C. M. Cook, the mysterious architect

Daniella Thompson

1 February 2018

Two C. M. Cook buildings at the intersection of Telegraph Ave. & Bancroft Way

In 1904, upper Telegraph Avenue underwent a character-changing transformation. The stretch between Bancroft and Channing ways, then an elegant residential enclave dotted with imposing mansions, was invaded by commerce. The person responsible was the developer John Albert Marshall, who dared to defy the resident millionaires by erecting the neighborhood’s first mixed-use building.

“Ground was broken to-day for a three-story business block at Telegraph avenue and Bancroft way, to be erected by J. A. Marshall at a cost of $40,000. Five stores will face Telegraph avenue and two on Bancroft way,” announced the San Francisco Call on October 17. Construction of the Marshall Block was the shot across the bow that set the millionaires fleeing.

The Marshall Block, southwest corner of Telegraph Ave. & Bancroft Way (Berkeley Historical Society)

Marshall’s architect

The architect of the Marshall Block was one C. M. Cook, who had his initial foray into Berkeley only two years earlier. Cook’s first project here, in 1902, was a pair of speculative cottages, built for a San Francisco realtor at 1634 Harmon Street. By 1903, Cook was designing rows of speculative houses for J. A. Marshall—first a group of three on Bancroft Way and Grove Street, then six adjacent houses on Telegraph Avenue and Carleton Street. In October 1903, Cook embarked on a speculative venture of his own: a house boasting a two-story-high Greek Revival portico at 2421 Oregon Street, on a lot acquired from Marshall.

Cook’s first independent spec house in Berkeley, 2421 Oregon Street, completed in early 1904 (Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Many projects followed, a goodly number of them designed for Marshall. The best-known survivor is probably the Marshall House that still stands at 2740 Telegraph Avenue and is now called the Rose Garden Inn. It was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1989.

J. A. Marshall House, 2740 Telegraph Ave. (The Architect & Engineer, October 1905)

Within less than a decade, Cook’s buildings proliferated through Berkeley. Many of those structures survive, and a few, like the Marshall House, have been designated City of Berkeley Landmarks.

A row of speculative houses designed by Cook for J. A. Marshall on Telegraph Ave. near Derby Street (BAHA archives)

It all came to a stop in 1910, and the architect remains a cypher—two initials and a short surname. The C. M. Cook mystery is all the deeper, since his 1940 U.S. Census record reveals that the architect’s education did not go beyond the fourth year of high school. Who, then, was Cook, how did he become a sought-after architect, and what led to his sudden disappearance following a brief, meteoric career?

It all began in Sacramento

Christopher Midler Cook was born on 9 December 1874 in Sacramento. His father, Allen Aaron Cook, better known as A. A. Cook (1832–1899), was a prominent architect who designed many important public and commercial buildings around the state. At least six of his buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Like his son, A. A. Cook never attended a university. He began as a carpenter’s apprentice in Albany, NY. After three years of apprenticeship, he relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he engaged in contracting and building. In 1861, he moved to Missouri, where the Civil War draft registrar listed him as a carpenter in Johnson Township. A. A. Cook moved several more times and eventually gave up contracting, devoting his whole time to architectural design.1 In 1870, he married, came to Sacramento, and quickly assumed a leading position among local architects.

Court House, Redding, CA (1889), designed by A. A. Cook (CourthouseHistory)

Christopher was the second of A. A. Cook’s six children, four of whom were girls. Nothing is known about his education. In his teens, he was an amateur bicyclist, racing with the Capital City Wheelmen. Later he sat on the State Committee of the YMCA.

We can only assume that Christopher learned building design at his father’s knee. By October 1898, when he was 23 and married Louise Hill La Motte of Sacramento, Christopher was already living in San Francisco. His father died a few months after the wedding, and the young couple settled in West Oakland. In June 1900, the U.S. Census found them lodging at 914 Tenth Street, in the home of a school teacher and his actress daughter, who also shared their rented premises with an “artist in china” and a piano teacher.

Success in the East Bay

C. M. Cook opened an independent architectural office in downtown Oakland. His practice included projects in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. The vast majority were single-family residences, designed in the prevailing styles of the day: Colonial Revival “Classic box,” High-Peaked Colonial Revival, Arts & Crafts, and Mission Revival.

A Palladian window in the high-peaked gable of a Colonial Revival spec house, one of several identical ones built for Marshall (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

As his reputation grew, Cook was engaged to design larger buildings. In 1905, he produced the two-story, Colonial Revival Clephane Building at Adeline and Emerson streets. The Clephane was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 2006.

A rendering of the Alta Vista Apartments (San Francisco Call, 8 July 1907)

Working for Marshall again, in 1906 Cook designed a five-story, 200-room hotel with a roof garden on the northeastern corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way. The finished building turned out to be the five-story Alta Vista Apartments, with 23 residential units above six storefronts.

The Alta Vista on a postcard sent by a third-floor resident in December 1915

Cook repeatedly utilized the Mission Revival style in his apartment building designs. A prime example was the two-story, four-flat building for Albert S. Conner, constructed in 1908 on the northwest corner of Dwight Way and Bowditch Street. The Conner Flats were extravagantly adorned with large, bell-shaped parapets, some of them fenestrated, and an abundance of detail on the street fašades.

A rendering of the Conner Flats (Oakland Tribune, 1 March 1908)

Conner Flats, 2545 Dwight Way, c. 1939 (Donogh files, BAHA archives)

A year later, Cook designed another apartment building with a heavily ornate fašade, the Castle Crag at 2525 Durant Avenue. Of all the architect’s fabled Southside apartment buildings, this is the lone survivor, albeit with a much simpler, Moderne fašade.

A rendering of the Castle Crag Apartments (San Francisco Call, 9 June 1909)

The Castle Crag Apartments, 2525 Durant Avenue (California Blue Book, 1912)

Trouble brews for the architect

The first sign of trouble surfaced in June 1909, when a client’s lawsuit charged the architect with fraud, negligence, and lack of skill. Not only did the house cost more than stipulated in the contract, but it did not come up to specifications when finished. Moreover, accused the client, “Cook permitted contractors working under him to put in inferior materials” and was also “guilty of getting a ‘rebate or bribe’ from the California Standard mill company for placing a contract for the mill work on the house with that company.” The suit may have been settled out of court, for nothing more was reported on it in the press.

The real bombshell landed in May 1910, when Cook was arrested on a charge of complicity in the filing of a fraudulent deed. It was said by police that Cook has been in some financial difficulty and desired to raise money to protect his interests. Court proceedings revealed that the architect forged a signature on the deed. In September 1910, he was sentenced to five years in San Quentin State Prison.

While he was incarcerated, Cook’s last Berkeley houses were constructed on Russell Street just off Claremont Blvd. These were speculative houses for Marshall-Diggs, a partnership of J. A. Marshall and contractor Irvin P. Diggs. During 1913, the firm erected ten new Claremont district houses, three of them designed by Cook. It is likely that Cook had designed the houses before his arrest, but they were not built until several years had elapsed.

C. M. Cook’s San Quentin mugshot

The quiet aftermath

C. M. Cook was paroled in 1912 and discharged from prison in May 1914. Following his discharge, Cook and his wife settled in the Sunset District of San Francisco, living in the same modest house from 1914 until Cook’s death in 1942. Cook continued to list his occupation as architect, although nothing is known of his work during the last three decades of his life.

Summer 2021 update

It turns out that Cook’s latter life wasn’t so quiet after all. An illustrated article by Krista Van Lan, published in the Summer 2021 issue of Continuity, describes the architect’s prolific activities in San Jose between 1924 and 1926. The article begins on page 15.

1. According to A. A. Cook’s biography in An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California (1890), he took lessons in architectural drawing during his apprenticeship and prepared all of his own plans as a contractor and builder.


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