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Architects Designed ‘Fireproof’ Buildings After 1923 Disaster

By SUSAN CERNY Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 29, 2003

On Sept. 17, 1923, a disastrous wildfire swept down from the north Berkeley Hills and destroyed more than 500 buildings; most of them were homes. After the fire, there was some interest in using building materials that would be more fireproof than a wood-frame house covered with wood shingles—and for a time wood shingles were even banned.  

Although most new construction after the 1923 fire (just like after the 1991 Oakland Hills fire) consisted of stuccoed exterior walls over a wood frame, several buildings were constructed of “fireproof” materials. Among these was the Second Church of Christ, Scientist at 1521 Spruce St. (1926) designed by Henry Higby Gutterson, and a house, located at 1512 La Loma (1924), designed by John Ballantine, an architect who had worked in Gutterson’s office and had lost his home in the fire. 

Both buildings are built from unusual concrete blocks manufactured in Carmel by the Carmel Thermotite Company. Gutterson used these blocks for the Flanders Mansion in Carmel in 1925. (The Flanders mansion is now a city-owned cultural center.) One of Gutterson’s earlier Berkeley designs, the home of Raymond T. Framer, on Marin Avenue, had employed a hollow-brick wall construction not dissimilar to that chosen for the Flanders home, the Second Church and the Ballantine House. 

In both the Flanders Mansion and the Second Church the architect used a cavity wall system not common in California. The blocks were bonded by grout and bound by special metal ties for structural and seismic stability, the building material professed to be “waterproof, fireproof and practically everlasting.”  

The Thermotite concrete blocks have a surface quality and color, as well as a particular size, that makes them look much more like stone than what one thinks of as “concrete block.” All three buildings have the general feeling, ambiance and simplicity of a old English cottage.  

The Second Church of Christ, Scientist is an outstanding example of the mature work of architect Henry Gutterson, who graduated from the University of California in 1907 and then attended the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The church is significant for its architectural simplicity and the use of natural materials in an elegant way; it demonstrates the transition from the Period Revival Style toward modernism. Its style is generally Spanish Revival with details borrowed from the Renaissance. The church illustrates how well a rather large building can fit quietly into a residential neighborhood.  

1512 Buena Vista (which is currently for sale) is an example of the early work of John Ballantine, who graduated from the university in 1919 and worked in Gutterson’s office until 1924 when he opened his own office. The U-shaped main house and the cottage are set around a garden courtyard giving the impression of a village square. The simple buildings are enhanced by small-paned leaded windows, hood molding over the doors and windows and a gray slate roof. Ballantine designed many houses during his 40-year career. 

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