Berkeley Landmarks :: Thornburg Village (Normandy Village)

Thornburg Village (Normandy Village)

1781–1851 Spruce Street, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Thornburg Village, which opened in 1927, was developed by Jack Thornburg and designed by William Raymond Yelland and Thornburg. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

On 8 May 1927, the Development page of the Oakland Tribune devoted its leading column and central photograph to what it called an “artistic adaptation of the architectural thought of rural Europe.”


Thornburg Village Is Adaptation of Rural European Style of Achitecture.

Thornburg Village, a conception of the art of humble European builders with names long forgotten, is now far enough advanced for public appreciation. Located in a grove of trees almost at the edge of the university campus, on Spruce Street just above Hearst, this unique project is daily attracting interested spectators. Combining in its rural European style the influences of villages from the Scandinavian peninsula to the Mediterranean, methods of construction are exhibited evoking the past [...].

A detailed description of the exterior followed:

The first unit of Thornburg Village centers in a circular court, reached through an arched entrance. Brick paving is irregularly laid, pitching to the center. The walls, not only of the court but the exterior as well, are a combination of brick and stone with contrasting colors and textures as if traced and warped by time. Outside stairs lead to each of the eight apartments, straight and rigid lines in the exterior openings being avoided by fitting each unit at different floor levels. Large windows are the rule, and the charm of the strange building is enhanced by carved heads, or grotesque gargoyles hanging above the first story. The roof lines are broken, appearing as irregularly laid stone, soft and weathered, with tile along the ridges.

Oakland Tribune, 8 May 1927

The article went on to describe the interiors, whose walls resembled hand-hewn stone and timber, with earthen fireplaces breaking through. Dowelled oak floors carried a hand-crafted appearance. In the kitchens and baths, stone and colored treatments were preferred over glazed tile. The mark of milling machinery was nowhere to be found.

The developer and builder of this bohemian enclave was a 25-year-old Californian by the name of Jack Wood Thornburg, who had already built (and in some cases designed) several houses in north Berkeley, all in Storybook style (see Jack W. Thornburg Projects in Berkeley). On Spruce Street, Thornburg planned to build a self-contained community with shops, but zoning restrictions precluded the inclusion of commercial units. At the opening of the first phase, the developer told the Tribune that he was proposing to “complete a group of several units. Each unit, virtually a unique apartment building with several apartments, will be individually owned.” Thornburg advertised for investors in the same issue in which the Tribune carried the article.

The architect of the first phase of Thornburg Village was William Raymond Yelland (1890–1966) of Oakland, who designed in many idioms but is now identified chiefly with Storybook Style. A native of Saratoga, CA, Yelland graduated from the University of California in 1913 with a B.S. in Architecture before spending a year at the University of Pennsylvania.

During World War I, the architect was stationed in France, absorbing there the esthetic influences that would shape his career. In 1920 he joined the Oakland architectural office of Miller and Warnecke, and by 1924 he had opened his own practice at 1404 Franklin Street.

In 1925, Yelland built a Medieval-style building on Shattuck Avenue for the Tupper & Reed music store. Clad in brick and crowned with a steeply pitched roof surmounted by the effigy of a high-stepping piper on the chimney, the building attracted much attention, which young Thornburg couldn’t have failed to notice.

Tupper & Reed Building (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Jack Thornburg in his early machinist days, possibly on his brother’s ranch in Prescott, AZ. (courtesy of the Thornburg-Matye Family Tree)

Why Thornburg desired to model his new Berkeley development after old European rural styles is not clear. He was born in Long Beach, CA in 1901. His father, Charles Hix Thornburg, was listed as a rancher in the 1900 U.S. census. By the time Jack was 9, the family had moved to Pasadena, where Thornburg père was managing a water company. Jack was the youngest of five brothers. In 1920, at the age of 18, he worked as a machinist on a stock ranch managed by his brother, Wayne Wright Thornburg, in Prescott, Arizona. Another brother, Max Weston Thornburg, married Leila Baldwin Berry of Berkeley and was living that year in her parents’ house at 2700 Benvenue Avenue (by 1930, Max owned a house at 754 San Diego Road).

Jack received his diploma from the Los Angeles Polytechnic High School in 1922. It may have been Max’s presence in Berkeley that attracted Jack to the area. A mechanical engineer, Max would follow his father-in-law to a career at Standard Oil of California. In 1941, he was appointed Petroleum Advisor to the U.S. State Department. After World War II, he became chairman of the Board of Engineers of Standard Oil of California and was instrumental in the oil development of Bahrain, living in the Middle East for several decades.

Jack is said to have studied at the University of California; engineering appears to have been his chosen field. In 1923 or 1924 (accounts vary) he married the first of his four wives, Frances Ferris Geidner (1906–1947) of Los Angeles. The ceremony was performed by the captain of a tugboat on board his vessel, three miles off the coast of San Diego. The couple had two children, but in August 1927, shortly after Thornburg Village was completed, the impetuous Frances sued for annulment, claiming there was no record of the marriage and seeking custody and a division of $40,000 in community property. In court, Jack was charged by his father-in-law with having kidnapped Frances. Despite the brouhaha, the couple remained married for another twenty years and had three more children.

Oakland Tribune, 13 May 1928

A year after the first part of Thornburg Village opened, an addition called Norman Towers was ready for occupancy. It was touted in the newspapers as a “French-Norman type structure.” This time, Jack Thornburg was credited with the architectural design as well as with the construction. Lillian Parker Allen was the owner.

The Oakland Tribune described the “high gabled and broken roof lines” finished in “a shingle thatch of striking hues and colors.” Inside, doors and half-beams were hand-carved. “The floors are of various woods, some in mahogany plank laid with wooden dowels, some of parqueted redwood block laid on end, and others of oak plank. Lighting fixtures also are individual and of hand-made wrought iron from the studio of the Berkeley Craftsman. The fireplaces are in brick and plaster, odd-shaped and elevated.”

Norman Towers comprised 12 apartments of two and four rooms “in studio types.” They came with stream heat, “genuine Frigidaire,” and Rip Van Winkle wall beds. It was thanks to this addition that the complex has acquired the moniker Normandy Village.

While living in Berkeley, Jack Thornburg learned to fly. (Practically all published histories of Thornburg Village call Jack a colonel and a World War I flying ace. In fact, he was neither.) In June 1928, he was listed as having received his pilot’s license. At the time, his address was 1843 Spruce Street (at Thornburg Village), but by 1929, he and Frances had moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Here Jack went into the aviation business, establishing Arizona Air Service Inc., a flying school.

The five Thornburg brothers with their father and spouses at a family reunion in Phoenix, AZ, 1929. Jack and Frances are standing on the right. (courtesy of the Thornburg-Matye Family Tree)

Thornburg’s most illustrious flying student proved to be the 21-year-old future Senator Barry Goldwater, who used to sneak out of the house before dawn for his flying lessons. In his 1979 memoir With No Apologies, Goldwater reminisced: “In 1930 I decided to learn to fly. My instructor, Jack Thornburg, had a Great Lakes biplane with an inverted four-cylinder air-cooled engine. It was the only time I ever kept a secret from Mun [his mother].”

Jack W. Thornburg with his new 2T-1A Great Lakes biplane and his new hangar at Phoenix Municipal Aitport, 1929 (The Ruth Reinhold Aviation Collection, Arizona Historical Foundation)

Arizona Air Service was forced out of business by the Great Depression. Thornburg worked nine years as a pilot for TWA before enlisting in the Navy in 1940. His new assignment was as Naval Air Transport Service operations officer for the Caribbean and South America. According to his obituary, published in the Oakland Tribune on 26 Feb. 1972, Commander Thornburg won the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945, when he flew the first Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport plane into Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the evacuation of more than 9,000 wartime casualties, despite extremely unfavorable weather conditions.

His outfit, the Naval Air Transport Service evacuation squadron (VRE-1), received the Navy Unit Commendation for outstanding heroism in support of the Okinawa campaign operations. At the time, the Thornburgs and their four living children—Jack, Thomas, Patricia, and Karen—made their home at 95 Camino Encinas, Orinda (son Charles died in 1944; Frances died in 1947).

Jack Thornburg in his dress uniform (courtesy of the Thornburg-Matye Family Tree)

Out of the Navy in 1946, Thornburg joined Waterman Airlines as vice-president and general manager. The company’s six-plane fleet consisted of two DC-4s and four DC-3s, with which he operated a non-scheduled service to Puerto Rico, Central America, England, Germany, and South Africa, and an intrastate line between six Alabama cities.

In early 1947, at the age of 45, he was picked by Waterman to run TACA Airways, S.A., a struggling Central American airline acquired by his parent company, Waterman Steamship Corp. Waterman controlled TACA until 1961, but Jack Thornburg was gone by then, having formed Thornburg Engineering and bought ranchland in San Diego County. He died in Santa Ysabel, CA, in 1972.

Thornburg Village was acquired in 1936 by David and Rebecca Roth. Mrs. Roth was the daughter of pioneer downtown butcher Simon Fischel, who ran a meat market on the corner of Shattuck and University Avenues since the late 1870s. Rebecca continued to expand the complex between 1941 and 1955, engaging the San Francisco architect Charles E.J. Rogers to design the new buildings. In July 1950, after she had added four new units, Berkeley Gazette columnist Hal Johnson recalled the days when the same location had been the site of Professor Martin Kellogg’s home, and when Spruce Street had been called Bushnell Place.

Martin Kellogg’s house on Bushnell Place (Illustrated History of the University of California, 1905)

Congregational clergyman, professor of Latin, and seventh president of the University of California, Prof. Kellogg was one of the first two faculty members hired in 1859 by the new College of California. As early as 1877, Kellogg was listed in the city directory as residing on the east side of Bushnell Place, named after the Congregational clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell, a Yale classmate of Henry Durant’s, who visited California in 1856 for health reasons. Consulted about the future College of California, he enthusiastically endorsed the idea, traveling about the stae in search of a suitable location with abundant water supply (he recommended a spot in the Napa Valley). Declining an offer to assume the presidency of the College of California, Bushnell returned east in 1857.

Hal Johnson claimed that it was Kellogg who named his street after Bushnell. This might be possible, given that Kellogg was actively involved in Berkeley city politics and (again, according to Johnson) presided at a meeting in 1877 at which plans were made to incorporate Berkeley as a town. Johnson further recounts that Kellogg ran a farm on his homestead and kept a cow that he milked himself, delivering milk to his neighbors.

Kellogg planted many trees on his block, earning Bernard Maybeck’s indirect praise in his booklet Hillside Building (1906):

With neighborhood cooperation the roadside banks, terraces etc. can be planted systematically in blocks instead of lots—not fifty feet of pink geraniums, twenty-five of nasturtiums, fifty of purple verbenas, but long restful lines, big, quiet masses—here a roadside of gray olive topped with purple plum, there a line of trailing willows dipped in flame of ivy covered walls—long avenues of trees with houses back from roads, hidden behind foregrounds of shrubbery. (Fig. 2) Bushnell place is such a one. Grass on a hillside looks bare; the same strength and water put on trees and bushes will be more effective.

Maybeck’s sketch of Bushnell Place (Hillside Building)

As late as 1915, when German planning expert Dr. Werner Hegemann was retained to prepare a Report on a City Plan for the Municipalities of Oakland & Berkeley, Bushnell Place remained a bucolic, tree-lined street. Published in Hegemann’s Report, the photograph below carried the following caption:

Bushnell Place

Immediately adjoining the University Campus, Bushnell Place is one of the oldest and best planted (Black Acacia, evergreen) residential streets. Here the last President of the University lived. The roadway is thirty feet wide with sidealk reservation of fifteen feet on either side. Dish gutters are used (instead of the ordinary curb gutter of the city street), preserving the rural appearance. The houses, furthermore, are set back forty feet, securing privacy and quiet.

No stronger contrast to the architectural ideals of the old centralized city and its stone beauty could be imagined than this kind of a residential neighborhood, where the walls and roofs of human shelter have returned to Nature under the influence of modern rapid transit and modern ideas about hygienic life.

Bushnell Place (Report on a City Plan for the Municipalities of Oakland & Berkeley, 1915)

By the time that Hal Johnson was rhapsodizing about Kellogg’s farm, Spruce Street had already become a street of apartment buildings. Alone among them, Thornburg Village fills the viewer with enchantment.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 7 January 2009 under the title “Thornburg’s Storybook Village Succeeded Kellogg’s Farm.”

Thornburg Village, aka Normandy Village, was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 19 December 1983.

See more photos

Thornburg Village buildings with their designers’ names and building permit dates (BAHA archives)



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