James Pierce, the consummate host of Ridge Road

Daniella Thompson

24 May 2009

Cloyne Court (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Daley’s Scenic Park, commonly known as Northside, is the oldest residential neighborhood in the north Berkeley Hills. Subdivided in 1889 by San Diego businessman Thomas J. Daley, it was acquired in 1891 for $4,000 in gold by Chicago banker Frank M. Wilson. Wilson began selling lots immediately, but the tract did not come into its own until 1904.

It was on 16 May of that year that the San Francisco Call proclaimed it as the dernier cri in fashionable addresses:

From Berkeley comes news of a tract that has suddenly been seized upon as one of the most desirable locations in the town for residences. It had been almost overlooked until lately, but its many advantages have been noticed by intending purchasers and now many lots are being bought. The property lies along the foothills, ten blocks above the university grounds. It is picturesque, full of grand old oak trees and commands a grand view of the bay.

The article went on to enumerate the upscale houses going up in the area, among them those of Professor Jacques Loeb, U.C. supervising architect John Galen Howard, businessman Allen Freeman, and builder Frank Armstrong.

Interior courtyard, looking east. Newman Hall is visible behind. (photo: Picturing Berkeley)

Only two weeks earlier, the newspaper announced the imminent construction of a hotel on the corner of Le Roy Avenue and Ridge Road, to contain 200 rooms and cost $50,000 (the final cost would be $80,000). By the end of May, a construction contract had been signed. The hotel’s developer, incorporated as the University Land and Improvement Company, published a four-page promotional brochure titled “Cloyne Court: A High Class Modern Apartment House in Berkeley, California.”

The brochure promised a building “conveniently and beautifully situated, well constructed, and carefully planned for the comfort and privacy of its tenants. It will offer nearly all, if not all, of the advantages of housekeeping without its vexations, cares, and heavy expenses.”

The building, it was promised, “is being constructed in the best possible manner after the plans and under supervision of John Galen Howard, of New York, the Supervising Architect of the University. [...] Cloyne Court will have thirty suites, varying in size from two to five rooms. Each suite will be roomy, sunny, and well lighted, and will constitute a unit in itself, with all the necessities, such as bathroom, etc. The suites will not be entered from a common hall, but there will be a number of small halls, or rather vestibules, entered directly from the open air. In general not more than two suites on the same floor will open into the same vestibule.”

Interior of a Cloyne Court apartment published in a promotional brochure

The suites were to be unfurnished, with the exception of a few furnished rooms for transients or guests of the tenants. The standard of cuisine and service in the dining room was to be high, while the cost of board would be comparable to that charged in the good boarding houses of Berkeley. Cloyne Court was scheduled to open on Oct. 15, 1904. Interested parties were directed to the manager, Mr. J.M. Pierce, 2401 Le Conte Avenue.

Although the promotional brochure confidently touted Mr. and Mrs. Pierce’s long and successful experience, it didn’t specify their field of experience. As it happens, the experience had nothing to do with innkeeping.

James Manning Pierce (1838–1929) was born to Lucy Valentine Hathaway and Levi Pierce in Freetown, Massachusetts. Two of his maternal uncles, Dr. Edmund Valentine Hathaway and Charles Wesley Hathaway, sailed to California in 1849. They entered the warehouse business in San Francisco and were early supporters of Thomas Starr King’s Unitarian Church. Charles was one of the founders of the Republican Party in California, as well as a member of the San Francisco city council.

Following his uncles to California in 1859, James Pierce worked as a salesman for Bray Bros., the San Francisco grain merchants. In 1869, he married Margaret Cameron (1855–1921), a gifted lyric soprano. The two produced four children: Mary Eugenia “Molly” (1872–1964), Elliott Hathaway (1874–1939), Virginia Cameron (1882–1963) and Lucy Valentine (1886–1974).

Virginia Cameron Pierce (San Francisco Call, 24 July 1905)

When Molly and Elliott reached college age, the Pierce family moved its home from San Francisco to Berkeley. In January 1894, James and Margaret purchased from Frank M. Wilson two lots on the north side of Daley Avenue (now Ridge Road) between Euclid and Le Roy Avenues. They quickly built a house on one of the lots, at 2527 Ridge Road. It was a turreted Queen Anne Victorian that became a companion to its surviving next-door neighbor, built a year earlier at 2531 Ridge Road.

2527 Ridge Road depicted on a mid-1910s postcard

James Pierce kept his business in San Francisco—he was now a warehouse owner. In 1898, he established the Pierce & Taylor Storage Company at 733 Market Street. A few years later, he founded with Elliott the Students’ Wood & Coal Company, whose office and yard were located at 2030 Addison Street, Berkeley. The company delivered wood, coal, hay, and grain to all parts of Berkeley and Oakland.

When the University Land and Improvement Co. incorporated for the purpose of building Cloyne Court, James Pierce was one of its investors, alongside prominent U.C. and Mills College professors (Charles M. Bakewell, John Fryer, John Galen Howard, Louis Lisser, Kasper Pischel); notable San Francisco and Oakland businessmen (Charles Harvey Bentley, F.W. Dohrmann, John L. Howard, James K. Moffitt); jurists and politicians (Warren Olney and his son); university patrons (Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Jane K. Sather); and capitalists (Louis Titus, Frank M. Wilson).

In 1903, the Pierces sold their Ridge Road home to John Freuler, the Swiss vice-consul, some of whose children would be enrolling at the university. By 1914, the Freulers had decamped to 2946 Russell Street, and the Victorian on Ridge Road became a chapter house for the Sigma Pi fraternity. In 1927, the house would be torn down to make way for the Hotel Slocum, now known as the Stebbins Hall co-op. While waiting for Cloyne Court to be built, the Pierce family lived at 2401 Le Conte Avenue, across the street from Frank Wilson’s house.

2401 Le Conte Avenue (courtesy of Paul Roberts)

Their temporary home, a rambling, turreted, and shingled affair, had been constructed in 1897 by George Frederick Estey for William and Mary Henry, parents of future Mills College president Aurelia Henry Reinhardt. In 1902, when the Henrys built their Northgate Hotel on Euclid Avenue, they sold 2401 Le Conte Ave. to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, whose own house stood across the intersection, at 2368 Le Conte Ave. The former Henry house was acquired to house Mrs. Hearst’s servants. When she embarked on a worldwide trip in 1903, it became available for the future managers of Cloyne Court. (The house burned down in 1923, and the University Christian Church was built on its site in 1931.)

Cloyne Court opened on 4 December 1904. Almost immediately, the building became a social magnet. In February 1905, Mrs. Thomas Rickard (now living in Phoebe Hearst’s home with her husband, the president of Berkeley’s Town Board of Trustees) and Mrs. Almeric Coxhead (whose husband and his brother were the architects of the Hearst home) founded a new dancing club, whose first ball was to take place at the Cloyne Court assembly hall. The Oakland Tribune opined, “this large reception room [...] bids fair to become a most popular rendezvous for entertainment of every kind.” The death of Mrs. Frank M. Wilson postponed the ball indefinitely. The club was resurrected the following year, after the opening of the Hillside Club.

In July 1905, the visiting Susan B. Anthony was entertained at Cloyne Court. The very same day, the Pierces’ daughter Virginia sang in concert at the Greek Theatre. “The Greek theater was filled, this afternoon, the announcement of Miss Pierce’s reappearance having attracted a great multitude to the university campus,” reported the San Francisco Call on 24 July. Trained in Boston, Virginia would launch a professional singing career, making her debut at the Boston Opera House, touring with the Lombardi Italian Grand Opera Company, and performing on the Orpheum circuit. The youngest Pierce child, Lucy, would go on to become a well-known painter and printmaker.

Treehaven Apartments in 1911. Next door, at 2527 Ridge Road, stood the Pierces’ former home. The Victorian at 2531 Ridge Road still stands. (Sanborn maps)

In running Cloyne Court, the Pierces’ principle was “to give everyone what they want, set an attractive table and keep charges within reason.” Soon they decided to expand their holdings. On the block below the hotel, they still owned a vacant lot adjacent to their former home. In December 1909, Pierce took out a permit to build a four-story, 88-room apartment building for $40,000. George W. Patton was the designer and builder.

The Treehaven Apartments were named for the oak trees on Ridge Road. (Picturing Berkeley: A Postcard History)

Treehaven Apartments opened in October 1910. The San Francisco Call proclaimed it “perhaps the most modern structure of the kind built in Berkeley.” The building was “modeled after New York apartment houses, combining the best features of several of the largest type. There is a roof garden, hot and cold water, as well as iced drinking water piped to each apartment, of which there are 29.”

San Francisco Call, 15 October 1910

Each apartment was “a model of compactness and convenience, with wall beds, patent closets for both men and women and other features, such as an especially constructed shaving stand for men and electric lighted closets for women.”

Treehaven Apartments (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Treehaven still stands, looking as it did a hundred years ago. Only the window boxes and the oak trees that grew in the street are missing.

The deep balconies are a prominent feature of Treehaven Apartments. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

In 1914, the Pierces purchased Cloyne Court from the other stockholders. The same year, their daughter Virginia, having returned from Europe after the outbreak of World War I, surprised them by marrying Los Angeles surgeon John C.N. Burrows in a secret ceremony. The marriage was extremely brief—while on their honeymoon, the bridegroom was accused of passing a fraudulent check for $1,000. Virginia returned to Europe and in 1917 married the Italian-born singer Umberto Rovere, eight years her junior. Rovere is remembered as a long-distance swimmer and a beloved Los Angeles restaurateur. One of his establishments, the Paris Inn, was famous for its singing waiters.

Cloyne Court remained the Pierce family’s home for 42 years. Elliott took over the hotel’s management in 1929, and following his own death a decade later, Molly carried on through World War II. She was 74 when she sold the building to the University Students’ Cooperative Association. It has been a residential co-op since 1946. Owned by the university since 1970 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Cloyne Court is currently undergoing a seismic upgrade.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 21 May 2009.


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