Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Architect Seth Paris Babson Gets No Respect In Berkeley

By Daniella Thompson
Friday April 07, 2006

Seth Paris Babson (1826–1907) was one of the most eminent Victorian architects on the Pacific coast. A native of Maine, he set sail for San Francisco a year after the discovery of gold in California. Having rounded Cape Horn, Babson arrived in the spring of 1850. 

A brief sojourn among the dissolute gold miners of Coloma so disgusted the temperate Babson that he soon decided to move to Sacramento. There, according to his youngest son, “he developed his native skill as a carpenter and eventually became a m ost capable architect and designed and constructed many of the homes of the pioneer families...” 

Among Babson’s still-standing landmark Sacramento buildings are the Leland Stanford Mansion (1857), the Crocker Art Museum (1869–1873, described as the “sing le finest Italianate building in the West, if not in America”), and the Stick-style Llewellyn Williams Mansion (1885). 

In 1874, when he was almost fifty, Babson married Juanita Josepha Smith (1855–1940), 30 years his junior. The following year, the coupl e moved their residence to Alameda, where their three children were born. Babson’s office was located in the Phelan Building on Market and O’Farrell streets in San Francisco. 

He was a major force in the establishment of the Northern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and served as its president in 1890 and again from 1896 to 1903. 

There are only two Berkeley buildings known or believed to have been designed by Seth Babson. One of those was the Southside home of Juanita’s si ster, Miss Eleanor Mary Smith, a teacher who over the course of 30 years taught at Emerson, Whittier Grammar, Dwight Day, Willard, and McKinley schools. 

Her simple brown-shingle house, with interior redwood paneling and a clinker-brick chimney, was const ructed in 1902 by Mr. Martin, an independent builder who is said to have ”lost his money through bad investment in an asbestos mine.” 

The retired Babson may have contributed to the design. 

Located at 2529 Hillegass Ave. on land now owned by the American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Smith house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in January 1980. However, the designation didn’t protect it from demolition when ABSW wanted to create a parking lot where it stood. 

In 1893, Babson and builder R. Wenk erected for Bartine Carrington a house at 2323 Bowditch St., just south of Durant Avenue. This was a charming, raised-basement cottage clad in redwood shingles. An embodiment of the transition from the Victorian style to the First Bay Region traditio n, the cottage featured the roof-ridge ornaments and fishscale shingles of the former with the unpainted exterior of the latter. Box-like corner window bays with small panes lent it a picturesque aspect. 

A very similar cottage, essentially unaltered with the exception of a modified entrance porch, still stands at 2277 Vine St. in north Berkeley. 

Bartine Carrington (1871–1926), a clergyman’s son born in China, worked in real estate for many years and apparently built the house as an investment, for he never lived there. Next door at 2600 Durant Ave., Hiram Brasfield built a rooming house, where his family occasionally lived until 1911, when they moved into the newly-constructed Brasfield Apartments at 2520 Durant Ave. 

From 1906 to 1916, Hiram’s brother-in-law Jim Davis resided in the Carrington house. At the time, Davis was the manager of the U.C. Associated Students Store. By 1917, Davis had moved to 2525 Durant Ave., across the street from the Brasfield Apartments.  

It was probably during the Davis re sidence that the Carrington cottage was jacked up and gained a new ground floor. The enlarged house retained all its old charm, blending well into its village-like neighborhood of shingled homes set within flower-bedecked gardens. 

Over the ensuing decade s, the character of Durant Avenue and of the Southside gradually changed. In 1928, the six-story Hotel Durant replaced Brasfield’s rooming house. To the east, the nine-story U.C. Unit 1 dormitories went up between 1956 and 1959. 

A faceless apartment bloc k completed the scene just south of the Carrington house. Isolated on its block, the house was subdivided into apartments, the redwood shingles were painted white, and the small-pane windows replaced with aluminum. Neglect set in. 

As in the case of the E leanor Smith house, the Carrington house’s fate was sealed when its location was coveted by the hotel for a parking garage. In March 1982, the house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark, structure of merit. 

The designation saved it from outright de molition but not from degradation. In the late 1980s, the upper story was moved to 1029 Addison St., just west of San Pablo Avenue. There it was insensitively “restored” and sold to a new owner, who doesn’t know that he lives in a designated structure. Th e house’s present appearance is testimony to the toothlessness of Berkeley’s preservation enforcement. 



Photo By Daniella Thompson  

What might have been—a cottage at 2277 Vine St. in North Berkeley looks very similar to one of Babson’s Berkeley houses th at has since been altered almost beyond recognition.