BAHA Tour - May 7, 2000


The charm of Berkeley lies in its residential neighborhoods beyond main thoroughfares and busy streets. The Claremont District, nestled among the foothills of southeast Berkeley in the vicinity of the Claremont Hotel, is one of the town's most delightful.

The neighborhood is composed of several distinct subdivisions. The first one, simply named "Claremont," was opened in 1905, concurrent with planning for the Claremont Hotel and with the introduction of the extensive Key System electric streetcar network.The first "Claremont" subdivision lay east of Claremont Avenue and was promoted as a refuge for the harried businessman, linked to downtown San Francisco by electric trains. This is the "Claremont," where, "across a stone bridge spanning an oak-shadowed brook," one could "watch the daily growth of trees and flowers and vines." This is the "Claremont" familiar to you from previous tours.

Beyond "Claremont's" first residential subdivision, there is yet another "Claremont," higher in the hills, that lies on either side of Tunnel Road. In 1905 this area remained rural. Protected by low hills, the land fronting this long stretch of Tunnel Road looked east to golden hills, south to the "shimmer of Lake Temescal," and west to the "glories of the sunset bay." The quiet, rural character of this place lent itself to the creation of large country houses on spacious parcels.

One of the developers of "Claremont" was Duncan McDuffie, a young man in 1905, who had graduated from the University of California in 1899. McDuffie acquired close to ten acres of a steep, wooded canyon southwest of Tunnel Road that was bisected by a creek and lush with native oak, buckeye, and bay.

In 1909 he engaged architect John Galen Howard to make plans for an extensive country estate to be located on the eastern boundary of his property along Tunnel Road. He also sought the services of the Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Awaiting the construction of his "mansion," McDuffie first resided on the second floor of the two-story garage. After his sudden marriage in 1910 he asked Howard to convert the garage into a suitable country residence for a newly married couple. Often described as a "Tuscan farmhouse," because of its massive arched carriage doors and its courtyard, the McDuffies lived here until 1924.

What appears to have interested McDuffie the most was the landscape design for his property. While the mansion he had planned was never built, McDuffie actively participated in the planning and planting of his many acres. Extant correspondence (dating from 1914-1939) between McDuffie and the Olmsted Bros. firm attest to his keen interest in landscaping and his knowledge about trees and plants. A park like expanse composed of both formal and informal features emerged. Steps and retaining walls of native stone formed a series of terraces stepping down into the canyon, while rows of poplars defined vistas.

In 1924 a new home designed by Willis Polk was ready for them on Roble Road, which was the eastern edge of their property, and most of the original estate had been subdivided under the supervision of the Olmsted firm. Neighboring country houses were built on Roble Court, a new cul-de-sac, each with its own grand garden, incorporating pieces of the famous Olmsted-designed estate.

Today Roble Road and Roble Court retain the tranquil atmosphere of country lanes. The raw nature of 1905 has been tamed by the passing century and the mature plantings of old gardens drape over moss-stained walls. The street is shaded by broad-leafed trees. Farther down, stout stone obelisks and a stand of eucalyptus mark the Berkeley border and here the street narrows into a true country lane. A small farm existed along the road in recent memory and a vineyard still graces a lower slope. The straight and level right-of-way of the old Sacramento Northern crosses the road as it turns and descends to Chabot Road in Oakland. Here sits another country house from 1914, a survivor of the 1991 Firestorm, protected by its surrounding stand of live oaks.

On Sunday, May 7th, you will have the opportunity to view homes and gardens that stand today on the original McDuffie estate. The McDuffies' 1924 home will be open as will the home of architect Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., built in 1914. Work of architects W.R. Yelland, Bernard Maybeck, and Warren Perry will also be featured. Join us on a springtime afternoon for a visit to Berkeley's hidden rural enclave and to "Claremont's Country Houses and Their Gardens."

-Susan Cerny and Anthony Bruce