1 BAHA :: The Circuitous Career of Berkeley’s Favorite Undertaker


The circuitous career of Berkeley’s favorite undertaker

Daniella Thompson

14 September 2009 & 27 June 2016

l to r: Frank Durgin, architect William Wharff, Mr. Jory, Muriel Durgin & Victoria at Berkeley Camp, south fork of Tuolumne River, 1920s (BAHA archives)

On the morning of 1 February 1895, a Berkeley carpenter by the name of A.E. Spaulding entered Stricker’s cigar store at 2132 Shattuck Avenue. Laying a bundle of medications on the counter, he announced that he wished to leave it there. Then he walked to the rear of Durgin & Bleakley, a furniture and undertaking establishment at 2129 Center Street. Leaning against a barn, Spaulding shot himself through the heart with a 38-caliber revolver.

While the county’s deputy coroner and the city’s health officer were wrangling over the disposition of the body, it came to light that Spaulding had been afflicted for some time with kidney and gastrointestinal ailments that compelled him to go without food for many days. Letters found in his pocket attested to his deranged state of mind.

Not long before his suicide, Spaulding had made arrangements for a burial casket, but contrary to his own preference, Spaulding’s body was carried down to West Berkeley and back before being taken to an Oakland funeral parlor.

In December 1895, Durgin & Bleakley had another disagreement with the coroner, this time over the body of Charles Starr, whose family wanted him embalmed by the Berkeley undertakers, while the coroner prevailed, sending the corpse to the Albert Brown funeral parlor in Oakland.

San Francisco Call, 2 Feb. 1895

Forty-seven years later, the 1943 telephone directory carried a full-page ad for Hull & Sons, Pioneer Funeral Directors and The Little Chapel of the Flowers, 3051 Adeline Street. The headline promised “A Reference Built on 50 Years of Service, 1892–1942,” and the tagline signed off “Serving You for Half a Century.”

The Hull Undertaking Co. building at 3051 Adeline St. was designed in 1923 by Hutchison & Mills. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The Hull mortuary on Adeline Street had been in business only since 1924, but it was building on its circuitous connection to the original Pioneer Funeral Directors, a name Durgin & Bleakley adopted circa 1900. The exact date of the mortuary’s establishment has yet to be documented, as Durgin & Bleakley did not make an appearance in the city directory until 1895.

Durgin & Bleakley’s first listing (Husted’s Oakland, Alameda & Berkeley directory, 1895)

Initially, both partners lived on the premises. Within a year, the enterprise had grown sufficiently to separate furniture store from mortuary and residence from business. Frank W. Durgin managed the undertaking half, while Robert Bleakley ran the furniture store.

By 1901, the business had moved down the block to the very heart of downtown Berkeley. An ad in Sunset magazine placed them in the Library Building, 2158–2160 Shattuck Avenue.

Bleakley never made much of a mark on Berkeley’s public life. Durgin (1860–1934), on the other hand, plunged into civic affairs with gusto. He was a leader in the local State of Maine Association, a member of the executive committee of the Funeral Directors of Alameda County, Grand Pursuivant of the Berkeley Masonic Lodge, and active in the Board of Trade.

Listing in the 1907 directory

Around 1906, Bleakley went his own way, opening a furniture store at 2484 Shattuck Avenue. Durgin replaced him with Walter A. Gompertz (1873–1965), who until then had worked as a cashier in San Francisco. The younger man was even more socially active than Durgin, holding high offices in the Masonic order and the Knights Templar, besides being a Shriner and an Elk. Gompertz would serve on Berkeley’s board of town trustees in 1909, work as the city’s commissioner of finance in the mid-1910s, and join the school board in 1915.

The Durgin-Gompertz Co. premises were located at 2178–2180 Shattuck Avenue. An advertorial in the 25 January 1911 issue of the Oakland Tribune called the business Berkeley’s largest furniture store. “The quarters occupied comprise over 11,000 feet of floor space and are stocked to their utmost capacity with furnishings for the parlor, library, hall, sleeping chamber, dining room, and the kitchen, whether it be a cosy cottage or a more pretentious structure,” rhapsodized the anonymous Tribune writer.

Listing in the 1909 directory

Less than two years into the new partnership, Durgin founded a second mortuary under the name Berkeley Undertaking Co., Inc. This business was located at 2133 Allston Way, and its telephone number, Bkly 1111, differed from that of the Durgin-Gompertz Co. number (Bkly 1110) by a single digit.

By 1911, the presidency of the Berkeley Undertaking Co. had been taken over by William B. Ward. Gompertz continued as officer of both companies until 1915 or so, when Durgin changed the name of the earlier business to F.W. Durgin Undertaking Company.

Listing in the 1916 directory

For several years, the two mortuaries founded by Durgin continued their separate operations, Durgin conducting business and maintaining a residence at 2174 University Avenue, Ward working out of premises at 2201 Bancroft Way.

In 1922, a new player entered the scene. William Mark Hull (1887–1967), a Napa man who had come to Oakland a few years earlier, acquired the Berkeley Undertaking Co. from William Ward. Without wasting time, he purchased land on the corner of Adeline and Essex streets and engaged the Oakland architectural firm of Hutchison & Mills to design a two-story building to house the undertaking parlor on the ground floor and the owner’s residence above.

Mock stained-glass windows on Hull mortuary’s south fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The Hull mortuary building, which cost $28,000 and opened in February 1924, is a strange amalgam of English country vernacular and Mediterranean-influenced architecture. The curved roof, once covered in wood shakes, is meant to resemble thatch. The second-floor walls incorporates pseudo half-timbering in the Tudor Revival style, while the ground floor boasts large arched windows with mock stained glass. The arched windows originally illuminated the Conservatory Chapel within.

While Hull was building his new mortuary, Frank Durgin was running into a land-use obstacle on University Avenue, where property owners successfully petitioned City Hall to zone funeral parlors off the street. Durgin needed a new location for his mortuary. Coming full circle in the late 1920s, he sealed a partnership with Hull and rejoined the business he had founded decades earlier, now renamed Hull & Durgin.

Francis Harvey Slocombe designed the Little Chapel of the Flowers in Storybook style. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

William Hull ushered a new era for his firm and for Berkeley in 1928, when he commissioned the Oakland architects Slocombe & Tuttle to design a new chapel next to the mortuary. Legend has it that Hull’s mother showed Francis Harvey Slocombe (1893–1947) a picture of the chapel from her home village in England and asked him to copy it. Whether she influenced the design or not, Slocombe produced one of Berkeley’s most charming Storybook-style buildings: thick walled, curve-roofed, and thrusting aloft a quaint bell tower.

Christened The Little Chapel of the Flowers, the building was flooded with natural light through large arched dormers on its long sides. Below the dormers, stained-glass walls lined greenhouse-like galleries. The vaulted ceiling was supported by massive trusses rising between the dormers. The rough plaster walls were impregnated with terra-cotta pigmentation that cast a warm glow on the interior. An exquisite stained-glass window behind the altar completed the fairytale-like scene.

The Little Chapel of the Flowers on a promotional postcard (BAHA archives)

So striking was the chapel that it immediately became the centerpiece of the mortuary’s marketing effort. The Great Depression struck shortly after its opening, and the public may have perceived it as an expensive frill. To counteract such an impression, Hull & Durgin launched an innovative newspaper advertising campaign, in which the point was hammered home that the best funeral service amid beautiful surroundings costs no more than lesser service “in some small, incomplete establishment.”

Oakland Tribune, 14 Sept. 1932

Oakland Tribune, 28 Sept. 1932

Oakland Tribune, 14 Aug. 1933

The ads carried similar layouts and graphics, but the headline and copy changed regularly. One ad, published on 28 December 1932, gave five reasons why “The Little Chapel of the Flowers can provide funeral services of finer character at lower cost.” The first claimed that “This beautiful establishment was made possible by fortunate real estate investments on the part of Mr. William M. Hull ... not by taxing patrons.” The second cited lower overhead brought about by high patron volume. The third asserted that “the beautiful buildings, grounds, equipment and motor fleet are owned outright, not leased ... another important economy which is passed along to patrons.” On-site maintenance and volume purchases were pointed out in the fourth. The final reason stated that “the owner of this mortuary participates actively in its management … thus no high salaries for managers, and no profits going to outside capitalists.”

Non-sectarian, the chapel was made available for weddings as well as for funerals. At the height of its popularity in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the site of over 500 weddings.

The Hull mortuary and chapel, depicted on a 1943 postcard

Frank Durgin died in 1934, but the mortuary’s name remained unaltered until 1941, when it was changed to Hull & Sons. Francis Harvey Slocombe went on to design William Hull’s Tudor Revival residence (1930) at 611 Arlington Avenue. In 1954, when Hull & Sons expanded their operations to Walnut Creek, their new Ranch-style chapel was built to Slocombe’s design.

An insider’s view of Hull & Sons was provided by Marvin Neveu, a long-time mortician in the Berkeley area who used to work and live in the facility. In the spring of 2016, Mr. Neveu wrote to the Berkeley Historical Society:

We had one of the finest funeral homes in the area. We also held many weddings in the Chapel, and the joke was that “one could be married and buried from the same chapel.” The building took up most of the block, along with the parking lot. We had a flower shop, our own street lights, and a special parking place for the clergy.

In the interior of the Chapel, we had canaries, fireplaces, and waterfalls, and all the plants were real. The building also had six viewing rooms and an informal chapel. We were the only funeral home with two preparation rooms, one for men and the other for women. That might sound a little funny, but single folks liked the idea very well.

There was also a garage for five vehicles, plus a hand-rope elevator to access the secod floor. We had a dormitory apartment for two students who were our “night men” while attending the Mortuary College in San Francisco, plus two bedrooms in the manager’s apartment, where I lived with my family. In the basement was a very large selection room that held 20+ caskets, and another small selection room in the garage area.

Our business declined greatly when they were digging to put BART underground. With all the construction, it was dirty and almost impossible to get to the funeral home, and it was mid-1970 when the funeral home was merged with the McNary Chapel up on Telegraph Avenue.

In 1961, the Hulls’ Berkeley mortuary was sold to the undertakers McNary & Morgan, who continued at the same location under the Hull name until opening McNary & Morgan Chapel at 3030 Telegraph Avenue in 1970. The old Hull mortuary was acquired by a real estate developer who remodeled it into offices and shops.

In 1976, the former Little Chapel of the Flower became the home of the pioneering wilderness equipment storeMarmot Mountain Works. The Fifth String Music Store opened in the undertaking building in 1977. Both stores became Berkeley institutions, each remaining for 36 years. The Hull complex was sold in 2012 to its current owner, a developer who plans to build apartments on the parking lot.

Hull Undertaking Co. & Little Chapel of the Flowers were designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 3 September 2015. Additional information about the complex and its history is available in the landmark application.

This article was initially published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 17 September 2009.


Copyright © 2009–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.