Charles Manning MacGregor, indefatigable builder

Daniella Thompson

This MacGregor cottage at 2960 Pine Avenue exudes a palpable country atmosphere. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

30 November 2006

Between 1900 and 1910, Berkeley’s population more than tripled, from 13,214 to 40,434 inhabitants. Much of the growth was stimulated by the flight of thousands of San Franciscans to the East Bay following the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The disaster heralded an unprecedented building boom on this side of the bay.

On 19 September 1906, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that 135 building permits had been issued since the beginning of that month.

That day alone, 32 permits were issued to one man: “C.M. MacGregor of 519 Thirty-Second Street, Oakland, who is to commence the immediate construction of twelve $1,500 cottages on Peralta Avenue, North of Hopkins between the Santa Fe railroad and the Peralta Park Hotel and twenty $1,900 cottages on Pine Street, near Webster. The fees for these permits alone amounted to $116.”

A dormer on Pine Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Charles Manning MacGregor (1871–1954), a.k.a. “One-Nail MacGregor,” was born in Nova Scotia. While still in his teens, he joined his sister in Boston, where he learned carpentry. A brother living in California persuaded Charles that there were opportunities in construction here, and in 1889 he moved to Oakland.

Having begun as a carpenter for hire, the thrifty MacGregor soon accumulated sufficient savings to become a builder and real-estate entrepreneur. His first house of record, a 6-room cottage constructed at a cost of $1,160, went up in 1896.

Between 1898 and 1906, MacGregor’s name frequently appeared on building permits for houses designed by well-known architects such as A.W. Smith, Leo N. Nichols, Maxwell G. Bugbee, William Knowles, Coxhead & Coxhead, Albert Farr, and Bakewell & Brown.

Many of his early houses were built in San Francisco, Alameda, and the nascent Piedmont, where he lived from 1909 until his death, and where he continued to build in the 1910s and ’20s.

By 1904, MacGregor had begun to design his own buildings, which he would do exclusively from 1906 onwards, until his projects grew too vast.

One of the largest projects built by MacGregor in the post-earthquake period is the Madison Park Apartments (1908) at 9th and Oak streets in central Oakland. This handsome five-story, 98-unit Edwardian-style building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

2931 Pine Avenue: half-timbered gable, multi-paned clerestory window, and paired square porch posts (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Apartment buildings notwithstanding, the builder was best known for his cottages. He often bought lots that were odd-sized or smaller than average and therefore less in demand by his competitors. Rather than employ an architect or use ready-made plans from pattern books, MacGregor hired a draftsman with architectural training.

Having assumed the presidency of an Oakland lumber company, he was perfectly positioned to offer home buyers a one-stop shop at competitive prices.

Along the way, he acquired the moniker “One-Nail MacGregor,” either for his thriftiness or for never sparing an extra nail. He certainly brought both qualities to bear on his projects, which were affordable and built to last.

2956 Pine Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

All 32 cottages for which he obtained building permits on 19 September 1906 still stand. The twenty that line Pine Avenue between Ashby Avenue and Webster Street make up a charming, village-like enclave that is unique in Berkeley.

Mixing Craftsman and Colonial Revival elements, the Pine Avenue cottages are modest yet playful, with enough stylistic variations to make each one stand apart. Unifying the ensemble and the entire block are a common scale and repeated design elements such as half-timbered gables, square porch posts, and multi-paned clerestory windows.

2949 Pine Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Remarkably, these cottages, now 100 years old, have undergone few alterations over the past century, and MacGregor’s vision for the street is virtually intact. The 12 cottages on Peralta Avenue between Hopkins and Gilman streets did not fare as well. All but one or two have been visibly altered, and not always successfully. What would account for the dramatic difference between the two groups?

Unlike their Pine Avenue brethren, which occupy an entire block, the Peralta Ave. cottages share the block with other, non-MacGregor houses. Whereas Pine Ave. is a narrow, intimate street, Peralta Avenue is wide and impersonal. The sense of place and the ensemble feel that are so resonant on Pine Avenue have never developed here.

1314 and 1321 Peralta Avenue: The country ambiance turns suburban. (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Although the Peralta Avenue cottages were built for more modest pocketbooks ($1,500 vs. $1,900 on Pine Avenue), they are attractive and well-made, featuring many of the same design elements seen on Pine Avenue. Yet as realtors often remind us, location, location, location is key. Magic on Pine Avenue, ho-hum on Peralta. One is a village, the other, a suburb. This fundamental difference in ambiance is what fostered respect for precedent on Pine Avenue and lack of it on Peralta.

Of course, these 1906 cottages were only an episode in MacGregor’s career, which continued in full force for several decades. With Harry Webb, he was responsible for developing significant parts of Ashby Station. By the age of 36, he had built 600 homes.

MacGregor built the Harry H. Webb house at 2935
Otis Street in 1904. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

MacGregor is best known for having built over 1,500 homes in Albany, where he began to develop tracts in the late 1920s. The Depression did not slow him down, since his working and selling methods were particularly suited to the circumstances. He eliminated the need for subcontractors by directly employing carpenters, lathmen, plasterers, painters, and finish craftsmen. He pioneered the practice of building several houses concurrently, thus keeping his crews continuously employed. He also evolved the “rent to own” policy, helping young families to acquire a home gradually.

In 1936, his vast projects in Albany prompted MacGregor to move his office from Oakland to Solano Avenue. For many years, Albany celebrated MacGregor Day. His houses stand as proof that thrift and quality need not be mutually exclusive.

The writer is indebted to Gail Lombardi and Dale Smith for their research.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 15 December 2006.


Copyright © 2006–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.