Berkeley Landmarks :: Hillside Club Street Improvements

A wall of contention

Letter to the editor

“Daley’s Scenic Park Steps” by Karen Kemp

Thursday, 18 September 2003

Will Harper’s wordy but scantily researched article “Berkeley’s Hysterical Landmarks” (East Bay Express, 17 September 2003) is long on opinion and woefully short on facts. No doubt other readers will take him to task for various Berkeley Landmarks he contrived to misrepresent. I will confine myself to the Le Conte Avenue wall, a case with which I am intimately familiar.

The wall of contention is not merely a “crummy retaining wall,” as Harper and Mary Hanna would have it. It is part of the Hillside Club Street Improvements in the Daley’s Scenic Park Tract, City of Berkeley Landmark No. 75, designated in July 1983—thirteen years before realtor Mary Hanna purchased her client Ellen Bentley’s house at 2683 Le Conte Ave.

Since Harper didn’t mention the Hillside Club, here’s some background:

The Berkeley Hillside Club was founded on 5 October 1898. Its members included Bernard Maybeck and his wife Annie, Charles Keeler, John Galen Howard, Almeric Coxhead, and other hillside residents who today are held up as the luminaries of the First Bay Tradition. According to its 1911–12 Yearbook, the Club’s object was primarily “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.”

In the Club’s 1906–7 Yearbook, the stated credo was: “Once a lot is bought, use what is there. Avoid cutting into the hill; avoid filling up the hollow. The man who wants a flat lot does not belong on the hillside.”

The Hillside Club took an active role to ensure that Daley’s Scenic Park remained unspoiled by outside interests. The Club’s minutes for 12 December 1903 report:

On motion of Mrs. Bitting [of 1731 La Loma Ave., see photo below], seconded by Mr. Doyle, the President appointed Mr. Coxhead, Mr. Maybeck, Mr. Arthur Bolton [of 1700 La Loma Ave., see photo below] & Mr. Chick a Committee 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.

In its annual report of 2 September 1905, the Club reported the results of that effort:

One of the most important pieces of practical work which the Club has accomplished is the surveying of Le Conte Avenue from Le Roy to Bonte, and of the intersecting blocks of Bonte 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. A committee consisting of Messrs. Frick, Coxhead and Bolton have had this work in charge and the careful surveys were made at the personal expense of Mr. Bolton. 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.

The Hillside Club’s commitment to its surroundings is best summed up in the following passage from the Club’s minutes for 5 November 1906:

Mr. Maybeck’s work was the germ of the Hillside thought. First came a group of Hillside houses. Thence came the idea of working together as a club, gradually broadening in purpose to make more beautiful the houses and lives of all near, tying together all the arts around the central idea of good architecture. There is a need of realizing civic pride & making sacrifices for it, sinking personal prejudices for the benefit of the whole.

Civic pride in the Hillside Club’s street improvements was indeed realized, as reported on Page 1 of the Berkeley Gazette on 15 November 1907:

...When finished, this steep tract in the city will be more picturesque and more beautiful than can be boasted of by any other city [...] This spot in the foothills above the town will be converted into a paradise for homes.

Fannie Bitting house, 1731 La Loma Avenue, built by F.E. Armstrong, 1902 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The Hillside Club Street Improvements include not only the Le Conte Avenue retaining wall but an entire system (see aerial views) of walls, divided roadways, median strips, stairways, and elevated sidewalks that form a continuous line stretching over blocks in Daley’s Scenic Park, including Le Conte, La Loma, Le Roy, Virginia, La Vereda, and Hilgard Avenues (as well as portions of Hearst Avenue and Arch Street, not included in the Landmark designation). These street improvements visually unify our neighborhood, lend it a unique character, and support the planted slopes that contribute to the peaceful ambience we all love.

Yet the walls are in constant danger. Every seven years in recent memory (1983, 1990, 1997), there has been an attempt to remove part of the walls for private gain—specifically, to build driveways or garages in order to jack up a property’s selling price. In 1983, a precedent driveway was built at 1709 La Loma Ave. (Elsa L. Jockers house—Bernard Maybeck, 1911; see photo below). Upon obtaining the city’s approval for the driveway, the owner promptly sold the house and moved out of Berkeley. In 1990, the then-owners of 1715 La Loma Ave. (Lilian Bridgman house, see photo below), without benefit of a permit, cut down all vegetation from the public elevated planted strip in front of their property and commenced cutting into the retaining wall in order to build another driveway. Luckily, the project was halted.

Lilian Bridgman house, 1715 La Loma Avenue, designed by Bridgman & Knowles, 1899 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

In 1997, Mary Hanna came along, wishing to replace a 30-foot wall section (in a 50-foot frontage; see photo below) with a garage that would also have required excavation into the hillside, would have replaced a significant portion of the planted slope in front of the house, and would have been tall enough to obscure a significant portion of the Bentley house itself (a brown-shingle Dutch Colonial Revival constructed by A.H. Broad in 1900), although the latter is situated at the very top of the slope.

No matter how old the “ugly old retaining wall” is, it is infinitely more harmonious with its surroundings than Hanna’s proposed hulking garage would have been (Hanna refused to consider the option of building a single-car garage; it wouldn’t have “penciled out”).

Will Harper reports: “When she bought the Bentley house it was a disaster, Hanna says.” In fact, the Bentley house only became a disaster after Hanna had left it open to the elements for an entire winter (the lake on the living-room floor was the absolute nadir in the house’s 100-year life). “Without parking, Hanna says, she couldn’t sell the house.” Lo and behold, not long after the Hanna debacle, the Bentley house was sold again, and without parking. Since then it’s been beautifully restored by its present owner, whose family of five actually lives and thrives in the house.

According to Harper, “Realtor Mary Hanna isn’t this story’s pariah, but its victim.” Hanna knew what she was getting into. She took a business gamble and lost. Had she won, an entire neighborhood would have been the loser.

Daniella Thompson


Bentley house, 2683 Le Conte Ave., in 1997, stripped of its shingles & superimposed with Mary Hanna’s proposed garage elevation.
The restored Bentley house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Bentley house from the air in 1994.
Click the photo for an aerial view
of Daley’s Scenic Park.

Read more about the Bentley house.


A Daley’s Scenic Park gallery

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

William Rees house, 1705 La Loma Ave.—A.E. Hargraves, attributed to Maybeck & White, 1906 (photo: BAHA archives)
Rees house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

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

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

Burtt Davy-Bolton house, 1700 La Loma Ave.—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 St. Bolton house roof is visible beyond,with street improvements to the right. (photo from Julia Morgan’s scrapbook, courtesy of Lynn Forney Stone)
Hatfield house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

See also:
Hillside Club Left a Lasting Mark on Berkeley’s Northside


Recommended reading:

Charles Keeler: The Simple Home
(San Francisco: Paul Elder, 1904)



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