Home & Garden Columns

East Bay: Then and Now: When Southside Apartment Living Was All the Rage

By Daniella Thompson
Friday July 13, 2007

Around the turn of the 20th century, Berkeley was promoted as a City of Homes. In 1905, the Conference Committee of the Improvement Clubs of Berkeley, California published an illustrated booklet bearing this title and featuring various private residences. But the concept of home would soon change. The San Francisco earthquake and fire brought a flood of refugees into the East Bay, and many real-estate entrepreneurs quickly rolled up their sleeves to meet the housing demand. 

Alongside a record number of new single-family homes built from 1906 on, large apartment buildings appeared for the first time. These were usually elegant structures offering the latest amenities, such as steam heat, hot water on demand, modern kitchens and bathrooms, and space-saving wall beds. 

On May 19, 1906, barely a month after the earthquake, the Oakland Tribune published a drawing of an enormous new apartment building with the following caption: 

The new Stevens apartment house for Berkeley […] covers a space of 60 x 240 running from street to street with large open space on each side for sun and light. There will be thirty-six apartments of three rooms and store room and bath each, all fitted with folding beds built in and new kitchen improvements and everything that can be done for the comfort of the tenants in the way of labor-saving contrivances. 

The hot water system is the one used for heating and supplying of water at all times. There are two stacks of fireproof and earthquake-proof chimneys; radiators are placed in each room and bath, instead of mantels. Gas and electric heaters are in the kitchen and bath rooms. The whole building will be a model of its kind. The frame is to be made with continuous posts from foundation to roof. The floors to be unusually well fastened to same and the floor to be diagonally braced as well as doubled, so as to fully provide against any jar by earthquake. 

The walls and floors are of slow-burning construction. There will be a large public dining room on the first floor with kitchen store rooms, laundry, etc., complete; also here are situated the big furnaces that supply the building. They are to be built from fireproof vaults of reinforced concrete. Newsom & Newsom of 526 Larkin Street, San Francisco, are the architects. 

Three days earlier, the Berkeley Reporter provided additional details: 

An apartment house, which will cost in the neighborhood of $70,000 and will contain 155 rooms, is about to be erected by Mrs. A.C. Stevens, the well-known capitalist and enterprising woman of this city. […] The Lafayette will be the largest building of its kind in Berkeley […] the architects state that the structure is the longest for which they have ever drawn plans, outside of one erected at the [1894 San Francisco] Midwinter Fair. 

Mary Woodbury Stevens (1859–1945) was indeed an enterprising woman. The wife of Nova Scotian evangelist Ansley Chesley Stevens (1856–1936), she was a major landowner in Berkeley. In 1907, when the Lafayette Apartments were under construction, Mrs. Stevens owned seven properties in town. The following year, her holdings had increased to a dozen. 

One wouldn’t think of a missionary’s wife as a capitalist, but Mary Stevens was born to money. A native of West Springfield, MA, Mary was the daughter of Edward W. Southworth, who with his brother Wells founded the Southworth Paper Company, which exists until today. The Southworths were descended from Constant Southworth, offspring of a long line of English knights. Constant, whose mother had married William Bradford, Governor and historian of the Plymouth Colony, came to Massachusetts in 1628 and would become one of its prominent citizens. 

The Southworth family valued education. Two of Mary’s brothers studied in Germany, one of them going on to study medicine. Two other brothers were students at Yale, where they were members of the powerful and secretive Order of Skull and Bones. Mary received her education at the exclusive Miss Porter’s School for Girls in Farmington, Conn. 

In 1893, Mary married Ansley Stevens, probably in Boston. The two appeared in Berkeley in 1902, and until 1910 lived at 2157–59 Addison Street, on the current site of University Hall’s parking lot. The house was torn down in the 1920s. 

When completed in 1907 or ’08, the Lafayette Apartments had two addresses: 2314 Haste St. and 2315 Dwight Way. Although the College Homestead Tract south of the campus had been substantially built up by the first decade of the 20th century, the block where the Lafayette was sited was an exception, having contained until then only one house—an early shingled residence fronting on Ellsworth Street. Until the mid-1920s, the lots around the Lafayette were vacant, fulfilling the early promise of “large open space on each side for sun and light.” 

The completed building was somewhat less elaborately ornamented than the sketch published in the Tribune. Between the drawing board and construction, the balustraded roof parapet and the pediments on the long lateral walls were discarded, leaving relatively plain elevations with four pairs of Corinthian pilasters. Two overblown façades, complete with pediments, gigantic mock Corinthian columns, and clumsy tiered balconies, were tacked onto the street elevations. The architects, Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom, were never known for restraint. The brothers are best remembered for having designed America’s most famous Queen Anne edifice, the extravagant (some say outlandish) Carson Mansion in Eureka. Not for nothing did Willis Polk dub them “the Gruesomes.” 

The Lafayette’s pastiche neoclassical elements were executed not in stone but in redwood, and the pizzazz wasn’t limited to the exterior. Inside, the building was finished in white pine and redwood paneling. Apartment doors were inlaid with translucent glass. A large, skylit rotunda with a spiral staircase occupied the center of the building, and hand-turned banisters adorned the stairs. 

Boasting the latest amenities, including a private telephone exchange, the Lafayette attracted desirable tenants: professionals, managers, merchants, clerical workers, and teachers, including the mother, sister, and brother of Berkeley Mayor Samuel C. Irving. Owners Mary and Ansley Stevens lived here from 1910 until 1915, when they disappeared from town, presumably to spread the gospel abroad. Eventually they settled in Oakland, where Mary purchased the Dunsmuir Apartments at 1515 Alice Street. Reverend Stevens was variously listed as superintendent of the Berkeley Free Bible & Tract Society and general superintendent of the East Bay District United Evangelistic Mission Association, the latter located at 594 31st Street. 

As late as 1924, Mrs. Stevens was still the owner of the Lafayette. Soon, her building would be flanked by four other large apartment houses, constructed in the vacant lots on either side. First came the Mira Monte at 2322 Haste St., which began advertising furnished and unfurnished apartments in January 1925. It was followed in January 1928 by the Elsmere at 2321 Dwight Way. The six-story Picardo Arms, 2491 Ellsworth St., opened in November 1928, and the nameless 2320 Haste St. was completed ten months later. 

All the newcomers were attractive, the most elegant of them being the Picardo Arms, designed by the prolific architect Herman Carl Baumann (1890–1960), who would soon create the Art Deco Bellevue-Staten on the shore of Lake Merritt. Having survived as a distinguished marker on the Southside, the Picardo Arms recently lost all its original windows to vinyl blight. 

Considerably less refined, the three-story Elsmere offered the newfangled attraction of a large cement courtyard with 22 individual garages. The 24 furnished apartments included Frigidaire refrigerators, Spark lid-top ranges, and Marshall & Stearns wall beds. In a novel cross-marketing maneuver, the manufacturers of these appliances and other contractors and suppliers associated with the Elsmere all took out ads on the same Tribune page that announced the opening of the building. 

The owner of the Elsmere was Louis Saroni, a well-known sugar wholesaler and former candy manufacturer. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, Saroni (1856–1936) relocated his business from San Francisco to Oakland in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. His son, Albert B. Saroni, married into the Zellerbach family and took over the sugar business, while the father invested in East Bay real estate. 

Whether before or after he built the Elsmere, Saroni acquired the Lafayette Apartments from Mary Stevens. He was already advanced in years, and the Depression no doubt contributed to the Lafayette’s state of neglect. In 1935, the building was in violation of several articles in the city code, and Saroni wanted it off his hands. The recently formed University of California Students’ Cooperative Association (UCSCA) signed an advantageous long-term lease and renamed the building Barrington Hall. The conversion from apartments to student co-op entailed removing the kitchens from 45 units and opening up the ground floor to create a lobby. 

World War II brought about a decline in male student enrollment, while housing was needed for the Richmond shipyard workers. In 1943, following much official pressure brought to bear on UCSCA, the U.S. Navy leased Barrington for five years. In December of that year, the Navy spent $76,000 to modernize the building and convert it back into apartments. In the process, all ornamentation was stripped away, leaving a plainly utilitarian structure. 

In 1948, while the building was still occupied by the Navy, the Saroni family offered to sell the residuum of Barrington Hall’s lease to the co-op (now USCA) for $16,000. This windfall enabled USCA to spend $15,000 on altering the building one more time, converting the apartments into co-op use. 

By the 1980s, Barrington Hall had become USCA’s most notorious co-op. Neighbors complained it was a “noisy, unsafe, unsanitary, rat trap.” After the San Francisco Chronicle focused its attention on heroin use at Barrington, USCA lost its insurance coverage. Subsequent investigation revealed that dozens of habitual heroin users and dealers lived in the house. Continuing trouble and a costly lawsuit finally led to the hall’s closure in 1990. 

The building has since been leased to a contractor who operates it as a rooming house called Evans Manor. While the four neighboring apartment buildings retain much of their original appearance, Evans Manor is a charmless hulk, albeit one redolent of glory in the hearts of old Barringtonians. 


Photograph: Daniella Thompson  

Located next to the Lafayette, the Elsmere at 2321 Dwight Way included built-in garages when it opened in 1928.