Announcing our 42nd Spring House Tour
and Garden Reception
Sunday, 7 May 2017, One to Five oclock
Featuring 11 open houses designed by John Hudson Thomas, Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Albert Farr,
Walter Ratcliff, and Harris Allen.
Tour map, illustrated guidebook & refreshments provided
General $45; BAHA members $35
(see member discount limits)
Berkeley is full of delightful neighborhoods and hidden enclaves that retain the beauty of the natural landscape and have been enhanced by the artistry of our local architects. Claremont Park is such a place. It is one of the first Berkeley subdivisions whose layout follows the topographic contours and whose design celebrates the creeks, oaks, and gentle slopes that help create an ideal residential setting.
This sylvan spot in the midst of a very urban East Bay would not exist today were it not for the vision of Duncan McDuffie, a member of the company that developed Claremont Park in 1905. Both a practical businessman and an ardent conservationist, McDuffie served twice as president of the Sierra Club and was a founder of the Save the Redwoods League. Much of Berkeley by 1905 had been subdivided in the traditional grid pattern, with little regard for the natural topography. Berkeley’s creeks and their tributaries, which meandered down from the canyons, were inevitably buried when they came up against the rigid geometry of the new housing tracts.
Well aware of the American movement inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted to create residential subdivisions as gracious retreats from urban life, McDuffie must have had Olmsted’s ideas in mind when the corporation he represented purchased the vast Edson Adams ranchlands east of Claremont Avenue. Here, as the Claremont Park promotional brochure stated, was:. . . by happy chance [a tract of land] uninvaded by even a first straggling cluster of houses, one expanse of some one hundred and twenty-five acres of hill and valley land, threaded by green canyons, dotted with ancient oaks, glorious with the western outlook toward the Pacific and the eastern aspect of the great Berkeley hills, a domain which [had] been mercifully preserved intact past the day when land was subdivided by drawing straight lines on a map and running streets just so, regardless of the massacre of oak trees, the mutilation of hill contours, or the infamy of filling a canyon and burying a stream alive in a culvert.
Why not create a “residential park” where the delightful contours of the land are kept intact, the streets curved and “parked,” and “lots are all generous in size, and so laid out as to be planned for homesites, with oaks and a bit of creek, perhaps, and not merely as rectangles on a real estate agent’s plat”? By the fall of 1905, newspaper advertisements appeared for “Claremont Park,” enticing people to leave the noisy, crowded city behind and head for “sunshine and the hills.” Soon after, construction began on the first house.
Surprisingly, the area was not built up quickly. Only about a dozen homes were built during the first year, and photographs of the area from 1910 show a scattering of brown-shingle houses. Although there was a recession in 1907 and 1908, the probable cause for the slow initial growth of Claremont Park was its remote location. The promotional brochure had promised a Key Route station nearby at College and Claremont avenues, whereby a “San Francisco businessman can reach his home in Claremont in half an hour.” It was not until 1910, however, that an interurban train line was established on Claremont Avenue, running from the Claremont Hotel to the Key Route ferry terminal in Oakland. This gave Claremont residents a speedy and convenient direct route to San Francisco. By 1912, Claremont Avenue had been widened to allow for a newly-constructed double track. Finally connected to the outside world, Claremont Park experienced a building boom in the early 1910s.
At the same time, a shift in public taste influenced the type of house that would grace East Bay subdivisions after 1910. The civic pride and boosterism of the Progressive Era led homebuilders to forsake the more retiring and nature-infused imaginary of the ubiquitous shingled houses, and turn, instead, to a more assertive model. (Or perhaps, merely the inevitable swing of the pendulum was responsible for the abrupt change in architectural taste.) Between 1910 and 1911—almost overnight—houses clad in stucco (or “cement plaster,” the term used then) became de rigueur. Gone was the attempt to blend a building unobtrusively with the landscape. Instead, stucco houses—and especially those with strong massings favored by architects such as John Hudson Thomas—began to make a bold statement on the hillsides and around town.
Certainly, woodsy, shingled houses were still built after 1910, as that aesthetic never really died out, but the examples were few and far between, and most often built in the wilder North Berkeley hills, although there, too, in such subdivisions as Northbrae, stucco prevailed. John Hudson Thomas designed memorable residences in Northbrae that immediately became selling points in the real estate promotion for the area.
In Claremont Park, quite a few homebuilders turned to John Hudson Thomas to design their new homes in his eye-catching signature style. Thomas’s houses of this period in his career were unique to Berkeley. They proclaimed a sense of place with their bold, stucco masses. He combined parapet gables and flat roofs, and offered plenty of porches, both covered and open. He often employed elaborate garden entrances and stairways, designed in keeping with the architectural character of the house. The interiors, although featuring abundant use of natural wood, were more formal and mannered than the redwood houses that had come before. Signature details, such as his famous grouping of four small squares, abounded. John Hudson Thomas’s houses were a personalized synthesis of Prairie Style from Chicago, Arts and Crafts from England and Scotland, and Vienna Secession from Austria. Thomas would have been well aware of these latest architectural expressions from the architectural journals of the day, to which he most surely subscribed.
Oddly, this highly imaginative, avant-garde style of John Hudson Thomas, for which he is best known, was short lived. Between 1910 and 1914, he designed a prodigious number of his signature, Progressive Era houses. Prior to that, he was in partnership with George T. Plowman, and together, between 1907 and 1909, they designed over fifty exemplary Craftsman-style residences in Berkeley. After 1914, Thomas turned to designing gentler, and often picturesque, Period Revival houses. Thomas Gordon Smith, in a Ph.D. dissertation written in 1970, gave some possible reasons for this change in the architect’s style. Contractors had begun to use some of Thomas’s design vocabulary, thus taking the edge off his designs for prospective clients. The homebuilding public may have retreated to comfortable historicism as World War I persisted. The Progressive Era and its aspirations had ended by 1915. As Smith summed up Thomas’s change in emphasis, “It may reflect a change in attitude which was barely perceptible even in 1915.”
Claremont Park is the setting for over twenty John Hudson Thomas–designed residences, most of them dating from the peak of his career in the early 1910s. The neighborhood is also the locale for the upcoming Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association spring house tour, “John Hudson Thomas and Friends,” planned for Sunday, May 7. The tour will focus on Thomas’s work between 1911 and 1914. Unexpectedly, Thomas also designed some of his most evocative shingled residences during the same period, and his most romantic redwood house will be included. The tour will also present work by several of Thomas’s contemporaries. Included will be houses designed by Bernard Maybeck, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., Harris C. Allen, and Julia Morgan.
What more beautiful setting for an architectural tour than Claremont Park in the spring? And what could be a better way to enjoy Claremont Park in the springtime, than with a tour of its architectural gems?
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Tour docents receive complimentary admission to the tour.
To volunteer, contact BAHA.
Copyright © 2017 BAHA. All rights reserved.
Text by Anthony Bruce, photographs © Daniella Thompson & Anthony Bruce.