Announcing our 37th Spring House Tour
and Garden Reception

Sunday, 6 May 2012, One to Five o’clock

Featuring houses by Henry H. Gutterson, Edward Seely, George T. Plowman & John Hudson Thomas, Williams & Wastell, Joseph Coward, F.E. Allen, and Louis Engler.

Tour map, illustrated guidebook & refreshments provided
General $40; BAHA members $30

(see discount limits)

Order tickets online or use the ticket order form.

Tour-day ticket booth & will-call open at 12:30 pm in front of
Emerson School, 2800 Forest Avenue.

BAHA’s 2012 spring house tour will explore a neighborhood of hillside homes. But here’s the catch: these homes are not in the Berkeley Hills, where you would expect to find them. They were built on a steep and isolated knoll—the so-called Garber Street Hill—that rises just a block east of College Avenue. A bit of an anomaly in an otherwise flat area of Berkeley, this striking geological feature is not as apparent to the casual observer today as it would have been when the Claremont and Elmwood neighborhoods were still grassy fields.

Now well-forested, crossed by streets and pedestrian pathways, and with a dwelling on every amenable lot, the knoll blends in with the surrounding residential areas. Only when one attempts to drive up Garber Street (to find it blocked at the top!) or to walk one of the public paths, does this topographic surprise make itself known. The change in topography is abrupt and well-defined: the hill extends from the north side of Russell Street to the south side of Forest Avenue. Approached from the west, the Garber Street Hill’s most precipitous face abruptly begins just east of Piedmont Avenue.

Some areas of the hill were still in a natural state in the 1920s, when the Reinhardt family built its home at 2919 Avalon Avenue. In A Personal Reminiscence (1993), Richard Alan Reinhardt recalled his childhood in the house and described the topography:

A few blocks west of the Claremont Hotel, rises a steep knoll which stands out clearly against the generally westward downslope of the surrounding area. Between this knoll and Claremont Avenue (which is at the base of the Berkeley hills) is the residential area called Claremont Court. For the most part, Claremont Court is fairly level, but as the knoll is approached, the slopes increase. The corner of Avalon and Oak Knoll Terrace is the highest point on the streets of the tract. Avalon slopes rather steeply to the west. Oak Knoll is also rather steep, dropping away to the north.

Reinhardt goes on to describe the several steep pedestrian pathways leading downhill from Avalon, relating that the “single long flight of stairs” at the west end of the Avalon cul-de-sac was “our well-traveled route to Willard Junior High.”

How did this knoll come to be? According to the geologist daughter of one of the Garber Street residents, the Hill is “a knob of the Franciscan Complex, a classic California rock formation found throughout northern California; a ‘tectonic melange,’ which is a fancy way of saying it’s a mixture of several types of rocks that were scraped off of the seafloor during subduction many millions of years ago. The hill comprises sedimentary (as opposed to metamorphic or igneous) rocks of the Franciscan Complex, formed during the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous period (roughly 100 to 130 million years ago). The hill was uplifted about 20 million years ago.”

In the early days of Berkeley’s settlement, several owners held the land that covers the knoll, and these ownership distinctions are preserved today as the various subdivisions that were created at different times from those holdings. The earliest filed at the County Recorder’s Office is the Berkeley Homestead Association Tract of 1872. That subdivision extends east from College Avenue and includes the northwest quadrant of the hill.

In 1880, the Kelsey family, who owned a ranch to the south of the 1872 subdivision, sold the eastern third of its land to a water company. A concrete reservoir was then built at the crest of the hill, buffered by a stand of pines. In 1891, the remainder of the Kelsey ranch was opened as the University Villa Tract, which included hillside lots on the eastern side of Kelsey Street.

To the east were the ranch lands and apricot orchard of the Garbers and the Palaches. The two families intermarried, and after James Palache, the patriarch, died in 1906, the properties were combined and marketed as Claremont Court, its several entrances marked by distinctive brick-and-iron gateways. This 1907 subdivision includes the northeastern section of the knoll. The final piece of vacant land was the south-facing slope, owned over the years by various water companies. The Avalon Court tract was created in 1920 from this land, and the cul-de-sac of Avalon Avenue was extended one block west.

The water company continued to maintain and use the hilltop reservoir into the 1930s. Richard Reinhardt remembered the dirt road leading up to the reservoir gate, with a stone stairway running up the center of the steepest section of the road: “The company trucks with their high clearance could drive up using the bare sections on either side.” The last remaining piece of water company property gave way in 1960 to a low, rambling modern house designed by Henry Hill, built on the foundations of the reservoir on the crest of the hill.

Today, the barren hill of old has mellowed with human intervention. Moss-covered stone retaining-walls hold back the hillside, and the terraced gardens spill over with mature plantings and trees. Glimpsed through the foliage is an intriguing group of houses of various architectural types; some sit at street level, while others perch high above, approached by vertiginous stairways of stone or brick. The first house built on one of the knoll’s hillside lot is the Prof. Osterhaut House of 1904, built at the highest eastern point of the Berkeley View Homestead tract. Its shingled walls and chalet-like details set the tone for other early houses on this side of the hill.

To the east and south, where development occurred slightly later, there are grand houses designed in the various revival styles of the day. Tour goers will be able to visit wooden Craftsman-style houses, tile-roofed Mediterranean-inspired houses, a grand and gracious half-timbered house, as well as an architect’s own home designed in a very personal style.

Architects and designers whose works will be viewed are Henry H. Gutterson, Edward Seely, George T. Plowman, John Hudson Thomas, Williams & Wastell, Joseph Coward, F.E. Allen, and Louis Engler. Julia Morgan will be represented by an alteration she designed for one of the houses. Join BAHA on May 6 for a memorable afternoon on the Garber Street Hill, Berkeley’s own enigmatic knoll!

Order tour & lecture tickets online
(See instructions for using PayPal)

Or use the ticket order form to order by mail.

Tour docents receive complimentary admission to the tour.
To volunteer, contact BAHA.

Copyright © 2012 BAHA. All rights reserved.
Photographs © Daniella Thompson.