>Berkeley Landmarks :: Warren & May Cheney Houses

U.C. offers the American Turgenev’s house for one dollar

Daniella Thompson

The Warren & May Cheney House at 2241 College Ave. was built in 1885. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

26 October 2009

On 19 October 2009, the University of California’s Real Estate Services Group issued a request for proposals for the purchase and relocation of one or both of the historic residential structures known as 2241 and 2243 College Avenue, located on the central campus in an area slated for future development.

The site, which lies between Boalt Hall School of Law and the Haas School of Business, has long been targeted by U.C. for the construction of a butterfly-shaped building that would serve the two schools.

Few people would expect to see residential structures on campus. The two houses being offered are left over from the days when the Berkeley Property Tract—an elegant residential neighborhood subdivided in 1868 by the College of California to a plan by Frederick Law Olmsted—included a block located north of Bancroft Way and west of Piedmont Avenue.

College Avenue, originally called Audubon Street, extended as far north as Strawberry Creek and later continued into the campus proper. Naturally, the block between Bancroft Way and the creek provided an ideal home-site for people connected with the university. It was so for Warren and May Cheney, two early U.C. graduates who made the alma mater a permanent part of their lives and left lasting public legacies.

Built in the Stick-Eastlake style, the Cheney house is the second oldest surviving structure in the Berkeley Property Tract. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Lemuel Warren Cheney (1858–1921) was born in Canandaigua, N.Y., the son, grandson, and great-grandson of physicians. In 1869, the Cheneys moved to Chico, California. Lemuel obtained his degree in mining nine year later in a U.C. class of 26 graduates. His senior thesis was titled “A Method of Machine River-bed Working for Gold.” Along with seven other 1878 graduates, he entered the first class at the newly established Hastings College of the Law, from which he emerged with an LL.B. in 1881.

While studying law, Cheney worked as a teacher and met his future wife, May Lucretia Shepard (1862–1942). Born in Iowa, May came to Berkeley in 1879 to attend the university. With her widowed mother, she settled at 2020 Hearst Avenue (then College Way), in a house with a watermill in the rear yard. Residing in the same house was none other than Lemuel W. Cheney, law student. The following year, the Shepards moved to 2316 Allston Way, across the street from the campus. Before long, Cheney had moved there too. The Shepards’ last address before May’s graduation in 1883 was Club House No. 4 on the university grounds, again shared by Cheney, now a journalist, and his younger brother William, a future professor of medicine.

Warren Cheney (San Francisco Call, 14 July 1901)

May Lucretia Cheney (California Alumni Fortnightly, 1916)

In addition to their shared living quarters, May and Lemuel had a common interest in literature. Both belonged to the Neolaean Literary Society, of which May was vice-president. Since 1881, Lemuel had been contributing stories under the name Warren Cheney to the literary magazine The Californian. In July 1882, at the age of 23, he purchased the magazine, which six months later would merge with the revived Overland Monthly. Here he published in January 1883 a long critique of Bret Harte’s work that brought upon Cheney a charge of plagiarism and caused him to withdraw from the Overland.

May and Lemuel married in April 1883 and left for Europe, where he served as Balkan Peninsula correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. Their first son, Charles Henry Cheney, was born in Rome in February 1884.

Upon their return from Europe, the Cheneys lived in Lodi, where Lemuel was joint publisher and owner of the Valley Review. But this phase was short-lived, since the 1886 Berkeley directory listed L.W. Cheney, attorney-at-law in San Francisco, residing at their new house on Audubon Street near Bancroft Way. May’s mother lived with them until her death in 1903. In their garden, Cheney grew roses that would earn him medals in many flower shows.

Because of the trouble over the Bret Harte review, Cheney apparently took to submitting stories under a pen name. In The Story of the Files: a Review of California Rriters and Literature, (1893), Ella Sterling Mighels wrote, “there are super-excellent stories from time to time, which appear always under another new name, seldom twice the same, but they are all from one pen, and that pen Warren Cheney’s. They are of admirable fibre, strong and meaty. No one has better art than the writer of these short tales, and it is about time that the grudge expired and Warren Cheney came back to life again.”

May Cheney (San Francisco Call, 29 Aug. 1908)

This portrait of Warren Cheney accompanied a long review of his novel “The Way of the North.” (San Francisco Call, 9 April 1905)

In 1887, May founded Cheney’s Pacific Coast Bureau of Education in San Francisco. It was the first teachers’ placement agency west of the Rockies, and her husband participated in its management. Eleven years later, May would establish a similar service on the U.C. campus and serve as the university’s Appointment Secretary for 40 years, placing countless university graduates as high-school teachers throughout the state.

Overland Monthly, Sept. 1888

In 1897, May Cheney co-led the movement to have Phoebe Apperson Hearst appointed the first woman U.C. regent. Later she was a voice for women’s suffrage, fought graft in San Francisco government, and led the fight to make physical education compulsory in California’s public schools.

The interest in education led Cheney—now using Warren as his primary first name—to enter and win a 1890 competition for planning the California educational exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. About this time he purchased the real estate and insurance business of George W. Phelps and John W. Richards in downtown Berkeley. Within a year, he was forced to sue Phelps for breach of contract, as Richards set up a competitive agency next door. Cheney apparently prevailed—the Richards agency was gone by the next year.

San Francisco Call, 26 Aug. 1891

San Francisco Call, 14 Jan. 1910

As a real estate agent, Cheney made important contributions to the development of Berkeley. It was he who acquired the Silas Mouser estate on Panoramic Hill after Mouser’s death in 1909, renaming it University Hill. He laid out Mosswood and Arden Roads and commissioned Henry Atkins to design Orchard Lane steps. In 1905, he founded the Berkeley Home Building Association, one of whose officers was a woman. May Cheney’s cousin, Anna McNeill would continue as an executive of the Warren Cheney Co. until her death in 1919.

San Francisco Call, 28 Aug. 1910

Although his move from journalism to real estate was attributed to failing eyesight, Cheney never stopped writing. In 1901, he published The Flight of Helen and Other Poems. Four years later, his novel The Way of the North, an account of life in Sitka, Alaska under Russian rule, earned him the moniker “The American Turgenev.” Two more books with Russian themes followed: The Challenge in 1906 and His Wife in 1907. They received excellent press reviews nationally, and His Wife was included in the New York State Library’s list of the best books of 1908.

Cheney contributed to Sunset magazine, was active in the Alameda County Press Club, and served as curator of its fiction section in 1910. His fellow club members included Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller, George Sterling, Charles Keeler, and Austin Lewis. The Cheney home was an informal venue for literary gatherings.

Excerpt from an article about the Alameda County Press Club (San Francisco Call, 11 Dec. 1910)

The Cheneys raised four sons, three of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest, Charles Henry Cheney (1884–1943), earned the first architectural degree awarded by U.C. before continuing his studies in Paris, eventually becoming a notable city planner and zoning expert. His son, Warren DeWitt Cheney (1907–1979), was a well-known sculptor and art teacher who took up psychology in midlife, founding the Transactional Analysis Journal.

Sheldon Warren Cheney (passport photo, 1921)

Marshall Chipman Cheney (San Francisco Call, 27 Aug. 1919)

Sheldon Warren Cheney (1886–1980) entered his father’s real estate business before moving to Detroit, where he founded Theatre Arts magazine in 1916. As art historian and theatre critic, he was one of the most significant figures in the modernist movement in American drama in the 1920s and ’30s.

Marshall Chipman Cheney (1888–1972) followed in the family’s medical tradition, becoming a physician. He did his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston before returning to Berkeley, where he practiced near the campus and at Cowell Memorial Hospital. He lived with his widowed mother at 2241 College Avenue until 1940. At the end of 1939, May Cheney sold her two campus houses to the university, and the family soon moved to 116 Tunnel Road.

The second Cheney house, 2243 College Ave., was built in 1902 as rental property. It appears to have been inspired by Maybeck’s Boke House on Panoramic Way. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The two Cheney houses on campus were designated City of Berkeley Landmarks in 1990. Built in 1885, 2241 College Avenue is the second oldest surviving structure in the Berkeley Property Tract. 2243 College Avenue, built by Carl Ericsson in 1902 as a rental property for the Cheneys, appears to have been inspired by Maybeck’s Boke House on Panoramic Way.

The deadline for submitting proposals to purchase and relocate the Cheney houses is 16 November 2009.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 29 October 2009.



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