts came out charging against “The Wall.”

Ten years later, “Wall” rants continue to pop up as ammunition for weakening the LPO.

The steps leading from La Loma Ave. to Virginia St. form part of the Hillside Club Street Improvements. (Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

So what’s the real story behind “The Wall”?

It goes back to 1891, when Charles Keeler and Bernard Maybeck met on the 5 o’clock commuter ferry from San Francisco to Berkeley. Keeler, then a 20-year old ornithologist, had dropped out of U.C. Berkeley to work at the California Academy of Sciences. Maybeck, 29, was employed by the fashionable architect A. Page Brown.

Four years after their first meeting, Maybeck designed Keeler’s home—one of the first houses on Highland Place, northeast of the university campus. It was clad in shingles and surmounted by a series of steep cascading roofs that blended into the surrounding landscape.

The new homeowner was worried that the house’s effect would “become completely ruined when others come and build stupid white-painted boxes all about us.”

Maybeck had a solution. “You must see to it,” he told Keeler, “that all the houses about you are in keeping with your own.”

This was the germ of the Hillside Club, founded in 1898. Its mission was “to protect the hills of Berkeley from unsightly grading and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses; to do all in our power to beautify these hills and above all to create and encourage a decided public opinion on these subjects.”

A planted street divider, public stairs, and an elevated sidewalk at the intersection of La Loma Ave. and Virginia Street. (Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Among the Hillside Club’s members and supporters were Northside property owners, including the developer of Daley’s Scenic Park, Frank M. Wilson; artists such as the painter William Keith and the photographer Oscar Maurer; key university officials, among them U.C. President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and Supervising Architect John Galen Howard; and cultural leaders like Maybeck and Keeler.

All these people believed that “There is a need of realizing civic pride and making sacrifices for it, sinking personal prejudices for the benefit of the whole.”

The Lilian Bridgman House, 1715 La Loma Avenue—Bridgman & Knowles, 1899 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

A bucolic elevated sidewalk on the 1700 block of La Loma Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The Fannie Bitting House, 1731 La Loma Avenue—F.E. Armstrong, 1902 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

In 1903, the Hillside Club appointed a committee of its members, including Maybeck, Almeric Coxhead, and Guy Hyde Chick, “to draw up plans for laying out the intersection of Bonte [now La Loma] and Le Conte avenues and to submit same to the Board of Trustees.” At the time, the Northside was still sparsely developed and lacking paved streets. The club strongly advocated using “what is there. Avoid cutting into the hill; avoid filling up the hollow.”

By 1905, the committee had surveyed Le Conte Avenue from Le Roy to La Loma and the intersecting blocks of La Loma “as a basis for an artistic treatment of grades and retaining walls, which would take into consideration the preservation of the live-oaks and involve as little alteration as possible of the present topography. [...] In addition to preparing a charming plan for these two streets, providing for a small bridge across the creek, etc., the committee has interviewed the interested property owners and has obtained the cooperation of practically all who are most directly concerned in the improvement.”

Berkeley’s City Engineer, Charles L. Huggins, helped the committee with technical problems, and the plans were executed by the City in 1909.

The Hillside Club Street Improvements landmark plaque at the intersection of La Loma Avenue and Virginia Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The Hillside Club Street Improvements can be seen along the 2600 block of Le Conte Avenue; La Loma Avenue between Cedar Street and Ridge Road; Le Roy Avenue between Hilgard Avenue and Ridge Road; the 2700 block of Virginia Street; the 1700 block of La Vereda Road; and the 2600 block of Hilgard Avenue. Street improvements in the same style and materials but not included in the Landmark designation stretch along portions of Hearst Avenue and Arch Street.

Daley’s Scenic Park and the Hillside Club are forever linked—the former being the locale where the First Bay Region Tradition in architecture had its first major expression, the latter being the First Bay Region Tradition’s major advocate.

Since advocacy was the club’s principal mission, it began as soon as the club came into being. In June 1899, club founder Madge Robinson (later Mrs. Oscar Maurer), published the article “The Hillside Problem” in The House Beautiful, in which she provides practical design solutions to building on a hillside. During the same period, Maybeck was spreading the word locally. The Berkeley World-Gazette of 28 April 1899 announced that Maybeck would lecture on “Hillside Architecture” for the Hillside Club at the home of Frank Wilson on Ridge Road.

In 1904, Keeler published the book The Simple Home, followed in 1905 with Hillside Club Suggestions for Berkeley Homes. In 1906, Maybeck published the illustrated booklet Hillside Building.

Street divider on the 2700 block of Virginia Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Thanks to the efforts of the Hillside Club, the streets of Daley’s Scenic Park were soon lined with shingled redwood homes surrounded by informal gardens, and the term “living with nature” entered the lexicon. The architectural heritage of the Northside had a profound influence not only on the way houses were built in Berkeley and the rest of the Bay Area but on design theory and practice internationally.

In 1923, the Berkeley Fire wiped out more than half the homes in Daley’s Scenic Park. After World War II, institutional expansion and development pressures began taking their toll on the surviving historic structures in this fragile neighborhood.

Three seminal Maybeck houses on Highland Place and Ridge Road were torn down in the late 1950s to make way for apartment blocks. The same fate befell the house of Mary McHenry Keith (William Keith’s widow) at 2701 Ridge Road. The house of Mrs. Keith’s brother-in-law, Rear Admiral Charles Fremont Pond, formerly at 2621 Ridge Road, was replaced by a modern Beta Theta Pi chapter house, now the Jesuit School of Theology’s Chardin Hall.

Twelve buildings, representing two-thirds of the block between Ridge Road, Le Roy Avenue, and Hearst Avenue were demolished for the construction of U.C.’s Etcheverry Hall and the eventual building of Soda Hall. A U.C. parking structure and lot replaced the historic Newman Hall and College Hall on La Loma Avenue between Hearst and Ridge.

The pre-fire structures that remain on the Northside represent some of Berkeley’s most precious cultural resources, and for that reason they were all placed on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s priority list for initiation in 1990.

Which brings us back to “The Wall.”

In Daley’s Scenic Park, public amenities and private homes form a harmonious whole by design. This remarkable legacy—the most important in Berkeley’s architectural history—is ours to enjoy and pass on to future generations.

Today as much as ever, “There is a need of realizing civic pride and making sacrifices for it, sinking personal prejudices for the benefit of the whole.” If the Hillside Club legacy does not merit protection, is there anything in Berkeley that does?

This article appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 1 December 2006.

See also: A Wall of Contention.


A Daley’s Scenic Park gallery

Street improvements on Virginia Street at La Loma Avenue, c. 1920, looking east toward La Vereda Road (photo courtesy of Doras Briggs).
Landmark plaque at Virginia Street at La Loma Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

William H. Rees House, 1705 La Loma Avenue—Maybeck & White, 1906 (photo: BAHA archives)
Rees House, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Maybeck sketch for Elsa L. Jockers House (Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)

Elsa L. Jockers House, 1709 La Loma Avenue—Maybeck & White, 1911; (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Burtt Davy-Bolton House, 1700 La Loma Avenue—William Knowles, c. 1900 (photo: BAHA archives)
Burtt Davy-Bolton House today

Henry Rand Hatfield House, 2695 Le Conte Ave. at La Loma—Julia Morgan & Ira Hoover, 1908; looking north to Virginia Street. Burtt Davy-Bolton House roof is visible beyond, with street improvements on the right. (Photo from Julia Morgan’s scrapbook, courtesy of Lynn Forney Stone)
Hatfield house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)


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