Sierra Club pioneers lived near pre-stadium Strawberry Canyon

Daniella Thompson

Walter T. Steilberg designed this house in 1921 for Sierra Club director and editor Marion Randall Parsons. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

23 January 2007

The Save the Memorial Oak Grove tree sit-in is about to complete its second month. Among the campaign’s environmental supporters, which include the California Native Plant Society and the California Oak Foundation, the Sierra Club is the most powerful if not the most active.

Many Sierra Club members are probably unaware that their organization’s ties to the area around Memorial Stadium are deep and old—as old as the club itself.

Within a football’s throw from the stadium, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several founders and early leaders of the Sierra Club built their homes.

Of course, there was no stadium then. There was only the bucolic Strawberry Canyon with its waterfall, grasslands, and native oaks.

Just around the corner from the stadium oak grove lived the eminent geologist Joseph Le Conte (1823–1901). His house, designed by the renowned Victorian architect Clinton Day, stood at 2739 Bancroft Way, current site of Boalt Hall School of Law.

Professor Joseph Le Conte’s house at 2739 Bancroft Way was designed by Clinton Day. The architect lived next door, on the corner of Piedmont Avenue. (Clinton Day Collection, BAHA archives)

Professor Le Conte first visited Yosemite Valley in 1870 on a 5-week Sierra camping trip with ten of his students, members of the first class of the University of California. On that trip Le Conte met John Muir, then living in the Valley.

Le Conte invited Muir to join the party. Muir later described their ten-day ramble as “a most glorious season of terrestrial grace.” Thus began a friendship that was to last until Le Conte’s death. Le Conte’s account of the 1870 trip, A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierras, would serve as the inspiration for the Sierra Club’s High Trips.

A charter member of the Sierra Club, Le Conte served on its board of directors from 1892 to 1898. He died in Yosemite Valley on the eve of the club’s first High Trip. As a tribute to his leadership, the Sierra Club built Le Conte Memorial Lodge (1904) in Yosemite Valley. Designed by Maybeck’s brother-in-law John White, the lodge is a National Historic Landmark.

Joseph Nisbet Le Conte’s house was built by Julia Morgan in 1908. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Professor Le Conte’s son, Joseph Nisbet Le Conte (1870–1950), known as “Little Joe,” was another Sierra Club charter member. A director from 1898 to 1940, he was the club’s second president, serving from 1915 to 1917—after John Muir and before William E. Colby. A professor of mechanical and hydraulic engineering at U.C., the younger Le Conte built in 1908 a brown-shingle house at 19 Hillside Court, designed by Julia Morgan. The house is now the Berkeley Bayit, a student center for cooperative Jewish living.

The two Le Contes have been honored with various names in the Sierra Nevada. Mount Le Conte, over 13,900 feet in the Mount Whitney region, was named for the father in 1895. Le Conte Canyon south of Muir Pass and Le Conte Point above Hetch Hetchy are named after the son.

A hop, skip, and jump from the Joseph N. Le Conte house is the William Colby house, another brown-shingle creation of Julia Morgan’s. Attorney William E. Colby (1875–1964) joined the Sierra Club in 1898 and served as its secretary from 1900 until 1946, taking two years off to assume the club’s presidency. In 1901, Colby initiated the club’s outings program and led the annual High Trips until 1929.

The William E. Colby house (Julia Morgan, 1905), a designated landmark at 2901 Channing Way, as it appeared before the fa�ade was disfigured without a permit review. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

In 1905, Colby built his house at 2901 Channing Way, on the corner of Warring Street. A designated City of Berkeley Landmark, the house has recently fallen into the hands of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which replaced the front garden with an elevated concrete “play yard” without permit review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Fraternity rush on the Colby house’s new, permitless playpen. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Just across the street from the Memorial Stadium site, at 9 Canyon Road, Julia Morgan built in 1908 a house for U.C. Economics professor Lincoln Hutchinson (1866–1940). Hutchinson’s attorney brother James (1867–1959) would settle at 14 Mosswood Road in 1935. Both brothers were Sierra Club stalwarts. James was a charter member, a director from 1903 to 1907, and twice editor of the Bulletin. He was elected honorary vice-president in 1958.

Lincoln Hutchinson’s house (Julia Morgan, 1908) in 1910. Above it to the right is the Mouser house and its almond orchard. (BAHA archives)

In the early 1920s, the Hutchinson brothers gathered a group of friends for winter outings on skis or snowshoes, founding the Sierra Ski Club. Lincoln purchased property at Norden, near Donner Summit, where the club built a lodge. The architect was Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., a member of the group. The lodge was constructed by the members themselves in the summers of 1924 and 1925. The Sierra Club named the lodge after the Hutchinsons.

Built in 1888, Dr. Silas Mouser’s country house faced west before it was moved by the Parsons to its present location. He it is shown in its early days, before the almond trees had been planted. (BAHA archives)

A little farther up on Panoramic Hill, Sierra Club leaders Edward Taylor Parsons (1861–1914) and his wife Marion Randall Parsons (1878–1953) bought the country house of San Francisco physician Silas Mercer Mouser. Built in 1888, this gable-roofed, white clapboard farmhouse faced the bay and was surrounded by almond orchards.

Parsons was one of the first salesmen for the Sherwin-Williams paint company. An avid mountaineer and photographer, he settled in San Francisco about 1900 and joined the Sierra Club the same year, assisting William Colby in establishing the club’s outings program. Parsons served as a director of the Sierra Club from 1904 until his death. In his eulogy of Parsons, John Muir recalled:

In 1907 he married Marion Randall, as able and enthusiastic a mountaineer as himself, whom he first met on the Sierra Club Outing of 1903, and three years later, in 1910, established his first home high up on the Berkeley hills overlooking the Golden Gate...

Parsons moved the Mouser house from 11 Mosswood Road to 21 Mosswood, overlooking Strawberry Canyon, and retained John Hudson Thomas to remodel it in the Arts and Crafts style. On the new site, the house was turned around so the previous fa�ade now faced the rear. Thomas added interest to the new fa�ade by placing a substantial bay window surmounted by a false pediment above the entrance door, which shelters beneath a copper-sheathed awning supported by heavy wooden brackets. The exterior was clad in redwood barn shakes.  
John Hudson Thomas converted the Mouser house in 1910 for Sierra Club leaders Edward and Marion Parsons. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

It was at the Parsons home that John Muir began transcribing his Alaska journals in November 1912. Marion assisted Muir with the manuscript of Travels in Alaska in his final months and edited it for publication after his death in 1914.

Edward Parsons died the same year. Parsons Memorial Lodge in Tuolumne Meadows at Yosemite National Park was built in his memory, and Parsons Peak in the Cathedral Range was named after him. Marion Parsons became the first woman elected to the board of directors of the Sierra Club and served in that capacity for 22 years, having a hand in the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. She was also an amateur painter.

Following Edward’s death, Marion Parsons went on living at 21 Mosswood Road for another seven years. Her home continued to be a salon for leading nature enthusiasts and artists, where the Muir family, William Keith, Stephen Mather, William Colby, Ansel Adams, and others gathered.

In 1921, Marion decided to build a new house on an adjacent double lot east of 21 Mosswood Road. Was she preparing to flee the stadium about to be built directly below her home?

Designed by neighbor Walter T. Steilberg, the new house—also clad in redwood shingles—was sited away from the street and set in a rustic garden amidst seven mature Coast Live Oaks and a Sequoia gigantea, the latter planted by the Parsons. In this house, Marion Parsons continued to receive social gatherings—Ansel Adams is said to have played the piano here.

Meanwhile, the former site of the Mouser house was settled by another charter member of the Sierra Club. World-renowned botanist Willis Linn Jepson (1867–1946), author of A Flora of California (1909) and Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (1925), founder of the California Botanical Society (1913) and the Save-the-Redwoods League (1919), was among the individuals who signed the Sierra Club’s articles of incorporation on 4 June 1892.

Professor Jepson lived for many years on Berkeley’s Southside. (One of his addresses was 2714 Benvenue Ave., a block away from another Sierra Club co-founder, biblical archeologist and dean of the Pacific School of Religion William Frederic Bad� (1871–1936), who resided at 2616 College Avenue, in a house designed by his brother-in-law Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr.) Then he, too, turned to Julia Morgan, who built him an elegant stucco-clad villa at 11 Mosswood Road.

Professor Willis L. Jepson’s Mediterranean villa (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

In his biography of Jepson, naturalist Richard G. Beidleman described the new house:

It was in September of 1925 that Jepson finally moved into a home of his desire, at 11 Mosswood, a several-storied Mediterranean style mansion with red tile roof, on a prominence looking down into the lower end of Strawberry Canyon and the university stadium, well beyond the academic campus. Largely designed by Berkeley’s famous architect Julia Morgan and beautifully landscaped, with several attractive gateways into its walled enclosure, the home was embellished by Jepson inside and out with ornamentation both floral and faunal. In the downsloping first floor, paneled in redwood, was the fine large library and herbarium drawers. The key to the cabinet which held his type specimens was labeled “Holy of Holies.”

In January 1926, Jepson joined Bad� on an expedition to the Middle East, where he planned to observe the wild ancestors of old cultivated species such as wheat, barley, figs, olives, peaches, and apricots. Bad� would dig in Tell en-Nasbeh (the biblical Mitzpah) and in Petra.

After returning from his voyage, Professor Jepson joined a committee of U.C. alumni and faculty members to save the Monterey cypress trees at Point Lobos, which a Monterey real-estate company was seeking to cut down for a subdivision. On 15 December 1926, the Oakland Tribune quoted Jepson:

The only other grove of Monterey cypress in existence was recently destroyed by a real estate firm, and we want to save this one from the same fate. This grove is unique among the trees of the world. Dashed by the salt spray of the ocean and whipped by trade winds, they have developed a singularity of appearance not to be found anywhere else. They are superior in beauty to even the famed Cedars of Lebanon.

Oakland Tribune, 15 December 1926

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 26 January 2007.


Copyright © 2007–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.