When Walter Ratcliff was City Architect

Daniella Thompson

1 May 2006

Hose Company No. 7 fire station, 2911 Claremont Ave., in 1934 (Courtesy of the Berkeley Fire Department)

City Architect in Berkeley? Like the farms, this office is a thing of the past. The position existed for only eight years—from 1913 to 1921—and was occupied by a single person: Walter Harris Ratcliff, Jr. (1881–1973).

At the time of his appointment, Ratcliff had been a licensed architect for just seven years, but he had been designing houses since 1901 and had over 80 buildings to his credit, including commissioned and speculative single-family residences of every stripe, a warehouse, and several apartment buildings.

But experience wasn’t all that Ratcliff had going for him. The architect was extremely well connected in the business community and particularly close to real-estate developer Duncan McDuffie who, influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted, was creating spacious, leafy subdivisions like Claremont Park, Claremont Court, and Northbrae in Berkeley and St. Francis Wood in San Francisco. These were the ideal settings for Ratcliff’s English-style houses, which were prized for their elegance, comfort, and attention to detail.

The former fire station at 2911 Claremont Ave. is now an art gallery. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Ratcliff’s first assignment as City Architect was the design of four new fire stations. Since they were all sited in residential neighborhoods, the architect was particularly attentive to their scale and style. The firehouses resembled Italian palazzi in miniature, featuring an arched porte coch�re or two on the ground floor and a row of smaller arched windows on the second. Of these four stylish buildings, the only survivor stands at 2911 Claremont Avenue, where it is very much at ease in its current role as an art gallery. The porte coch�re has given way to a display window, but the only other visible change (not for the better, alas) is the loss of the small-paned arched windows in the polygonal bay facing west.

In 1915, a Berkeley bond measure raised funds for five new public schools. Ratcliff handed four of the commissions to trusted architects—Ernest Coxhead (Garfield); James Plachek (John Muir); Hobart & Cheney (Willard); and Walter Reed (Burbank)—designing the fifth, Edison Junior High School, himself. A stately brick building with stone facings around the copious windows and balustrades spaced along the roof parapets, the Edison school in its heyday recalled an English baronial house. Deemed seismically unsafe, it no longer serves as a school. The similar-looking Lincoln School (now Malcolm X), completed in 1920 at 1731 Prince Street, has been retrofitted to comply with the Field Act, receiving some design modifications along the way. Ratcliff’s third school, the stucco-clad Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Avenue (1925), was abandoned by the school board and faces an uncertain future. His fourth, the modest, Mediterranean-style Cragmont School (1926), was demolished and replaced with a striking modern building.

City of Berkeley Corporation Yard (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Another English-style civic building designed by Ratcliff is the city’s Corporation Yard at 1326 Allston Way. Slated for demolition a few years ago, the building, now a designated landmark, is still in use.

During his tenure as City Architect, Ratcliff continued his prolific private practice. While still a student, he and his Cal friend Charles L. McFarland went into speculative home building, financed in the early days by their parents. By 1912 they had founded Alameda County Home Builders, Inc., which would evolve into Fidelity Mortgage Securities Co. and, in 1921, into Fidelity Guaranty Building and Loan Association. The Ratcliff-designed Fidelity building at 2323 Shattuck Avenue is undoubtedly the most beautiful bank ever built in Berkeley. Like the fire stations, it draws inspiration from Italian Renaissance architecture, and its oversized arches lend a touch of grace to the bedraggled avenue.

Fidelity Guaranty Building and Loan Association Bldg., 2323 Shattuck Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Alameda County Home Builders’ speculative ventures came in all sizes and prices. In the early 1910s, the construction cost of its two-story homes in upscale locations ranged from $4,500 to $5,000. These were one-of-a-kind individual designs, but in 1919 Ratcliff and McFarland built a cluster of modest homes at the intersection of Milvia and Carleton Streets. The seven bungalows, uniformly described in the building permits as “1-story, 6-room residence, plaster,” came in four models, all costing $3,000. They are arranged in a T, with two identical pairs facing each other on Milvia and three other houses flanking them along Carleton. They must have been charming when new. Among the Ratcliff signature motifs that can still be spotted here and there are arched doors, French windows, and roofs with rounded edges that simulate the thatch of English country cottages. Sadly, only one of the seven houses preserves all its original features.

This perfectly preserved bungalow at 1941 Carleton St. was one of a group of seven erected by Ratcliff’s development company in 1919. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

While he was City Architect, Ratcliff was among the opinion makers (McDuffie was another) who persuaded the City Council to create the Arts Commission, an early municipal body charged with planning and zoning decisions. Ironically, it was a clash with this body that brought about the end of Ratcliff’s civic employment and the abolition of the City Architect position.

2011 Carleton St. gained two large attic dormers and lost its original front window. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

In 1920, a new plan was devised for developing the area around Solano Avenue. It superseded McDuffie’s original layout for the area, which would have preserved the open creeks as public parkland. The proponents of the new plan preferred to culvert the creeks so as to make more space available for development. Ever eager to increase tax revenue, the city administration supported this scheme. Ratcliff and McDuffie argued in vain before the Arts Commission. Shortly thereafter, the City Council repealed the ordinance that had created the position of City Architect.

Ratcliff went on to design commercial and institutional buildings that mark our downtown to this day. Among them are Berkeley’s first skyscraper, the Chamber of Commerce Building (now Wells Fargo Bldg.) at Shattuck and Center; Armstrong College on Harold Way; the Mason McDuffie Bldg. (now Scandinavian Designs) at Shattuck and Addison; and the Richfield Oil Service Station (now University Garage) on Oxford Street. These stand as a testament to the architect’s abiding concern for the well-being and beautification of Berkeley.

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 5 May 2006.


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