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John Woolley House conveys layers of history

By Susan Cerny
Saturday May 12, 2001

The John Woolley House stands forlornly between a weedy empty lot and a large parking lot.  

The paint is peeling and it is somewhat hidden behind a sagging board fence.  

But this simple, dignified, Italianate Victorian house, an officially designated Berkeley Landmark, remains a visible link to the past. 

The house conveys layers of national, state and local cultural history.  

John Woolley’s life story is a record of a single individual’s pursuit of the American Dream which began in 1850 when he left his native England and went to Philadelphia where he worked as a boiler maker and blacksmith. In 1852 he sought his fortune in California.  

In California Woolley’s story is intertwined with the story of how California, the Bay Area and Berkeley developed over time.  

He worked for Southern Pacific Railroad and the Spring Water Company – both vital enterprises to the growth of California and the Bay Area.  

Woolley’s Oakland Boiler Works provided boilers for early campus buildings. After settling in Berkeley in 1876, he was involved in civic activities and in the establishment of public schools.  

The present location of the John Woolley House, facing Haste Street, (it originally faced Telegraph Avenue) reflects Berkeley’s growth in the 1890s.  

t is the story of Telegraph Avenue, the introduction of electric streetcars, the grading of streets and the general growth of the city’s population after the 1906 earthquake.  

John Woolley lived in this house until his death in 1912 at the age of 85. Members of the Woolley family lived in the house until 1943 and it remained a private home until 1993. 

The house remains a singular physical artifact in this neighborhood that links the distant past to the present; the story of how, why, and by whom a place is settled, planned, designed, and celebrated. If the house did not exist would anyone bother to tell its story?