The House That Students Built

Daniella Thompson

Phi Kappa Psi Chapter House, 1770 La Loma Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

25 July 2006

In 1974, the Berkeley Daily Gazette published the photo of a “mystery house” on the northwest corner of La Loma Avenue and Ridge Road. The accompanying article solicited information about this house, speculating that it might be the work of architect Ernest Coxhead (1863–1933), who designed two landmark buildings a block away—Beta Theta Pi Chapter House, 2607 Hearst Avenue (1893) and Allanoke, 1777 Le Roy Avenue (1903).

These days, the mystery house is no longer a mystery. On 6 June 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission initiated the Phi Kappa Psi Chapter House and conducted a public hearing on the designation proposal at its 3 August meeting.

The Berkeley chapter (California Gamma) of Phi Kappa Psi was founded in 1899. The Alpha chapter had been established at the University of the Pacific in San Jose, but when Stanford University opened its doors in the fall of 1891, thirteen members of California Alpha transferred to Stanford and established California Beta, which absorbed the Alpha chapter.

The Berkeley chapter was organized by Stanford graduate Harris C. Allen (1876–1960), who in 1898 was taking a special course in Berkeley. The same year he also began working for the highly successful San Francisco architectural firm of Percy & Hamilton.

Phi Kappa Psi California Gamma brothers on the porch of their rented house at 2646 Bancroft Way (University of California Blue & Gold, 1902)

For the first two years, the chapter rented a house at 2646 Bancroft Way, but the brothers found it unsatisfactory. As they reported in a 1902 issue of their alumni magazine, “The house, although well situated, was not primarily adapted to the needs of a fraternity; it was too small, inconveniently arranged, in a dilapidated condition, not easily kept clean, and high of rent.”

A search was made for another house, but all houses available were either too far from campus, too high in rent, or unsuitable for the fraternity’s purpose. The brothers then hit upon the idea of finding someone who would agree to build a house on their own plans and rent it to the chapter.

Such a benefactor was soon found in the person of Elizabeth Adams, a farm-owning widow from Yolo County who had two sons at U.C., both Phi Kappa Psi members.

The building in its early years (University of California Blue & Gold, 1908)

On the recommendation of U.C. president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, a site was selected in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract on the Northside, and Harris Allen drew up the house plans. The Berkeley Daily Gazette of 10 May 1901 reported that “It was designed with a particular view for club use. It will be a three-story shingle Queen Anne. The interior will be finished in Oregon pine. The rooms on the lower floor will be so arranged that they may be thrown into one dancing hall sixty feet long and fifteen feet wide. The floors will be of polished hardwood. The house will contain seventeen rooms. Its dimensions will be 40x75 feet.”

Completed in September 1901, the house never bore the slightest resemblance to a Queen Anne Victorian. In marked contrast with the latter exuberantly ornamental style, the Phi Kappa Psi house is an elegantly spare brown shingle. It the telltale marks of the First Bay Region Tradition—a style that emerged during the final decade of the 19th century, led by Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, and Bernard Maybeck. Maybeck himself had built a cluster of seminal brown-shingle houses on the next block to the east beginning in 1895. Of the five Maybeck houses at Ridge Road and Highland Place, only two—the Charles Keeler residence and studio—survive. The other three were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by apartment blocks.

Detail from 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map. Beta Theta Pi is at lower left. The Maybeck houses are directly to the east.

When the Phi Kappa Psi house went up, the neighborhood to the northeast of the campus was still largely unpopulated, and the Hillside Club was still in its infancy, having been founded a mere three years earlier. Yet the young architect—Harris Allen was all of twenty-four at the time—was remarkably attuned to the Living With Nature and The Simple Home gospel disseminated by the club’s apostles: Keeler, Maybeck, and Margaret Robinson (later Mrs. Oscar Maurer).

Although this was the first house known to have been designed by Allen, the result was a roaring success. In 1902, the president of the president of the Phi Kappa Psi San Francisco Alumni Association wrote, “it is today the most admired and talked about ’frat’ house in Berkeley.”

Harris Allen would go on to become the editor of the influential magazine Pacific Coast Architect, a position he held from 1919 through 1933. In 1915, when the Phi Kappa Psi house could no longer serve the needs of a growing chapter, Harris designed for them a new house at 2625 Hearst Avenue.

The second chapter house remained in operation until the mid-1960s, when the university, planning to expand beyond the campus boundaries, forced many fraternities and sororities to relocate on the Southside. The second Phi Kappa Psi house was torn down and replaced with the university’s Upper Hearst Parking Structure.

The former Phi Kappa Psi Chapter House in the 1970s (Photo: Elizabeth Crews)

The original chapter house, located one block to the north, was turned into a boarding house. As late as the 1970s, it was an elegant building with all its original multi-paned windows intact. In the past twenty years, the house has been sadly allowed to run down. Having escaped both the 1923 Berkeley Fire and the wrecking ball, it fell victim to demolition by neglect.

Now 105-years old, the house remains as a lone historic survivor at the La Loma-Ridge intersection. On the northeastern corner, the house of famed painter William Keith’s widow, Mary McHenry Keith, stood until the late 1950s. A boxy apartment building stands there now. Newman Hall, which was located at the southwest corner, gave way to a U.C. parking lot. The southeast corner, vacant for many years, is now occupied by the Foothill student housing complex.

With the university’s annexation of the blocks facing Hearst Avenue, the entrance to residential Daley’s Scenic Park shifted one block to the north. The former Phi Kappa Psi chapter house marks that entrance, a reminder of this fabled neighborhood’s early days.

The Phi Kappa Psi Chapter House was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 3 August 2006. Additional information and images are provided in the landmark application.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 28 July 2006.




Copyright © 2006–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.