While Berkeley is noted nationally, even internationally, for its turn-of-the-20th-century architects such as Bernard Maybeck and their creative and innovative residential designs, Berkeley also has a large number of house types that could simply be referred to as common.
After the electric streetcar was introduced in Berkeley in 1891, and then consolidated and expanded in 1903, the streets along the routes and within walking distance of a streetcar stop were subdivided for homes. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (formerly Grove Street) was the site of the earliest electric street car, and today is lined with two- to three-story houses called “Classic Boxes.”
Inspired by the Classic-styled architecture of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Classic Box was so popular that streetcar suburbs across the United States and Canada were soon filled with them. They are quintessentially North American and were built from Key West, Fla., to Vancouver, BC, with little regard for climate or location. These two-story houses are noteworthy for their rectangular shape, square, hipped or pyramidal roof (often with a single dormer in the center), closed eaves and covered entry porch.
Early examples of these houses had Classical detailing such as engaged Ionic or Corinthian columns at the corners or free-standing columns supporting the entrance porches. Sometimes there were dentils under the eaves or a three-part Palladian-styled window. There are numerous variations on the theme, some large and designed by architects, others copied from design books. The style is referred to by several different names: Classic Revival, Edwardian, Neo-colonial Revival, Classic Box and in the Midwest the American foursquare.
In Berkeley and Oakland there are many fine examples of the more elaborately decorated variations because the style was popular here between 1895 and 1910.
As a housing type, the Classic Box is substantial and has a flexible floor plan easily adapted to contemporary life styles. Many have been converted to duplexes, and some to commercial uses such as restaurants like Chez Panisse.
However, just because a house is ordinary does not mean that the building may not have interesting associations. For example, this house was built in 1903 for retired Army Officer John T. Morrison, his wife, Henrietta, and their daughter, May. Morrison fought Geronimo in the late 1800s and served on the Berkeley Town Council. Before moving here the family had lived on Addison Street. May Morrison graduated from Berkeley High School in 1895 and the University of California in 1914. She was an accomplished painter and teacher who is listed in several anthologies of California painters. The Morrison House is located at 2532 Benvenue Ave. and was designated a Berkeley Landmark, Structure of Merit in 1990.
Susan Cerny is author of the book “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.