John Hopkins Spring: splendor, strife & shenanigans

Daniella Thompson

2 May 2007

John Hopkins Spring (Louis Stein collection)

John Hopkins Spring, the developer of Thousand Oaks, always knew how to attract attention. On 23 December 1915, World War I was raging in Europe, and the newspapers were reporting that British losses at the Battle of Gallipoli had climbed to 112,921. But the war did not make top headline in the Oakland Tribune that day. That place was reserved for Spring, who had just announced that after 27 years of marriage, he was leaving his 56-year old wife, Celina Duperu Warfield Spring, for a woman 25 years younger. He had just abandoned his famed Arlington Avenue mansion for the Alcatraz Apartments, a residential-commercial building he owned at 3315 Adeline Street, where he also installed his new love, the nurse Genevieve McGraw Ecker (1884–1950).

Spring cited the following reasons for leaving his wife:

  • Difference in ages, Mrs. Spring being several years her husband’s senior.
  • The “love triangle”, the presence of another woman in the case.
  • Difference in social inclinations, Spring finding little of interest in social amenities.
  • The wanderlust, which is a moving force with Mrs. Spring, who loves traveling, but which never has possessed the soul of her husband.
  • Increasing prosperity of past years which developed the family out of its simple tastes and simple ways.

The Mission-style Alcatraz Apartments Bldg., completed in April 1907, was designed by William Knowles. When it opened, it was dubbed “Realty Row,” since three real eastate offices and a Key Route office occupied the ground floor, along with a candy store and a tailor. Spring installed his second-wife-to-be in this building when he walked out of his first marriage. (Berkeley Reporter, 13 April 1907)

Born in San Francisco and the son of a well-to-do real-estate agent, Spring (1862–1933) began his career as a street contractor. Shortly before the incorporation of the Key Route transbay ferry system, he allied himself with Frank C. Havens, president of the Peoples’ Water Company, and with Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, acting as land agent in large purchases of suburban property at the time they were launching the Realty Syndicate.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire triggered a rapid increase in the price of Berkeley real estate. Spring, who had acquired vast tracts, became very wealthy very quickly, with a reputed net worth of $3 million. His holdings comprised most of the land in Alameda County north of the Berkeley line, extending from the hills to the bay. He founded the Spring Construction Company, owned a quarry, and was a director of the Western National Bank of San Francisco and of the Berkeley National Bank.

Throughout his life, Spring evinced keen interest in architecture and landscaping. His Oakland home, a stately Italianate Victorian at 2711 Fruitvale Avenue, was situated on 13 acres that boasted groves of ancient oak trees, cultivated arbors, meandering walks, lawns and flower beds, a Japanese tea garden comparable to the one in Golden Gate Park, a large swimming pool, four fountains, several tennis courts, a shooting gallery, windmills, and a rivulet spanned by rustic bridges.

The Oakland Tribune devoted seven columns on 27 November 1910 to arguments in favor of converting Spring estate in Fruitvale into a city park. The photos show (clockwise) the concrete swimming pool, the main driveway, a glimpse of the lawns, the Italianate house at the end of the grounds, and a young eucalyptus forest.

In 1910, after Spring had subdivided Thousand Oaks and was committed to building his home there, the residents of Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods petitioned the Oakland city council to include $90,000 in a proposed bond issue in order to purchase the Spring property and turn it into a public park. Like many splendid ideas, this one went nowhere. The property ended up being subdivided into small lots, long since built up. No vestige remains of what was once described as an “earthly Eden.”

If Spring was troubled by the fate of his old home, he didn’t make it known. Ever active, he was now planning his new Eden on 16 acres in Thousand Oaks. The terraced gardens were laid out by Mark Daniels even before construction began on the enormous reinforced-concrete villa designed by John Hudson Thomas.

The Spring estate in the Cora L. Williams days. Wallen Maybeck was one of the students here. (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1929)

And Spring didn’t stop with his own estate. As each of his daughters was married, he built the new couple a house in the vicinity. Of daughters the Springs had no shortage. Celina brought two from her first marriage and gave birth to four more by Spring. The eldest, Catherine Warfield, married laundry company executive Lester K. Wells but soon divorced him to forge a union with Charles Percy Murdock, who worked for the Realty Syndicate. The two settled at 1874 Yosemite Road, next to the Mark Daniels home, in a handsome half-timbered house designed by John Hudson Thomas.

This house at 1874 Yosemite Road, designed by John Hudson Thomas, was John Spring’s wedding present to his eldest step-daughter Catherine and her second husband, Percy Murdock. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The Newell home, 1890 Yosemite Road at Indian Trail, was built in 1910. At that time, a pair of ceramic urns marked the entrance to the trail. (Courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)

At 1890 Yosemite Road, between the Murdocks and Indian Trail, lived Mrs. Spring’s second daughter, Frances Warfield, with her husband, Robert C. Newell. Their residence, an English-style manor house with parapet gables, was designed by William Knowles (who had designed the Alcatraz Apartments for Spring in 1906). Newell sold Thousand Oaks real estate for his father-in-law; first with partner William H. Hendricks, then with William C. Murdoch (no relation to Catherine’s husband). Newell-Murdoch Co. went on to develop the Haddon Hill home park on the east shore of Lake Merritt and Forest Hill in San Francisco, both laid out by Mark Daniels, the landscape engineer for Thousand Oaks.

The home of Gertrude Spring and George Friend, 597 Santa Clara Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

A third daughter, Gertrude Spring, was an early groupie. At the age of 15 she eloped with George Friend, a comic actor in the stock company of the Ye Liberty Playhouse who was known as the “Willie Collier of Oakland.” The match met with the severe disapprobation of Gertrude’s father, but eventually Spring forgave the couple, gave them a house at 597 Santa Clara Avenue, and made George a partner. George picked up where Newell had left off as agent for Spring’s properties.

Yosemite Road in the latter half of the 1910s. In the foreground (r to l) are the Sill home and the Newsom cottage with Tunnel Rock to its rear. In the distance (r to l) are the Murdock and Newell residences. (Courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)

In March 1914, a newspaper ad placed by the Goerge Friend Company began with an interview in which John Spring was asked, “How much property is controlled by your companies?” Spring replied:

It will perhaps give you a better idea of the magnitude of this enterprise when I tell you that we have macadamized 50 miles of streets in properties. In other words, the streets if stretched out in a straight line would reach from Berkeley to San Jose. The sidewalks, which are on both sides of the streets, would reach to Monterey.

Gertrude wasn’t the only Spring child to elope. She was followed by the Springs’ only son, Frank, who ran away, if only briefly, with Avis Sterling, niece of Frank C. Havens and sister of the poet George Sterling. The couple motored to Martinez on 14 April 1914 and was married there by Judge Hayden. Later they returned to Oakland and telephoned the news to the Spring residence. John Spring built them a house in Thousand Oaks, and Frank joined George Friend’s firm. The address of Frank’s house remains a mystery. In the 1916 directory, Frank was listed at Nottingham Ave. east of Arlington Avenue. In his 1917 draft registration card, Frank indicated his address as 749 The Alameda. Both addresses have long since ceased to exist.

The Honeymoon Cottage of Anne Spring and Noble Newsom (The Architect & Engineer, October 1921)

The fifth sibling to marry and settle in Thousand Oaks was Anne Spring. Her bridegroom did not sell real estate; he made it. Noble Newsom was the scion of an architectural dynasty and the son of Samuel Newsom who, with his brother Joseph Cather Newsom, designed Eureka’s famed Carson Mansion. Anne and Noble were given a lot at 1924 Yosemite Road (then Lovers’ Lane), across the street from the Sills’ Villa della Rocca. Noble and his brother Sidney designed the “Honeymoon Cottage,” as the house is known to this day.

The Newsoms married on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, just a month before John Spring left his wife for Genevieve McGraw Ecker. At the time, Celina Spring was traveling abroad. In her absence, Spring deeded the mansion and close to 1,200 lots in north Berkeley and El Cerrito to his Regents Park Land Company, using the power of attorney he held for her. She returned from Honolulu on 27 December 1915, reportedly in emotional collapse, which didn’t prevent her from appearing in court the very next day with a lawsuit to annul her estranged husband’s transaction.

In Honolulu, Celina left her daughter Dorothy, who was indicted on 24 December for manslaughter after striking a woman while driving a car and failing to come to her aid. Two and a half years later, John Spring would settle a suit brought against him by the victim’s husband.

Another settlement was made in 1917, when Mrs. Spring won an interlocutory decree of divorce, at which time a property settlement was agreed upon out of court. Nevertheless, on 3 August Celina was back in court to demand a $200 monthly maintenance for the couple’s youngest daughter, Marjorie.

Spring married Genevieve Ecker on 22 August 1917, reportedly within two hours of obtaining the final decree of divorce. At the time, the Oakland Tribune reported that the Spring divorce case “caused a move to reconstruct the community property laws of the state.” At the end of 1917, the Spring Mansion was sold to educator Cora L. Williams, who turned it into a progressive school known as the Institute for Creative Education. On 15 June 1918, Celina married John Warfield, younger brother of her first husband and publisher of the Baltimore Daily Record. She settled in Baltimore and continued to indulge her taste for travel.

World War I slowed down the pace of real estate sales, and in 1919 the Berkeley-Thousand Oaks Company, having acquired Spring’s remaining lots at a low price, held an auction sale to dispose of them.

Celina and Dorothy Spring (Oakland Tribune, 24 December 1915)

Spring and Genevieve had by then moved to a mansion at 2340 Gough Street, San Francisco, where their son Jack was born in 1918. Spring would soon build a new mansion in Los Gatos. In 1922, Genevieve opened a fashion shop at 2340 Gough in partnership with Clara Sckolnik, a Russian designer. Owing to Genevieve’s shenanigans, the business lasted less than a year. Madame Sckolnik sued Genevieve for failing to divide the profits with her and opened a shop of her own at another location.

The Great Depression was not kind to Spring. Relatives reported in 1932 that he was now “broken in both health and fortune” and “trying to recoup financially through road building down the peninsula.” In June of that year, Spring obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce from Genevieve, claiming that for many years “she had treated him as a daughter would a father,” refusing to “give him wifely affection.” At the time, Spring was nearing 70, while his wife was 47. It’s doubtful whether he reflected on the irony of finding himself in his former wife’s position at the time he left her.

Genevieve Spring in her Los Gatos home. The building on the right is the Spring Mansion in Berkeley. (Oakland Tribune, 26 July 1935)

The Springs were later reconciled, and he died in 1933, leaving Genevieve his entire estate. Perhaps he was not quite as financially broken as suggested, for his death ignited a legal battle waged by the two former wives over the estate. The matter was adjudicated, but a new drama ensued in 1937. Spring’s sister, Charlotte Montgomery of San Francisco, petitioned the courts to remove Jack from his mother’s custody, charging that Mrs. Spring was unfit to care for him, having “long received treatment as a narcotic addict.” This led Genevieve to slash her wrists with a knife. She died in San Francisco in 1950.

Another version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 4 May 2007.


Copyright © 2007–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.