It was suspected that arson claimed the oldest and grandest Italianate villa in Berkeley the Byrne House – in January of 1985, says Susan Cerny in the book “Berkeley Landmarks.”
She said it “had the romantic look of an abandoned and decaying Southern mansion, which was so unusual in Berkeley; it was illustrated in many books about Berkeley and East Bay architecture.”
The 18-room Byrne House was built in 1868 by Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne, a former plantation owner from Missouri, who came to California in 1858 with his family. According to Cerny, Byrne’s family consisted of his wife and her mother and aunt, four children, two freed slaves – possibly the first black people to live in Berkeley – and a herd of cattle.
When the 827 acres that surrounded the house turned out to be unsuitable for farming, he bought Venice Island in the Sacramento Delta. Unfortunately for Byrne, the island flooded and he was forced to sell his Berkeley land and his home to Henry Berryman in 1880.
Cerny wrote that Byrne and his family moved into a house nearby and gave up farming to become postmaster in 1880. Landmarks Commissioner Leslie Emmington-Jones said she believes that he was Berkeley’s first postmaster.
According to some accounts, Cerny writes, Byrne was the first to plant eucalyptus trees in Berkeley and some of the large old trees in Live Oak Park.
Byrne died in 1905.
About 1900, the house was bought by the Mendill Welcher family, who dubbed it “The Cedars.” Cerny says Welcher was a mathematics professor at the University since 1869, and his son went on to become the state superintendent of schools.
In the 1940s the house and grounds were offered to the city for a park. Cerny wrote that the city declined and the land was donated to the Christian Missionary Church.
Emmington-Jones said that the Robinson family, whom she thought was entrusted to the land by the Church, made the stipulation that only places of worship could be built upon the land. The Chinese Christian Missionary Alliance Church was the last to inhabit the site. Congregation Beth El bought the property about four years ago said Harry Pollack, a past president of Beth El.
Cerny wrote that in the late 1970s, efforts were made by several community groups to preserve the house, which had become neglected and dilapidated. She said that work was well underway when the first fire damaged most of the house in December of 1984. Another fire a month later damaged it beyond repair.