Home & Garden Columns

John H. Spring: Splendor, Strife and Shenanigans

By Daniella Thompson
Friday May 04, 2007

John Hopkins Spring, the developer of Thousand Oaks, always knew how to attract attention. On December 23, 1915, World War One was raging in Europe, and the newspapers were reporting that British losses at the Battle of Gallipoli had climbed to 112,921. But the war did not make top headline in the Oakland Tribune that day. 

That place was reserved for Spring, who had just announced that he was leaving his wife, Celina, for a younger woman and abandoning his famed Arlington Avenue mansion for the Alcatraz Apartments, a residential-commercial building he owned at 3315 Adeline St. 

Born in San Francisco, Spring (1862–1933) began his career as a street contractor. Shortly before the incorporation of the Key Route transbay ferry system, he allied himself with Frank C. Havens, president of the Peoples’ Water Company, and with Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, acting as land agent in large purchases of suburban property at the time they were launching the Realty Syndicate. 

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire triggered a rapid increase in the price of Berkeley real estate. Spring, who had acquired vast tracts, became very wealthy very quickly, with a reputed net worth of $3 million. His holdings comprised most of the land in Alameda County north of the Berkeley line, extending from the hills to the bay. He founded the Spring Construction Company, owned a quarry, and was a director of the Western National Bank of San Francisco and of the Berkeley National Bank. 

Throughout his life, Spring evinced keen interest in architecture and landscaping. His Oakland home, a stately Italianate Victorian at 2711 Fruitvale Ave., was situated on 13 acres that boasted groves of ancient oak trees, cultivated arbors, meandering walks, lawns and flower beds, a Japanese tea garden comparable to the one in Golden Gate Park, a large swimming pool, four fountains, several tennis courts, a shooting gallery, windmills, and a rivulet spanned by rustic bridges. 

In 1910, after Spring had subdivided Thousand Oaks and was committed to building his home there, the residents of Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods petitioned the Oakland city council to include $90,000 in a proposed bond issue in order to purchase the Spring property and turn it into a public park. Like many splendid ideas, this one went nowhere. The property ended up being subdivided into small lots, long since built up. No vestige remains of what was once described as an “earthly Eden.” 

If Spring was troubled by the fate of his old home, he didn’t make it known. Ever active, he was now planning his new Eden on 16 acres in Thousand Oaks. The terraced gardens were laid out by Mark Daniels even before construction began on the enormous concrete villa designed by John Hudson Thomas. 

And Spring didn’t stop with his own estate. As each of his daughters was married, he built the new couple a house in the vicinity. Of daughters the Springs had no shortage. Celina brought two from her first marriage and had four more by Spring. The eldest, Catherine Warfield, married laundry company executive Lester K. Wells but soon divorced him to forge a union with Charles Percy Murdock, who worked for the Realty Syndicate. The two settled next to the Mark Daniels home on Yosemite Road, building a handsome half-timbered house designed by John Hudson Thomas. 

Between the Murdocks and Indian Trail lived the second daughter, Frances Warfield, with her husband, Robert C. Newell. Their residence, an English-style manor house with parapet gables, was designed by William Knowles (who had designed the Alcatraz Apartments for Spring in 1906). Newell sold Thousand Oaks real estate for his father-in-law—first with partner William H. Henricks, then with William C. Murdoch (no relation to Catherine’s husband). 

A third daughter, Gertrude Spring, was an early groupie. At the age of 15 she eloped with George Friend, a comic actor of the Liberty stock company, known as the “Willie Collier of Oakland.” The match met with the severe disapprobation of Gertrude’s father, but eventually Spring forgave the couple, gave them a house at 597 Santa Clara Avenue, and made George a partner. George picked up where Newell had left off as agent for Spring’s properties. 

In March 1914, a newspaper ad selling Thousand Oaks properties began with an interview in which John Spring was asked, “How much property is controlled by your companies?” Spring replied, “It will perhaps give you a better idea of the magnitude of this enterprise when I tell you that we have macadamized 50 miles of streets in properties. In other words, the streets if stretched out in a straight line would reach from Berkeley to San Jose. The sidewalks, which are on both sides of the streets, would reach to Monterey.” 

Gertrude wasn’t the only Spring child to elope. She was followed by the Springs’ only son, Frank, who ran away, if only briefly, with Avis Sterling, niece of Frank C. Havens and sister of the poet George Sterling. Spring built them a house at 749 The Alameda, and Frank joined George Friend’s firm. 

The fifth sibling to marry and settle in Thousand Oaks was Anne Spring. Her bridegroom did not sell real estate; he made it. Noble Newsom was the scion of an architectural dynasty, son of Samuel Newsom, designer of Eureka’s famed Carson Mansion. Anne and Noble were given a lot on Yosemite Road (then Lovers’ Lane), across the street from the Sills’ Villa della Rocca. Noble and his brother Sidney designed the “Honeymoon Cottage,” as the house is known to this day. 

The Newsoms married just a month before John Spring left his wife for Genevieve McGraw Ecker. At the time, Celina Spring was traveling abroad. In her absence, Spring deeded the mansion and close to 1,200 lots in north Berkeley and El Cerrito to his Regents Park Land Company, using the power of attorney he held for her. She returned from Honolulu on Dec. 27, 1915, and the following day filed a lawsuit to annul the transaction. 

In Honolulu, Celina left her daughter Dorothy, who was indicted on December 24 for manslaughter after striking a woman while driving a car and failing to come to her aid. Two and a half years later, John Spring would settle a suit brought against him by the victim’s husband. 

Spring married Genevieve Ecker in 1917, one hour after his divorce was finalized. At the end of the same year, the Spring Mansion was sold to Cora Williams, who turned it into a progressive school. In 1918, Celina married her first husband’s brother, publisher of the Baltimore Daily Record. The World War slowed down the pace of real estate sales, and in 1919 the Berkeley-Thousand Oaks Company, having acquired the tract at a low price, held an auction sale to dispose of the remaining lots. 

Spring and Genevieve had by then moved to a mansion at 2340 Gough Street, San Francisco, where their son Jack was born in 1918. Spring would soon build a new mansion in Los Gatos. In 1922, Genevieve opened a fashion shop at 2340 Gough in partnership with Clara Sckolnik, a Russian designer. Owing to Genevieve’s shenanigans, the business lasted less than a year. Madame Sckolnik sued Genevieve for failing to divide the profits with her and opened an independent shop at another location. 

The Great Depression was not kind to Spring. Relatives reported in 1932 that he was now “broken in both health and fortune” and “trying to recoup financially through road building down the peninsula.” In June of that year, Spring obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce from Genevieve, claiming that for many years “she had treated him as a daughter would a father,” refusing to “give him wifely affection.” At the time, Spring was nearing 70, while his wife was 46. 

The Springs were later reconciled, and he died in 1933, leaving Genevieve his entire estate. Perhaps he was not quite as financially broken as suggested, for his death ignited a legal battle between his former wives over the estate. The matter was adjudicated, but a new drama ensued in 1937. Spring’s sister, Charlotte Montgomery of San Francisco, petitioned the courts to remove Jack from his mother’s custody, charging that Mrs. Spring was unfit to care for him, having “long received treatment as a narcotic addict.” This led Genevieve to slash her wrists with a knife. She died in San Francisco in 1950. 


Houses and gardens in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood will be open on BAHA’s Spring House Tour this Sunday, May 6, between 1 pm and 5 pm. 


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




Photo: Murdock house.jpg 

Caption: This house, designed by John Hudson Thomasw ,as John Spring’s wedding present to his step-daughter for Catherine and her husband Percy Murdock. (Daniella Thompson) 


Photo: Indian Trail.jpg 

Caption: The bucolic Indian Trail leads from Yosemite Road to The Alameda.. (Daniella Thompson) 


Photo: Newsom house.jpg 

Caption: The embowered “Honeymoon Cottage” was the first home of Anne Spring and Noble Newsom. (Daniella Thompson) 


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Caption: Tunnel Rock on Yosemite Road forms the backdrop to the Newsom cottage. (Daniella Thompson)