Parsons house: a pioneering design for accessible living

Daniella Thompson

The Parsons house, built in 1911 for an elderely invalid, is approached via a brick
ramp. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

28 March & 19 April 2008

Since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, standards for accessible design have guided new construction and building retrofits. A plethora of products, from doors to bathroom fixtures, are especially designed with accessibility in mind.

Imagine the plight of the mobility-challenged a hundred years ago, when only the well-to-do could afford to live in relative comfort. Making life comfortable for the disabled invariably entailed custom building at a time when practically no precedents existed for barrier-free architecture.

This was the challenge facing architectural engineer Albert J. Mazurette in 1911, when he was commissioned to design an accessible house in Berkeley for William Parsons, a retired lumber dealer.

The Parsons house circa 1939 (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Albert Joseph Mazurette (1887–1978) was born to French-Canadian parents in Detroit. He came to California in 1900 with his widowed father, who held positions in various sawmills. In 1904, after attending public schools in Stockton and Oakland, Albert entered a special course in drawing at the Polytechnic High School in Oakland. This course marked the end of his formal education. As his biography in Past and Present of Alameda County, California (1914) noted, “his later valuable training was acquired in the ‘university of hard knocks.’”

In 1905, Mazurette obtained a job in a Santa Clara planing mill, where he “learned every branch of the business.” He must have been a quick study, for the same year he moved on to the Enterprise Planing Mill in Stockton, where he worked as a designer under Ralph P. Morrell—one of the leading architects in San Joaquin County—to whom he was “indebted for the major part of his present knowledge of the profession.”

Mazurette returned to Oakland in early 1906, spending a year at the Pacific Coast Lumber & Mill Company. The following year, as the East Bay experienced a building boom in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, he entered the employ of Karl H. Nickel, Oakland’s “bungalow king.” After three years with Nickel, Mazurette established his own architectural practice in the Bacon Building, downtown Oakland.

In 1914, Mazurette would found the Melbourne Construction Company, but when he received the commission to design the Parsons house, the architect relied on his former employer, Karl H. Nickel, for contracting services.

A Karl H. Nickel bungalow (The Architect and Engineer, 1906)

Nickel was best known for his brown-shingle bungalows, photographs of which appeared in his full-page ads in the Architect and Engineer of California. Mazurette no doubt designed scores of such bungalows for Nickel, and it was this experience that most likely led to his selection as Parsons’ architect.

Not a great deal is known about William Parsons. He was born in Massachusetts in 1836. His father, a resident of Newton, was a wealthy Surinam and East-India merchant and later a leader in the manufacturing development of Massachusetts. The younger Parsons attended Harvard, graduating in 1856. Having begun his career as a merchant with his father, he moved to Charleston, West Virginia, where he was recorded as a bookkeeper in the 1870 U.S. census.

In 1880, Parson was a lumber dealer residing with his wife, Georgia, and a servant at 2333 Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Twelve years later, the Washignton State 1892 census found William (now retired) and Georgia Parsons in Seattle. In 1899, the Report of the Secretary of Harvard College listed Parsons at the Anglo-California Bank in San Francisco. This appears to have been his poste restante address rather than his place of employment.

The 1900 U.S. census recorded William and Georgia Parsons as guests at the house of Douglas and Emily Saunders in San Rafael, Marin County. Both Saunders’ and Parsons’ occupations were given as “capitalist.” Harvard alumni directories from 1906, ’08, and ’10 list Parsons in San Francisco—always at the Anglo-California Bank. The 1910 census records him as a 74-year-old widower residing with two live-in nurses at 2401 Jackson Street in Pacific Heights, San Francisco. The final Harvard alumni directory listing Parsons, published in 1914, followed him to 2924 Benvenue Avenue in Berkeley.

Even the sparse information above paints the picture of an elderly invalid. This portrait is reinforced by the layout of the Benvenue Avenue brown-shingle house designed for him by Albert Mazurette.

Angled arches are a recurring motif in the entrance porch. The lamp aperture recalls a mission bell tower. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Although the house has both attic and basement, all the living spaces were originally concentrated on the ground floor. A brick ramp leads from the street to the house, indicating that William Parsons was wheelchair-bound. Further evidence of his condition is offered by the ample and straight porch leading to the front door, the generous width of this door and of the corridor bisecting the house, and the unusual spatial layout of the rooms.

At the front, easily accessible from the front door, is an elegantly spacious, lofty-ceilinged living room with windows on three sides. This would have been Mr. Parsons’ day room, where he could sit by the large fireplace or at one of the full-length windows. His books were near at hand, housed in low, glazed built-in cases whose shelves could be reached from a sitting position.

From the living room, a long and wide corridor (l) leads to the dining room in the rear. The door on the right opens directly into the master bedroom. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

On sunny days, Parsons could be wheeled out to the front deck through a pair of French doors. At night, he retired to his bedroom by way of a door that opened directly from the living room.

The Parsons house is long—for many years legend had it that Parsons was a sea captain who built his house “in the image of the longboats he had sailed around the world.” In reality, the length of the house served to separate the invalid owner’s quarters from the centers of activity and noise. Both kitchen and dining room are located at the very rear, 42 feet away from the living room. At mealtimes, Parsons could be wheeled down the corridor and through sliding, leaded-glass pocket doors into his wood-paneled, Arts and Crafts dining room. Meal over, he would be wheeled away from the clutter of dishes, back to the calm of the living room.

The long dining room is a picture-perfect Arts & Crafts space. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

As in San Francisco, a resident nurse lived on the premises. Her name was Effie Murchison, born circa 1881 to Canadian immigrants in Nicolaus, Sutter County. Her father, a farmer from Prince Edward Island, died prematurely in 1887, leaving a young widow and seven children, six of them girls. As soon as they were old enough, the Murchison girls—four of whom would never marry—went off to San Francisco to learn a trade or profession. In 1900, Effie was a boarder nurse-student at a hospital on Jones Street run by Edward M. Bixby, M.D. Ten years later, she was one of William Parsons’ two live-in nurses in Pacific Heights.

By then, Effie’s mother had left the farm and was living in San Francisco with her unmarried daughters and the only son, a bookkeeper at a state prison. When Effie accompanied her employer to his new Berkeley home, the other Murchisons followed, settling a block away, at 2953 Hillegass Avenue.

Art glass in the dining room window (photo: Daniella
Thompson, 2008)

William Parsons died on 2 June 1916. Three days later, a brief obituary in the Berkeley Daily Gazette informed that “Parsons was 80 years old and had been an invalid for the last fifteen years. His wife died fourteen years ago in Seattle. Shortly after that he came to San Francisco, and five years ago established his home in this city.” Having no children, Parson left his house to Effie. The 1917 Berkeley directory listed Effie, her mother Margaret, her sisters Kathryn, Sarah, and Grace, and her brother John at 2924 Benvenue Avenue.

During the Depression, the Murchisons divided the house into two units, converting one of the four bedrooms into a kitchen and letting the front part to renters. From 1934 to 1937, their tenants were Jacob I. Del Valle, a merchant and importer, and his wife May, a music teacher. Both were in their sixties. During World War II, the front unit was occupied by Robert E. Ferguson, a U.S. Navy navigator, and his wife Nancy. Perhaps this is how the “sea captain” legend came into being.

The youngest of the Murchison sisters died in 1968, and the house was left to their nephew, Craig Murchison, who sold it in 1971. The following year, it was on the market again, after new owners developed the attic. In June 1973, the house was sold to Arthur M. and Ruth Forbes Young, entering a new phase of its remarkable history.

Arthur Middleton Young (1905–1995) was a mathematician, engineer, inventor, astrologer, investigator of parapsychological phenomena, and the elaborator of a unified field theory of consciousness called the Theory of Process, which he described in the books The Reflexive Universe and The Geometry of Meaning.

Beginning in 1928, Young designed and developed what would become the Bell 47 helicopter, the first helicopter to be awarded a commercial license, in 1946. Concurrent with their purchase of the Parsons house in 1973, Arthur and Ruth Young founded the Institute for the Study of Consciousness, which was based in the house.

Detail from the schedule of the Institute for the Study of Consciousness (year unknown)

The institute’s program was rich and active. A relic found in the house is a hand-written poster board displaying the institute’s weekly schedule and special events for a two-month period. On Mondays, Young’s theme was “Conversations on Consciousness”; on Tuesdays, he lectured on “Yoga of Thinking”; on Wednesdays, Alan Vaughn spoke on “Advanced Parapsychology.” The Thursday colloquiums featured a rotation of such thinkers as Frances Farelly, Ingo Swann, Hal Putoff, Kenneth Pelletier, Jack Schwarz, Geoffrey Chew, Fritjof Capra, and Joseph Chilton Pearce. On Fridays, Saul Paul Sirag presented “Paradigm or Paradox?” The special events included a Wheeler Hall discussion by Mad Bear and Doug Boyd on “Emergence of the Fourth World” and a conference at Dwinelle Hall in benefit of the Tibetan Aid Project, with seven notables discussing “Science & Mysticism.”

Following Arthur Young’s death, Ruth Young—great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, painter, and founder of the International Peace Academy—devoted herself to encouraging the study of her husband’s Theory of Process. She died in 1998, leaving the house to the Institute for the Study of Consciousness. Shortly thereafter, the house was sold. The current owners have returned it to single-family use, although vestiges of the second kitchen remain.

The house retains its charming Arts and Crafts details, including beautifully proportioned windows, natural wood paneling, box-beamed ceilings, built-in cabinetry, and a great deal of leaded art glass in doors, windows, and cabinet glazing. It will be open for viewing on BAHA’s Spring House Tour, 4 May 2008.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 4 April 2008.


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