Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Spring Mansion Modeled After Empress’ Island Palace

By Daniella Thompson
Friday September 22, 2006

One of the largest residential parcels in the Berkeley, the John Hopkins Spring Estate, commonly known as the Spring Mansion, occupies 3.25 acres in the Southampton area of the north Berkeley Hills. The property is so large as to require three addresses: 1960 San Antonio Ave., 1984 San Antonio Ave., and 639 The Arlington. 

Modeled after Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Achillion Palace in Corfu, the estate is a scheme of broad balustraded terraces sloping down toward the west. As late as 2005, the grounds were planted with shrubbery, redwood, eucalyptus, pine, and palm trees and ornamented with a fountain and a reflecting pool. On the upper slope stands an imposing two-story mansion designed by John Hudson Thomas. The exterior is primarily Beaux Arts-influenced, while the interiors display the architect’s eclectic influences, including Vienna Secessionist, Arts & Crafts, and Egyptian motifs. 

Measuring 80 ft. by 83 ft., the 12,000-square-foot house, built entirely of concrete, has two main entrances. The eastern entrance in the rear features a rectangular portico and serves the driveway, while the western entrance boasts a semi-circular portico, opening onto the garden terraces and commanding a sweeping vista of San Francisco Bay. This entrance leads to a vaulted passage running along the western length of the building, connecting the dining room in the northwest corner to the living room in the southwest. 

At the heart of the building is a 30-foot high atrium surmounted by a skylight. Four hefty Tuscan columns support the second-floor corridor balconies surrounding the atrium. The upper floor is reached via a grand, 15-foot wide staircase. At the center of the atrium, a slender Italian fountain strikes a Mediterranean note. 

The majestic public rooms are placed on the ground floor along the north and south sides of the house, opening directly into the atrium. These include a living room, dining room, and billiard/sitting room featuring tapestry-covered walls, enormous fireplaces, and rich oak moldings. 

The house was built in 1912–14 by the Spring Construction Company, one of the holdings of landowner and entrepreneur John Hopkins Spring (1862–1933). Born in San Francisco to a New England family, Spring received his real-estate training at his father’s and uncle’s firm, which was involved in various East Bay land ventures. 

In 1897, after the death of his father, Spring moved to Oakland and built a showcase residence by the Sausal Creek in Fruitvale. Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, he bought a lot in Union Square and built what would become the city’s first department store, City of Paris. 

In the first years of the 20th century, Spring teamed up with Berkeley real-estate developer Duncan McDuffie and capitalists Louis Titus (1872–c.1947) and Wigginton Ellis Creed (1877–1927) in the Berkeley Development Company and the North Berkeley Land Company. He was also a business associate of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith (1846–1931) and Frank Colton Havens (1848–1918), especially in the East Bay real-estate ventures of their Realty Syndicate and its holding company United Properties. 

In 1904–05, Spring acquired J.J. Dunn’s quarry on the former Berryman ranch in north Berkeley. With Creed and Titus as partners, he formed the Spring Construction Company. The company quarried rock at its Spruce Street facility in the La Loma Park and Codornices Park area, and later at the Arlington facility in Cerrito Canyon. Construction vehicles and equipment were maintained at a depot on the old Boswell Ranch site (now the Solano and Peralta junction). In 1906–07, Spring purchased a 142-acre tract around El Cerrito Hill and laid out the subdivision that would become the city of Albany. His best-known venture was the Thousand Oaks subdivision and the shopping district along Solano Avenue, begun in 1909. 

Spring was one of the investors in the Claremont Hotel Co. founded by Louis Titus, though his role in this joint venture has been obfuscated by several contradictory legends. The Landmark Application for the Spring Estate, written in 2000, states: 

“Spring’s first venture into Berkeley real estate was in the Claremont District. ... Before long, Spring had two other partners in the Claremont Tract, Frank Havens and W.P. Mortimer, a Berkeley capitalist. The partners financed the grand Hotel Claremont but construction was slowed down due to financial stringency resulting from the 1907 Panic. 

In 1910, Spring approached his partners with a proposal to play a game of dominoes with the hotel property as the stake. Spring first played Mortimer and beat him. Later he played Havens and lost. It was Spring who planned the lovely garden terraces around the hotel that became known as the ‘Jewel of the East Bay.’” 

Another version is told on the Claremont Hotel’s website: 

“The property … fell into the hands of Frank Havens and ‘Borax’ Smith, a famous miner. They planned to erect a resort hotel on the property with trains running directly into the lobby. Unfortunately, these plans were abandoned. One night, Havens, Smith and John Spring, a Berkeley capitalist, played a game of checkers in the old Athenian Club of Oakland with the stakes being the property, and Havens won. 

He began building in 1906, but the panic of that year interrupted construction. After trying again in 1910, Havens lost heart, and in 1914 allied himself with Eric Lindblom, who had struck it rich in the Klondike. The sprawling Mediterranean hostelry was completed in 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. In 1918, Lindblom took complete control of The Claremont until he sold it in 1937 to Mr. And Mrs. Claude Gillum, who virtually rebuilt it from the foundation up, and completely refurbished the interior.” 

Yet another variant, this time by Oakland architectural historian Annalee Allen, omits Spring altogether: “Legend has it that Havens retained sole interest in the project when he and Smith decided one night to play a game of dominoes (some say checkers) and Smith lost.” 

In 1997, Spring’s son told BAHA’s Lesley Emmington that his father did participate in the game, which was either blackjack or poker, the sole opponent having been “Borax” Smith. The interview notes don’t reveal the identity of the winner. 

Perhaps closest to the truth is the account by longtime Berkeley Gazette columnist Hal Johnson, published on Jan. 29, 1943: 


“It was Spring all-year round in Albany and in Northbrae and Thousand Oaks for some years before the San Francisco fire until January 1920—John Spring, pioneer developer of large residential tracts, road builder and capitalist. The late John Spring was a gambler, not at the card table or at roulette but on the East Bay Area. He won when he backed Berkeley and Albany. Later he lost heavily—in the millions—when he bucked the stock market. 

John Spring—the man who plunged into great financial undertakings and into growing rare flowers and shrubbery—passed out of the world picture April 16, 1933, at the age of 70. He left a seemingly permanent monument here in the Spring mansion, San Antonio Ave., now Williams College. Spring built that massive structure of 12 great rooms, including six bedrooms, each with a private bath, in 1914. 

He erected the great house of reinforced concrete at the time of his lowest ebb financially—when he owed more than a million dollars and was land poor. He had sold thousands of dollars worth of home sites in that vicinity on the strength that he would build his own home there. And he kept faith with buyers. 

The Spring mansion is probably the only residence in the East Bay which has a reinforced concrete roof. That area then was outside of the city limits and there was no fire protection. 

Growing there still are stately pines brought from Norway and Irish yew trees. When Spring lived there he had a great rose garden with all varieties that would grow in Northern California. On Avis Rd. you can still see some of the imitation rocks which were part of the foundation of the large greenhouses.  

John Spring was born in San Francisco Dec. 13, 1862. His father, Francisco Samuel Spring, and his uncle, John Spring, came to California about 1852. Capt. John Hopkins Spring, old New England sea captain, brought his two sons to California on his own boat. They went into the real estate business and John Spring followed in their footsteps. 

Spring saw a future for the East Bay Area. As late as 1915 he owned practically all of Albany, except the Gill tract at San Pablo Ave. and Buchanan St., all of Thousand Oaks and Arlington Heights and a large part of Northbrae. Some 3,500 homes since then have been erected on his original holdings.  

He was an athlete as a young man and won medals for swimming and for bicycle racing. His three daughters are Mrs. George Friend of 120 Hillcrest Rd., Mrs. Noble Newsome of 410 Pala Ave., Piedmont, and Miss Dorothy Spring, now a WAAC stationed at Sacramento. His son, Frank Spring, is chief designer for the Hudson Automobile Co. and lives in Michigan. Mrs. Charlotte Montgomery of San Francisco is his sister. She is the widow of Dr. Douglas Montgomery who died while they were in South America soon after they had made their escape from Shanghai. 

John Spring took chances but as long as these chances were in real estate they were winning ones. When San Francisco was burning, the day following the April 1906 earthquake, he offered $400,000 for the lot and steel structure of the proposed new Spring Valley Water Co. building and the offer was quickly accepted. 

He formed the Union Square Improvement Co. with East Bay capital and erected a large building. In 1915 the structure was sold to the Hooper Lumber Co. for more than $1,250,000—a handsome profit. The building, Stockton and Geary Sts., has been occupied by the City of Paris since it was built. 

Spring gradually acquired tidelands from about where the Key Route Pier was built to near the Ford plant in Richmond. These were sold in 1925 to the Santa Fe Railroad for $700,000. 

He cashed that check with the late Phillip M. Bowles, president of the American Bank in Oakland and associated with Spring in many financial deals. “Why John, that check is for $700,000,” exclaimed Bowles. “Where did you get the money?” “I just sold those tidelands on which you wouldn’t loan me $50,000 a few months ago,” replied Spring. 

Between 1926 and 1929 John Spring lost more than a million when the bottom fell out of the stock market. He paid dollar for dollar, took his loss with a smile and went down the peninsula to live. 

There was one time when John Spring figured he won when he lost. He was associated with the late F.M. (“Borax”) Smith and Frank C. Havens in the plans for Hotel Claremont. Spring wanted to have near Berkeley a hotel on a peer with the Del Monte. He was responsible for the beautiful Claremont Hotel gardens.  

About 1912, the Hotel Claremont had been started, but was a long way from being finished. Taxes, interest on investment and care of the gardens were eating into the finances of the combine that had undertaken to erect the hotel. 

One by one they dropped out until Spring and Frank Havens were left holding the sack which contained a $400,000 mortgage. Spring and Havens played a game of dominoes at the old Athenian Club in Oakland with the hotel property as the stake. Havens won the game and the unfinished Claremont Hotel.” 


Spring’s own home was completed in 1914, but he didn’t enjoy it for long. At Christmas 1915, he left his wife Celina for another woman. In 1918, Celina Spring sold the estate to the Cora L. Williams Institute of Creative Development (later Williams College), a tony elementary and secondary school known for its focus on languages, poetry, music, and literature. 

Famous guest lecturers such as Mark Twain and psychologist Alfred Adler taught courses there. Interpretive dance inspired by Isadora Duncan was taught, and Institute students danced with the Boyntons at the Temple of Wings and with Duncan colleague Vassos Kanellos at the Hearst Greek Theater. One of the students, Helen Bacon Hooper, went on to dance with Martha Graham. The Williams Institute’s most celebrated alumnus was probably Irving Wallace (1916–1990), author of The Chapman Report. 

The school occupied the mansion for five decades. In 1975, the Spring estate was purchased by real-estate investor Larry Leon, who made the mansion his home for the next 30 years. The estate was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 2000. Last year Leon sold the property to a consortium of investors who were planning to establish a conference center on the site. They have since cleared the grounds in preparation for building additional structures.