Captain Slater’s house is an early Classic Colonial

Daniella Thompson

Symmetry and Classic Revival elements such as columns, balustrades, and a pediment on the dormer distinguish the Slater house at 1335 Shattuck Avenue. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

15 May 2007

Not every house in Berkeley can boast of an illustrious resident. Fewer can boast of two. Fewer yet can demonstrate a connection between the two notables. The house at 1335 Shattuck Avenue is one of the latter.

Built in 1894 by Captain John Slater, the house is one of the first Classic Colonial Revival buildings constructed in the East Bay. At the time it was erected, Queen Anne was the prevailing fashion, and the shingled Arts & Crafts style was just beginning to emerge from the cradle with a few hybrid examples such as the Anna Head School at Bowditch and Channing (1892).

John Slater (1849–1908) was born on one of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. At the age of 15 he left school to join the crew of a fishing sloop. Four years later, he went to sea as a sailor before the mast, working his way up to an officer’s position. According to the History of California and Biographical Record of Oakland and Environs (1907), he came to California in 1871 as a mate on the cargo ship Seminole of Boston. Impressed with the outlook on the Pacific coast, he decided to stay. After plying the coast trade for several years, he was lured into gold mining on the Stikine River in northwestern British Columbia but did not find it profitable.

The cargo ship Seminole in San Francisco harbor, 1865. John Slater came to California as the mate of this ship. (Library of Congress)

The History of California and Biographical Record of Oakland and Environs further informs that Slater returned to the sea, assuming command of several ships belonging to Captain Samuel Blair’s line: first the Aureola, then in succession the Yosemite, Two Brothers, and the Oriental, which was then the largest vessel entering San Francisco Bay.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (1895) offers a somewhat different chronology:

Slater, John, master of sailing vessels, has been running out of San Francisco since 1873. He first ran as mate on the Two Brothers and Majestic, and then took command of the Oriental, which he sailed for five years. He then had charge of the Aureola four years, leaving her for the Wilna, which he has commanded for the past six years, running in the Nanaimo coal trade.

The bark Wilna (San Francisco Call, 7 March 1895)

In 1889, Captain Slater joined the shipping firm of William E. Mighell and Charles C. Boudrow. For ten years he was master of the bark Wilna, breaking several speed records in her. After this ship was destroyed by fire while loading lumber at Tacoma harbor in October 1899, Captain Slater took charge of the clipper ship Charmer, which he commanded on the San Francisco-Honolulu route until his retirement in 1907.

The clipper ship Charmer (courtesy of The Boodle Boys)

In June 1888, Captain Slater married Louise M. Chenery, who had been introduced to him by her step-father, Captain William Colby, a master mariner also employed by Mighell and Boudrow. Born in Sweden, Colby (1831–1909) went to sea when a small boy, arriving in the United States in 1853. After mining in Plumas County and participating in the Civil War, Colby began sailing out of San Francisco in 1866 on the bark Brontes. He was in command of the schooner Courser, lost in 1892, and later had charge of the bark Mercury.

Louise’s mother, Margaret J. Shanahan (1841–1918), immigrated from Ireland in 1857 and married her first husband, Walter Chenery, in Massachusetts, where Louise was born in 1867. WalterChenery died around 1870, and his widow and child moved to California, where Margaret found work as housekeeper in Belmont. Eventually she opened a boarding house in San Francisco and in 1875 married William Colby, then a ship’s mate. Louise received her education at Notre Dame College in San Jose.  
Captain William Colby, c. 1907 (courtesy of Elizabeth Slater McCarthy)

By the time John Slater married Louise, the Colbys were residing at 524 Capp Street, where the young couple settled—Slater was also listed at 27 Federal Street, close to the port of San Francisco—for the seven years or so before they built their house in the Berkeley Villa Association tract. The move to Berkeley may have been inspired in part by Slater’s employers—both Captain Boudrow and Captain Mighell owned mansions nearby, on what is now the 1500 block of Oxford Street. And they weren’t the only ones. North Berkeley was a mini-Mecca for seafarers, who no doubt were attracted by the sweeping marine vistas commanded from its hills.

Looking west from 1335 Shattuck Avenue, 12 June 1902 (courtesy of Elizabeth Slater McCarthy)

The Slaters picked a double lot directly to the south of Captain Jefferson Maury’s house. Sited on a double lot at 1317 Shattuck Avenue, the Maury residence featured a wrap-around porch and an angled corner turret. In 1922, John Hudson Thomas would transform this house into a shingled English country cottage.

Three captains’ houses on Shattuck Avenue between Rose and Berryman Streets (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1903)

Across the street from the Slaters, at 1322 Shattuck Avenue, lived Captain William B. Seabury and his family. Like Captain Maury, Seabury was a commodore of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Also like Maury, he built his house in 1885. But while the Maury house survived to become a City of Berkeley Landmark, the Seabury house has been replaced with an apartment building.

The Slaters engaged prominent San Francisco architect and fellow Catholic Thomas J. Welsh (1845–1918) to design their residence. The contractor was Charles Murcell of West Oakland, whose Berkeley quarters were located in the lumber office of Barker & Hunter, on the southwestern corner of Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way.

The Slater house shortly after completion. The attic has been much enlarged over the years and by 1970 had been subdivided into six apartments, as had the basement. (photo published in the Berkeley Herald, 1 January 1896)

On 1 January 1896, the Berkeley Herald described the Slater house in detail, noting that it commanded “a magnificent view of the Golden Gate, the city of San Francisco, San Francisco bay and the ocean beyond”:

A notable feature of the exterior is a pleasant porch, running the entire width of the building, at the front entrance.

The walls are covered from foundation to first story in rustic [wide wood siding] and from first story to cornice with clapboard. It is painted in Colonial yellow, with white trimmings. The roof is of slate. The building is 42x80 feet, which includes the front piazza. It contains eight large rooms, well arranged for light and heat. The front vestibule is trimmed in oak. The spacious exterior hall is trimmed with curly, native redwood, wainscoted with Lincrusta-Walton [an embossed, linoleum-like material] and lighted from transoms over doors of French bevel plate-glass.

The staircase is separated from the main hall, the posts of which extend to the ceiling. Between the posts are spindle transoms supported on ornamental brackets. The parlors are finished in natural redwood and are provided with open fireplaces of Roman brick; hearth of same, and mantels of curly redwood of unique design. The dining-room is trimmed and finished in antique oak, including paneled wainscoting. The divan is built with arm-rest and lockers underneath. There is a spindle arch across the bay-window, resting on turned columns. The fireplace is built of Roman brick facings and hearth, mantels made of oak of exquisite design, including lockers and bevel plate mirrors. The walls are tinted a deep sea green, ceiling of Nile green.

The article went on to describe the kitchen, pantry, butler’s pantry and china closet finished in natural redwood and “fitted up in modern style”; bedrooms “fitted up in like manner, with closets and dens attached”; a bathroom of oak, “with tile floor and tile wainscoting five feet high, and containing a porcelain bathtub with shower bath attached, oval wash-basin, all plumbing exposed, with locker and medicine closet attached.” The cost of the building to complete was $5,750, well above the $4,608 figure provided in the contract notice of 2 August 1894.

Two curving staircases flank the rusticated concrete retaining wall at the sidewalk. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The Slater children, l to r: Norman, Marguerite, James Herbert & Colby (Courtesy of James Edward Slater)

The first floor housed the Slaters and their four children, James Herbert (1889–1969), Marguerite W. (1891–1977), Norman Bernard (1894–1978), and Colby Edmund “Babe” (1896–1965). The basement is said to have housed the servants, although the 1900 census listed only one domestic living with the family. There were also rooms on the attic floor; these are said to have been reserved for guests, but it appears that some if not all of the guests were of the paying kind. For several years in the first decade of the 20th century, one such “guest” was Andrew H. Irving (1875–1947), plant superintendent at the Paraffine Paint Company, a manufacturer of roofing materials under the Pabco brand name.

The vice-president and manager of Paraffine Paint Co. was Andrew Irving’s elder brother, Samuel C. Irving (1858–1930). In 1906, Samuel acquired 1322 Shattuck Ave. from the Seaburys, who had moved to the Southside eight years earlier. We’ll return to the Irvings in part two of this series.

Looking east from 1335 Shatuck Avenue, 12 June 1902 (Courtesy of Elizabeth Slater McCarthy)

Around 1901, Margaret and William Colby also moved to Berkeley and bought from Samuel Heywood a Victorian house at 1404 Spruce Street that they raised and turned into two flats (now 1402–1404 Spruce). This residence would be occupied by four generations of Slaters prior to its sale in 1970.

Captain Colby’s house at 1402–04 Spruce Street, 1901 (courtesy of Elizabeth Slater McCarthy)

Shortly after the Colbys settled on Spruce Street, Louise Slater purchased a house on the same block, a few doors to the south. This house, a modest Queen Anne, still exists, albeit altered, on a row of surviving Victorians.

1426 Spruce Street, which Louise Slater acquired in 1902 or ’03. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Captain Slater died on 8 January 1908 at the age of 58. The following day, his obituary in an unidentified Berkeley newspaper reported:

Captain Slater had been suffering from cancer of the stomach for a year or more and had been confined to his bed for the last four months. He was attended by Dr. Kelsey but little hope was entertained for his recovery. Dr. Kelsey held an autopsy last evening.

The San Francisco Call published an entirely different version:

Well Known Mariner Will Be Buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery After Services

Berkeley, Jan. 9.—The funeral of Captain John Slater, one of the best known mariners on the coast, will be held tomorrow morning at 9:30 o’clock from the family residence, 1335 Shattuck avenue. Requiem mass will be celebrated at St. Joseph’s church in Addison street at 10 o’clock. Interment will be in St. Mary’s cemetery in Oakland.

A fever which he contracted five months ago at Delegoa bay, South Africa, when he piloted the ship Charmer, owned by the California shipping company, was the cause of Captain Slater’s death yesterday. He took the bark from Puget Sound to South Africa. He had been a resident of this city for 12 years, and is survived by a wife, Louise M. Slater, a daughter and three sons, Marguerite, Herbert, Norman and Colby Slater.

A posthumous deed transfer, recorded on 14 January 1908 (Oakland Tribune, 16 January 1908)

Oakland Tribune, 26 October 1909

Twenty-one months following the captain’s death, his widow married Edward A. Phillips, a magazine writer recently arrived from Salt Lake City. Phillips, too, was not long for this world. Less than 15 months following the marriage he shot himself, and by the mid-1910s, the twice-widowed Louise and some of her children had moved to 1426 Spruce Street.

Margaret Colby died in 1918, and Louise moved into her mother’s house at 1402 Spruce Street for some years before leaving Berkeley for Long Beach. The house was then occupied by her eldest son, James Herbert, who raised five children there.

Louise Chenery Slater Phillips (courtesy of the Slater family)

This is the first part in a series of articles on captains’ houses and the families that inhabited them.

Part Two: The Slater-Irving connection was sealed in Paraffine

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 18 May 2007.


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