The Niehaus-Rosano Building is a reminder of Ocean View’s melting-pot past.

Daniella Thompson

8 January 2020

2028 Ninth Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

The singular Stick-style Victorian building standing at 2028 Ninth Street and Addison is familiar to many a Berkeleyan primarily for the Drink NEHI sign painted on its northern wall. This sign evokes the days when a succession of grocery stores on the ground floor supplied this West Berkeley neighborhood with its comestibles. Yet the building, unusually ornate on the upper floor and decidedly plain below, poses many questions that had remained unanswered for decades. The recently uncovered answers are as fascinating as they are convoluted, forming a concatenation of early West Berkeley figures, some better known than others. Before we tackle the origins of the building itself, we will present the chain of events that led to its existence.

Charles Schnelle

The first character in this story was an early Berkeley farmer and civic figure. Charles Schnelle (1826–1905) was born in Hanover, Lower Saxony. He arrived in the United States in the early 1850s and was naturalized in San Francisco in 1859, according to his first voter registration in 1867. He may have staked a claim to his Ocean View land in 1861, but what is clearly documented is the fact that in 1867 he was already farming in what was then known as the Temescal District of Oakland Township. His home was located on the northwest corner of Tenth Street and University Avenue. His only son, Charles Louis Schnelle, was born here in 1868.

Bishop’s Oakland Directory, 1876–77

Schnelle was a tallish man for his time, with a light complexion, blue eyes, and brown hair (this we know from one of his voter registration records). He was married three times but survived all his wives, whose life histories have disappeared into the mists of time. One of those wives had two daughters from a previous marriage.

Schnelle’s undivided blocks in the BLTIA Tract B map, 1874

In 1878, Charles Schnelle was assessed for land covering a dozen whole or partial city blocks. His holding was surrounded by Tract B of the Berkeley Land and Town Improvement Association (BLTIA), which covered most of Ocean View. The BLTIA was formed in 1873 by Captain James Jacobs, August Rammelsburg, Henry Durant, and associates to promote the development of West Berkeley. In 1874, the BLTIA laid out its Tract B streets on a grid plan, with numbered blocks divided into lots. Schnelle’s land was shown in the tract map as numbered, yet undivided, blocks.

Berkeley was incorporated in 1878. Its first Board of Town Trustees included five men, one of whom was Charles Schnelle, who served only one year.

Bishop’s Oakland Directory, 1879–80

In 1880, Carnall & Eyre, dealers in Berkeley real estate, published a map of Berkeley tracts in which all the tracts containing lands for sale by Carnall & Eyre were colored. The Schnelle Tract blocks were shown but not colored.

The Schnelle Tract in Carnall & Eyre’s map of Berkeley, 1880 (David Rumsey Map Collection)

Before long, however, Schnelle got into the real estate business himself, selling lots directly to buyers. Two of his earliest sales were to Antonio Matteoda, an employee at Judson & Shepard’s San Francisco Chemical Works.

Daily Alta California, 7 March 1884

In March 1884, Schnelle sold to Matteoda lot 10 in block 98 of the Schnelle Tract for $500. Three months later, he sold him the adjoining lot to the west along Addison Street, numbered 11—this time for $200. The transactions were recorded in the Daily Alta California, the June sale erroneously reported as having taken place in block 97 instead of block 98.

Daily Alta California, 30 June 1884

The following year, Matteoda was assessed $1,000 for the lots, now improved with two cottages. Did Matteoda build the cottages, or did Schnelle? There was no assessment for the houses in 1884, but the higher purchase price for lot 10, where the cottages stood, would indicate that Schnelle might have built them for sale.

The photo below shows the two cottages standing on what used to be Matteoda’s lot 10.

2026 & 2022 Ninth Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

Antonio Matteoda

When he acquired his two lots from Charles Schnelle, Antonio Bartolomeo Matteoda (1851–1885) was in his early thirties. He was born in Acceglio, a mountainous town in the province of Cuneo, western Piemonte, near the Italian-French border. Both his parents died while Antonio was still in his teens. The circumstances of his arrival in the United States are unknown, but in 1877 he was already listed in the San Francisco city directory as a laborer at the San Francisco Chemical Works, residing on the corner of 15th and Valencia streets, next to the plant where he was employed, and where his employer, Egbert Judson, also lived.

San Francisco Directory, 1877

The year 1877 happens to have been the Chemical Works’ last full year in San Francisco. In his essay on the history of Ewing Field, Angus MacFarlane recounts:

In the early years the facility’s remote location was ideal for its purpose, but as the city expanded, it grew toward and then around the once-distant works. This brought increased complaints of noxious fumes and odors that not only killed flowers and delicate shrubbery, but also sickened and killed people in the district. Physicians refused to treat patients who lived near the works. By 1877 the constant complaints and petitions to City Hall resulted in the San Francisco Chemical Works being declared a public nuisance in a thickly settled neighborhood. In 1878 it moved to Berkeley and the block was cleared of the abandoned structures.

Bishop’s Oakland Directory, 1879–80

The 1879 Berkeley directory listed Antonio Matteoda as a teamster at the Chemical Works, residing at Highland House in West Berkeley. The Highland House’s own listing indicated Charles Lawrence proprietor, opp. Highland Station C. P. R. R. Charles Lawrence’s listing, in turn, identified him as superintendent Sulphur Works and proprietor Highland House, opp. Highland Station C. P. R. R. The Sulphur Powdering Mill was part of Judson & Shepard’s San Francisco Chemical Works, so it’s evident that the company provided its workers with housing near Highland Station. But where in West Berkeley was this train station?

Highland Station on a USGS topographic map, 1895. The name Nobel was mispelled as “Noble.”

As it turns out, the West Berkeley of 1879 extended unofficially as far north as Cerrito Creek and included Cerrito de San Antonio, known today as Albany Hill. Highland Station was located at the intersection of today’s Washington and Cleveland avenues, across the rail tracks from Fleming Point. The Judson & Shepard works were to be found at the foot of the hill, just south of the creek. The locale was known as Nobel, named after the inventor of dynamite.

Judson & Shepard’s Chemical Works in “Ocean View, now Albany” (detail from Map of Oakland and Vicinity published by the Realty Union, 1912)

Just as they had done in San Francisco, the workers of Judson’s factories lived near their jobs. One reason for their doing so in the East Bay was the poor state of public transportation. As late as 1900, none of Southern Pacific’s mainline passenger trains stopped in Berkeley. The local trains accommodated commuters to Oakland and San Francisco, but anyone working north of Berkeley was obliged to take a circuitous route via Oakland. An article published in the San Francisco Call on 4 February 1900 and titled Berkeley Is Not on Railroad Map posited:

A man whose work calls him to Highland station, a distance of one mile from Berkeley, must either walk or take the local train to the Sixteenth-street station, Oakland, wait for the northbound Sacramento local and ride to his destination. That will consume at least an hour of his time, whereas if the trains stopped at Berkeley the trip could easily be made in a few minutes.

The year 1884 was a significant one in Antonio Matteoda’s life. Having acquired his two parcels from Charles Schnelle, Matteoda was naturalized and registered to vote on 5 August 1884. The following year, his Berkeley property was assessed for the first and only time in his life. The valuation was $1,000.

On 22 February 1885, Antonio Matteoda died, aged 34 years and 11 days. The cause of his death was not published, but his place of death, reported as Fleming Point, suggests an industrial accident. Antonio Matteoda never married. His only heir was an older brother, Morizzio Matteoda, who lived in Italy and arrived on 20 April 1885 on board the S.S. Normandie to claim his inheritance.

Antonio Matteoda died intestate. His brother enlisted the help of Antonio’s employers in dealing with the probate court, but his petition to have John L. N. Shepard appointed executor of the estate was denied. Shepard was the one who itemized Antonio Matteoda’s real and personal property for the court. The real estate was described as “a lot of land in the town of Berkeley in [Alameda] County, 77 feet by 100, with two cottage houses thereon, worth with the improvements say $2500.00.”

The final probate court description of the parcel was as follows:

All that certain Lot, piece or parcel of land situate and being in the Town of Berkeley, County of Alameda State of California and bounded and described as follows limit: Commencing at the point of intersection of the Northerly line of Addison Street with the Westerly line of Ninth Street; running thence Northerly along said line of Ninth Street One hundred (100) feet thence Westerly parallel with Addison Street Seventy Seven (77) feet, thence Southerly parallel with Ninth Street One hundred (100) feet to the said Northerly line of Addison Street and thence Easterly on said line line Seventy Seven (77) feet to the limit of beginning.

Being a portion of Block No. Ninety Eight in Subdivision of Lands of Berkeley Land and Town Improvement Association together with the improvements thereon.

Done in open Court this 15th day of October 1885.

The former Matteoda parcel with lot lines redrawn in the current Alameda County Assessor’s Map

Morizzio Matteoda had no intention of holding on to his brother’s real estate, since he was returning to Italy. The probate court documents show that he sold the property to Shepard’s partner, Egbert Judson, on 8 June 1885.

Egbert Putnam Judson (Mining & Scientific Press, 1893)

Egbert Judson

Bishop’s Oakland Directory, 1878–79

Of all the owners of lots 10 and 11 in block 98 of the Schnelle Tract (later absorbed into Tract B of the BLTIA), by far the most illustrious was Egbert Putnam Judson (1812–1893). He is the only one who merited a front-page obituary in the Mining and Scientific Press, followed by an almost identical article in the Scientific American Supplement.

His life, in a nutshell, was summarized thus in Who Was Who in America (1963):

JUDSON, Egbert Putnam, inventor, explosives mfr ; b. Syracuse, N.Y., Aug. 9, 1812; s. William and Charlotte (Putnam) J. Founder 1st assay works in San Francisco, 1852; an organizer San Francisco Chem. Works (later Judson & Sheppard), 1867; dlr. Giant Powder Co.; founder Judson Powder Co., Kenvil, N.J.; patentee Giant Powder, No. 2, 1873, “gentle” blasting powder, 1876; founder Judson Fuse Works, Judson Iron Works, Judson Candle Works, Butterworth & Judson Chem. Works; pres. Judson Mfg. Co., Cal. Paper Co. Died San Francisco. Jan. 9, 1893.

It’s instructive to read the full obituary published in the Mining and Scientific Press on 11 March 1893:

The Late Egbert Judson.

Egbert Judson, who died this week, was distinguished among the millionaires of this city as being an original investor in manufacturing enterprises instead of a cent-per-cent man. And not only did he invest his money in industrial enterprises, but he originated and established them, afterward taking an active personal interest in the conduct of their affairs. It has been unfortunate for the city and State that there were not more rich men like him in this respect.

He seemed to possess a remarkable faculty for organizing and building up manufacturing establishments, and his means has been such that wherever he has given his attention, it has brought the confidence of others who have been willing to put in their capital. He not only possessed great executive ability, but was always willing and able to take off his coat, go to work, and show how a thing should be done. There was nothing of the “kid-glove expert” about Mr. Judson, who was a plain man, but one with a great deal of practical experience and plain good sense. All who have been associated with him speak highly of his integrity, industry and ability.

Mr. Judson came to California in 1850 and went to the mines. After a year he went East and returned in 1852. It is said he started the first assaying office San Francisco ever had. In 1855 he became interested in the San Francisco Chemical Works and the manufacture of acid. Years ago he invested in hydraulic mines in Nevada and Butte counties, and was the first man to successfully carry water through a wrought-iron pipe passing down one side of a ravine and up the other under a 900-foot pressure. He made his own engineering calculations for this inverted siphon, and the credit of its success was wholly due to him. He was still interested in hydraulic mining up to his death, being one of the principal owners in the North Bloomfield mines, the largest hydraulic mines in the State. He was the principal owner in the Kennedy mine, Amador county, now the leading gold-producer among the quartz properties of California. As showing Mr. Judson’s willingness to advance a variety of interests, the following are given as a few of the enterprises in which he was a large owner: Judson Manufacturing Company; Judson Dynamite and Powder Company; California Paper Company; Western Fuse and Explosives Company; San Francisco Candle Works; San Francisco Chemical Works; California Pulp Works; Sather Bank; Pioneer Pulp Company; chemical works at Newark, N. J.

In the powder business of this city Mr. Judson was a most prominent factor. He was one of the originators of the Giant Powder Co., the first to manufacture high explosives on this coast. Not long after he invented and patented the Judson powder for bank-blasting, a substance which soon displaced others in gravel-mining work. The original high explosives were composed of nitroglycerin and absorbents; but this powder consisted of particles of black powder rendered nonabsorbent by a peculiar process, mixed with nitroglycerin so that the nitroglycerin remained on the surface. Only a small proportion of nitroglycerin was used, but the powder was found to be peculiarly effective. The sales of the new product were immense, and the substance was patented all over the world.

Only a few years since, Mr. Judson organized the Judson Dynamite and Powder Co., and built very extensive works on the bay shore in Alameda county, the largest powder works at the time on the coast. In forming this company he associated with him some of the most prominent men and largest mine owners in this State, all directly interested in the development of the mineral industry of the coast. Their idea of joining together to manufacture blasting powder was the result of their determination to avoid the payment of the high rates previously charged for explosives. This company soon brought the price of powder down from 18 cents to 12 cents a pound. Mr. Judson had previously left the Giant Powder Co. and disposed of all his stock in it.

Simplicity of habits and mind were marked characteristics of Mr. Judson. Notwithstanding his great wealth, he never asserted himself or sought for any prominence. If he had a weak point in business, it was that he was a little too frank himself because he thought other people were equally honest. It was a hobby with him that the enterprises with which his name was identified should become successful and advance the manufacturing industries of California. He thought more of this than of the money they would make for him. His last enterprise, the Judson Dynamite and Powder Co., was his greatest, and one which has been successful and profitable from its inception. It was somewhat surprising that at his advanced age he should start such a large new industry and his business rivals were not pleased at his efforts in this direction, particularly as they resulted in such a sweeping reduction of the products manufactured.

The exact amount of Mr. Judson’s estate is not known, but it is doubtless between $2,000,000 and $3,000,000. He was an unmarried man and leaves the estate to his four nephews and nieces, who are to receive the income for ten years, at the end of which time the property is to be divided. It is the desire of testator that the executors and trustees shall continue business jointly with J. L. N. Shepard for ten years. A codicil dated October 5, 1888, provides that the above request is not to be construed as exclusive of any other partnership 0r joint venture in which testator may be interested at the time of his death, and the directors are authorized to continue any and all business in which testator may be a partner at the time of his death, with the same powers as himself if living.

This codicil well illustrates the absolute singleness of purpose of Mr. Judson. He simply did this so that the men associated with him in business would be put to no inconvenience because he was taken away.

Active work was an essential feature of Mr. Judson’s career, and he kept “in harness” until the end of his life, yet he was a man almost 81 years of age. At the time [July 1892] of the explosion of the Giant Powder works at Fleming’s point he was a short distance away and jumped in his buggy to drive over to the scene. The horse ran away with him, going toward the fire. Just then the second explosion occurred, and Mr. Judson was thrown violently to the ground, being not many hundred feet from the magazine. He was permanently deafened in one ear and received some internal shock which undoubtedly hastened his death.

Judson Dynamite & Powder Co. (Alameda County, the Eden of the Pacific, 1898)

Judson Dynamite & Powder Co. (Alameda County, the Eden of the Pacific, 1898)

Judson Dynamite & Powder Co. (Alameda County, the Eden of the Pacific, 1898)

Egbert Judson held onto the former Matteoda parcel for three years but never resided there. A lifelong bachelor, Judson had always lived with his brother James’s family. Even after James’s death in 1883, Egbert continued to share living quarters with his nephew’s family, dividing his time between Fleming Point and his old San Francisco residence on Valencia Street.

In March 1888, Egbert Judson sold the former Matteoda property to another of his employees, Lodovico Rosano, for $1,600.

Daily Alta California, 14 March 1888 (with typographic errors)

Lodovico & Giulia Rosano

Lodovico Rosano (1858–1909) was a compatriot, colleague, and friend of Antonio Matteoda. He, too, hailed from Acceglio and may have followed Matteoda to California after hearing of the attractive job prospects available here. Rosano immigrated in 1883 and was naturalized five years later in Alameda County. According to an article published on 25 January 1907 in the San Francisco Call, Rosano had been engaged in the manufacture of acids since he was 18 years of age. He had worked in European chemical factories before coming to America and was considered an expert in this field. Following Matteoda’s death, it was Rosano who appeared as a witness to vouch for the identity of Matteoda’s brother, Morizzio.

There is no record showing where Lodovico Rosano lived before he acquired the former Matteoda property from Egbert Judson. One would assume that he lived in the company’s worker housing near the factory, as did most of the unmarried employees.

Why did Lodovico Rosano wait until March 1888 to purchase his deceased friend’s house? Two reasons come to mind. At the time of Matteoda’s death, Lodovico had been living in California only two years or less and had not yet earned enough to buy real estate. The main reason, however, was Lodovico’s upcoming marriage. Somewhere, he had met Giulia Nave (1863–1943), who had arrived in the U.S. in 1885, and the two married in Berkeley on 16 April 1888. Officiating was the Very Rev. Pierce Michael Comerford, D.D., rector of St. Joseph’s Church.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, whose rector married the Rosanos (Bird’s-eye View of Berkeley, 1891)

When the city directory was published in October 1888, Rosano was listed at his new home.

McKenney’s Berkeley Directory, October 1888

Lodovico Rosano’s first property tax assessments were made in 1889. They showed that Rosano owned not only the 77’x100’ corner parcel at 2028 Ninth Street (which also included today’s separate addresses at 2022 and 2026 Ninth Street) but also an improved parcel at 933 Addison Street. The house on this parcel served as a source of rental income.

The Rosano parcels as shown in a 1903 Sanborn map

San Francisco Call, 11 December 1898

Ten years following their marriage, the Rosanos produced their first child, August. Two years later, their daughter Virginia was born. While Lodovico was still manufacturing acids at Judson & Shepard’s chemical works, the Rosanos continued to invest in real estate. In July 1900, they purchased from Charles Schnelle a Victorian house at 2010 Tenth Street. In December 1901, they acquired 2014 Eighth Street from their neighbors, the Semeria family (the house no longer exists).

2010 Tenth Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

In 1905, the Rosanos built a one-story Colonia Revival cottage at 1922 Tenth Street. This structure, which still exists in its original form, albeit behind a high fence, was erected next door to Charles Schnelle’s former residence, an Italianate house that has since been moved to the Delaware Street Historic District. The contractor who built the cottage for the Rosanos was Fred Offe, the husband of one of Schnelle’s step-daughters.

Finally, in August 1906, the Rosanos crowned their investment portfolio with the purchase of the former Adolph Niehaus residence at 1725 Eighth Street. We will return to the Rosanos after a pause, in which we’ll introduce the next player in the saga of 2028 Ninth Street.

Adolph Niehaus

The Niehaus Brothers’ West Berkeley Planing Mill (Bird’s-eye View of Berkeley, 1891)

Charles William Adolph Niehaus (1872–1913) was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the eldest child of Otto Gerhardt Henry Niehaus (1846–1906) and his wife, Johanna Elizabetha Doeppenschmidt. The Niehauses were an important West Berkeley family. In the mid-1870s, Otto’s younger brother, Edward F. Niehaus, co-founded the West Berkeley Planing Mill, where a second brother, Ernest Niehaus, also worked. Otto Niehaus, who had immigrated from Germany in 1865 and settled first in Jersey City, moved to Berkeley with his wife and children circa 1885 and joined the Niehaus Bros. business as co-owner. As befitting the proprietor of a planing mill, Otto built for his family an elaborately ornamented residence at 1728 Ninth Street.

Otto Niehaus residence, 1728 Ninth Street (Bird’s-eye View of Berkeley, 1891)

Adolph began working in the family business while still in his teens. At the age of 15, he was already listed in the Berkeley directory as a wood turner at the West Berkeley Planing Mill. With the exception of one year, 1893, when he tried his hand at professional photography, Adolph worked for Niehaus Bros. & Co. steadily for 14 years, progressing from turner to band sawyer, machine hand, and engineer.

Back-to-back Niehaus homes on Eighth & Ninth streets (Sanborn map, 1903)

In November 1898, aged 26, Adolph married Friedericke (Freda) Siebe. Having resided until then in his parents’ house, he now built his bride a new residence at 1725 Eight Street. The lot, purchased from Carl and Alice Jensen, backed onto his parents’ property. Although built on a smaller lot than his parants’, his house appears to have been just as large as theirs. Based on what we can see of it today, Adolph’s house was also a showcase for the wood turner’s craft.

Gable ornament from Adolph Niehaus residence (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

Brackets and cornice ornaments from Adolph Niehaus residence (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

On 15 August 1901, fire gutted the West Berkeley Planing Mill, and the Niehaus Bros. business ceased to exist. Adolph went to work for his uncle Edward, who had established a lumber business in San Francisco.

The charred remains of the Niehaus Brothers’ West Berkeley Planing Mill, destroyed in 1901 (Heywood family collection)

The 1906 Berkeley directory indicated that Adolph had moved to San Francisco. Otto Niehaus died on 17 April 1906, a day before the great earthquake and fire struck San Francisco. In August of that year, Adolph and Freda Niehaus sold their West Berkeley house to Lodovico Rosano. They built a new house at 2123 Carleton Street, where Adolph died seven years later.

Lodovico Rosano loses his mind

All would have gone swimmingly for the enterprising Rosanos had Lodovico not gone mad. In December 1906, he took to staying up all night and threatening to drown himself. Saying that he was crazy, he built fires on top of the stove and threatened to kill his children. On 23 January 1907, his wife applied to Justice of the Peace Robert Edgar for his arrest on a charge of insanity, claiming that Lodovico had been driven insane by the nature of his employment at the acid works. The Oakland Tribune published the following account on the same day:

BERKELEY, Jan. 23. Alleging that her husband, Ludwig Rosano, has been driven insane by the nature of his employment at the acid works on the bay shore, Mrs. Julia Rosano applied to Judge Edgar this morning for his arrest on a charge of insanity. Mrs. Rosano is supported in her application for a warrant by Margaret Rosano, the sister of Ludwig. The two women say that Ludwig stays up all night and threatens to commit suicide by drowning himself.

The next day, on the order of Superior Court Judge Henry A. Melvin, a deputy sheriff delivered Lodovico to the Stockton State Hospital, where the examining physicians diagnosed acute mania. The supposed predisposing cause was given as “losses during recent earthquake,” although it’s not clear what if any losses had ever been suffered by the Rosanos. The financial statement line claimed “no property.” The real cause of Lodovico’s mania was relegated to the secondary rank of “Exciting,” where the note read “lead poisoning very likely.”

Stockton State Hospital, where Lodovico Rosano spent two years

A more revealing account was published in the San Francisco Call on 25 January 1907:

Inhalation of Lead-Laden Fumes Drives Ludwig Rosano Violently Insane

OAKLAND, Jan. 24.— Driven raving mad through inhaling for too many years nitric and sulphuric acid fumes laden with molecular particles of lead, Ludwig Rosano, 48 years old, a foreman at the works of the San Francisco Chemical Company in Berkeley, was committed today to the Stockton State Hospital by Judge Melvin. Dr. H. B. Mehrmann and Dr. O. D. Hamlin, the examining physicians, diagnosed his case as insanity due to lead poisoning, the lead having been taken into his system as a result of his work in the making of acids. Rosano has been engaged in the manufacture of acids since he was 18 years of age. He was considered an expert in this line. He worked in chemical factories in Europe before he came to America.

At certain stages in the processes of making the nitric and sulphuric acids the materials are held in lead chambers. It has been Rosano’s duty to watch these receptacles, from which fumes constantly arise, carrying with them minute particles of the metal, which the foreman has been breathing into his lungs for many years.

Mrs. Rosano, who resides at 2028 Ninth street, Berkeley, was deeply affected as she testified against her husband in court today. The victim of the lead poison talked incessantly and incoherently. He has lucid intervals, when he converses with remarkable intelligence on many subjects. There is a possibility that he may recover his reason at the asylum, as he will receive medical treatment there and will be removed from the source of the poison that has blighted his life.

Lodovico Rosano spent two years at the Stockton State Hospital. He was discharged on 14 January 1909 as “recovered.” In actuality, Lodovico returned home with cancer and was hospitalized at the Pacific Cancer Institute, 1813 University Avenue. This institution was run by the quack Grover C. Bohannon and offered cancer treatments without surgery or radiation. “Cancer antitoxin is injected into the mass, at once destroying the growth,” promised the ads. Bohannon got away with his quackery for decades. It was not until 1930 that he was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to violate the Practice Act.

Bohannon’s Pacific Cancer Institute, 1813 University Avenue

Needless to say, Bohannon’s escharotic treatment did nothing to improve Lodovico Rosano’s condition. Not only did the cancer persist, but the lead-induced mania returned. On 26 February 1909, the San Francisco Call reported:

L. Rosano Brandishes Knife, Locks Door and Defies Police

BERKELEY, Feb. 25.— Terrorizing the nurses and women patients of the Bohannon Hospital for Cancer at 1813 University avenue, L. Rosano, a chemist, brandished a butcher knife last night and drove all the inmates who were able to run out into the street. He then took possession of the second floor, and locking the doors defied the police.

Detective Henry Jamison and Policeman Clarence Morrill succeeded in disarming Rosano, after breaking in the doors. He was taken to the receiving hospital, Oakland, where an insanity complaint was filed against him.

Rosano was confined in the Napa [sic] asylum a few years ago and had been a patient of the hospital for the last two months.

According to his wife, living at 2028 Ninth street, West Berkeley, he is about 55 years of age and became insane from overstudy.

Lodovico was readmitted to the Stockton State Hospital on 26 February 1909, this time on the order of Superior Court Judge William H. Waste. He was described as “talking incoherently and scrubbing the floor with bed pillows; violent, restless, and noisy; destructive and dangerous; excited and depressed; belligerently homicidal.” Once again he was diagnosed with acute mania, the supposed predisposing cause being given as “long continued employment in chemical works,” exacerbated by “cancer of jaw.” Facts indicating his insanity were noted: “Wants man and four horses from Presidio to convey him by water to Stockton. Continually talks at random. Imagines he is richest man in world, or believes he is a saint.” This time, too, his financial statement claimed “no property.”

Lodovico Rosano died on 30 April 1909. He left behind his wife Giulia, son August (1889–1971), daughter Virginia (1891–?), and Giulia’s niece, Clara Ghiorzo (1904–1989), who was being raised by the Rosanos.

The Rosanos after Lodovico

It’s doubtful that Lodovico Rosano received any worker’s compensation for his lead poisoning. While he was a patient at Stockton State Hospital, his children went to work. August, who left school after the eighth grade, became a plumber’s helper. Within a year, he was listed in the city directory as a plumber. Virginia worked for a couple of years as a glove maker at the Pacific Glove Works on Third Street between Camelia and Gilman. By 1910, however, Virginia had stopped working and soon disappeared from Berkeley. She made her way to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she met and married a Canadian by the name of S.L. Fleet.

Virginia (n�e Rosano) Fleet (Oakland Tribune, 11 August 1912)

In 1911, the Southern Pacific Railroad’s East Bay Electric Lines inaugurated a streetcar service that included the Ninth Street Line in Berkeley. This line connected Thousand Oaks with the Oakland Pier, and its tracks ran in front of the Rosanos’ residence. The introduction of the Ninth Street streetcar service coincided with August’s attaining his majority. These two factors are likely to have prompted Giulia’s decision to create a plumber’s shop for August on the home parcel.

The Rosanos’ home at 2028 Ninth Street was a modest one-story cottage and could not accommodate a plumber’s shop, but there was enough room on the parcel to accommodate another building.

The East Bay Electric Lines streetcar operated along Ninth Street beginning in 1911. (Sanborn map, 1911)

1725 Eighth Street when it belonged to Giulia Rosano (Sanborn map, 1911)

Giulia Rosano erects a store building

Thrifty Giulia Rosano had open space on the home parcel and a large house on a parcel situated a few blocks to the north. The solution was ready at hand. In July 1913, Giulia hired contractor Fred Offe again. Offe took out a permit to move the former Niehaus residence from 1725 Eight Street to 2028 Ninth Street.

Description of work to be done in permit No. 3041, July 1913

Building at present on Lot 22 Block 63, BL&TI, [?] B, to be one room taken off, extra joist put in, when moved to be raised 11 ft for store on one side or half of building. Foundation brick [with sketch].

The permit application went on to describe additional framing to strengthen the structure.

The 1914 city directory listed Augusto Rosano as a plumber doing business at 2028 Ninth Street and residing at 2026 Ninth, but the following year, the listing reverted to a single address (2028). By 1917, August had abandoned plumbing and joined the Berkeley Fire Department as a fireman. This job also didn’t last long, for in 1920, August was enumerated in the U.S. Census as having no occupation. Meanwhile, Clara Ghiorzo reached adulthood and went to work as a stenographer for Jerolomo and Harry J. Craviotto, father and son who owned two grocery stores and would later establish the West Brae Nursery at 2119 University Avenue.

933 Addison Street, a Victorian house converted to a duplex in 1923 by Giulia Rosano, shown in a 1949 photo (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

By 1920, the Rosanos had moved out of 2028 Ninth Street to 933 Addison Street. Giulia had plans for enlarging the latter property. Already in 1916, she had moved the house 16 feet to the east of the lot and reinforced its basement. In 1923, she raised it and added a new flat on the ground floor. Two years later, her niece Clara married Frank Poncino, and the young couple moved into the upstairs flat. The Rosanos and the Poncinos were still in residence in 1940. Both August Rosano and Frank Poncino worked as welders at the California Corrugated Culvert Company on Parker Street, between Fifth and Seventh streets.

The Rosano properties as shown in a 1929 Sanborn map

Letterhead of August Rosano’s employer, the California Corrugated Culvert Company

Giulia Rosano died in 1943. Her son August, still a bachelor, moved to 6046 Harwood Avenue and sold 933 Addison Street in 1949. By the 1970s, the duplex had deteriorated owing to lack of maintenance, a fate suffered by many other buildings in the district. West Berkeley historian Stephanie Manning recalls that the duplex became a notorious drug house and was eventually torn down. An apartment building was erected on the site in 1986.

The Beaupr� and MacDonald furniture stores

Baupr� business listing in the Oakland City Directory, 1939

In the second half of the 1930s, 2028 Ninth Street served as the home and furniture store of Irvin Vernon Beaupr� (1879–1970) and his wife Anna Mae (1890–1974), originally from Ohio. Already in his mid-fifties when the Beaupr�s moved to Berkeley, Irvin had a checkered career behind him. In the 1910s and early 1920s, he worked as a machinist and lathe operator in the automotive factories of Flint, Michigan. Later in the 1920s, the Beaupr�s and their children, whose number would eventually grow to five, moved to Santa Cruz, California. In the heady days before the crash of 1929, Irvin was engaged in real estate, but by 1930, he was working as a cook in a hospital. How the Beaupr�s entered the retail furniture business is unknown; they remained in Berkeley for about six years before decamping for Santa Barbara, where Irvin took up trucking.

The MacDonalds’ 1940 voter registration records

The Beaupr�s made several attempts to sell the building, the first being in 1939, but were unsuccessful until 1943. In the meantime, they leased the building and the store to Arthur Jay MacDonald (1883–1959) and his wife, Edna. Born in Shasta County, Arthur MacDonald had worked as a stationary engineer in a hospital and later in a hotel before going into the furniture business. Living with them at 2028 Ninth Street were their eldest son, Ray, who worked as a spray painter of furniture at the Peerless Built-In Fixture Co., 2608 San Pabloe Avenue; their married daughter, Lois Anderson; her husband, a teamster; and the Andersons’ baby daughter. By 1942, Arthur MacDonald was selling used furniture on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito.

The MacDonalds eventually purchased the building, only to sell it in 1944. The property changed hands twice more before being acquired in September 1945 by Chong Key Siu, aka Kenneth Siu, and his wife, Young Jin Quon.

Chong Key Siu, 1929 (U.S. Immigration Service)

The Key Market era

Chong Key Siu (1891–1961) was born in a village in Xiangshan County, Guangdong Province. According to deposition he made at Angel Island in 1917, he attended school until the age of 17 and then worked as a rice farmer for four years. In 1912, he emigrated to Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico, where he joined a Chinese grocery business. In November 1917, he arrived in the United States, but his admission was not authorized until September 1919, after he was proven to hold a bona fide interest of $500 in the Sing Kee and Quong Hop Co., a thriving business in Armona, Kings County, California. In late 1922, Chong Key married his first wife, Lillian May Lowe, in nearby Hanford. Their first child, Alberta Mae Siu, was born in Hanford in October 1923. By the time their second child, Arnold Joe, was born in January 1926, the Sius were living in San Francisco. A third child, Alwin Key, would be born there in December 1927.

Chong Key’s employment history included a stint as cashier in a San Francisco Chinatown cafe and another as a salesman at a meat market in San Jose. At some point, he and Lillian divorced, and Chong Key traveled to China, where he married Young Jin Quon in 1934 (she did not immigrate until 1939). Two children were born to them, the elder in 1935, in Guangdong Province, the younger in 1942, in San Francisco. The 1940 U.S. Census enumerated the Siu family at 949 Broadway, San Francisco. Chong Key was a partner in a poultry business, working 72 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and earning $720 a year. The Sius’ apartment rental was $24 per month. Alberta and Arnold were living with them and attending elementary school.

Key Market, 1957 (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

After acquiring the Rosano Building in 1945, the Sius opened a full-service grocery store called Key Market on the ground floor. The Drink NEHI sign painted on the northern wall probably dates from the Key Market days.

Nine Years after opening their market, the Sius were ready to retire and listed their building for sale. The asking price was $21,500, reduced two months later to $18,950. No buyer materialized. By now the Sius were living at 2322 Acton Street and more than eager to sell. In 1957, they relisted the property, advertised as “Large thriving grocery plus 2 bedroom apartment,” for $10,000, plus $2,800 for the inventory and $1,500 for the store fixtures. The next owner was one Rose Low, apparently an absentee landlord who held on to the building for a decade or so. The grocery store’s name was changed to McKenzie’s Market. It doesn’t appear to have lasted into the 1970s.

McKenzie’s Market no longer existed in 1979, but the sign was still up. (SHRI form, BAHA archives)

Rose Low sold the building to Valva Realty Co. in June 1970, and exactly a year later, Valva sold it to Floyd B. and Bessie L. Olson.

The famous NEHI sign (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019)

The Olson years

When Floyd and Bessie Olson, a Midwestern couple, acquired the Rosano Building in 1971, they were in their seventies. Their three children, born in Iowa between 1928 and 1936, were now between 35 and 43 years old and living their own lives. Floyd Burton Olson (1896–1985) had spent most of his working life as a plaster and cement salesman. In the late 1930s, the Olsons moved from Cedar Rapids to Phoenix, Arizona, where Floyd took a job with the Baker-Thomas Lime & Cement Co. Eventually, he rose to the position of general manager and assistant secretary-treasurer of the company.

Why did the Olsons purchase the Rosano Building as their retirement home? We have no idea. Their son, Robert Burton Olson (1929–2009), was already living in the Bay Area in the 1960s and possibly earlier. He was described by a former friend as a combination devil and saint. For reasons that are unclear, he changed his name more than once. First, he appended his mother’s maiden name to his father’s surname, becoming Robert Downing-Olson. Under this guise, he sold real estate and involved himself with the California Historical Society. According to one newspaper account, he was a member of the United Nations Charter revision commission. He may have created the Nob Hill Historical Society so he could appoint himself president and chairman (there is no record of this society existing before or after him). Cultivating a wide acquaintance with the rich and famous (among them Cyril Magnin, Caspar W. Weinberger, and Lia Belli), he appears to have initiated the installation of commemorative plaques marking the centennial of the California Street Cable Cars Line (1978) and the Crocker Mansions (1983). He also wrote letters to the editors of various Bay Area newspapers, always promoting preservation causes, yet Stephanie Manning, who experienced the decline of West Berkeley in the 1970s and ’80s, decried the deteriorated state of the Niehaus-Rosano Building under his ownership.

Bessie Olson, who was born Elizabeth Leona Downing in 1900, passed away in 1982. Her husband followed her in 1985. Robert then moved into the house at 2028 Ninth Street, installing himself in the attic and letting the rest of the house, including the storefront, to tenants. In 1990, he welcomed Peter DuMont into the house. DuMont had founded the Star Alliance foundation several years earlier to promote universal education for peace. The foundation fell upon hard times at the end of the Cold War, and Downing-Olson allowed DuMont to live rent-free and store his organization’s files in the storefront.

DuMont, who moved out after a year, describes 2028 Ninth Street during the 1990s as a drug house full of deadbeat tenants. During that time, Robert changed his name again, becoming Robert Witt Downing, the name listed in his death record.

In 1998, Downing-Olson sold the Niehaus-Rosano Building to an artist and a scientist, a couple who continues to own it today. No doubt, this is not the last chapter in the life of this remarkable building.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2019


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