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A residential area made to escape the city

By Susan Cerny
Saturday July 07, 2001

When the trustees of the College of California commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to develop a plan for their new campus in 1864, they also asked him to design a residential neighborhood southeast of the college property, between the college and the proposed state school for the deaf and blind.  

The residential subdivision Frederick Law Olmsted designed for the College of California, was called the “Berkeley Property” and extends from College Avenue to Prospect Street and from Gayley Road to Dwight Way and includes Hillside Avenue and Hillside Court. Piedmont Avenue, with its landscaped median, is the main boulevard. At Channing Way and Piedmont Avenue a landscaped circle is created by generously rounded corners. The Berkeley Property merges with the College Homestead Tract at College Avenue. 

The “Berkeley Property” was Olmsted’s first fully developed landscape plan for a residential subdivision and he accompanied the plan with an extensive written report outlining the social and healthful benefits of his physical plan. Olmsted's ideas, formulated for this residential neighborhood were based on the English garden suburb.  

Olmsted believed that “...large domestic houses, on ample lots with garden set backs, enhanced by sidewalk boulevards and plantings that would become luxuriant and graceful to shelter the visitor from the sun (would) express the manifestations of a refined domestic life.” The neighborhood was to serve as a retreat from the congested life in the city. 

The Berkeley Property Tract, far from the center of town and transportation, did not sell quickly at first. Rev. Samuel H. Willey, then president of the College of California, purchased the first lot and built the first house near the intersection of Dwight Way and College Avenue in 1865. At the top of Bancroft Way C. T. H. Palmer bought a lot in 1866 and built the large Victorian house in 1875. It was demolished when International House was built in 1929.  

Today, the Berkeley Property Tract remains, even in somewhat diminished form, the neighborhood Olmsted envisioned.  

Susan Cerny writes Berkeley Observed in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.