A tale of two mystery houses
and one politician

Daniella Thompson

2212 Fifth Street, built in 1877 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

1905 Grove Street, built in 1904 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

13 November 2007 & 8 July 2017

Mystery is the reverse side of history. Berkeley, a city chock-full of historic houses, naturally has its share of mysteries—interesting structures about whose origin little or nothing is known.

Berkeleyans who enjoy exploring the town will have seen the lone pink Italianate Victorian standing at 2212 Fifth Street just south of Allston Way. Even those who don’t get about too much should be familiar with the grand Colonial Revival house guarded by two majestic palm trees at 1905 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (formerly Grove Street), just below Hearst Avenue.

Despite decades of research at the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, nobody knows who designed these two houses and by whom they were built. [Note: The identity of the builder of 1905 MLK Jr. Way was revealed in the landmark application (2017) for that house. He was Berkeley’s premier contractor, Robert Greig (1861–1931), who constructed some of the city’s most prominent buildings, including Berkeley City Hall, the Carnegie Library, Berkeley High School’s first building, the Masonic Temple, and the Barker Block.]

But the houses have more than mystery in common: they also share a history, having been the successive homes of one prominent family, whose head was an imposing figure in local affairs, as well as in state politics.

The pink Italianate, now clad in asbestos shingles but originally clapboarded, was one of three similar but not identical houses built circa 1877 on the site of John A. Carbone’s future orchid nursery. The other two were located at 728 Allston Way and 2213 Fifth Street. The three were first mentioned on 2 February 1878 in the Berkeley Advocate, which announced that “the three fine houses built by the Berkeley Real Estate Union, and situated nearly opposite the [Standard] soap factory have been sold to a Chicagoan, who intends to make his home in Berkeley.”

Oakland Evening Tribune, 30 January 1877

The Berkeley Real Estate Union was located on the northwest corner of University and Shattuck avenues. The manager was M. McDonnell, who lived in San Francisco. The company existed only in 1877 and 1878, and during the first six months of 1877 it advertised regularly (sometimes weekly, sometimes daily) in the Oakland Evening Tribune, offering “houses built and sold on the installment plan” and “land for sale in all parts of Berkeley.”

The man who bought the three houses was one Charles Montgomery, a speculator who never became a Berkeley resident. By the following year, he had sold the houses to three different men, speculators like himself, who also turned over the properties within a year to other buyers who did the same. For a while, at least one (and at times all three) of the houses belonged to realtor Walter M. Heywood, son of West Berkeley’s lumber magnate Zimri Brewer Heywood (1803–1879) and the trustee of his estate.

The Warren (formerly Carbone) nursery’s greenhouses were located between 2212 Fifth St. (left) and 2200 Fifth St., which was John Carbone’s first residence in Berkeley. (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

In 1889, the Berkeley directory first listed Berkeley’s town clerk, Charles H. Spear, as living at 2212 Fifth Street. He may have rented the house in 1887, after marrying Tillie Rose Guenette (1870–1952), daughter of pioneer West Berkeley blacksmith and wagon-maker Peter Guenette. Spear’s widowed mother Elizabeth lived with the couple, and the house was registered in her name when the Spears purchased it in 1890 or ’91. In its dozen years of existence up to that point, the house had eight successive owners, of whom the Spears were the very first to occupy the premises. Their three children were born here between 1887 and 1891.

2212 Fifth Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Charles Henry Spear (1862–1928) was born in Sonora, Tuolumne County, to Bostonian parents. His father, Frederick Augustus Spear, ran a pharmacy there until 1864, when he was appointed druggist to the State Insane Asylum in Stockton. Eventually the Spears moved to Oakland, and in 1882 they arrived in West Berkeley, where Frederick opened a drugstore on the corner of University Avenue and Fifth Street. He died in 1885.

State Insane Asylum, Stockton (Society of California Pioneers)

By 1892, Charles Spear was a notable enough figure to merit a biography in The Bay of San Francisco (Lewis Publishing Co.). He would be the subject of many others in the future, but this version is probably the most accurate:

Charles H. Spear was educated in the schools of Stockton until 1876, when on the removal of the family to Oakland, he went to work in San Francisco as messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and some two years later as collector for the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Company with whom he remained nearly three years. In 1881 he worked for L. M. McKenney & Co., directory publishers, and in 1882 went to Sacramento, where he spent nearly two years as bookkeeper for the H. T. Holmes Lime Co. He was Assistant Postmaster of West Berkeley in 1884, and Postmaster in 1885, conducting also a drug, book and stationery store. In 1885, in partnership with John Rooney, under the style of Rooney & Spear, he also carried on a general store. In 1887 he bought out his partner, and in 1888 sold out all his trading interests. Meanwhile he had been elected Town Clerk, in 1886, entering on the discharge of his official duties in May of that year; and he has been re-elected to that office every year since.

Spear’s seven-year stint as town clerk ended in May 1893. He went into the real estate business and the following year was elected Alameda county recorder. In February 1900, California governor Henry T. Gage appointed him port warden in San Francisco. The appointment reflected Spear’s intensive involvement in Republican politics.

Charles H. Spear (San Francisco Call, 6 November 1902)

In addition to being a member of the Berkeley Republican Club’s executive committee and a trustee of the West Berkeley Improvement Club, Spear also co-managed the 1900 congressional campaign of Alameda county assessor Henry P. Dalton, a friend and associate of former Oakland mayor Dr. George C. Pardee. (Dalton was plagued by scandals throughout that year and lost the election. In 1911 he would be convicted of bribery and imprisoned at San Quentin, a few cells away from Abe Ruef, who was serving 14 years in connection with the San Francisco graft cases.)

In 1902, Spear acted as chairman of the state’s Republican campaign committee, which helped put Pardee in the governor’s mansion. The reward was not long in coming: on 25 March 1903, Spear came into “possession of the honors and emoluments attaching to the office of president, State Board of Harbor Commissioners,” as the San Francisco Call succinctly put it. Despite its title, the board’s power was confined to the port of San Francisco, which was owned and managed by the state.

Midway through his four-year term, Spear had to confront the supreme challenge of dealing with the devastation wreaked by the 1906 earthquake and fire. He passed with flying colors, according to the report of Commander Charles J. Badger of the U.S. Navy, who was in charge of the flagship Chicago and of the Sixth Marine District of San Francisco. “Spear,” wrote Badger, “immediately responded and his intimate knowledge of all the details of water-side affairs, his wide acquaintance with the local business community, his energetic endeavors to restore normal business conditions in the shipping district in the shortest possible time and his sound and loyal assistance merit the highest praise.”

Spear had shaved off his handlebar moustache by the spring of 1903 (San Francisco Call, 14 March 1903)

Spear at the end of his term on the Board of Harbor Commissioners (San Francisco Call, 1 January 1907)

Only after Spear’s term ended did it come to light that his administration was not without internal problems. In February 1907, the U.S. Treasury Department asked for the resignation of the port’s deputy surveyor and its customs appraiser on grounds of bad bookkeeping. It was further revealed that “bickering is constant between various departments, the heads of which are barely on speaking terms with each other.”

Having returned to the private sector, Speak busied himself with real estate investments. The family was now ensconced in a large and handsome new house at 1905 Grove Street. Built in an elaborate Colonial Revival style, it was a showplace and the center of much political activity.

The elaborate fa´┐Żade of 1905 Grove St. features a semi-circular portico supported by Ionic columns and pilasters, a pair of oval portholes, and arched pediments over twin bay windows—all festooned with dentils and carved curlicues. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

For many years, no contract or completion notices were found for the Spear House. Assessor’s records and city directory listings indicated that it was constructed in 1904, and it was speculated that the architect may have been William H. Wharff (1836–1936), who designed a number of other Colonial Revival residences in the neighborhood, including his own house at 2000 Delaware Street. Wharff’s best-known Berkeley building, the Masonic Temple on the corner of Bancroft and Shattuck, was erected a year later and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the spring of 2017, a newspaper announcement surfaced that identified Berkeley’s premier contractor, Robert Greig, as the builder of the house.

Berkeley Daily Gazette, 5 July 1904

In 1909, Spear was a mayoral candidate in the Berkeley elections but was soundly trounced by Beverly L. Hodghead of the Good Government League. This rivalry did not prevent Spear from joining mayor Hodghead in opposing a proposed annexation of Berkeley to Oakland. On 26 August 1910, the Oakland Tribune reported that “Charles H. Spear is opposed to consolidation because he does not wish to see the pure, ideal government of Berkeley swallowed up in the Babylonian wickedness of Oakland.” The initiative went down to defeat at the ballot box on 15 September 1910, with Berkeley casting 4,009 to 1,402 votes to reject consolidation. West Berkeley was the only district that voted for annexation.

In 1923, Spear was a member of the campaign committee to institute a council-manager form of government, which Berkeley adopted that year. Also in 1923, Spear was reappointed president of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners, this time by governor Friend W. Richardson. He retired in 1925 after accepting the position of harbor manager in Los Angeles.

After suffering a heart attack in February 1927, Spear resigned from his Los Angeles job. Returning to Berkeley, he and Tillie lived in a suite at the Whitecotton (Shattuck) Hotel until his death on 7 March 1928. Two days later, he was buried with Masonic rite in Mountain View cemetery. Among his honorary pall bearers were San Francisco mayor James Rolph, Jr. and former California governors Pardee and Richardson.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 16 November 2007.

The Charles H. Spear House was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 6 July 2017. It is listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.


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