The Montealegre House

The true identity of a mystery Victorian revealed.

Jerry Sulliger

The Montealegre House, 2601 Dana Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)


The stately Italianate house at the southeast corner of Dana and Parker streets, one block west of Telegraph Avenue, has long been considered one of the best examples in Berkeley of this Victorian-era style based on 16th-century Italian architecture (note the pedimented gable over the arched entry). The house was featured in 1971 in BAHA’s article series that ran in the Berkeley Gazette. It also appeared in BAHA’s 1973 calendar, Heritage Houses, and was included in the State Historic Resources Inventory in 1979. In preparing the inventory form, we contacted descendents of the Duggan family who had owned the house for many years. Other than a rumor that the house had been possibly moved to the site, nothing was known about its origins. The Duggans confirmed that the house had been moved by their grandfather around 1900. We were also told that the house had stood on the east side of Telegraph Avenue, at the end of Blake Street, on Hillegass property. We then (incorrectly) gave it the name Hillegass House. Years later, BAHA board member Jerry Sulliger began to question the claim that this house, at 2601 Dana Street, had originally been built on Hillegass property. The Hillegass family had built only one house in Berkeley, near Strawberry Creek, and their tract was not subdivided until 1886. A house of this age could not have come from Hillegass land. Jerry’s subsequent extensive research revealed an even more fascinating history connected with this Victorian, now known to be the Montealegre House.     Anthony Bruce

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009

The story begins in San Jos�, Costa Rica. In the year 1870, Dr. Jos� Mar�a Montealegre Fern�ndez (1815–1887), scion of a wealthy coffee-growing family, a physician educated in Aberdeen, Scotland, president of Costa Rica from 1859 to 1863, banker and politician, suffered a political setback when a coup d’etat led by General Tom�s Miguel Guardia Guti�rrez deposed his brother-in-law from the presidency. Choosing to go into voluntary exile, Dr. Montealegre liquidated many of his extensive holdings. On 17 April 1872, he embarked with his wife, numerous children, two brothers, and extended family on the steamer Alaska, which sailed from Puntarenas, bound for San Francisco, California.

In their adopted city, the Montealegres soon established themselves in business as coffee importers and commission merchants. Jos� Maria settled at 1114 Bush Street. His eldest son, Juan Gerardo Montealegre Mora (1841–1916), operated a number of companies, including J.G. Montealegre & Bros. and the Aztec Pinole Company. On 12 May 1875, Juan Gerardo purchased a plot of land in Berkeley from Margaret Leonard, divorced wife of Berkeley pioneer James Leonard. The sale consisted of the eastern two acres of Block K in the Leonard Tract. This property is unknown today, having been further subdivided and developed, but prior to 1909, it was a very large and well-landscaped estate on the west side of Telegraph Avenue, between Blake and Carleton streets.

Detail of the Leonard Tract subdivision map showing Block K and the Montealegre House. Humboldt is now Telegraph Avenue.

In 1875, one could not find many buildings along Telegraph Avenue south of Dwight Way. The Leonard Tract to the west was just being developed, and the Hillegass land to the east would not be subdivided until the 1880s, owing to legal problems. South of these tracts there was open land as far as Temescal. Still, J.G. Montealegre soon had a neighbor in Albin Putzker, first professor of German at the University of California, who also saw this stretch of Telegraph Avenue, then known as Humboldt Avenue, as a desirable place to live.

Early years of the House

Two years passed before J.G. Montealegre began building his Berkeley home. On 31 March 1877, the editor of the Berkeley Advocate reported having seen plans for the house, which was to be built by the Berkeley Real Estate Union. By 7 July, the Advocate was able to report that “Mr. Montealegre, stock broker [...] and many others, are about taking up residence here.” (The other homes going up were built for Thomas M. Antisell, James Barker, John Everding, and the Palmer brothers—all key figures in the early history of Berkeley. Most of these very early structures survive only in photographs, having fallen under the wrecking ball after the 1940s.) In Bishop’s Directory for 1877–78, J.G. Montealegre was listed as living on the “west side of Humboldt between Parker and Blake, Berkeley.”

Juan Gerardo Montealegre Mora (courtesy of Mar�a Alejandra Montealegre Castro)

Juan Gerardo Montealegre Mora married Luisa Mata Brenes (1847–1905) on 26 November 1867, several years before leaving Costa Rica. By the time they were established in Berkeley, the family had grown substantially: Ana Mar�a (1867–1930) and Marta (b. 1870) were born in San Jos�, Costa Rica; Ada (1874–1943) and Gerardo (1875–1911) were born in San Francisco; Walter (b. 1879) and Edwin (b. 1881) were born in Berkeley. The youngest child of the union, Julia (1884–1961), would be born in Mission San Jose, now Fremont, CA.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009

Practically nothing is known about the Montealegre family’s life in Berkeley. The 1880 U.S. census indicated that J.G. Montealegre was a coffee merchant and that the family had two live-in servants. The Berkeley directories for 1880 and 1881 listed his business as “coffee and spices.” The family was apparently very private and was never involved in local politics or civic issues. Juan Gerardo was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on 29 August 1877, but his voting and political affiliations are unknown. On 30 October 1880, the Berkeley Advocate noted that Montealegre had made improvements to his property, and on 12 November 1882 it reported that his windmill had blown down in a storm. The 1883 Berkeley directory, the last in which he was listed, gave his occupation as grape grower in Mission San Jose. He sold his house that year to San Francisco lawyer Lucio M. Tewksbury. The selling price was $7,000, for which J.G. Montealegre carried the mortgage.

The seemingly surprising switch from coffee and spices to viticulture came about as a result of a relative’s entry into the wine business. In 1881, Juan de Dios Gallegos (1833–1905), husband of Juan Gerardo’s sister, Julia, and himself the son of a former Costa Rican head of state, purchased the Palmdale ranch in Mission San Jose, southern Alameda County. The same year, he began planting a 600-acre vineyard. Zinfandel dominated among the eleven grape varieties he planted, occupying 435 acres. Gallegos’ obituary in the Oakland Tribune stated that his first crop yielded 100,000 gallons of wine, which was sold within three months for $30,000 in cash. Flush with success, Gallegos built a large winery and a distillery in 1884.

The Gallegos winery (Images of America: Irvington, Fremont)

Gallegos sold a parcel of his land to Professor Eugene W. Hilgard of the University of California, who established a test vinyard and acted as adviser to Gallegos. Another parcel of 69 acres was acquired by Juan Gerardo Montealegre in April 1884. He moved his family to Mission San Jose, where they were joined by his father, Dr. Montealegre. The latter died in 1887 and was buried in the Gallegos family plot at Saint Joseph Cemetery (by request of the Costa Rican government, his remains would be exhumed in 1978 and entombed with honors in his native land).

Within a few years, the success of the Gallegos winery attracted stiff competition. In 1891, the company fell afoul of the Internal Revenue Service and had to be sold off and reorganized. A year earlier, Juan Gerardo Montealegre lost his farm to foreclosure. Selling 32.4 acres of his Irvington land, he returned to Costa Rica with his wife and some of his children (a few of the latter would eventually reappear in Berkeley).

The Intermediate Years

Little is known about the next owner of the Montealegre House. Lucio M. Tewksbury was a young attorney, son of a San Francisco pioneer and prominent physician from New York, who graduated from the University of California in 1870, when the school was still located in Oakland. In 1879, he married the youngest daughter of former California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. He apparently died in 1885, since the Montealegre house became the subject of delinquent tax notices around that time. In 1886, Tewksbury’s heirs sold the northeast quadrant of the lot, including the house and the windmill, to Carl Ahpel, subject to Montealegre’s mortgage. Montealegre had already assigned his mortgage, however, to Emma Joseph of San Francisco and deeded the remaining southwest quadrant to her, presumably as part of a foreclosure action. Carl Ahpel died shortly thereafter, and on 1 February 1888, his widow, Ricke Ahpel, granted the northeast quadrant to Emma Joseph, who now owned the entire original lot.

Subdivision of the Montealgre property in 1886

It is not known when Hyam and Emma Joseph came to California, but by 1880 they were living in a San Francisco hotel with three children, Albert, Nell, and Sydney, all born in California. Hyam died on 13 September 1880. Emma continued to live in San Francisco the rest of her life, so the reason for her purchase of the Berkeley property remains a mystery. We do know that her youngest son, Albert, was living there in 1897 and 1898. In 1900, the Joseph family was living together in a San Francisco boarding house, where Emma was the landlady. Her son Albert was a real estate agent, and he was probably the one who sold the Montealegre house. Some time between 1898 and 1902, an agreement to sell was made with George W. Haight, a prominent San Francisco attorney. This agreement was not recorded and is only alluded to in some documents. Following Emma Joseph’s death in 1906, the distribution of her estate, carried out in May 1907, included the transfer of title to the Montealegre property to Haight.

Born in New York to Major General Samuel Haight, George Haight and his brother Fletcher migrated to California to practice law. Fletcher practiced in southern California, where he became a superior court judge. His son, Henry Haight, was elected Governor of California, serving from 1867 to 1871. George practiced law in San Francisco until the 1906 earthquake, when he moved his practice to Berkeley. In 1902, George was already living in the Montealegre house, where he remained until 1908. In February 1907, Haight sold the Montealegre property to the Stanford Company, which did not disclose its plans for the large parcel. The company apparently did not survive. George’s son, Samuel C. Haight, was buying out former partners in the spring of 1909. The following summer, the plans would take shape as Austin’s Resubdivision, which included 16 residential lots along a new street named Chilton Way and nine more lots along Telegraph Avenue, with an alleyway behind them known as Chilton Alley.

Map of the 1909 resubdivision of the Montealegre property

George W. Austin was an Oakland realtor who specialized in loans, and Austin’s Resubdivision is the only major subdivision he is known to have developed. Although the development was named after Austin, the plat map indicated that the owner of the property was Samuel C. Haight, his father George holding the mortgage along with the Veitch brothers. Samuel Haight graduated from the University of California in 1907 and was beginning to get involved in local politics. In the following years he would run for a seat on the Berkeley School Board, while his wife was very active in social circles. Samuel eventually left Berkeley to practice law in Oakland, where he died in 1940. The Austin Resubdivision was very successful; eleven houses had been built by the spring of 1910, and four more were added by 1913, so that only one of the residential lots facing Chilton Way remained vacant.

The Montealegre House in its original location (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1903)

But what happened to the Montealegre house? In 1907, the Berkeley daily Gazette had reported that George Haight would “remove his large residence from Telegraph Avenue to the Blake street frontage.” The 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map showed the footprint of house in the middle of the northern half of the lot, with the windmill (rebuilt after blowing down) behind to the west and a barn on Blake Street. The map also reveals that the house measured 35 feet by 65 feet, with a bay window on the southern side, and a porch running across the entire front. The house was indicated on the map as a single-family dwelling (“D”), one story with a raised basement (“1B”), brick chimney (“BC”), and a wood-shingle roof (“x”). The front porch was one-story high (“1”) and apparently was supported by brick walls (“O”). In the next Sanborn Map (1911), no house footprint on the block fits this description. The Montealegre House had disappeared.

One doesn’t have to look very far from Blake Street and Telegraph Avenue in the 1911 Sanborn map to find a footprint matching that of the Montealegre House at the southeast corner of Dana and Parker streets.

The Montealegre House in 1911. The Duggan house stands directly to the south. (Sanborn fire insurance map)

The Duggan Years

It is not known exactly when Robert Duggan came to Berkeley. His obituary, published in the Berkeley Daily Gazette on 20 May 1918, suggested that Duggan arrived in the early 1870s and became a janitor in North Hall on the University of California campus. However, Duggan’s name was not among the four janitors listed as employed by U.C. in 1876.

This story was repeated in the 1970s by Duggan’s grandson, municipal court judge Robert J. Duggan, who also added that his grandfather had been a refugee from the Irish Potato Famine, bought Block L of the Leonard Tract from the Leonard family, and built a tiny house at 2609 Dana Street. In an interview with BAHA, Judge Duggan said that his grandfather had bought the house at 2601 Dana from the Hillegass family and moved it from the end of Blake Street at Telegraph Avenue. Judge Duggan’s wife Grace somehow even remembered the Leonard and Hillegass families from 1912.

Family lore often aquires myths over the years. This appears to have been the case with the Duggans, who embellished the inaccurate Gazette obituary of 1918. The likelihood that the Duggans personally knew the Hillegass family is very slim indeed. William Hillegass had died in 1876, and his former partners and family fought over his estate for ten years. When the litigation ended in 1886, the family sold off its holdings and left Berkeley forever. It is not possible that the Duggans bought the house from the Hillegass family, much less met any of them, in 1909.

The 1900 U.S. census recorded that Robert Duggan had come to the United States in 1863, and that he was a naturalized citizen. Clearly, Duggan left Ireland long after the Potato Famine that ravaged that country in the 1840s. He first appeared in the Berkeley directory in 1878, living on the southeast corner of Dana and Parker streets. In 1888, he was described as a laborer working for the university. We know that on 6 September 1880, Duggan paid Margaret Leonard $300 for lots 9 and 10 (2601 Dana Street) in Block L of her tract. On 10 August 1882, he added lot 11 (2609 Dana) to his holdings.

The Duggan House, 2609 Dana St., in 1939 (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

The Duggan House today (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Over the years, Duggan added to the small structure he built at 2609 Dana Street. The first record of the house is from the assessments for 1888, when there were only two structures on the block: Duggan’s house and Prof. Putzker’s much larger residence on Telegraph Avenue. In 1895, Charles Gilman built the third house on the block, immediately south of Duggan on lot 12. The 1903 Sanborn map shows these three as the only structures on the block.

Block L in the 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map

The house at 2601 Dana first appeared on the assessment records in 1910. In those days, assessments were made as of the second Monday in March, so the house arrived on the lot between March 1909 and March 1910. We now have scanned and indexed the building permits for 1909 and 1910 and can show that Duggan was not given a permit to build the house (moving houses did not require permits in those early years, only approval by the Board of Trustees). A house of this vintage appearing for the first time in a 20th-century assessment must have been moved from another location. The same assessment records show that the Montealegre House disappeared from its original site on Block K of the Leonard Tract by 1910, though it had been assessed there in March 1909. Along with the previous houses on Block K in 1909 were the eleven new ones built in Austin’s Resubdivision during late 1909 and early 1910.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009

We also know that on 8 October 1909, Duggan borrowed $3,500 from the Union Savings Bank of Oakland. The security for the loan consisted of all three lots that Duggan had bought from Margaret Leonard, plus any structures on them. Duggan’s small cottage at 2609 Dana Street could not have secured a loan of this size. The assessment records and building permits also show that Duggan made no improvements on 2609 Dana Street until 1931. It seems fair to conclude that the loan was largely secured by the Montealegre House, which appears to have been moved to 2601 Dana Street between the spring and the fall of 1909. Construction permits for Chilton Way were already being issued by July 1909.

The original location of the Montealegre estate on Telegraph Ave. as it is today. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

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Copyright © 2009 BAHA & Jerry Sulliger. Color photographs © 2009–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.