Sisterna Named City’s Newest Historic District

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 09, 2004

Elise Blumenfeld’s voice resonates enthusiasm as she guides a reporter through a verbal tour of Berkeley’s newest officially recognized historic district. 

“Usually, when people think of the history of Berkeley, they think in terms of the university. But here in West Berkeley, there were a lot Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially from Chile, and the Irish, who fled here from the famine,” she said. 

Blumenfeld’s passion for what has now become Sisterna Tract Block 106 Historic District began as a drive to preserve a collection of houses and quickly turned into fascination with the discovery of a rich, unexpected history, peopled with immigrants driven from distant homelands by poverty, famine and despair. 

Her effort culminated on March 1 in the official declaration by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission after the panel received a copiously illustrated 48-page report written by Blumenfeld and Sarah Satterlee from the extensive research of 14 other volunteers, including an architect, a woodworker and an archaeologist. 

On Sunday afternoon, neighbors drawn together by the struggle to save their block from the further metastasis of the large apartment buildings and major remodelings that have been invading their neighborhood, gathered over carrot cake, chips, dip, cheese, crackers, cookies, sparkling water and wine to fete their victory at the now-landmarked colorful “Carpenter Gothic” at 2110 Sixth St.  

Blumenfeld, who holds a doctorate in clinical social work, and her spouse and colleague Neal Blumenfeld had restored the building in 1989, 101 years after it was built. Counselors and the California Institute for Social Work now occupy what have been offices since 1929. 

Inside, the original moldings and ornamentation have survived, and 10-foot ceilings keep the interior quite cool, despite the unseasonable warmth outside. 

The new historic district includes the Blumenfeld building and eight other houses on the northern half-blocks of Fifth and Sixth streets south of Addison Street, and two on Addison between Fifth and Sixth. Two other lots are included in the district, but not the structures that now occupy them. 

Blumenfeld credits Hank Mooney with discovery of much of the district’s fascinating history, and Todd Boekelheide with the images in a report that begins with the Ohlone people who inhabited the region long before the arrival of Europeans. 

The following history comes from their account. 

The parcel derives its name from Rosario and Carmelita Sisterna, a Chilean immigrant couple who bought a large dairy farm including the block in 1858.  

The Spaniards, in the person of Luis Peralta, were the first Europeans to seize the land from the Ohlone people—who left three shell mounds within a few minutes stroll of the Sisterna Tract. Holding a land grant from the Spanish crown, Peralta laid claim to the site along with much of the East Bay in 1820. 

In 1842, Peralta subdivided his grant, giving the hunk that includes the Sisterna Tract and most of modern-day Berkeley to his son, Domingo. With the influx of gold-seekers and the Mexican surrender of California to the U.S., both in 1848, his lands were fenced off and his cattle seized by interlopers. 

Surrendering to reality, Peralta sold the last of his holdings five years later to a San Francisco consortium which managed to corral title to all of modern-day Berkeley and Oakland. The speculators sold a parcel south of Strawberry Creek—including the new historic district—to Yolo County dairy farmer James J. Foley, who in turn sold the land in 1858 to the Sisternas, Chilean immigrant who’d been burned out of their farm in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow. 

After the fire, the Sisternas had headed for Gold Country, making their pile before returning to the East Bay, where they bought Foley’s farm. 

The district’s larger neighborhood got its name after a sea captain from Massachusetts, William J. Bowen, built an inn at what is now the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Delaware Street. The stagecoach line that stopped there dubbed the site Ocean View, and the name stuck. 

Bowen and fellow captain James H. Jacobs sparked early industrial development. Jacobs built a wharf at the foot of Delaware Street—today Jacobs’ Landing—and set up a freight hauling business. A grist mill, a soap factory, and a wood planing mill soon followed, bringing still more industries in the wake. 

Workers for the new enterprises poured in from Europe, Mexico, and South America. The largest group was Irish, fleeing the great famine, but many, like the Sisternas, came from Chile. 

In 1873, Jacobs and a collection of Ocean View entrepreneurs—plus retired UC president Henry Durant—formed the Berkeley Land and Town Improvement Association and proceeded to subdivide between San Pablo Avenue and the Bay from Cordonices Creek to Bancroft Way. 

The Sisternas sold shares in their land to Jacobs’ consortium, retaining title and the right to subdivide and sell off lots. Block 106, Berkeley’s newest historic district, was settled over the next decade by immigrants from Mexico, Chile, Ireland, and Germany. 

Five years later, faced with the growing political clout of Oakland and fearing they’d be swallowed up by the growing city, Ocean View residents joined with the university to incorporate the City of Berkeley. 

Political activism has been an Ocean View traditional from the start, and the district provided an organizational hotbed for the California Working Man’s Party—a major player in the incorporation drive. 

Today, the neighborhood retains the ethnic diversity that marks its beginnings, with the old wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants replaced by a new one.  

The oldest of the new landmarks bears a name that may be either Portuguese or Hispanic. The Juan Velasca House at 2109 Fifth St. still preserves most of the classically inspired ornamentation that defines the Italianate Victorian.  

The Velasca House name is that of the original owners, Juan and Margaret Velasca, who bought the lot from the Sisternas on Aug. 6, 1877, and built their home that same year. Juan Velasca declared himself a tanner, and probably plied his craft with the help of the tannic acid in the plentiful supply of acorns yielded by native oak trees. 

Though 2105 Fifth boasts two bay windows to 2107’s one, the two Italianate cottages are otherwise nearly identical, though 2107 was built in 1889, six years after 2105—originally the home of French-born blacksmith Peter Haller, who built the near-twin for his stepson, Thomas F. Dowd. Satterlee is the proud owner of 2105, which she is presently restoring. 

Though the building is modern, the land at 800 Addison once housed Haller’s carriage shop, built in 1888—enough to win the plot itself inclusion in the district. 

Todd Boekelheide, who collected the illustrations for the landmark application, owns 814 Addison—named after Joseph McVay, a Missouri-born contractor, teamster and developer who built the Queen Anne cottage in 1888. 

McVay also bought the house next door at 816 in 1892. Today a duplex, the home may have begun as an older house moved in and elevated, or as the conversion of a barn known to have once stood on the site. 

In 1892, McVay’s brother Edward built the newly landmarked house at 2100 Sixth St., the largest and costliest to build of the newly landmarked homes—a lavishly ornamented and lovingly restored Queen Anne cottage. He was also married to Isabella Moore, granddaughter of the Sisternas. 

Clara Ballard, the original owner—in 1892—of the Victorian at 2104 Sixth was a sister to the McVays. The home is a virtual twin of the Blumenfeld’s building two doors down. 

The home at 2108, originally built in 1888 and subjected to major remodeling later, was exempted from the district, though the land beneath was included. 

The last house, a Carpenter Gothic at 2112 Sixth, was another Haller creation, built in 1888 and described by Blumenfeld and Satterlee as a reverse twin of Blumenfeld’s building next door. 

“We’re really delighted with the landmark designation,” Satterlee said. “Working together, we’ve helped preserved the a unique part of Berkeley’s history.”o