Pioneer cottage discovered in West Berkeley

Mary C. Amos cottage, northwestern aspect
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

7 May 2004

An early pioneer cottage was recently discovered in West Berkeley. The Mary C. Amos cottage at 2211 5th Street was built in 1878, the same year Berkeley was incorporated. It is one of the few remaining examples of early Ocean View/West Berkeley pioneer residences. Built in Italianate style, the cottage was subjected to additions but remains intact to this day.

When Mary C. Amos built the cottage, her property, located south of Allston Way, was some distance way from the heart of West Berkeley, centered in the Delaware and University Avenue area. This was a working class community where the men typically held jobs in the surrounding farms, wharves, and lumber mills. Near Mrs. Amos’s cottage could be found some of West Berkeley’s first industries, including the Standard Soap Factory and a gunpowder factory. Few structures remain from this early period.

Single-story Italianate cottage, mid 1860s–1880
Rehab Right, City of Oakland Planning Dept.)

The widow of George W. Amos, Mary was a native of New York, like her husband. They were married in San Francisco in 1871. In the 1880 United States Census, Mary was listed as the head of household with two daughters, four- and five-years old. The parcel on which Mrs. Amos built hercottage was Lot #28 of Block 114 of the Berkeley Land and Town Improvement Association, subdivided in 1873. In 1878, only a handful of structures had been built south of University Avenue. In fact, the building of any structure in the vicinity was an event worth recording in the Berkeley Advocate at that time, which is why a published record of the cottage exists.

In 1879, the George W. Amos estate had an improvement assessment of $250. Mrs. Amos was listed in Bishop’s Oakland Directory from 1879 to 1882 with the address “5th near Allston.” It is likely that financial hardships made it impossible for her to keep her property. By 1900, according to the U.S. Census, Mrs. Amos was living with her daughter Georgie on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. Both list their occupation as laundresses.

Mary C. Amos cottage, southwestern aspect
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

It is unknown who lived in the Amos cottage between 1883 and 1886. In the McKenney Directory published in October 1887, Mr. James Balcom, a teamster working for the Standard Soap Company, was listed as the owner-resident. An early West Berkeley settler, Mr. Balcom had been living on Second Street between Allston and Bancroft Way since 1878. He remained in the Amos cottage until 1895. In 1890, a relative by the name of Daniel Balkam, former miner and now a teamster with the West Berkeley Lumber Company, was also living at the same address, where he resided until 1915.

Cathy Luchetti, historian of the American West and author of nine books (e.g., Women of the West and Medicine Women) has written to support a Landmark designation of the Mary C. Amos Cottage, saying, “I feel strongly that the Amos cottage is of cultural and historic value, as well as architectural. The fact that a woman who made her living as a laundress was able to build her own house in 1878—not before the death of her husband, but after—then live in the house until 1881 before selling it (no doubt for profit), is extraordinary.”


11 May 2004

At the Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing on 10 May 2004, the LPC voted 5:4 against designating the Amos cottage a City of Berkeley Structure of Merit.

2 February 2005

The Amos cottage was demolished in late 2004. Currently, a new building is going up in its place that is cheek-by-jowl with the landmark West Berkeley Macaroni Factory and as tall.

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