Berkeley Landmarks :: Spring Mansion

John Hopkins Spring Estate

1960 San Antonio Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

The Spring Mansion as it appeared in The Spiral, yearbook of the Williams Institute, 1927 (BAHA archives, gift of Larry Leon)

Photo: Wendy Markel, 2005

One of the largest residential parcels in the city, the John Hopkins Spring Estate, with its centerpiece mansion, occupies 3.25 acres in the Southampton area of the north Berkeley Hills. Initially covering sixteen acres, the property is still large enough to require three addresses: 1960 San Antonio Ave., 1984 San Antonio Ave., and 639 Arlington Avenue.

Modeled after Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Achillion Palace in Corfu (see more photos), the estate is a scheme of broad balustraded terraces sloping down toward the west. The grounds, which were originally laid out by Mark Daniels, are planted in shrubbery, redwood, eucalyptus, pine, and palm trees and ornamented with a fountain and a reflecting pool. On the upper slope stands an imposing two-story mansion designed by John Hudson Thomas. The exterior is primarily Beaux Arts–influenced, while the interiors display the architect’s eclectic influences, including Vienna Secession, Arts & Crafts, and Egyptian motifs.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005

Measuring 80 feet by 83 feet, the 12,000-square-foot house, built entirely of steel-reinforced concrete, has two main entrances. The eastern entrance in the rear features a rectangular portico and serves the driveway, while the western entrance boasts a semi-circular portico, opening onto the garden terraces and commanding a sweeping vista of San Francisco bay. This entrance leads to a vaulted passage running along the western length of the building, connecting the dining room in the northwest corner to the living room in the southwest.

Vaulted passage, looking north toward dining room. Atrium is on the right
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

At the heart of the building is a 30-foot high atrium surmounted by a skylight. Four hefty Tuscan columns support the second-floor corridor balconies surrounding the atrium. The upper floor is reached via a grand, 15-foot wide staircase. At the center of the atrium, a slender Italian fountain strikes a Mediterranean note.

The skylit atrium

(photos: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The majestic public rooms are placed on the ground floor along the north and south sides of the house, opening directly into the atrium. These include a living room, dining room, and billiard/sitting room featuring tapestry-covered walls, enormous fireplaces, and rich oak moldings.

Living room (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Living room (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The house was built in 1912 by the Spring Construction Company, one of the holdings of landowner and entrepreneur John Hopkins Spring (1862–1933). Born in San Francisco to a New England family, Spring received his real-estate training at his father’s and uncle’s firm, which was involved in various East Bay land ventures. In 1897, after the death of his father, Spring moved to Oakland and built a showcase residence by the Sausal Creek in Fruitvale. The 1900 U.S. Census lists him on Fruit Vale [sic] Avenue with his wife Celine, three daughters, a son, a step-daughter, and a servant. His listed occupation was President, Gold Mine Co. In October 1908, Spring and his associates acquired the fire-damaged Spring Valley Water Works building in Union Square for $450,000, announced their intention to rehabilitate it for another $230,000, and leased it to the City of Paris department store, which had occupied two floors in the building prior to the 1906 earthquake. The 1910 census listed him as a banker.

In the first years of the 20th century, Spring teamed up with Berkeley real-estate developer Duncan McDuffie and capitalists Louis Titus (1872–c. 1947) and Wigginton Ellis Creed (1877–1927) in the Berkeley Development Company and the North Berkeley Land Company. He was also a business associate of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith (1846–1931) and Frank Colton Havens (1848–1918), especially in the East Bay real-estate ventures of their Realty Syndicate and its holding company United Properties.

Photo: Wendy Markel, 2005

In 1904–05, Spring acquired J.J. Dunn’s quarry on the former Berryman ranch in north Berkeley. With Creed and Titus as partners, he formed the Spring Construction Company. The company quarried rock at its Spruce Street facility in the La Loma Park and Codornices Park area, and later at the Arlington facility in Cerrito Canyon. Construction vehicles and equipment were maintained at a depot on the old Boswell Ranch site (now the Solano and Peralta junction). In 1906–07, Spring purchased a 142-acre tract around El Cerrito Hill and laid out the subdivision that would become the city of Albany. His best-known venture was the Thousand Oaks subdivision and the shopping district along Solano Avenue, begun in 1909.

Spring was one of the investors in the Claremont Hotel Co. founded by Louis Titus, though his role in this joint venture has been obfuscated by several contradictory legends. The Landmark Application for the Spring Estate, written in 2000, states:

Spring’s first venture into Berkeley real estate was in the Claremont District. [...] Before long, Spring had two other partners in the Claremont Tract, Frank Havens and W.P. Mortimer, a Berkeley capitalist. The partners financed the grand Hotel Claremont but construction was slowed down due to financial stringency resulting from the 1907 Panic.

In 1910, Spring approached his partners with a proposal to play a game of dominoes with the hotel property as the stake. Spring first played Mortimer and beat him. Later he played Havens and lost. It was Spring who planned the lovely garden terraces around the hotel that became known as the “Jewel of the East Bay.”

Another version was told on a previous version of the Claremont Hotel’s website:

Before the hotel, a castle...
The history of The Claremont Resort dates back to the early days of the Gold Rush, when a Kansas farmer by the name of Bill Thornburg struck it rich. He came to California with his daughter and his wife, who dreamed of a home which would look like an English Castle. Thornburg purchased 13,000 acres (part of the old Peralta and Vicente Spanish grants) to fulfill his wife’s dream and built the castle and several stables which housed pedigreed hunters and jumpers. He hired Cockney grooms to care for them, and raised English foxes for hunting parties. After Thornburg’s daughter married a British Lord and went to England, Mrs. Thornburg died and he sold the “castle” to a family by the name of Ballard. On the dry and windy day of July 14, 1901, the castle burned to the ground. Only the livery stables, barn and some of the costly furnishings survived the fire.

Won in a game of checkers
The property then fell into the hands of Frank Havens and “Borax” Smith, a famous miner. They planned to erect a resort hotel on the property with trains running directly into the lobby. Unfortunately, these plans were abandoned. One night, Havens, Smith and John Spring, a Berkeley capitalist, played a game of checkers in the old Athenian Club of Oakland with the stakes being the property, and Havens won. He began building in 1906, but the panic of that year interrupted construction. After trying again in 1910, Havens lost heart, and in 1914 allied himself with Eric [sic] Lindblom, who had struck it rich in the Klondike. The sprawling Mediterranean hostelry was completed in 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. In 1918, Lindblom took complete control of The Claremont until he sold it in 1937 to Mr. And Mrs. Claude Gillum, who virtually rebuilt it from the foundation up, and completely refurbished the interior.

Photo: Wendy Markel, 2005

Yet another variant, this time by Oakland architectural historian Annalee Allen, omits Spring altogether: “Legend has it that Havens retained sole interest in the project when he and Smith decided one night to play a game of dominoes (some say checkers) and Smith lost.” In 1997, Spring’s son told BAHA’s Lesley Emmington that his father did participate in the game, which was either blackjack or poker, the sole opponent having been “Borax” Smith. The interview notes don’t reveal the identity of the winner.

John Hopkins Spring (Louis Stein collection)

Perhaps closest to the truth is this account by longtime Berkeley Gazette columnist Hal Johnson, published on 29 January 1943:

It was Spring all-year round in Albany and in Northbrae and Thousand Oaks for some years before the San Francisco fire until January 1920—John Spring, pioneer developer of large residential tracts, road builder and capitalist. The late John Spring was a gambler, not at the card table or at roulette but on the East Bay Area. He won when he backed Berkeley and Albany. Later he lost heavily—in the millions—when he bucked the stock market.

John Spring—the man who plunged into great financial undertakings and into growing rare flowers and shrubbery—passed out of the world picture April 16, 1933, at the age of 70. He left a seemingly permanent monument here in the Spring mansion, San Antonio Ave., now Williams College. Spring built that massive structure of 12 great rooms, including six bedrooms, each with a private bath, in 1914.

He erected the great house of reinforced concrete at the time of his lowest ebb financially—when he owed more than a million dollars and was land poor. He had sold thousands of dollars worth of home sites in that vicinity on the strength that he would build his own home there. And he kept faith with buyers.

The Spring mansion is probably the only residence in the East Bay which has a reinforced concrete roof. That area then was outside of the city limits and there was no fire protection.

Reflecting pool (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Growing there still are stately pines brought from Norway and Irish yew trees. When Spring lived there he had a great rose garden with all varieties that would grow in Northern California. On Avis Rd. you can still see some of the imitation rocks which were part of the foundation of the large greenhouses.

John Spring was born in San Francisco Dec. 13, 1862. His father, Francisco Samuel Spring, and his uncle, John Spring, came to California about 1852. Capt. John Hopkins Spring, old New England sea captain, brought his two sons to California on his own boat. They went into the real estate business and John Spring followed in their footsteps.

Spring saw a future for the East Bay Area. As late as 1915 he owned practically all of Albany, except the Gill tract at San Pablo Ave. and Buchanan St., all of Thousand Oaks and Arlington Heights and a large part of Northbrae. Some 3,500 homes since then have been erected on his original holdings.

He was an athlete as a young man and won medals for swimming and for bicycle racing. His three daughters are Mrs. George Friend of 120 Hillcrest Rd., Mrs. Noble Newsome [sic] of 410 Pala Ave., Piedmont, and Miss Dorothy Spring, now a WAAC stationed at Sacramento. His son, Frank Spring, is chief designer for the Hudson Automobile Co. and lives in Michigan. Mrs. Charlotte Montgomery of San Francisco is his sister. She is the widow of Dr. Douglas Montgomery who died while they were in South America soon after they had made their escape from Shanghai.

John Spring took chances but as long as these chances were in real estate they were winning ones. When San Francisco was burning, the day following the April 1906 earthquake, he offered $400,000 for the lot and steel structure of the proposed new Spring Valley Water Co. building and the offer was quickly accepted.

He formed the Union Square Improvement Co. with East Bay capital and erected a large building. In 1915 the structure was sold to the Hooper Lumber Co. for more than $1,250,000—a handsome profit. The building, Stockton and Geary Sts., has been occupied by the City of Paris since it was built.

Spring gradually acquired tidelands from about where the Key Route Pier was built to near the Ford plant in Richmond. These were sold in 1925 to the Santa Fe Railroad for $700,000.

He cashed that check with the late Phillip M. Bowles, president of the American Bank in Oakland and associated with Spring in many financial deals. “Why John, that check is for $700,000,” exclaimed Bowles. “Where did you get the money?”“I just sold those tidelands on which you wouldn’t loan me $50,000 a few months ago,” replied Spring.

Between 1926 and 1929 John Spring lost more than a million when the bottom fell out of the stock market. He paid dollar for dollar, took his loss with a smile and went down the peninsula to live.

There was one time when John Spring figured he won when he lost. He was associated with the late F.M. (“Borax”) Smith and Frank C. Havens in the plans for Hotel Claremont. Spring wanted to have near Berkeley a hotel on a peer with the Del Monte. He was responsible for the beautiful Claremont Hotel gardens.

About 1912, the Hotel Claremont had been started, but was a long way from being finished. Taxes, interest on investment and care of the gardens were eating into the finances of the combine that had undertaken to erect the hotel.

One by one they dropped out until Spring and Frank Havens were left holding the sack which contained a $400,000 mortgage. Spring and Havens played a game of dominoes at the old Athenian Club in Oakland with the hotel property as the stake. Havens won the game and the unfinished Claremont Hotel.

Miss Cora L. Williams in The Spiral yearbook of the Williams Institute, 1930 (BAHA archives, gift of Larry Leon)

Spring was able to enjoy his palatial home for only a brief period. Just before Christmas 1915, he left his wife Celina for Mrs. Genevieve Lucile Ecker (n�e McGraw), citing differences in age and social inclinations as the reason for the breakup. The new couple married in 1917 and eventually settled in a mansion at 2340 Gough Street in San Francisco before building yet another palatial home at Overlook Road in Los Gatos. This house, reputedly a replica of the Berkeley mansion, was valued at $50,000 in the 1930 census. Spring ended his days there, his fortune much reduced but still substantial enough for his two former wives to battle over in court after his death.

The Berkeley estate was sold in late 1917 to the educator Cora L. Williams, who established there her Institute of Creative Development (later Williams College), a tony elementary and secondary school known for its focus on languages, poetry, music, and literature.�Famous guest lecturers such as psychologist Alfred Adler taught courses there. Interpretive dance inspired by Isadora Duncan was taught, and Institute students danced with the Boyntons at the Temple of Wings and with Duncan colleague Vassos Kanellos at the Hearst Greek Theatre.�One of the students,�Helen Bacon Hooper, went on to dance with Martha Graham. The Williams Institute’s most celebrated alumnus was probably Irving Wallace (1916–1990), author of The Chapman Report.

In a newspaper ad, Williams College promised “the most beautiful junior college campus in America.” (Berkeley Gazette, 21 May 1932. Image courtesy of Steve Finacom)

The school occupied the mansion for five decades. In 1975, the Spring estate was purchased by real-estate investor Larry Leon, who made the mansion his home for the next thirty years. He sold the property to a consortium of investors in 2005. The John Hopkins Spring Estate was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 3 July 2000. It is listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.

See also: John Hopkins Spring: splendor, strife & shenanigans

The Hal Johnson column was made available by Jerry Sulliger.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 22 September 2006, under the title “Spring Mansion Modeled After Empress’ Island Palace.”



Copyright © 2005–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.