Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Architectural Patron Phoebe Apperson Hearst Lived Here

By Daniella Thompson
Friday January 12, 2007

Fundraising for the modern university is increasingly dependent on skyboxes and suchlike mammoth public structures where the golden deal can be clinched amid resplendent surroundings. But it wasn’t always so. There used to be a time when personal magnetism was enough to accomplish the goal. 

When Benjamin Ide Wheeler was president of the University of California, his most constant fundraising partner was the indomitable UC regent and benefactress Phoebe Apperson Hearst. During their 20-year joint reign, from 1899 until 1919, Wheeler and Hearst were an unbeatable team. For close to ten of those years, they owned adjoining houses on what has come to be known as Holy Hill. 

On May 12, 1900, about six months after Wheeler’s inauguration, the university officially broke ground for the President’s Mansion—the first building sited under the new Phoebe Hearst Architectural Plan for the campus. Now called University House and occupied by the UC Chancellor, the mansion was designed by the distinguished San Francisco architect Albert A. Pissis. Some of Pissis’ better-known buildings are Hibernia Bank (1892), the Emporium (1896), the James Flood Building (1904), the Mechanics Institute (1909), and the Crocker Bank Building (1910). 

The President’s Mansion exterior was completed in 1902, but the university ran out of resources to finish the interiors, and Wheeler would not occupy his official residence until 1911. In 1900, he had a private house built at 1820 Scenic Avenue, just north of the campus. Designed by architect Edgar A. Mathews, the brown-shingle box is now the home of New Bridge Foundation, a substance-abuse recovery center. 

Supervising the construction of Wheeler’s house was Daley’s Scenic Park’s chief landowner and developer Frank M. Wilson, who lived across the street at 2400 Ridge Road. At about the same time, Wilson also initiated the building of a university reception hall adjacent to Wheeler’s house at 1816 Scenic Avenue. This building was financed entirely by Phoebe Apperson Hearst. It was designed by Ernest Coxhead, who also created for Mrs. Hearst a residence at 2334 Le Conte Avenue, abutting the reception hall. The residence and the reception hall were connected in the rear via a covered passage. 

A true VIP, Mrs. Hearst was never listed in the Berkeley city directory or in the assessor’s records. The 1900 U.S. census listed her address at 1 Third Street (the Examiner Building) in San Francisco. With several homes in northern California—including Hacienda del Pozo de Verona in Pleasanton and Wyntoon in McCloud, Shasta County—it is doubtful that she spent a great deal of time in her Berkeley house. 

This house is an oddity in Coxhead’s body of work. A plain Colonial Revival box blown up to freakish size, it has little to distinguish itself save the two mock-Ionic columns supporting a broken scroll pediment. Coxhead was one of the leading lights of the First Bay Region Tradition and a pioneer in the use of clinker brick and brown shingles. His clinker brick-clad Allenoke Manor (1903) at 1777 Le Roy Avenue radiates all the visual excitement that the Hearst house lacks. 

Phoebe Hearst was an architectural patron par excellence. It was at her bidding that Bernard Maybeck designed the revolutionary Hearst Hall. Her Pleasanton hacienda, designed by A.C. Schweinfurth in the mid-1890s, was a great, innovative building. So why was her Berkeley house so drab? 

It’s possible that Mrs. Hearst wished her residence to be inconspicuous and in keeping with Wheeler’s house. She is said to have planned a much larger, palatial house at the top of the hill, where the Pacific School of Religion now stands. (Across the street, Frank Wilson also planned to build a more lavish home but remained in his srown shingle, originally intended as the barn, for the rest of his life. That site is now occupied by the Graduate Theological Union Library.) 

Whether she planned for opulence or not, Mrs. Hearst disposed of her Berkeley house after less than a decade’s ownership. She may have done so because Wheeler was soon to move to the President’s Mansion on campus. 

The reception hall was sold in 1908 to Astronomy Professor Armin O. Leuschner, who hired William C. Hays to put a second story upon it. Like the Wheeler house, this building is now occupied by the New Bridge Foundation. 

The Le Conte Avenue house was sold in 1909 or 1910 to George and Louise Reed. George Walter Reed (1856–1921) was a self-made millionaire. Born in Maine and a carpenter by trade, he became a major coffee planter in Colombo, Guatemala, where he lived for nearly 40 years. His wife, Louise Matilda Reddan (1868–1948) was born in Yuba County, CA. The 1900 U.S. census listed her as an actress living with her parents in San Francisco. 

The Reeds spent several months each year on their plantations in Guatemala. In January 1921, tragedy struck them when Reed got into an argument with two of his workers. According to Reed family lore, the two Guatemalan brothers, Modesto and Adrian Santos, were riding the boss’s private mules without permission, for which Reed reprimanded them. Being quite drunk, Modesto pulled out a gun and shot the unarmed Reed. The death report from the American Consular Service determined the cause of death as “Shot to death by Modesto Santos, an employee. Three revolver bullets entered body—first through heart. Body lay where it fell for six hours.” 

The murderers fled to Mexico, where they were spotted working in the petroleum industry under assumed names. 

On March 8, 1921, the Oakland Tribune devoted a front-page article to Mrs. Reed when she returned with her husband’s body aboard the Pacific Mail liner Golden State. Mrs. Reed told the newspaper that she had been driven from the plantation and was threatened by “influential friends of the murderers.” 

Mrs. Reed also reported that Guatemalan President Carlos Herrera y Luna was “making special efforts to run down Reed’s slayers.” However, the two were never apprehended. 

Within a few years, Louise Reed had married the Berkeley realtor Charles E. Grigsby, fifteen years her junior. They made several trips to Guatemala and eventually sold the plantations. The proceeds were invested in East Bay real estate. Grigsby’s green thumb soon turned the garden at 2334 Le Conte Avenue into a showplace. 

The house, along with the Wheeler house and the former reception hall, was one of just a few structures in the vicinity that survived the 1923 Berkeley fire. In the late 1920s, when land was cheap, religious seminaries wishing to build near the campus snapped it up. As a result, the neighborhood’s character changed from residential to institutional. 

Following Louise Reed Grigsby’s death in 1948, her property (now renumbered 2368 Le Conte Ave.) was sold to the Mormon Church. The garden was replaced by a large featureless building, but the original house is preserved largely as it used to be. The only discernible physical difference is the paint on the once natural stucco, but without a spacious garden to offset it, the fomer Hearst residence looks more than ever like an overblown tract house. 


Daniella Thompson edits berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). 


Photograph by Daniella Thompson  

The former Hearst-Reed house at 2368 Le Conte Ave. has been occupied by the Mormon Berkeley Institute of Religion for nearly six decades.