Telegraph & Durant: from ritzy enclave to commercial hub

Daniella Thompson

Hotel Carlton was built in 1906–07 on the site previously occupied by the Knowles mansion. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

5 March 2008

Teeming with pizza, bagel, and t-shirt outlets, surrounded by ethnic-food courts and cheap retail arcades, the intersection of Telegraph and Durant Avenues is inconceivable as an exclusive residential enclave reserved for millionaires’ mansions set amidst spacious gardens and fronted by orderly rows of palm trees.

Yet this was exactly how Telegraph Avenue looked in the first decade of the 20th century, when the street extended to Allston Way, meeting the U.C. campus at Strawberry Creek.

In 1903, the south side of Bancroft Way contained more empty lots than houses. The west side of Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Durant was divided into two enormous lots, of which only the southern one—measuring 200 by 200 feet and extending from the middle of the block to the Durant Ave. corner—was occupied. On this lot, at 2318 Telegraph Avenue, stood the imposing Classic Revival mansion of William E. Knowles.

Knowles was a real estate executive who had made a fortune in Alaskan gold mining and oil. His showplace house, designed by the prolific Oakland architect A.W. Smith and built in 1900, basked in lonely splendor on its block, with nary a building across the street.

Telegraph Avenue at the turn of the 20th century (source: Sanborn fire insurance maps, 1903)

The Knowles mansion, built in 1900 at 2318 Telegraph Avenue. Beyond is the Marshall Block under construction. (San Francisco Call, 24 Dec. 1904)

On the southeast corner, diagonally across from the Knowles residence, stood an even more elegant mansion belonging to lawyer-capitalist Louis Titus. Contractor A.W. Cornelius began building this house in the spring of 1900, from designs by the architect Bert E. Remmel. According to the contract notice, the cost for the two-story frame house was $7,935. The following year, Remmel would design an addition that cost another $1,397.

The Titus mansion, 2500 Durant Avenue (courtesy of Sarah Wikander)

On the southwest corner, one could admire the very large and formal Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter house. Today, any mention of fraternity houses will invariably evoke visions of Animal House. Not so at the turn of the last century. In March 1900, when the San Francisco Call devoted a Sunday magazine page to fraternity life in Berkeley, only four of the 14 fraternities located here owned their chapter houses, and the photos that illustrated the article could have been published in House Beautiful.

Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter house, 2330 Telegraph Ave. (courtesy of Sarah Wikander)

Delta Kappa Epsilon was one of the fraternity-owned houses, and a photo of its parlor and hall, complete with lace curtains, a horn Victrola, and the ubiquitous billiard table, made an appearance in the Call magazine. Another featured house belonged to Phi Delta Theta, Louis Titus’s fraternity. Located at 2401 Durant Avenue, on the corner of Dana Street (now a U.C. parking lot), the house boasted tastefully furnished interiors. On 2 June 1901, the Call informed, “The Phi Delta Theta boys are noted for their orderly house [...] one would never dream that the house was run entirely by a lot of students. Everything is exactly so, and one could look for dust with a microscope and not have the labor rewarded.”

Phi Delta Theta reception hall (San Francisco Call, 18 March 1900)

In the summer of 1900, presumably while the resident students were away on vacation, the 28-year-old Titus was living in the Phi Delta Theta house with his wife Lottie, infant daughter Dorothy, sister Ethel, and the family’s servant, Minnie Loeser. Why were they living in a frat house? Probably because they awaited the completion of their new mansion a block to the east. Strangely, their deed to the land was not recorded until after the house was completed in November.

San Francisco Call, 23 November 1900

Both Louis and Lottie Titus grew up in Liberty, San Joaquin County. His father was a prosperous farmer, hers a wagon maker and blacksmith. But the rural surface concealed a penchant for learning. Lottie’s mother would shrug off her housewifely role in middle age and begin a new career as an osteopath. An aunt and two uncles of Louis’s were school teachers in Wisconsin, and one of them, Daniel Titus, also practiced as a pharmacist before launching a lucrative law career in Oakland and San Francisco.

Lottie and Louis came to Berkeley for their schooling. He enrolled at the University of California—the 1891 Berkeley directory listed him as a resident of Phi Delta Theta Hall, at that time located on the corner of Bancroft and Audubon [College Ave.]. Lottie graduated from the Anna Head School and the Mills Seminary in Oakland. She was teaching at a private seminary in Berkeley and he was a young attorney just out of college when they decided to tie the knot in 1892.


Louis got his introduction to big-time wheeling and dealing at his uncle’s law office and never looked back. Barely into his 30s, he was a major player in real estate development, banking, transportation, water, lumber, and oil.

Allied with leading business figures such as Francis “Borax” Smith, Frank C. Havens, Wickham Havens, John Hopkins Spring, Allen G. Freeman, Phillip E. Bowles, Joseph Mason and Duncan McDuffie, and Perry Tompkins (the latter two Phi Delta Theta brothers),* Titus served as director or officer of key enterprises including the Realty Syndicate, the Claremont Hotel Company, the Berkeley Traction Company, the University Savings Bank of Berkeley, and the Big Lagoon Lumber Company.

From 1906 to 1910, Titus was president of the People’s Water Company—the private precursor to EBMUD—negotiating two 10% rate reductions with the Oakland city council in order to avoid litigation. Nowadays he is best remembered for having masterminded the idea to relocate the state capital to Berkeley and construct the Capitol building in Northbrae. At the time (1907), the idea was taken seriously enough to be approved by the Assembly. Happily for us, the voters of California nixed the measure.

In addition to his far-reaching corporate activities, Titus was frequently buying and selling large tracts of land. He also headed the Berkeley Development Company, and in November 1904, the San Francisco Call announced that he was erecting a new business and apartment block on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way.

San Francisco Call, 14 November 1904

Designed by Henry Meyers and Clarence Ward in Mission Revival style, the building was called El Granada. As the opening date approached in the fall of 1905, Mason-McDuffie Co. began to advertise it daily in the newspapers. One such ad, published in the San Francisco Call on 1 October, began with a catchy headline recalling a school yell:


El Granada, Berkeley’s newest and most elegantly appointed apartment house, will be ready for occupancy on October 15. It is situated at the very heart of the exclusive residence section of the college town, the junction of Telegraph avenue and Bancroft way. From the university grounds it is distant one block, and from Berkeley station only a few minutes’ walk. Cars both to Berkeley station and Oakland via Telegraph avenue pass every five minutes; the College-avenue cars, connecting with the Key Route at Lorin station, run every twenty minutes, and cars direct to Oakland by way of the Claremont Country Club leave the corner three times an hour.

El Granada contains 50 two, three and four room apartments. Attached to each apartment there is a large tiled bathroom and a kitchen fully equipped with gas range, cupboards, sink and other conveniences. The living-rooms are paneled in wood and each has a gas grate and handsome mantel. The bedrooms are finished in redwood and tinted.

Without exception every room has outside light and air, and many command a fine view. Apartments will be rented unfurnished, singly, or the apartment-house may be leased as a whole.

El Granada, built in 1905 by Louis Titus’s Berkeley Development Co. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

The apartments rented for $13 to $30 a month. In March 1906, a mere four months after the Granada opened (opening had been delayed until 15 November), the building was sold to Charles R. Bishop, vice-president of the Bank of California in San Francisco for $150,000. “The Berkeley men are believed to have cleared about $25,000 in the deal,” informed the Call.

El Granada still stands and has been owned by the Munger family for three generations. In 1995, its exterior was restored, regaining the Mission-style gables absent since the 1950s.

But the Granada was not the first harbinger of change on Telegraph Avenue. The initial shot across the bow was delivered by contractor John Albert Marshall, who earlier that year began building a three-story business and apartment block on the lot adjacent to the Knowles mansion. As if that weren’t enough, construction began on the Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Durant—directly across the street from Knowles.

The Telegraph-Bancroft intersection, looking south c. 1908. The Marshall Block, designed by C.M. Cook, is second from right, across from the Granada. The Alta Vista is on the left.

Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church, designed by Charles W. Dickey, was built next to the Granada.

Knowles was not pleased, and on 23 December 1904, while a crowd of pedestrians watched, his workmen prepared a newly purchased lot at 2521 Durant Avenue—half a block to the east—to receive the mansion. On that occasion, Knowles predicted to the Oakland Tribune that his well-to-do neighbors, Louis Titus and Seneca Gale (the latter lived at 2251 Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, future site of Sproul Plaza), would follow suit.

Knowles did not tell the newspapers that he had already sold Gale a new lot adjoining his own on Durant Avenue. Gale was a retired Michigan capitalist who had made his money in grain. Like Knowles, he could recognize a trend when he saw it and knew how to profit from it. Not long after moving to Durant Avenue, both sold their previous home lots to developers.

The Gale (2nd left) and Knowles residences on Durant Avenue. East of the Knowles house are the Castle Crag Apartments. (BAHA archives)

Knowles sold his lot in October 1905 to Carlton Hobbs Wall, a young Alameda millionaire who would gain notoriety for automobile collisions. The price was $17,500. Carlton and his brother Edward soon broke ground for an apartment and store building projected to cost $30,000, but the 1906 San Francisco earthquake made them change plans and transform the structure into a first-class hotel.

Hotel Carlton shortly after completion (Picturing Berkeley—A Postcard History)

Telegraph Ave. between Durant and Bancroft in the 1910s (Picturing Berkeley—A Postcard History)

Like Titus, the Walls called on Meyers & Ward for the design of their four-story, clinker-brick building. Named Hotel Carlton, it was leased to Mrs. W.F. Morris, whose Cecil Hotel burned in the San Francisco fire. It cost $125,000 and boasted all the latest amenities, including an elevator, telephones, and a 135-foot dining room with dance floor.

The mirrored dining room at Hotel Carlton (Picturing Berkeley—A Postcard History)

Seneca Gale, who built a new shingled house at 2519 Durant Avenue, sold his previous home (also shingled), and the latter was moved to the southwest corner of Telegraph and Channing Way (in 1923–24, the house would be moved again, to its present location on the northwest corner of Dana Street and Dwight Way). Gale sold his lot in September 1906, also for $17,500, and the buyer was none other than John Marshall, who planned to build a $100,000, 125-room hotel on the site. “A roof garden and other modern hostelry features will be provided,” announced the San Francisco Call. C.M. Cook, who had designed a number of houses for Marshall as well as the Telegraph Avenue apartment block completed the previous year, was the architect.

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

The building that finally emerged, however, was the 5-story Alta Vista, with six storefronts on the ground floor and 23 balconied apartments above, but no roof garden. It would be razed in 1946, after the university had taken possession of the Telegraph Avenue stretch between Sather Gate and Bancroft Way.

The Alta Vista Apartments as built (Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)

And what of Louis Titus? He quietly left his home in March 1906. The reason did not become apparent until Lottie Titus filed for divorce in September 1909. Then she revealed that her temperament and inclinations were out of tune with those of her husband. He was highly ambitious and liked to socialize in fashionable circles, while she was interested only in her home and three children. He wanted her to entertain lavishly, she wanted to teach Sunday school. He left her twice—four and 14 years into the marriage.

The mansion at 2500 Durant Avenue was part of Lottie’s divorce settlement, but two break-ins in March 1908 made her uneasy, and she moved to Santa Barbara, leasing the house to a Napa millionaire. By 1910, she had sold it to Duncan McDuffie, who in turn sold it back to Titus. Having remarried in 1910 and built a new mansion in Piedmont, Titus sold 2500 Durant in 1913 to J. Arthur Elston and George Clark, U.C. graduates and law partners. Elston was former executive secretary to California governor Pardee, president of the U.C. alumni association, and a future U.S. Congressman. The value of the lot at the time of the sale was reckoned to be $30,000.

The Cambridge Apartments, a designated Berkeley landmark, were constructed in 1914 on the former site of the Titus mansion. Next door is the former Majestic (later Campus) Theatre. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Elston and Clark retained Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. to design and manage construction of a five-story, 48-unit brick apartment building with four storefronts. The cost of construction was estimated at close to $100,000 (the final figure was $80,000). When completed, the building was listed in the 1916 Berkeley directory as
Mrs M E Brown Mgr Two Three and
Four-Room Apartments and Single
Rooms Completely Furnished Thor-
oughly Modern Elevator Service 2500
Durant av cor Telegraph av Phone
Bkly 2500

Source: The Moving Picture World, 5 August 1916

Elston and Clark lived in the Cambridge Apartments. Next door, at 2510 Durant, they had Ratcliff build a cinema, also in 1914. Christened the Majestic Theatre, it was an elegant establishment with 22-inch seats and plenty of leg room but no heating plant, so “the cement floor was a source of great discomfort,” reported The Moving Picture World. Within a year, the cinema was acquired by the Campus Motion Picture Company, under the management of R.M. Gilman. The new proprietors installed a heating system and changed the name to Campus Theater. Catering mainly to the campus population, the cinema was closed during the university’s summer breaks. By the late 1920s, it had become a store and has been serving that function off and on until today. The name Campus Theater migrated to another cinema located at 2440 Bancroft Way.

At 2521 Durant Ave., the former Knowles residence served as an apartment and rooming house for several decades. It was demolished in 1969. (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

The Marshall Block that prompted William Knowles to move his house is long since gone. So are the palm trees, the Delta Kappa Epsilon house, and Epworth Methodist Church. Seneca Gale died on his yacht in 1910, and William Knowles followed him three years later. A food court stands on the site of the Knowles mansion. You can catch a glimpse of the much altered Seneca Gale house behind Cafe Durant.

Seneca Gale built his second house in 1905. The address was then 2519 Durant Ave. (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

The Seneca Gale house, now 2517 Durant Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

* Several of Louis Titus’s closest friends and fellow Phi Delta Theta brothers also made their homes within a block or two of the fraternity’s chapter house. The 1904 voter registrations listed Perry Tompkins, ’92, as residing at 2526 Durant Avenue, the former Ellen Blood House. Tompkins, then a teacher, would soon become office manager of the Mason-McDuffie Company. Duncan McDuffie, ’99 (still an employee of the Oakland Department store Taft & Pennoyer) and his best friend, Dr. George Frederick Reinhardt, ’99 (Berkeley’s health officer), lived at 2403 Telegraph Avenue, a duplex on the southeastern corner of the Telegraph-Channing Way intersection.

By 1906, McDuffie (now secretary of Mason-McDuffie Co.) and Reinhardt had moved to 2345 Telegraph Avenue, on the northeast corner of the same intersection. In 1909, Reinhardt, now Professor of Hygiene and University Physician, married Aurelia Henry, future president of Mills College. He bought a house at 2434 Durant Avenue, on the same block as the Phi Delta Theta house. Strangely, McDuffie (now president of Mason-McDuffie) moved in too, apparently maintaining a separate household within the same single-family home. Living with Duncan were his brother Robert, George’s brother Harry, Victor Henderson, Wilbur Sawyer, and two female servants. The arrangement seemed very much like a fraternity house. The following year, McDuffie married and moved to 156 Tunnel Road, leaving the Reinhardts on Durant Avenue. In 1914, when Phi Delta Theta built a new chapter house on the Northside, Reinhardt purchased the old chapter house at 2401 Durant Ave., intending to convert it into a student health center. His death in June of that year cut short his plans. Left unprovided for with two small boys, Aurelia was forced to give up the family home.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 7 March 2008.


Copyright © 2008–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.