Grocer-politician Fred C. Koerber left
Berkeley a double legacy

Daniella Thompson

The Koerber Building, 2054 University Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Under construction in 1923 (photo: McCullagh, courtesy of Peggy Thomas)

9 January 2008

The grocery business used to be a very lucrative one in the early days of the 20th century. Some East Bay retail grocers amassed considerable wealth, not to mention social prestige. Stephen J. Sill was one of them (his store building, designed by James Plachek, still stands at 2145 University Avenue, now occupied by Berkeley Ace Hardware). Another was Frederick Charles Koerber (1876–1953), who owned several grocery stores in Oakland and Berkeley before branching into real estate development, mortgage banking, and municipal politics.

Fred was born in San Jose, California, one of nine siblings. His parents had immigrated from Germany as teenagers. The father, George Koerber was a wood dealer, an occupation taken up by Fred’s brother, Adolph. Another brother, John, became a grocer, and Fred most likely got his start with him.

Eventually Fred moved to Oakland, where in 1904 he married the widow Sarah Elizabeth Cash Cook (1870–1956). His store was located at 1932 Broadway, and he was active in the California State Retail Grocers’ and Merchants’ Association, serving on the reception committee in 1906, when the association held its annual convention in Oakland.

The Koerber Building at College and Ashby Avenues (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

A shrewd businessman, in 1907 Koerber constructed a building of stores and apartments at the junction of Ashby Avenue and College Avenue, where the Key Route’s No. 6 streetcar, established in 1905, made a stop. This Edwardian edifice, whose architect is unknown, is said to be the earliest commercial building in the Elmwood district. The Koerber grocery was relocated to this building, and the owners took up residence in one of the apartments on the second floor.

The upscale grocery trade was based on home deliveries, and Koerber delivered. On 21 March 1908, his delivery business suffered a temporary setback reported in the Oakland Tribune:

Oakland Tribune, 21 March 1908

Business flourished, and Koerber quickly added to his holdings on adjacent lots. In 1909 he obtained a permit to construct a one-story, two-room store on Ashby Avenue. By 1911, he owned three contiguous commercial buildings. On his World War I draft card in 1918, he reported two business addresses: 5498 College Avenue in the Rockridge district and 469 13th Street in downtown Oakland. In 1919, Koerber was fined $5 after another store of his, Key Grocery at Fifth and Washington Streets in Oakland, was charged with selling rain-damaged prunes. “Fermented prunes may be all right as the main ingredient of a home-made brand of booze,” opined the Tribune, “but they are prohibited from sale by Oakland grocery stores.”

Koerber’s properties on Ashby & College Aves. (Sanborn maps, 1911)

By the early 1920s, Koerber had moved on from the grocery business to pursue other activities. In March 1923, he filed his candidacy for a seat on the Berkeley city council in the May election that would launch the city manager form of government. He was endorsed by the merchants’ association of his district but wasn’t elected that year.

Oakland Tribune, 2 June 1925

In 1925 he ran again, on a slate of four candidates endorsed by the Berkeley Municipal League. All four (the others were Thomas Caldecott, Captain John Atthowe, and Walter Mork) won their seats, with Koerber coming in fourth, having garnered 6,700 votes.

A month following the election, but before he had taken his elected place on the city council, Koerber was appointed interim councilmember for a month, sitting in for Agnes Claypole Moody, Berkeley’s first woman mayor, who went to Europe. By mid-September, a mere four months past the election, Koerber tendered his resignation, claiming that “owing to the press of private business he was unable to devote the required time to the council.”

The private business concerned mainly real estate. In November 1922, it was announced in the Tribune that a four-store building Koerber was erecting next to the George Friend Company’s office [on the northwest corner of Solano and Colusa Avenues] was nearing completion. “Residents of the Berkeley Park district will soon have a shopping center of their own, and will not have to depend on downtown stores,” predicted the paper.

George Friend (1875–1963) was a former actor who for many years starred in stock companies at Oakland’s Ye Liberty Playhouse and Fulton Theatre. In 1906, he eloped with 15-year-old Gertrude Spring, daughter of the flamboyant capitalist John Hopkins Spring. The bride’s father was furious, but by 1911 he had forgiven the couple and put George to work selling properties in his newly subdivided Thousand Oaks tract. George started in the office of Newell-Murdoch Co. (Newell was another Spring son-in-law), became the manager within a year, and a year later had taken over the firm, as Newell and Murdoch pursued their own developments.

Reed W. Thomas of the Berkeley Building Co., which managed construction of the Koerber Building (detail from McCullagh photo; courtesy of Peggy Thomas)

By 1915, Friend had moved his office from downtown Berkeley to Solano Avenue. He took with him several salesmen from the old office, including Thomas R. Wheldon and Reed W. Thomas, and added new ones, among them an Englishman called Percy Nutt. The association of this trio with Fred Koerber may have begun in 1922, when he built the four stores next to Friend’s office.

On 10 February 1923, the Berkeley Courier reported, “The property situated on University just behind the Courier Building has just been sold. There will be a building upon it before the summer is here.” On 9 April of that year, the Tribune gave further details: “A one-story business block and basement will be erected on the south side of University avenue, 252 feet west of Shattuck avenue, by Fred C. Koerber and Henry Bischoff, according to an announcement made today. The building will have a frontage of 51 feet on University avenue with a depth of 90 feet and will contain three stores and basements.”

Koerber Bldg. construction, 1923 (courtesy of Peggy Thomas)

Reed W. Thomas on the roof (photo: McCullagh, courtesy of Peggy Thomas)

What Koerber ended up building was a six-story block—the tallest in Berkeley. When he changed his mind and why he changed it has not been explained, but on 15 September 1923, the Berkeley Gazette announced on its first page:

Actual work on Berkeley’s biggest building, the new Koerber Block, on the south side of University avenue, just east of the U.C. Theater, has been started. Contracts call for the completion of the structure by February 1, according to Fred C. Koerber who, with Dr. L. L. Koerber, his sister, and H. C. Bischoff, well-known local builder, will be the owners.

When completed, the building will represent an investment of upwards of $200,000. It will be six stories of steel, brick and cement and considerably larger than the Berkeley Bank Building, at present the city’s tallest building. The building will be of Class A, strictly fireproof construction, and will have a frontage of 51 feet and a depth of 80 feet.

Henry C. Bischoff was not a well-known local builder (that was John A. Bischoff, father of the artist Elmer Bischoff) but a grocer with a store at 2848 Grant Street. In the 1930s, he would move his store to 2635 Ashby Avenue, in Koerber’s Elmwood building.

More interesting than Bischoff was the third partner, Lillie Louise Koerber, M.D. (1879–1959). A strong and independent woman, Lillie graduated from San Francisco’s Cooper Medical College in 1901 and took up residence in the Mission district, where she spent her entire working life as a physician and surgeon. She was a member of the California Organization of Women Physicians for Federal Recognition and was listed in Who’s Who Among the Women of California in 1922.

Lillie Koerber’s domestic life was highly unconventional for her time. She was always head of the household, remained unmarried into her seventies, brought up a girl she adopted on her own, and for over four decades maintained what appears to have been a personal and professional partnership with a Greek-born physician by the name of John N. Tavlopoulos.

It might have been Lillie’s investment that made the Koerber Building mushroom from the planned one story to the actual six, with 60 offices above the ground floor.

Terra cotta ornamentation abounds on the fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Albert Pissis designed the California Casket Co. Bldg at 965 Mission St., San Francisco. (The “R.I.W.” Book: The Damp-proofing and Protection of Modern Building Construction of Every Type)

Who designed the building? The fašade features elegant arched windows on the top floor (KPFA had its first home there from 1949 to 1951) and is clad with handsome terra cotta tile in Beaux-Arts relief patterns, yet no architect’s name appears on the blueprints or in any newspaper account. The construction was managed by Berkeley Building Co., which was initially based in George Friend’s office on Solano and Colusa Avenues. It’s likely that Berkeley Building Co. employed an in-house draftsman—possibly a former architectural student.

Still, we have a pretty good idea where the design originated, and we need only look as far as San Francisco. There, in 1905, Albert Pissis—architect of the President’s Mansion on the U.C. campus—designed a very similar building (left) for the California Casket Company. Lillie Koerber, who lived at 1185 Valencia Street, must have passed it regularly. Perhaps she was the one who suggested that its design be followed. Pissis, who died in 1914, was in no position to protest.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008

Two days after the Gazette announced the beginning of construction, the great Berkeley Fire decimated close to 600 homes on the Northside. This might explain why the Koerber Building was completed three months later than planned. Immediately after the fire, Berkeley Building Co. began placing ads in the Gazette. These depicted a cottage and invited, “Let us build your home. We finance and plan all classes of construction on percentage or contract.”

Oakland Tribune, April & May 1924

As the Koerber building neared completion in April 1924, the official leasing agents began taking daily ads in the Tribune, targeting “doctors, dentists, and all professional men” and promising “neat, attractive, well lighted, fully equipped offices in a building located where all the transportation meets.” The agents were none other than Thomas, Wheldon & Nutt, whose relationship with Koerber enabled them to open their own realty office at 2029 Shattuck Avenue, where they also ran the Berkeley Building Company.

In the meantime, Fred Koerber had become a stockholder in the East Bay Bond and Mortgage Corporation, where he was able to observe that “the modern, carefully managed mortgage company offers an unusually profitable opportunity for those unable to operate in a large way on their own account.”

Oakland Tribune, 11 May 1924

In February 1933, Koerber sold 2054 University Avenue to George E. Beedle, state manager of the State Farm Mutual Insurance Company. “A 3,600-acre ranch near Duncan [sic] Mills on the Russian River figured in the deal,” reported the Berkeley Daily Gazette on 9 February. “It is understood that Fred C. Koerber plans to cut the ranch up into small farms and summer home property. The State Farm Insurance Company will move to the Koerber Building within the next few months, it is reported, and will occupy the ground and second floors.”

The ranch Koerber acquired was most likely situated in the Willow Creek watershed, which includes the 1,481-foot high Koerber Peak. What Koerber did with the ranch has not been revealed. For once, his business acumen may have deserted him. Fortunately for the rest of us, the Willow Creek watershed is now part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, and Duncans Mills remains one of the most bucolic and least developed hamlets on the Russian River.

In the 1920s, Koerber’s development company and mortgage loans office was located on the first floor, above the American Grill. Next to him were the law offices of L.G. Faulkner and the insurance service managed by Fred S. Stripp. On the second floor were dental and chiropractic offices. In 1933–34, ten dentists had their offices in the Koerber Bldg. (photo courtesy of Peggy Thomas)

Following the sale, State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. occupied the Koerber Building until 1947. The company erected a three-story high electric sign on the roof that replaced the previous American Grill sign.

The Koerber Koerber Bldg. in its State Farm period (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)
  During the State Farm period, the building was sold to Russell J. Morgan, who renamed it the Morgan Building. The Koerber name remained in the terra cotta fašade above the ground floor—where it still is—but the eastern brick wall was painted with the new name, whose faint outlines may be seen until today.

The building changed hands again in 1946, this time being acquired by retired Oakland building contractor Herman A. Shoening and his wife Martha. They were planning to convert it back to professional offices. The building’s name presumably reverted to Koerber at that time.

By the 1970s, the Koerber Building had lost much of its luster. The ground floor was occupied by Eden Natural Foods (Eden’s vertical sign is still attached to the building, although Plearn Thai Cuisine has been operating in this space for over twenty years). In March 1974, the Center for Independent Living, founded two years earlier, outgrew the two-bedroom Haste Street apartment that had been its first office and moved into the Koerber, taking offices on the second and fourth floors.

As it turned out, the new premises were far from ideal. In her oral history at the Bancroft Library, Mary Lester, the CIL receptionist at that time, recalled:

There was this huge marble staircase that was very...the steps were all bowed from years and years of being worn down. It was a funky place. I remember the plaster coming out of the walls right about foot-pedal-level from all of the corners [laughter].

In his oral history, accessibility expert Eric Dibner reminisced:

The offices [...] were really terrible. It was this really kinky hallway, very tight turns and tight doorways, an ancient elevator, and they had outgrown the size. There were probably twenty-five regular people working there at that time providing services.

The elevator was chronically malfunctional, which led to an eviction notice from the fire department after little over a year on the premises. Mary Lester again:

One of my primary responsibilities was unjamming the elevator. The elevator was very funky, and we had this giant screwdriver, and you had to wedge it between the doors to pry them open [laughter]. People were getting stuck in the elevator all the time. It would fit two power wheelchairs very snugly if they were standard-size power wheelchairs. There were a number of people that had larger size, and then that was just a one-person operation. The elevator was always getting stuck. In fact, not too long after I started working there we received an eviction notice from the fire department because, in the course of the months that I was there, we had to call them five or six times; we couldn’t get the elevator going again, and they had to bring people down those marble stairs from the second floor and sometimes from the fourth floor. The fire department had just had it.

The last straw came in the early summer of 1975, when the elevator motor burned out and the fire department was called in to carry many people down the stairs. On the Fourth of July weekend of that year, CIL moved to its current headquarters at 2539 Telegraph Avenue.

With KPFA and CIL long gone, the Koerber Building can still boast having a third venerable Berkeley institution among its present occupants: Malcolm Margolin’s publishing company, Heyday Books.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 11 January 2008.

The Koerber Building was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 3 September 2009.



Copyright © 2008–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.