The Bennington Apartments evoke 19th-century Euclid Avenue

Daniella Thompson


The Bennington Apartments at 2508 Ridge Road combine two houses built on Euclid Avenue circa 1892. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

3 October 2007

In June 1906, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company released a three-minute film called A Trip to Berkeley, Cal. The short was filmed aboard a moving streetcar on the #4 line of the Oakland Traction Consolidated Company, a precursor of the Key Route System. The #4 line ran between downtown Oakland and the intersection of Euclid and Hilgard Avenues, four blocks north of the U.C. campus.

The film, which is available for viewing on the Library of Congress website, documents most of the #4 line’s final leg, as the streetcar rolls along Oxford Street, turns east onto Hearst Avenue, climbs up to North Gate, and turns north onto Euclid Avenue, coming to a stop in the middle of the 1800 block—the one we know as the Euclid or North Gate commercial district.

Except that in 1906 there was no commercial district on Euclid Avenue, and one would not develop there until the 1920s and would not become fully built until the late ’30s.

In 1906, there wasn’t a single building on the western side of Euclid Avenue’s 1800 block. The eastern side boasted three structures, with nary a store among them. The north fork of Strawberry Creek ran in its open channel on both sides of the street. The creek isn’t visible in A Trip to Berkeley, Cal., but the buildings along Hearst and Euclid Avenues are.


Houses along the 2500 block of Hearst Ave. (“A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”)

Before the streetcar makes its turn at North Gate, one can see, from left to right, the houses of Rev. George B. Smyth (2509 Hearst), Oscar & Lucretia Redfield (2525 Hearst), and William Mackie (2537 Hearst) along the northern side of the street ahead.


The Smyth house and its orchard on the corner of Hearst and Euclid Avenues (“A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”)

The Smyth house occupied the upper third of a triple corner lot. The lower two-thirds, abutting on Euclid Ave., were planted with an orchard. Next door to the orchard was the Northgate Hotel at 1809 Euclid—a large, three-story-plus-basement structure, adorned with two front balconies and three round turrets topped by witches’ caps. A tall water tower rose in the rear. Just up from the hotel, across the creek, stood two homes built circa 1892.


The Northgate Hotel, 1809 Euclid Ave. (“A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”)

1805 Euclid Ave. was a very early Brown Shingle (1891 was the first year in which this type of building appeared in Berkeley, the earliest known example having been George C. Pape’s house at Berkeley Way and Grove Street, and the most prominent surviving example being the Anna Head School of 1892). It featured a round turret and a gable whose concave walls curved in to accommodate a central window. Its neighbor at 1801 Euclid had a plain fašade, possibly with wooden siding.


Northgate Hotel (r) and 1805 Euclid Ave. (“A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”)

The Northgate Hotel, designed and built by A.W. Pattiani in 1902, was torn down in late 1936 and replaced by the current one-story Art Deco commercial building, still clad with the original ’30s glossy black tiles and vertical chrome strips. The Smyth house, built in 1891, gave up its orchard for the Euclid Apartments (designed by John Galen Howard), which opened in 1913. The Smyth house itself was turned into a fraternity, then into the Japanese Women’s Club, and ultimately was razed and replaced by a food court.

Against all odds, the two 1892-vintage houses at 1801 and 1805 Euclid Ave. still stand, albeit not as houses and not on Euclid Avenue. Both houses first appeared in the Alameda County assessment records in 1893. The corner house at 1801 Euclid Ave. was owned by Frank M. Wilson, the Indiana-born Chicago banker who swooped upon Berkeley in 1891 and purchased the entire Daley’s Scenic Park tract for $4,000 in gold. Wilson would quickly establish himself as a Berkeley VIP and in 1894 would engage contractor George Frederick Estey to build him a brown-shingle house on the crest of Ridge Road. Intended as the barn for a projected mansion that was never built, it served as the Wilson family’s permanent residence until 1969 and was razed in the late 1970s to make way for the GTU Library designed by Louis Kahn.  
Frank M. Wilson in his garden at 2400 Ridge Road (BAHA archives)

Before his house was built, Wilson lived in San Francisco, and in October 1893 he rented the house of realtor and Shattuck brother-in-law Ralza A. Morse on the northwest corner of Shattuck Ave. and Bancroft Way. By then, he had sold 1801 Euclid Avenue to realtor Oscar G. May, but it’s possible that Wilson occupied the Euclid Avenue house before doing so, since the assessment record in his name shows personal property in the house.


1801 and 1805 Euclid Ave. (“A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”)

The shingled house at 1805 Euclid Ave. was built for William W. Clark, a Maine-born real estate agent, and his brood of four twenty-something offspring, three of whom were enrolled at the San Francisco Business College. The designer of the Clark house is not known. It might have been Fred Estey, who would soon build several other brown-shingle residences in the neighborhood.

Much has been written about the professors and artists who were among the early residents of Daley’s Scenic Park, but little is ever said about the middle- and working-class families who settled on the Northside while their children were attending the university, or about the real estate speculators who saw an opportunity near the campus. At the turn of the century, Berkeley was a magnet for realtors—or for people who became realtors after practicing entirely different professions in their previous locales.


The front part of 2508 Ridge Road is the former Clark house, transplanted
from 1805 Euclid Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)


The fašade was part of the Clark house, built c. 1892 at 1805 Euclid Avenue. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Oscar G. May, born in New York in 1839, was a Congregational minister in Illinois and Wisconsin prior to arriving in California. In Berkeley, May initially pooled his resources with realtor Warren Cheney, but by 1896 he was running O.G. May & Co. at 2123 Center Street, with his son-in-law, Walter J. Mortimer, as junior partner. After May’s retirement in 1904, Mortimer took over the office, where two of May’s sons, Frank and William, also worked.

Frank Morris May (1868–1936) spent the 1890s and early 1900s alternating between teaching in Tulare and Contra Costa counties and carpentry in Berkeley. According to his daughter, Evelyn May Tippett, Frank worked with Fred Estey for a while. In 1896, Frank would build a Dutch Colonial farm house for Olivia G. Wright, a widowed mother of six, at the top of Virginia Street. The house still stands.

While his brother William, also a carpenter (as was a third brother, Robert), was content to work as a salesman for their brother-in-law, Frank was described by Evelyn as “a self-starter.” In 1905, he opened his own realty office at 2149 Center Street. In addition to selling real estate—a 1905 ad in the San Francisco Call listed an 8-room house on a corner lot east of Fulton Street; a 9-room villa near Dwight Way Station; an alfalfa ranch in Merced County; and ten acres in San Ramon Valley—Frank advertised “Plans Drawn, Houses Built.” Most of the houses he built were lost in the 1923 Berkeley Fire.


The 1800 block of Euclid Ave. in 1911. Buildings are tagged with the names of their successive owners. (Sanborn fire insurance map)

Both the Mays and the Clarks had decamped from Euclid Avenue by 1900 but continued to own their respective houses for a number of years. These houses were the only ones on the block until 1902, when William and Mary Henry built the Northgate Hotel.

The Henrys are best known today as the parents of Mills College president Aurelia Henry Reinhardt. William Warner Henry (1839–1928), a native of Bennington, VT who came to California in 1858, was for many years a wholesale grocer in San Francisco. A business downturn prompted the family’s 1890 move to San Jacinto, where the Henrys ran a general store and planted a fruit orchard. After half-a-dozen years in the stagnant economy of southern California, the Henrys returned to the Bay Area. The ups and downs of William Henry’s business might have taken their toll on the family’s well-being had not his indomitable wife (a hardy pioneer who had crossed the plains from Iowa at the age of 13, riding alongside the covered wagon on a small pony) kept the family going and paid for the children’s music and speech lessons by taking in boarders.


The Henry boarding house, 2401 Le Conte Avenue (courtesy of Paul Roberts)

The Henrys first appeared in Berkeley in 1896, when Aurelia was a student at Cal, and the following year built a house at 2401 Le Conte Avenue, across the street from Frank Wilson’s home. A stately, turreted affair clad in brown shingles, the Henry house was constructed by Fred Estey. It was large enough to accommodate the couple, the youngest four of their six children, five boarders, and a cook.

In June 1902, a mere five years after building their hilltop house, the Henrys sold it to Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Mrs. Hearst had purchased from Frank Wilson a sizable chunk of land at the top of the hill (now occupied by the Pacific School of Religion), and Wilson was about to begin construction of a temporary residence for her at 1816 Scenic Avenue, next to U.C. president Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s house. The Hearst house, soon to be turned into a university reception hall, was designed by Ernest Coxhead, who would add a companion residence for its owner at 2368 Le Conte Avenue. The house that Mrs. Hearst bought from the Henrys was intended for her servants.

The Henrys moved one block downhill, to 1809 Euclid Ave., and became hoteliers in earnest. He was 63, she ten years younger, but they would run the Northgate Hotel for 24 years, until Mary’s death in 1926. The Northgate was listed in the 1904 directory as a private hotel, and later advertised as “A Select Family Hotel with Homelike Surroundings, 35 Minutes from San Francisco.”


Northgate Hotel c. 1905 (Louis L. Stein collection, Berkeley Historical Society)

The Northgate Hotel’s clientele consisted of middle-class and professional families, some of whom stayed for decades. Victor J. Robertson, treasurer of the Commercial Publishing Co. and editor of the San Francisco Commercial News, boarded with the Henrys on Le Conte Ave., moved with them to the Northgate, and was still there in 1930, after both William and Mary had passed away. Robertson was a prominent civic activist and longtime president of the Conference Committee of the Improvement Clubs of Berkeley, as well as heading the North Berkeley Improvement Club. In 1907 he initiated a campaign to check graft in Alameda County government and another for a new city charter. The following year, he called on the city to stop the Spring Construction Company from blasting in its North Berkeley quarry (current site of Glendale La Loma Park). He was an ardent supporter of damming Hetch Hetchy Valley, cleaning up the city, improving public transportation, and beautifying Shattuck Avenue. He was strongly opposed to annexation of Berkeley by Oakland and an advocate of joining a proposed Greater San Francisco.


Euclid Avenue in August 1920, seen from upper Ridge Road. Visible are the Northgate Hotel, William Henry’s insurance office, and the Bennington Apartments. (BAHA archives)

While Mary Henry managed the Northgate, her husband turned his attention to realty and insurance. Berkeley’s swelling population in the wake of the 1906 earthquake must have improved his business, for in 1909 he erected a small office next to the hotel, at 1807 Euclid. This office was located directly over the creek, which would exact its revenge in February 1940, flooding and destroying Reid’s drugstore on the northwest corner of Euclid and Hearst Avenues. While the store was being rebuilt, Herman Reid operated in temporary quarters across the street, in a storefront built on the very same spot where Henry’s insurance office used to stand.

Around 1910, the Henrys formed the W.W. Henry Investment Company and began buying properties along the avenue, including 1801 and 1805 Euclid. They moved into 1805 Euclid but soon found a more lucrative way to utilize it. Sometime after 1911, the creek behind the two houses was culverted, and in 1915 the houses were moved to the back and attached back-to-back to form a six-unit apartment building at 2508 Ridge Road. The Henrys called it the Bennington Apartments, after Mr. Henry’s home town.


Bennington Apartments, rear view (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The conversion, which placed the turreted, shingled house at the front, included a lower floor in stucco, with interesting architectural details such as arched doors and windows, sturdy round columns, and an ornamental baluster. The architect is not known, but similar columns can be seen on several houses designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. The building appears to have been altered several times. The Euclid Avenue frontage, which remained unbuilt until 1929, was planted in trees.  
Sturdy columns and ornamental baluster on the west fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The Bennington Apartments became the temporary home of Aurelia Henry Reinhardt in the summer of 1915, a year after the death of her husband, George Frederick Reinhardt, M.D. She had spent the intervening year at the Northgate Hotel, and in 1916 she was offered the presidency of Mills College and moved to Oakland.

In the early 1920s, the elderly William and Mary Henry relocated to their youngest daughter’s home at 559 Kenmore Avenue, Oakland. William W. Henry, Jr., who continued living at the Bennington Apartments, took over day-to-day management of the W.W. Henry Company. The properties listed under his management in the 1922 Berkeley directory were the Euclid Apartments, the Bennington, the Northgate Hotel, and the White Peacock restaurant and confectionery—all the businesses then located on the east side of the block.

The Henry name was last linked with the Northgate Hotel in the 1928 directory. From 1931 on, the Northgate was listed as an inn. On 23 December 1936, the Oakland Tribune announced its demise:

ANCIENT One of Berkeley’s famous early-day landmarks surrendered today before the march of time.

It is the old Northgate Hotel, built on the corner of Euclid and Hearst Avenues by W.W. Henry, father of Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, president of Mills College. It is being razed to make way for development of business property.

The hotel was operated for 35 years, during which time it was the home of many Berkeley notables, and of University of California faculty members. In 1926 the property was sold by Henry. It has been owned for the past three years by Charles V. Harris of Jerome, Ariz. He sold it to Henry Schwartz of Oakland, who is having it razed.

Harris also acquired the Bennington Apartments, and in August 1937 took out a permit to build four new apartments at 2506 Ridge Road, directly behind the Bennington.


The west fašade used to look on the garden fronting on Euclid Avenue. It now faces the rear of shops and restaurants. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Currently, 2508 Ridge Road is owned by Rue-Ell Enterprises, contains 15 apartments, and faces the rear of Euclid Avenue shops and restaurants. Although its splendor has faded, the building can lay claim to being the oldest known Brown Shingle on the Northside and—along with the Anna Head School’s Channing Hall and the much altered Maybeck House No. 1—one of the three oldest Brown Shingles in Berkeley.

The Bennington Apartments were designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 4 February 2016.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 5 October 2007.

 

  

Copyright © 2007–2016 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.