Berkeley Landmarks :: Piedmont Way


Piedmont Way

2200–2499 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Susan Cerny

Piedmont Avenue in 1915 (photo: BAHA archives)

7 July 2001 & 22 August 2003

Although best known for his mid-to-late 19th century landscape design work on the East Coast, Frederick Law Olmsted created his first residential subdivision in Berkeley. Centered on Piedmont Avenue, it was the first of his signature curvilinear parkways with divided roadbed and landscaped median.

Olmsted’s name entered the designer pantheon when he and architect Calvert Vaux won the 1857 competition to design Central Park in New York City, and Olmsted supervised the park’s construction until the outbreak of the Civil War.

As the designer of Manhattan’s dominant landscape feature and the author of numerous articles, Olmsted was highly sought after, and he took a position as supervisor for the Mariposa Mining Estate in California in 1863.

Among the projects Olmsted worked on during the two years he was in California were the plans for Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees, Mountain View Cemetery, and the College of California.

Legend, map of Berkeley Property, 1868 (BAHA archives)

In 1864, Trustees of the College of California asked Olmsted to prepare plans for their new campus and an adjacent residential subdivision on land they had purchased four years earlier. A private school based in Oakland, the college merged in 1868 with the newly created University of California.

Map of Berkeley Property, 1878 (BAHA archives)

Although Olmsted’s plan for the campus grounds was not realized, the residential subdivision, called the Berkeley Property, was laid out and graded. The area lies between College Avenue on the west, Prospect Street on the east, Dwight Way on the south and Strawberry Creek on the north. Piedmont Avenue (formerly Piedmont Way), the main boulevard bisecting the residential subdivision, is the most clearly defined surviving feature of Olmsted’s 1865 plan for the College of California.

Although Piedmont Avenue is a curvilinear street with a planted median, rounded corners, and a large garden circle at Channing Way, Olmsted’s street design merges and blends with the existing grid pattern of the streets to the west.

The Berkeley Property tract was Olmsted’s first fully developed landscape plan for a residential subdivision, and he accompanied it with an extensive written report outlining the social and healthful benefits of his physical layout. Olmsted’s ideas for this residential neighborhood were based on the English garden suburb. Olmsted believed that “large domestic houses, on ample lots with garden set backs, enhanced by sidewalk boulevards and plantings that would become luxuriant and graceful to shelter the visitor from the sun [would] express the manifestations of a refined domestic life.” The neighborhood was to serve as a retreat from the congested life in the city.

Far removed from the center of town and from public transport, the Berkeley Property tract did not sell quickly at first. Rev. Samuel H. Willey, vice-president of the College of California, purchased the first lot and built the first house near the intersection of Dwight Way and College Avenue in 1865. At the top of Bancroft Way, C.T.H. Palmer bought a lot in 1866 and built a large Victorian house in 1875 (it was demolished when the International House was built in 1929).

Thorsen (1908–10) and Hicks (1906) houses in 1915 (photo: BAHA archives)

By the first decade of the 20th century, Piedmont Avenue was lined with impressive houses designed by prominent architects and set in lush gardens. Although today these homes are used mostly for student housing, the appearance of the street, with its green median and some remaining overhanging trees, retains many of the qualities Olmsted envisioned. Now there are plans to replant the two-block median strip between Bancroft and Channing that has become an impromptu and unsightly parking strip for U.C.’s fraternity row. [In 2003, the City of Berkeley installed chain barriers around the grassy medians to prevent cars from parking on them.]

“Along Piedmont Avenue,” a tinted Albertype postcard

Piedmont Avenue served as the model for Olmsted’s subsequent residential tract boulevards. His plans for Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the Buffalo Parkway system, and Boston parkways had their beginnings here.

During the next thirty years, Olmsted would design hundreds of parks and residential subdivisions whose most important element was the preservation, enhancement, and use of natural features. Olmsted’s legacy can be seen in residential subdivisions across the country.

The text above is a composite of two articles published in the Berkeley Daily Planet in 2001 and 2003, respectively.


Piedmont Way (Piedmont Avenue Right of Way) beteen Gayley Road and Dwight Way was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 22 February 1990. It is California Historic Landmark No. 986 (designated in May 1989).



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Text © 2001–2016 Susan Cerny. All rights reserved.