Home & Garden Columns
The history of Bay Area industry parallels that of immigration. In the East Bay, the economy was largely built by first- and second-generation immigrants who had settled in the West, bringing with them specialized skills from points east, often Europe.
Such was the case in the founding of the Manasse-Block Tanning Company, which operated on Third and Fourth Streets between Camelia and Gilman from 1905 until 1985.
On May 3, 1905, the Oakland Tribune announced a new business in West Berkeley that “will employ at the start some twenty-five or thirty men.” Manasse-Block, which had operated a large tannery in East Oakland since 1900, purchased the West Berkeley tannery previously owned by Frank E. Deach, who resided at 1618 Fifth St.
Deach (possibly a corruption of Deitsch), born in California to German immigrants and married to a Mexican woman, first appeared in the Berkeley directory in 1900, when he was listed in the U.S. census as a tannery proprietor. His name wasn’t included in the property assessment rolls until 1903, at which time his ownership comprised Lots 36-39 in Block 28 of the Wentworth Tract. Immediately to his south, on Lots 27-34, the French immigrant Prudent Remond had been engaged in tanning and manufacturing of oak-tanned harness and skirting leather since at least 1894.
Even earlier than Remond, the southwestern end of the block had been the site of another tannery, owned by the Nova Scotian immigrant Robert Stewart since 1892. The block being large, for a few years the three establishments overlapped, although by 1900 Stewart had switched from tanning to manufacturing coconut fibre.
Remond, who came to the U.S. in 1871 with his French-Swiss wife and lived at 721 Camelia Street, constructed in 1898 a three-story building that the Berkeley Gazette promised would be “one of the largest currying establishments on the Coast. In this place leather will be received from the tanneries and prepared for the making of shoes, harness, etc.”
Remond may have overextended himself, or perhaps he received an offer he couldn’t refuse. Either way, his tannery was taken over by the California Ink Company around the time that Deach’s plant became the Manasse-Block tannery. For several years afterwards, the two worked as tanners, possibly for Manasse-Block. By 1909, Remond had become a watchman for Cal Ink, while Deach, now living at 1732 San Pablo Avenue, was working as a dyer for William Reuter & Sons, located at 7th and Jones Streets.
The businesses that followed Stewart, Remond, and Deach on Block 28 were far more successful. Both Manasse-Block and Cal Ink thrived for the better part of a century, and both were owned by German immigrants or their sons. The proprietor of Cal Ink was Ernest L. Hueter of San Francisco, German-born and owner of the Bass-Hueter Paint Company and the Pioneer Varnish and Glycerine Works.
Both founders of the Manasse-Block Tanning Co. came from the Bay Area’s tight-knit German-Jewish community. The company’s first president, August Manasse (1875–1942) was born in Napa, where his father, Emanuel, originally from Frankfurt by way of San Francisco, was in charge of manufacturing at the B.F. Sawyer tannery, in operation from 1869 until 1990. Emanuel originated the Napa Patent Leather process and became a co-owner of the business, which his descendants continued to run. The Manasse Mansion in Napa, built in 1886 by architect-contractor William H. Corlett, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and operated as a tony bed & breakfast inn.
August worked at the Sawyer tannery, but having three older brothers may have thwarted his ambitions. At the age of 25 he came to Oakland and entered into partnership with Roy Block (1879–1955), who was only 21 when he became secretary of the Manasse-Block Tanning Company.
The Blocks had no tanning background, but they knew something about leather. Roy’s father, Harry Block, was born in Bohemia and emigrated in 1866 as a 17-year old. In the 1870s, he ran a jewelry store in Virginia City, Nevada, where Roy was born. After opening a jewelry store in San Francisco, Harry formed the H. & L. Block Co. with his younger brother Leopold. The company manufactured gloves. In 1900, before he entered the tanning business, Roy was a glove drummer, as traveling salesmen were called.
Initially, Manasse and Block’s intention was to run the Berkeley facility as a branch of its main Oakland tannery. “The local branch will be enlarged and improved as the business increases, and promises within a few years to become one of Berkeley’s leading enterprises,” informed the Oakland Tribune in May 1905, concluding, “It is understood the tanning company will expend some $10,000 or $15,000 on improving its West Berkeley establishment.”
The company did, in fact, leave Oakland, supposedly because the railroad was constrocted through its site at East 12th St. and 19th Avenue. In 1906, Manasse-Block was joined on Third St. by H. & L. Block’s Pacific Glove Works, which had lost its San Francisco facilities in the earthquake and fire. That catastrophe fresh in the principals’ minds, precautions were taken. On July 28 of that year, the Tribune reported, “In the belief that it will be impossible for the city to furnish them better fire protection at the present time, three of the largest factories in the West End, the California Ink Company, the Manasse-Block Tanning Company, and the Pacific Glove Works, located between Camelia and Gilman and Third and Fourth streets, combined in installing a pumping plant and an efficient fire brigade of their own. The directors believe that the cost of the undertaking will eventually be paid by a reduction in the insurance rates. […] The brigade will be at the service of the West Berkeleyans.”
In February 1906, Manasse-Block made news for an altogether different reason. That month, two young men who declined to give their names but who said they were medical students called on August Manasse and asked him to prepare some human skin for commercial purposes. “With them,” reported the Tribune, “they had two pieces of cuticle, one about a foot square and the other a trifle smaller, which they admitted they had stripped from a body in a dissecting room. They said they intended making slippers of the skin.”
“It is alleged,” continued the article, “that articles made from the skin of men and women have been carried from California to all portions of the Union. The skin is expensive, a piece six inches square being valued at $20. When tanned the skin of a man is worth in the neighborhood of $500. The skin is soft and pliable, resembling in many respects chamois. Of it belts, purses, slippers and many other small articles are manufactured.”
Manasse declined the offer, and Town Marshal August Vollmer announced that he would take steps to put an end to the gruesome business.
Newspaper notices published during the 1910s give an idea of the extent of Manasse-Block’s business. At different times in 1917 and ’18, the company shipped leather to Houston, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Portland, OR. “The white tanned leather put out by this company enjoys the distinction of being in a class by itself,” touted one of the notices.
By that time, August Manasse had exited the scene. Around 1914, Roy Block took over as president, and Manasse became a hide buyer. The company’s new secretary was Solomon Seeligsohn, another offspring of a San Francisco German-Jewish family. His older brother, Abraham (Abe) Seeligsohn, was editor of the Jewish Progress. Solomon, who may have died prematurely, was followed as Manasse-Block’s secretary by his younger brother Selig.
Even after breaking up, Manasse and Block continued to live in proximity to each other. For many years, August Manasse and his wife Myra lived at 2837 Regent Street. Refugees from the San Francisco earthquake, Roy Block and his spouse Edna built a new house at 2920 Hillegass Ave. It is a handsome Arts & Crafts shingled structure with a rustically jagged clinker-brick chimney, sturdy porch posts, and zigzag window muntins. The house was designed by Alfred Dodge Coplin, whose distinctive residential creations from the same period may be seen at 2811 Benvenue Ave. and 2630 Piedmont Ave.
In the mid-1920s, the Blocks moved to a larger house at 44 Montrose Road, in Thousand Oaks. Their old house changed hands many times and eventually became a rental property. By the early 1960s, a modern two-story, four-unit apartment building had been constructed in the back yard. Less than ten years ago, the house was empty and boarded up. Now, although still a rental, it is handsomely restored.
The Block family continued to own the tannery for the rest of its productive life. The plant expanded steadily until 1956, its principal product being boot and shoe leather. As synthetics replaced leather and as shoe production moved overseas, the tanning business declined. After the tannery closed, the facilities were sold to the Athena Development Corporation, which created the Tannery project, preserving, rehabilitating, and reusing the abandoned 81,180 sq. ft. complex. Completed in 1990, the complex accommodates offices, retail, and live-work units.
The old Cal Ink plant next door is now abandoned and awaiting its fate on the auction block. Can it be as creatively rehabilitated as the Manasse-Block tannery?
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).
Photograph: Daniella Thompson
Part of the Manasse-Block Tannery complex, 1307 Third St. originally housed H. & L. Block’s Pacific Glove Works.