The shrinking legacy of Volney D. Moody
and his heirs

Daniella Thompson

The Moody-Maurer party on its way to the Big Game in their Pope-Hartford convertible. Oscar Maurer is at the wheel. (BAHA archives, courtesy of Marci Thomas)

6 July 2008

When pioneer banker Volney D. Moody died in March 1901, he left an estate worth over $600,000—the equivalent of many millions today. Moody’s will earmarked two-fifths of the estate to his second wife, Mary Moody, with the remaining three-fifths going to a son and two daughters from his first marriage. Displeased with their share, the three offspring contested the will. Some of the objections they cited were the unusually large portion left to the widow, the preponderance of choice properties she received, leaving them the dregs, and her two daughters being made beneficiaries of her share.

Under a compromise agreement reached by the two parties, the estate was redivided, Mrs. Moody receiving a third and the three children two-thirds. Both sides ended up with valuable properties in downtown Oakland, which they eventually developed.

Mary Moody continued to live at Weltevreden, her showplace house on the corner of Le Roy and Le Conte Avenues. Mary’s daughters, the widowed May Gray and the single Margaret “Madge” Robinson, lived with her. May taught music, while Madge devoted much of her time and energy to cultivating the Hillside Club, which she co-founded in October 1898 and of which she was the principal spokesperson in its early days. While the club was still in its infancy, Madge published an article on hillside building in The House Beautiful. On 19 May 1901, when the club’s membership numbered only 24 women, Madge scored a second publicity coup by securing full-page coverage for the organization in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Call. The article “Artistic Homes in Berkeley” included photographs of eight hillside houses that embodied the club’s tenets, as well as one of the newly completed Hillside School, a brown-shingle structure with overhanging eaves designed by Bruce Price, who pronounced that “the California hills are brown, therefore the houses should be brown.” Built under the club’s auspices, the school was run by principal Clara Germain Potwin (1850–1907), a Hillside Club member.

Northside homes featured, clockwise from left: Prof. F.B. Dresslar, Mary Moody, Charles Keeler, William Atterbury, Joseph Davy, Williston Davis, Lilian Bridgman, Horace Parsons. Center: Hillside School. (San Francisco Call, 19 May 1901)

It was a time when new construction overtook the Berkeley Hills, until then sprouting mainly grasses and coast live oaks. Club members were determined to “protect the hills of Berkeley from unsightly grading, and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses, to do all in our power to beautify these hills and, above all, to create and encourage a decided public opinion on these subjects.” At their fortnightly meetings, members presented papers on a wide range of related topics, from siting and design to foundations, drainage, materials, and maintenance. They collected sketches and photographs of hillside houses, which were kept in a portfolio available to all prospective homebuilders. They also formed an advisory board, chaired by Madge Robinson, “for consultation with all who need help or suggestions.”

In 1903, Madge married the prominent Pictorialist photographer Oscar Maurer (1871–1965), who soon moved into Weltevreden. After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his San Francisco studio, Maurer commissioned Bernard Maybeck to build him a new studio across the street from Weltevreden, and his parents and brother settled next door in a Mission Revival house.

Madge continued to make appearances in the press, photographed by her husband in outlandish hats. On 24 July 1906, when the San Francisco Call announced the completion of the Hillside Club building on Cedar Street, the portrait of Mrs. Oscar Maurer, chair of the committee on furnishing, was considerably larger than the drawing of the Maybeck-designed clubhouse.

More construction was to come. On 1 December 1912, the Oakland Tribune revealed that a permit had been taken out for the erection of a seven-story reinforced concrete office building on the northeast corner of 20th Street and San Pablo Avenue, in downtown Oakland. The applicants were May V. Gray and Margaret F. Maurer, whose mother had transferred the property to them.

Mrs. Oscar Maurer in a a portrait by her husband overlays Maybeck’s design for the Hillside Club. (San Francisco Call, 24 July 1906)

To design the building, May and Madge selected William Lee Woollett (1874–1955). A native of Albany, New York, Woollett was a third-generation architect who had come to the Bay Area after the 1906 earthquake. Almost immediately, he settled in Berkeley, renting Charles Keeler’s Maybeck-designed house on the corner of Ridge Road and Highland Place. Woollett was thus a close neighbor of the Moodys and a sympathizer with their views on building. Moreover, in picking him the clients were not buying a pig in a poke: Woollett had already completed the 10-story Realty Syndicate Building at 1440 Broadway for Francis Marion “Borax” Smith and his partner, Frank Colton Havens.

Excavation for the office building was finished in early January 1913, but in late March it was announced that the $100,000 structure would become a hotel. It was just one of a dozen hostelries going up in downtown Oakland in anticipation of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which opened on February 20, 1915.

The hotel building was leased to the Frenchman Julien Vayssi� for $39,296 over five years. Vayssi�, who also ran the Hotel Shasta on Kearny and Bush Streets in San Francisco, opened his Oakland hostelry in January 1914 under the name Hotel Royal.

The Moody hotel under construction (Oakland Tribune, 28 Sept. 1913)

Hotel Royal on a postcard (Oakland Heritage Alliance)

No sooner was the hotel in business than the other Moody faction announced that it was building a 3-story commercial building at 564 14th Street, between the Taft & Pennoyer department store and the John M. Locke Building. This had been the site of Volney Moody’s first Oakland house, built in 1874. Moody had willed the lot to his second wife, but under the compromise settlement, it was transferred to his three children. Now Nellie E. Blood and Jessie L. Appleton (their brother, William C. Moody, had died in 1910) proposed to spend $60,000 or more for the “first store and loft building of Class A construction to be erected in Oakland other than the large department stores.”

Known these days as the Blood-Appleton Building, it was designed by Charles W. Dickey, architect of the Claremont Hotel and Kahn’s Department Store. ”The front,” related the Tribune on July 19, 1914, “is in the colonial renaissance style of architecture, and will be executed in mat-glazed pure white terra cotta, plate glass and bronze. The foundations and steel frame are designed for an eight-story building with the idea that the other five stories will be added as soon as warranted by business.”

Meanwhile, in Berkeley, May Gray remarried at the age of 45, after 15 years of widowhood. The bridegroom, George Eathl Stone, was a 25-year-old science student at U.C. who would soon become one of the pioneers of educational cinematography. Collaborating with Joseph A. Long, assistant professor of embryology, Stone made one of the earliest science teaching films produced in this country. The American Museum of Natural History, which possesses a rare copy of “How Life Begins,” provides a description of this 36-minute film: “Through captions, diagrams, and motion pictures, the film explains the processes involved in the development of various cells into mature life forms. Examples of cell development in microscopic yeast, plants, sea urchins, butterflies, and chickens are followed by an examination of mammalian embryo development. Detailed observations of rat development lead to explanations of human development.”

“Morning Glory,” stereograph by George E. Stone, 1925 (Library of Congress)

In those days, the University of California did not have filmmaking facilities, but this presented no problem, given the Moody wherewithal. Mary Moody owned a lot adjacent to Weltevreden. There she built a one-story, 3-room board & batten structure. The building permit, dated 29 October 1914, specified the use as ’studio.’ In one of the Sanborn fire insurance maps, this studio was labeled ’private laboratory.’ It requires no leap of imagination to conclude that this was the studio where George E. Stone made “How Life Begins.” The film was screened in academic circles and received an admiring review from the Journal of Heredity in 1917. An ad in the same issue proclaimed, “This picture represents a new and practical method of visualizing the processes of reproduction of animal and plantlife and marks a great epoch in the teaching of biology. Endorsed by prominent scientists, teachers, ministers, welfare workers and educators all over the country.”

“Carmel Mission,” stereograph by George E. Stone, 1925 (Library of Congress)

In the early 1920s, the Stones and Mrs. Moody moved to Carmel, where George continued to make educational and documentary films in another private studio. The Maurers, who had established themselves in Los Angeles, divorced. Weltevreden was abandoned by the family. It escaped the great fire of 1923 but not the ravages inflicted by a mushrooming population. By the mid-’20s, it had become the Mu Zeta chapter house of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

Brutally remodeled into a student dormitory, Weltevreden is a shadow of its former self. (Daniella Thompson, 2008)

In the mid-1950s, Weltevreden was condemned. It was “saved” in 1957 by Modernist architect Michael Goodman, who enlarged it to accommodate forty-four residents by removing the stepped gable ends and adding a full third story and a kitchen-and-library wing on the eastern end. The ground-floor veranda and the second-floor balcony were enclosed, and the two upper floors were clad in stucco, leaving clinker brick only on the ground floor. The superimposition of a utilitarian 1950s box onto the rustic Arts & Crafts house did nothing to preserve its beauty.

The altered south fa�ade: the bridge is intact, but the oak trees are gone (Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Only a decade after the remodel, fraternity memberships were declining, and by 1973, the Mu Zeta chapter could no longer afford to maintain the house. The University of California Marching Band, having outgrown its own house at 2421 Prospect Avenue, offered Lambda Chi Alpha a trade, and Weltevreden became Tellefsen Hall. Designated a City of Berkeley Structure of Merit in August 1990, Weltevreden is a mere shadow of its former self. Not a single oak tree remains on the property, and the front garden has become a barren parking lot.

George E. Stone’s pioneering film laboratory was converted into a charming residence in 1926. (Daniella Thompson, 2008)

George E. Stone’s studio at 2634 Le Conte Ave. fared better. In 1926, it was acquired by Margaret Dornin, curator of the Morrison Library, who converted it into a creekside Arts & Crafts dwelling and lived in it until her death in 1938. It retains its charm and oak trees to this day.

Business never warranted the upward expansion of the Blood-Appleton Building, which remains a 3-floor affair, now facing the 18-story Ronald Dellums Federal Building across 14th Street. Its original fa�ade is still intact, and the structure is listed as a contributor to the Downtown Oakland Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Hotel Royal at 2000 San Pablo Avenue met a sadder fate. Neglected for years, the run-down establishment closed about a decade ago. Requiring a costly seismic and code upgrade, it was demolished in 2004 and has been replaced with a nondescript 4-story building for the Alameda County Social Services Agency, financed by a bond measure. The developer, Alan Dones, also demolished the Oakland Post building next door. Oaklanders can take cold comfort from the name of Dones’ development. It’s called Thomas L. Berkley Square, after the Post’s late publisher.

Part 1  Part 2

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 10 July 2008.




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