The inventor, his house, and the neglected bequest

Daniella Thompson

11 Nov. 2008 & 6 Nov. 2012

Smyth House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

A little-noticed gated driveway branching east off Hillside Avenue north of Dwight Way bears a name most Berkeleyans wouldn’t recognize: Fernwald Road. It leads to a University of California apartment complex housing 74 student families. Smyth Fernwald, as the complex is called, is named after the previous owner of the land: engineer, inventor, and social economist William Henry Smyth (1855–1940). Fernwald was the name Smyth gave to his estate in the mid-1890s.

A German word meaning “faraway woods,” Fernwald aptly described the oak-studded hilly terrain hugging the southern bank of Hamilton Creek, high above the town. In August 1926, when Smyth donated his estate to the University of California, the Berkeley Gazette described it: “The grounds, with their great trees, a splendid marine view, and beautified by a fern-clad gulch, are among the most picturesque in the East Bay district.”

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008

The gift was appraised at $150,000 to $200,000 but, as explained in the Oakland Tribune, “future years are expected to see the property more than doubled in value owing to its choice location for home sites.” Nobody gave any thought to the Hayward Fault, which cuts through the estate and whose creep has resulted in an almost 90-degree change in the course of Hamilton Creek.

“In turning over to the university the estate he has personally developed from a wooded wilderness since coming to Berkeley 40 years ago,” reported the Tribune, “Smyth stipulates that the money eventually derived from the property be used for the foundation of a research fund in physical science. He has suggested to the college authorities that in the meantime his residence be used as a home for retired university presidents.”

William Henry Smyth at the time he donated his estate to the university (Oakland Tribune, 10 August 1926)

It was Smyth’s intention to remain in his home for the rest of his life. “I could not be happy elsewhere,” he told the Tribune, surveying the brown hills and the wooded canyon. He lived for another fourteen years.

William Henry Smyth first appeared in the Berkeley city directory in 1887, when he was listed as a mechanical engineer living on the north side of Audubon Street (now College Avenue) between Bancroft Way and the university grounds. In those days, Strawberry Creek was the campus’s southern boundary, and College Avenue north of Bancroft Way was lined with private homes. Reminders of that residential past can be seen in the former Zeta Psi chapter house, now the U.C. Archaeological Research Facility, and the two Warren Cheney houses behind Wurster Hall.

Smyth had come to Berkeley from England by way of Illinois, Montana, and Dakota. He was born in the Cheshire port town of Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool. According to a biographical sketch published in the 1908 edition of Who’s Who in America, Smyth was educated in the Mechanics’ Institute and the Yorkshire College of Technology in Leeds before becoming an apprentice and later a draftsman in that city.

Smyth came to the United States in 1872 and began a general practice as a consulting engineer in 1879. Over the next quarter-century he invented and patented many machines and devices, including a drag-saw (1888); various machines for making, soldering, and testing cans (1889–1903); mechanical movement (1890); pneumatic apparatus (1896); steam beer fountain (1896); hydraulic and chain bucket dredger (1898); air compressor valve (1898); means for applying fluid metals (1900); art of utilizing heat energy (1900); internally fired engine (1900); printing press (1902); menugraph (1902); deep well pump (1903); racing boat oar (1903); appliance for drafting garments (1904); shingle gauge and clamp (1905); ore-roasting furnace (1907); segmental cargo boat (World War I); and chain link hinge (1921). After the war he worked as a patent expert for a tractor company, inventing several track-related devices, including a high-speed tractor (1922) and a fast-speed tractor (1924).

Smyth’s high-speed tractor patent drawing

After seven years on Audubon Street, the inventor and his wife Helen moved to Fernwald Avenue, where they were first recorded in the 1895 directory. On 5 August 1895, the San Francisco Call reported under the header Our Rural Homes:

One of the landmarks of the Berkeley hills is the old Hamilton place at the head of Dwight way, near the State institute for the deaf and dumb and blind. It was laid out by the late Dr. Laurentine Hamilton, who there made his home for many years. It comprises over thirty acres of hill and canyon, and is as beautiful a site as may be found. W. H. Smyth, now superintendent of the Mechanics’ Institute Fair, bought the place recently and is making many improvements. Both Mr. and Mrs. Smyth are wide-awake floriculturists, and the number of roses, chrysanthemums and pelargoniums that place will produce next spring will likely surprise all the flower-show exhibitors.

The Rev. Laurentine Hamilton (1826–1882), founder of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Oakland (later the First Unitarian Church of Oakland), could not have lived in the “old Hamilton place” longer than five years. His first directory listing at the northeast corner of Dwight Way and Piedmont Avenue was published in 1878, and he died four years later. Prior to moving to this location, Rev. Hamilton lived at 1165 Jackson Street in Oakland.

Rev. Hamilton did not build the house. It came to him when he married Clarissa F. Batchelder, widow of Perez Mann Batchelder (1818–c. 1873). The latter was a pioneer daguerrotypist who had traveled for his work as far as Australia. He retired from photography in Boston around 1867, and the 1870 U.S. census found him in Berkeley, on the hillside above the State Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Batchelder was well-to-do; his spread, which he farmed, was valued at $25,000, and so was his personal estate.

“House where Van Simon and F.O.L. lived & Deaf and Dumb Asylum, Berkeley” from Watkins’ Pacific Coast (The Bancroft Library. University of California)

An early stereograph of the California Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, shot before the January 1875 fire that destroyed the Gothic Revival school building, includes Batchelder’s hillside house. A handwritten caption on the mounting of the Watkins edition of this stereograph identifies the dwelling as “House where Van Simon and F.O.L. lived.”

No Van Simon appears in the Oakland directories between 1869 and 1875, and there is no record of the house in the property tax assessment rolls prior to 1890, since the Batchelder Tract was not subdivided until August 1889. At that time, only two houses stood in this tract. In Block A, on Prospect Street, lived the Hungarian-born jeweler Joseph Alkalay and his family. Standing resplendently alone in Block B was the Batchelder-Hamilton house, which belonged to realtor Joseph L. Scotchler, a leading Berkeley Republican who was president of the town’s board of trustees in the early 1890s.

The Batchelder-Hamilton house (among trees in foreground), 1885 (Louis Stein collection, Berkeley Historical Society)

The Batchelder-Hamilton house in the Batchelder Tract map, 1889 (Louis Stein collection, Berkeley Historical Society)

Scotchler never lived in this house; his address was 2214 Atherton Street, in another Southside residential enclave that was later to be swallowed by the campus. After three years of ownership, Scotchler sold the house to J.E. Nutting, who owned it until 1901 without ever appearing in the Berkeley directory. By then, Smyth’s earnings from his patents and consulting enabled him not only to buy the house from Nutting but to acquire seven additional lots from Clarissa Hamilton. Two more lots would be acquired from the university in 1908.

Sanborn fire insurance map, 1911

The Smyth House before the Julia Morgan remodel (Louis Stein collection, Berkeley Historical Society)

In 1903, Smyth’s distinctive signature headed a short list of five property owners with frontages along Hillside Avenue who protested to the town’s board of trustees against the “grading, macadamizing and curbing, etc.” of their street, noting that “the 24-inch vitrified Ironstone pipe culvert which the specifications propose to substitute for the present bridge would destroy the desirability and beauty and depreciate the value of the property affected.” The protest was sustained, as attested by the stone bridge still spanning Hamilton Creek.

Elevation designed by Julia Morgan

In 1911, Smyth engaged Julia Morgan to expand and modernize his Victorian home. Among the alterations listed in the building permit were 8-foot-by-16-foot extensions across the front and the rear, 20-foot long verandas along the north and south sides, a second-floor deck across the front, a square tower added on the roof, stucco exterior, replastered interior, and new plumbing and heating systems. The result was a charming villa, distinct for its pointed arches and fanciful window panes.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008

Smyth’s most lasting claim to fame is his coinage, in 1919, of the term ‘Technocracy,’ which he defined as “scientific reorganization of national energy and resources, coordinating industrial democracy to effect the will of the people.” He also believed that ownership is a social convention, and property should revert to the community upon the death of its owner.

Finding the University of California to be the best expression of the community in which he lived, and since it was the university that had attracted him to Berkeley 40 years earlier, he decided to make it the beneficiary of his fortune. “There should be more giving whereby the benefits come to many and not few,” he declared.

By the time Smyth died, World War II was raging in Europe. The end of the war brought thousands of new students to Berkeley. Women students who had roomed in fraternity houses during the war found themselves with no place to go, and the university scrambled to find housing for them. In 1945, veteran architect Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. was recruited to design dormitories for 480 women in Fernwald. The U.C. Regents were initially opposed to the expenditure, and when approved, the project drew the ire of the neighbors, who weren’t happy to see multiple dwellings in a two-family zone and maintained that the dorms would destroy the general character and beauty of the area.

The Smyth House as it looked during the dormitory construction (Berkeley Gazette, 2 November 1945)

In October 1945, with protests causing construction delays, the university announced that only 280 students would be accommodated at the opening of the fall term. “University officials are now seeking locations further removed from the residential area, on which to build housing accommodations for 200 more co-eds,” reported the Gazette.

In 1964, the university offered the complex to the University Students Cooperative Association (USCA). In his history of the co-op, Cheap Place to Live, Guy Lillian III wrote, “The complex [...] had become a liability to the University. Its distance from campus and the uphill slog required to reach it were petty inconveniences compared to the maintenance problems which had been allowed to develop in the twenty years of its existence.”

USCA pursued the offer, but when the Daily Californian got hold of the story, it transpired that the university had not informed the Smyth Fernwald residents of the impending change. According to the Daily Cal’s summary of the situation, “Smyth-Fernwald residents did not like the idea of having to work, or felt that the complex would deteriorate under the co-op system.” A petition was circulated, and 71.5% of the residents who signed it were opposed to the co-op takeover. The sale fell through.

Smyth’s intended fund for physical science research never saw the light of day. His house, still standing in the center of the Smyth Fernwald complex, has become a dilapidated hulk. A 1997 U.C. Seismic Action Plan (SAFER) report found its condition to be poor and the estimated repair or replacement cost to be $1 million. That price tag will have doubled by now. Among all the university buildings awaiting seismic retrofitting, the Smyth House is a very low priority. Its fate seems all but sealed.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 13 November 2008.


Copyright © 2008–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.