Ghosts of old Greeks populate the Northside

Daniella Thompson

Beta Theta Pi, earliest fraternity house on the Northside, was designed by Ernest Coxhead in 1893. (San Francisco Call, 20 Aug. 1893)

2 February 2010

The current class-action lawsuit by Southside residents against 35 Berkeley fraternities serves to highlight the overwhelming concentration of Greek chapter houses in that part of town.

It wasn’t always so.

There was a time, over a century ago, when the university’s president lived north of the campus and encouraged fraternities to establish their houses there.

Greek settlement on the Northside began even before Benjamin Ide Wheeler came to Berkeley. The earliest chapter house, designed for Beta Theta Pi by Ernest Coxhead, was announced in August 1893 and opened the following year on the corner of College Way (now Hearst Ave.) and Le Roy Avenue.

At the time, the northern edge of the campus was heavily wooded with stands of mature eucalyptus trees, and the residential area immediately to the north was newly subdivided and largely undeveloped. The new chapter house, located on a grassy hillside slope and resembling a row of buildings in an old English village, was judged by the San Francisco Call to be “unique in design” and “well suited to the purpose for which it is required.”

Two Beta Theta Pi members, John Bakewell, Jr. ’93 and Arthur M. Brown Jr. ’96, went on to become prominent architects. Among their joint projects were the Berkeley City Hall and two expansions of their fraternity house. Brown was the principal architect of the San Francisco City Hall, War Memorial Opera House, and Coit Tower. From 1938 to 1948, he served as the University of California’s last supervising architect.

Beta Theta Pi Chapter House, 2607 Hearst Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

The Beta Theta Pi chapter house still stands at 2607 Hearst Avenue. It has long been owned by U.C. and serves as the home of the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Beta Theta Pi was the fifth Greek-letter fraternity in Berkeley when it opened its local chapter in 1879. By 1900, there were 14 fraternities in Berkeley, only one of them located north of the campus. The second Northside chapter house went up in 1901, when the neighborhood was still sparsely populated.

The Berkeley chapter of Phi Kappa Psi was founded in 1899, the year that Benjamin Ide Wheeler assumed the U.C. presidency. When members of the new chapter consulted him about a location for their contemplated house, Wheeler recommended that they build on the Northside.

Phi Kappa Psi Chapter House, 1770 La Loma Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The former Phi Kappa Psi house, a Brown Shingle located at 1770 La Loma Avenue, was designed by Harris C. Allen. In 1915, the chapter outgrew its house and moved into a new one at 2625 Hearst Avenue, also designed by Allen and replaced in the 1960s by the Upper Hearst Parking Structure. The older building on La Loma was turned into a private rooming house, a function it serves until today.

Most of the Northside fraternity houses built before 1923 perished in the great Berkeley Fire. Three survivors of that cataclysm are the former Psi Upsilon, Phi Delta Theta, and Theta Xi houses.

Psi Upsilon Chapter House, 1815 Highland Place (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

The Psi Upsilon house, now known as the Nyingma Institute, stands at 1815 Highland Place. A rambling Classic Revival building with a grand triple staircase, it was designed in 1912 by Benjamin G. McDougall, architect of the Shattuck Hotel. Two years later, Phi Delta Theta built its house directly across the street, at 2717 Hearst Avenue.

Phi Delta Theta was the second fraternity in Berkeley. One of its earliest local brothers was Jacob Bert Reinstein, a member of the first graduating class of 1873 (the “Twelve Apostles”) and the first Cal alumnus to be appointed U.C. Regent. Other prominent brothers were attorney Louis Titus; realtors Duncan McDuffie and Perry Tompkins; University Physician George F. Reinhardt; attorney, diplomat, and Save the Redwoods League director Herman Phleger; and San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr.

Phi Delta Theta Chapter House, 2717 Hearst Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

In 1914, the chapter turned to one of its own brothers—John Reid, Jr., then a member of San Francisco’s Board of Consulting Architects and soon to become City Architect—for the design of its new house, an Italian-style villa. Famous for its elegant appointments, the house was unique in having no bedrooms—all the residents made use of sleeping porches on the second and third floors.

Since 1973, the building has been owned by an arm of the Unification Church, operating under the name New Educational Development Systems, Inc. (NEDS). Lately it has acquired the moniker Hearst House.

Theta Xi Chapter House, 1730 La Loma Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

The former Theta Xi house at 1730 La Loma Avenue was designed in 1914 as a 25-bedroom country villa with a triple-arched entrance loggia. The architect was Charles W. Drysdale, right-hand man of the eminent San Francisco architect George W. Kelham, for whom he oversaw the rebuilding of the Palace Hotel, supervising the building of the Panama Pacific Exposition, and designing the Carnegie (Main) Library at the San Francisco Civic Center. Since 1977, the building has been a student co-op called Kingman Hall.

Following the 1923 fire, land on the Northside was both abundant and cheap. As a result, most of the surviving chapter houses here were built in the 1920s. Such is the case with four sorority houses, all designed by well-known architects.

Delta Zeta Chapter House, 2311 Le Conte Ave. (courtesy of Westminster House)

In 1924, Julia Morgan built a stately stucco house for the Delta Zeta sorority at 2311 Le Conte Avenue. By the 1950s, the young ladies had been replaced by the young men of Alpha Chi Rho. In 1968, the few remaining brothers threw in the towel and, with their boarders, converted the house into a co-op named PAX House, which operated until 1997. Since 2001, the building has been owned by the Presbyterian Westminster House and lodges 45 students.

Delta Delta Delta Chapter House, 1735 Le Roy Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

The Delta Delta Delta house, a Classic Revival building at 1735 Le Roy Avenue, was designed by John Galen Howard in 1924 and built the following year. In 1937, the sorority replaced it with a contemporary Southside house designed by William W. Wurster. The old residence became a boarding house, notorious for a suicide by hanging in December 1941. Next came the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity (Michael Milken ’68 was president and won eating contests here), followed by the Jesuit School of Theology (JST). Renovated a few years ago, the building is known as Alma House.

Alpha Chi Omega Chapter House, 1756 Le Roy Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

JST also owns the former Alpha Chi Omega house at 1756 Le Roy Avenue, built in 1925 by U.C. professor William C. Hays. Before being acquired by the Jesuits and renamed Shalom House, the building was for some years home to the Delta Chi fraternity.

Phi Omega Pi Chapter House, 2601 Le Conte Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

Yet another former sorority building owned by JST is the Phi Omega Pi house at 2601 Le Conte Avenue. Designed in 1928 by B. Reede Hardman (soon to become known as a schoolhouse architect), it replaced the residence of Alexis F. Lange, dean of the U.C. School of Education. The steeply roofed Hardman design recalls the original house by Walter H. Ratcliff. By the 1950s, Phi Omega Pi had given way to the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority. These days, the building houses Jesuit scholars.

Alpha Delta Phi Chapter House, 2401 Ridge Road (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

Other religious institutions have acquired most of the remaining Northside fraternity houses. The Alpha Delta Phi house at 2401 Ridge Road, a clinker-brick building in English collegiate style, was designed in 1923 by U.C. professor Stafford L. Jory. In 1966, it was taken over by the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. In recent years it was reclaimed by its owner, the Episcopal Church Divinity School of the Pacific, given a complete overhaul, and renamed Easton Hall.

Alpha Tau Omega Chapter House, 2465 Le Conte Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

A neighboring brick building, housing Graduate Theological Union offices at 2465 Le Conte Avenue, began its life in 1924 as the Alpha Tau Omega house. Designed by John K. Ballantine in a formal Colonial Revival style, it resembled the original chapter house that burned down the previous year. Two doors to the east, the Franciscan School of Theology at 1712 Euclid Avenue occupies the former Tau Kappa Epsilon (later Zeta Beta Tau) house, an English-style stucco building designed in 1924 by Masten & Hurd.

Tau Kappa Epsilon Chapter House, 1712 Euclid Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

Also in 1924, Masten & Hurd designed the Del Rey Club’s house at 1727 Euclid Avenue. This charming Spanish Colonial building was the seat of the Unification Church in the 1970s and now houses the Yun Lin Temple Cultural Center of Black Sect Tantric Buddhism. The adherents of this new religious movement, established in California in 1986, have been known to leave peeled dyed eggs at neighbors’ doorsteps on festive occasions. Unfortunately, they have also allowed the paint to peel off the windows and have added an unsympathetic iron fence, ten flagpoles, and a gaudily painted path to the front door.

Del Rey Club House, 1727 Euclid Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

The elegant brick building at 2510 Le Conte Avenue began life in 1927 as the Pi Kappa Phi house, designed by Wesley A. Talley and constructed by the Fidelity Mortgage Co., a company co-founded by architect Walter H. Ratcliff. In 1943, Ratcliff converted the building to 13 apartments for war housing. The Dominican School now uses it to house its students.

Pi Kappa Phi Chapter House, 2510 Le Conte Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2010)

A former fraternity house at 1755 Le Roy Avenue was built as a fabled private residence in 1896. Berkeley’s first clinker-brick house, Weltevreden was designed by the Hearsts’ architect, Albert C. Schweinfurth, for the Moody family and did not become the Lambda Chi Alpha house until the mid-1920s. After the City of Berkeley condemned the building in 1957, the fraternity hired architect Michael Goodman to alter it, much to its detriment. Since the 1970s, it has housed the Cal Band as Tellefsen Hall.

Lambda Chi Alpha Chapter House, originally Weltevreden, 1755 Le Roy Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

The sole Northside fraternity house still fulfilling its original function is the Alpha Chi Sigma house at 2627 Virginia Street. This Mediterranean-style building was designed by Walter H. Ratcliff in 1931 and continues to house its original occupant.

Alpha Chi Sigma Chapter House, 2627 Virginia St. (BAHA archives)

A chemists’ fraternity, Alpha Chi Sigma was the only one not forced to move south of the campus. The reason may lie in the studious nature of the residents or in their building’s distance from campus. An attempt to probe the reason was unsuccessful, as nobody at the house answered the phone.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 4 February 2010.


Copyright © 2010–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.