Home & Garden Columns

Neighbors Riled About Plans to Develop Spring Mansion

By Dave Weinstein, Special to the Planet
Friday February 23, 2007

When the Spring Mansion first appeared in the nearly tree-less Berkeley Hills, almost 100 years ago, it was more than a home for one of the East Bay’s most successful real estate speculators, the man behind Thousand Oaks, the Claremont Hotel, and the town of Albany. It was a gleaming white advertisement for John Hopkins Spring’s newest suburban development, which surrounded the house. And it could be seen from San Francisco. 

But when architect Glen Jarvis recently visited, he says, “I thought it looked like an abandoned school building.” 

The John Hopkins Spring Mansion, built from 1912-1914, with its 12,000 square feet of interior space surrounded by sprawling terraces on just over three acres, is one of Berkeley’s largest residential properties, and one of the city’s legends. Its future is also in play.  

Its owner, John Park of Monument Properties, hopes to subdivide the site, build a cluster of five new houses, provide lots that could handle two more new houses, and rip down several outbuildings, including a gym. The plan also calls for remodeling a former carriage house for residential use, and for renovating the mansion itself.  

Monument is based in Monterey Park, in Los Angeles. Park formerly lived in the Berkeley Hills. 

Both mansion and carriage house were designed by a man equally as renowned as Spring—John Hudson Thomas.  

The Spring Mansion might, at a glance, resemble the White House. But to Thomas’s many fans, his hand is evident: fat columns; endearing, decorative buttresses shaped like scrolls; terraces and exterior walls that project the house into the landscape; a combination of irony and bombast; a sense of strength married to whimsy; and his signature motif of four little squares placed on walls, at corners, and by doorways both inside and out. 

Inside, living areas and bedrooms surround a skylight-topped, two-story atrium and a grand oak staircase. Walls are lined with original damask and tapestries. 

“For years people have talked about the mansion being a white elephant,” says Jarvis, who is working for Monument. “We’re trying to bring it out of that category.” Jarvis is an experienced historic architect who has worked on homes by Thomas, Julia Morgan, and Bernard Maybeck. He also designs new houses, often in a Craftsman mode. 

“We’re trying to bring this house and the grounds around it up to the standards of a mansion,” Jarvis says. “We’re trying to make it attractive for some high-end buyer to buy it, and feel good about the place.” 

Jarvis says the project would preserve the most important architectural and historical elements of the site. 

The plan would rehabilitate the mansion for use by a single family, says Paul Pohlman, real estate development manager for Monument. It would add an entrance canopy and remodel Thomas’s carriage house, which years ago received an unsympathetic second story addition. The carriage house would be remodeled into a single-family home and retain the existing Thomas-designed exterior features. 

The façade of the mansion would be retained, and a damaged porte-cochere would be restored, Pohlman says. Thomas’s terraces would be restored. One fountain that was added years later would be removed, and so would one pool that was part of Thomas’s original design. A new trellised carport would be added to improve access to the front of the house. 

The mansion is at 1960 San Antonio Avenue. The carriage house is just beyond, at 1984 San Antonio. The gym is at 639 the Arlington. A building once used as a dorm, Farley Hall, is at 641 Arlington. 

Neighbors who oppose the development argue that their concern is less with traffic impacts, crowds, and other standard neighborhood issues than with something more important—preserving one of Berkeley’s landmarks. Surrounding the mansion with smaller houses, reducing the size of its lot, and removing trees will alter its relation with its site, thus diminishing its impact. 

“Our single biggest objection is that we’re taking this magnificent historical property that has history in the people who designed and built it and the people who lived there, and we’re squeezing it in,” says Bruce Clymer, head of the group Friends of the Spring Mansion. “Squeezing it in is going to ruin it.” 

“The grandeur of the house,” says Larry Gray, also a member of Friends, “deserves some space around it.” Opponents are also afraid the developer may change the mansion’s façade. Pohlman says they may add a door to allow easier access to the terraces. The developer had discussed modifying the porte-cochere, but that probably won’t happen, he says. 

The mansion, its landscaping, boulders that dot the site, and some of the outbuildings were declared Berkeley landmarks in 2000. Included as land-marked elements were one fountain the developer plans to remove, and the gymnasium. 

Clymer, who lives next door to the mansion, is a builder who has restored and renovated many historic houses in the city, Marin and the Peninsula by such architects as Albert Farr and Carr Jones. 

He says the Monument plan is opposed by the 65-member Friends and by neighbors who make up the 28-home San Luis Court Homes Association, whose subcommittee on the mansion he heads. 

Spring (1862-1933), whose marriage collapsed shortly after he moved into the mansion, moved out around 1915. The mansion was soon operating as the Cora Williams Institute of Creative Development. It again became a private residence around 1975. 

Monument’s plan call for removing all evidence of the Cora Williams’ era—not because the developer wants to erase the memory of what Clymer calls “the first New Age Institute,” but because it deems the structures—Farley Hall, the gym/dance studio, and several smaller buildings, too dilapidated to repair.  

The tennis court next to the gym is slated for demolition. A room added by Cora Williams beneath the mansion’s terrace would also go. Neither are land-marked, nor is Farley Hall. 

A cluster of five new houses with “a lot of John Hudson Thomas appearance to them,” Jarvis says, will replace the tennis court and gym, and reach Arlington via a C-shaped driveway.  

The plan also calls for another residential lot to be created next to the carriage house, but doesn’t call for house to be built there now. An existing residential lot – between the mansion’s new parking lot and Clymer’s house – would eventually be home to a new house, Pohlman says. The lot currently houses the derelict “music building” from the Cora Williams days. 

None of this pleases the neighbors, Clymer says. He would rather see no new housing, and no property subdivision. “We would like to see the whole thing restored,” Clymer says, and preserved as one single-family lot. “The gym could be rebuilt and be spectacular,” he says 

Friends of the Mansion is also concerned about losing evidence of the Cora Williams era, Clymer says, arguing that it was an important Berkeley educational and cultural institution, and that many prominent people taught or lectured there, including dancer Isadora Duncan and psychiatrist Alfred Adler. In making the property a landmark, the city cited the property’s connection to the institute as providing “historical and cultural value.” 

Besides their interest in preserving history, Clymer says, neighbors are concerned about traffic on Arlington and on narrow San Antonio Avenue, part of which is private and owned by the association. They argue that a new driveway needed for five houses clustered beneath the mansion would be steep and dangerous, and that too many trees would need to be removed to make way for new homes. 

They are also worried that the development would remove trees that provide privacy for a park owned by the San Luis Association, a lovely hillside of oaks and boulders, picnic tables, a tennis court, and a small swimming shaped like the map of California. The private gated park was originally part of the Spring estate.  

“I don’t want to come off sounding elitist,” Gray says, “but this is a very special place.”  

So far, discussions between the developer and neighbors have been relatively cordial. But neighbors remain suspicious. They’re not convinced, for example, that Monument Properties plans to retain the mansion as a single-family residence. The developers say that is their intention, and the property is zoned for single family. 

But why is the proposed parking lot so large and institutional looking? Clymer wonders. Pohlman counters that the four new covered parking spaces “are what houses of that size demand.” Some existing pavement used for sparking will be removed, he adds. 

And some neighbors note that Park owns a company that provides services to the gambling industry. 

Neighborhood rumors have suggested that the developer plans to turn the mansion into a casino. But Friends of the Mansion has not been making that argument. And Pohlman says that’s not in the cards. “There is no way to put anything on that site except residential,” he says. “There’s never been talk of turning that thing into a casino or card room.”