Bohemian Jewish butchers dominated downtown’s meat trade

Daniella Thompson

Shattuck Ave. on 30 Nov. 1892. The Fischel Block is on the right, the Antisell Block across University Ave., and the Acheson Hotel on the left. (courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)

27 May 2008

Among the fortune seekers lured to northern California by the Gold Rush, the Jewish contingent was small but significant. Jewish immigrants would go on to play an important role in the economic and cultural development of the Bay Area, and Berkeley was no exception. Although early accounts rarely discuss Berkeley’s Jewish community, some members of the latter figured among the young town’s prominent citizens.

One pioneer Jewish family—the Fischels—established itself in downtown Berkeley in the late 1870s, gradually acquiring land around the Shattuck and University avenues axis. A few of the buildings they erected are still with us today.

The Fischels immigrated from Bohemia, then a Crown Land of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The paterfamilias, Simon Fischel, was born in 1846 or ’47 (records vary in respect to the date) and arrived in New York as a teenager in 1865. For over a decade, he worked as a butcher, acquiring U.S. citizenship in 1872.

In 1870, Simon married his compatriot Rosa Bauml (1844–1909), and while still in New York, they brought two sons and two daughters into the world (another daughter would be born in Berkeley). The Fischels probably arrived here in 1878; the 1879 directory listed them on the southeast corner of Shattuck and University avenues.

In the 1880 U.S. Census, the Fischel household included not only Simon, Rosa, and their four elder children, aged 2 to 8, but Rosa’s younger brother, Jacob Bauml, and E.C. Twicker, both butchers. Their neighbors at the time are familiar names in Berkeley history: John Acheson, who ran the Acheson Hotel on the northeast corner of University and Shattuck, and Jonathan G. Wright, founder of the Golden Sheaf Bakery at 2026 Shattuck Avenue.

Fischel ad in the 1881 Blue & Gold yearbook, published in 1880 (scan courtesy of Jerry Sulliger)

That year, the Fischels resided in the Antisell Block, an unprepossessing commercial building on the southwest corner of the same intersection. The 1881 U.C. Blue & Gold yearook carried a full-page ad announcing:

Antisell Block   -    Berkeley.
Dealer in
Beef, Veal, Mutton, Lamb, Pork,
Salt Meats, Sausage, etc.
Families supplied with all kinds of Meats of the best
quality at the lowest market prices.

Home delivery was key to success at a time when few customers possessed their own means of transport, but it could backfire. On 6 November 1890, the Berkeley Advocate regaled its readers with this anecdote: “A lady called on Fischel & Co. the other evening and made arrangements for that company to supply her family with meat. The team was daily sent to the house, when it was discovered that no such family resided there. It turned out that Mr. Fischel was deceived of a young man who donned the garment of a virgin to fool Fischel.”

Simon Fischel’s Liberty Market (Jerry Sulliger collection)

As the pig carcasses hanging in front of his store attested, Fischel was neither a kosher butcher nor an Orthodox Jew. Nonetheless, he involved himself in Jewish affairs and would be linked to the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, a Reform temple founded in 1875 by Gold Rush–era settlers. At a time when Jews were barred from most fraternal societies, Fischel was a member of the Odd Fellows and the Freemasons.

The Fischels didn’t stay long in the Antisell Block. On 11 December 1880, the Berkeley Advocate reported: “Mr. S. Fischel’s family has removed from the Antisell Block to their new house on University avenue, near Shattuck street.”

The new house was located on the north side of University Avenue, west of Shattuck Avenue. When houses numbers were introduced, it became 2033 University Avenue. The market, too, moved to the north side of the street, although Fischel’s annual advertisements in the Blue & Gold continued to list the Antisell Block as the address through most of the 1880s.

Simon Fischel’s initial real estate investment was his mid-block home site, comprising lots 11 and 12 in the College Tract, on which he built a sizable two-story house with three bays and a side porch. Within two years, he had added lots 49 and 51, directly behind his home and facing Berkeley Way. In 1884, he and his brother-in-law and partner Jacob Bauml purchased a Shattuck Avenue lot directly to the south of the Antisell Block, on which they erected a narrow two-story building. The following year, Simon added two lots on the south side of University Avenue near Milvia Street. This was only the beginning.

Fischel and Bauml properties in the College Tract in 1903 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

In 1888, Fischel and Bauml made a notable contribution to the downtown cityscape when they built the Fischel Block on the northwest corner of Shattuck and University. It was by far the most elegant building on the intersection, adorned with bay windows along the second floor, showy corbels under the eaves, a decorative metal railing along the roofline, and an impressive corner turret crowned by a witch’s cap. The Liberty Market occupied a storefront on the University Avenue side, next door to the University Bazaar. The rest of the building was given over to a hotel, which contained a dining room, kitchen, and office on the ground floor and guest accommodations above. The improvements were assessed at $10,000 in 1889.

The Fischel Block (courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)

Initially called the Fischel Hotel, the establishment would become known as the California Hotel by 1891, when its image was included in the Bird’s Eye View of Berkeley, Cal. map distributed by land owner Charles A. Bailey as propaganda for the town’s charms. The hotel’s operator changed almost yearly, indicating a less-than-rosy balance sheet.

On the other hand, the Fischel meat market flourished. Over the years, an ever expanding list of Fischels worked there. One of these was Isaac (aka Ignatz) Fischel, who appears to have been Simon’s brother. Isaac and his wife Elsie (aka Toni) purchased a double lot at 2039 University Avenue, next to Simon and Rosa’s house. Here they built a plain one-story house and raised a son and a daughter. A few doors to the west, Jacob and Lilly Bauml raised two girls at 2011 University Avenue.

Isaac—not to be confused with another downtown butcher named Ignatz Fischel (1853–1912), a relative who ran a meat market at 2008 Shattuck and lived at 1924 University—bought a double lot on the southeastern corner of Bonita Avenue (then called Louisa) and Berkeley Way, where in 1890 he built a one-story rental house. Isaac never got a chance to expand his holdings; death overtook him around 1893.

Isaac Fischel built this house as income property in 1890. Originally located at 1923 Bonita Ave., the house was moved to 1624 Delaware St. in 1925. (photo: Kristin Leimkuhler)

Such was not the case with Simon and Rosa, who added two more lots to the pair on Berkeley Way and erected four identical rental houses, one of which was later occupied by their son Charles, also a butcher. These houses survived until 1955, when the City of Berkeley purchased and demolished a row of seven houses to create the Berkeley Way parking lot.

Simon & Rosa Fischel’s grave,
Mountain View Cemetery (photo: Judith Berlowitz)

San Francisco Call, 8 February 1909

Simon Fischel died on 4 April 1907, two months before his younger daughters, Sally and Rebecca, were married. Rosa followed him on 6 February 1909. She received brief obituaries in the San Francisco Call, which called her a “pioneer relict,” and in the Oakland Tribune, which described Simon as “the pioneer meat butcher of Berkeley.” Their various properties were divided among the surviving son, Charles, and his three sisters.

San Francisco Call, 6 July 1908

Meanwhile, Elsie Fischel’s house at 2039 University Avenue burned down on 4 July 1908 after catching fire from a festive skyrocket. Elsie and her offspring, Charles and Clara, moved to their second house at 1923 Bonita Avenue, which they had previously let to grocer George Hunrick of Rose Grocery fame. The following year, their old homestead on University Avenue sprouted the 3-story University Apartments, with two storefronts—one of them a movie theater—on the ground floor. The building is now called the University Hotel. A launderette operates in the old cinema space.

San Francisco Call, 16 August 1909

On her Bonita Avenue property, Elsie built two additional houses for rental. No sooner were they built than her tenants at 1933 Bonita, a plasterer and a sheet metal worker, ganged up on Charles Fischel and beat him with a broomstick during an argument over $1.25. Knocked off the porch and falling 15 feet to the ground, Charles cracked his skull and injured his vocal chords. The metal worker was sentenced to three months in jail. Charles eventually recovered his speech sufficiently to be arrested for using foul language in December 1919, when his neighbor, plumber George Stoddard of 1820 Berkeley Way, complained to the police that his Sunday rest was being disturbed. Fischel had been in his kitchen, swearing at the smoking stove. The Oakland Tribune covered the episode:

When [Patrolman H.P.] Lee arrived in front of the Fischel residence he heard enough to take the dispenser of the choice language into custody. In fact, Lee’s official report of the matter says that the air was so blue that he needed a gas mask.

A different mishap overtook Elsie’s daughter, Clara. Her 1907 engagement to an Alameda dentist came to nothing, and in 1912 she met one Joseph Guttman, a Hungarian who undertook to paint the Fischel home and was given room and board there. Within three weeks, Clara and Joseph became engaged, and she advanced him $70 to buy a ring. After borrowing an additional $135 from Elsie, Guttman vanished. Clara eventually found a husband but died in 1920, aged 36.

In the 1920s, the Fischel Block still stood on the corner. The Nash and University Hotels had replaced the two Fischel houses. (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1928)

Simon and Rosa’s youngest daughter, Rebecca, married David Roth, a San Francisco jeweler. In 1923, she decided to replace her parents’ home with a commercial building and obtained a permit for a one-story concrete building containing five stores. Early in 1924, she changed her mind and built three stories, including two hotel floors. Designed by San Francisco architect August G. Headman, the hotel was leased to James and Mary Reilley, who christened it after Mary’s maiden name, Nash. Rebecca owned the Nash Hotel until 1955.

The Fischel Block, minus turret, circa 1926, shortly before Shattuck Square was built up. Farther down University Ave., the Nash and University Hotels are visible.

The Nash Hotel, built in 1924 on the site of Simon Fischel’s house by his daughter Rebecca. To the right is the University Hotel, built in 1909 on the site of Isaac Fischel’s house. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

By the 1940s, the Fischel Block on the corner of University and Shattuck was gone, and in its place stood Berkeley’s first drive-in barbecue, the Cameo, housed in a horseshoe-shaped concrete-and-steel building with a glass fa´┐Żade. In 1950, the Cameo moved to the northeast corner of Shattuck and Channing Way. It was replaced by a modernist, two-story glass-and-aluminum building designed by Wally Reemelin, a Berkeley industrial engineer who was one of the first to build A-frame houses. McDonald’s Department Store operated here until 1958, when it gave way to the House of Harris men’s and boys’ clothing store, which had outgrown its Berkeley Square building. This legendary haberdashery remained in business until 1976. Since the late ’70s, the site has been occupied by another McDonald’s—the hamburger chain.

The Cameo Drive-In (Louis Stein Collection, Berkeley Historical Society)

Wally Reemelin’s design for the McDonald’s Department Store (Berkeley Gazette, 20 January 1950)

Lloyd Gartner’s design for the House of Harris (Berkeley Gazette, 12 March 1958)

Elsie Fischel moved her Bonita Avenue house to 1624 Delaware Street in 1925. Having survived both her children, she died alone in 1934. The Berkeley Gazette published her obituary on 12 December of that year:

Funeral services for Mrs. Toni L. Fischel, 82, widow of an early day Berkeley business man, who was found dead in her home at 1624 Delaware Street, were being made today through F.E. Niehaus and Company.

Police broke into Mrs. Fischel’s home Monday after Mrs. Reba Ingols, county welfare worker, had been unable to gain entrance. They found the aged woman dead in the bedroom, the victim of a heart attack.

Mrs. Fischel, widow of Ignatz Fischel, an early day butcher here, had been a resident of Berkeley for more than 50 years. Several years ago she became a County charge, receiving an old age pension, and remained alone at the Delaware Street address.

She was a native of Austria and came to this country 55 years ago, spending most of her time in Berkeley. Although she had no near relatives, she is survived by two nieces, Mrs. Beckie Roth, Nash Hotel, and Mrs. Louise Bauml, 2479 Le Conte Avenue.

The Isaac and Elsie Fischel house at 1624 Delaware St. was lifted 30” and restored. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Having changed hands at least eight times since Elsie’s death, the house was altered in various ways and became a student rental in 1970. When the present owners bought it in 2002, it had been empty for two years and had fallen into disrepair. Lifted 2.5 feet and restored, the house is the recipient of one of BAHA’s 2008 Preservation Awards.

The Nash Hotel entrance retains some of its old elegance. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 29 May 2008.


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