Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Bennington Apartments Evoke 19th Century Euclid Ave.

By Daniella Thompson
Friday October 05, 2007

In June 1906, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company released a three-minute film called “A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.” The short was filmed aboard a moving streetcar on the #4 line of the Oakland Traction Consolidated Company, a precursor of the Key Route System. The #4 line ran between downtown Oakland and the intersection of Euclid and Hilgard Avenues, four blocks north of the UC campus. 

The film, which is available for viewing on the Library of Congress website, documents most of the #4 line’s final leg, as the streetcar rolls along Oxford Street, turns east onto Hearst Avenue, climbs up to North Gate, and turns north onto Euclid Avenue, coming to a stop in the middle of the 1800 block—the one we know as the Euclid or North Gate commercial district. 

Except that in 1906 there was no commercial district on Euclid Avenue, and one would not develop there until the 1920s and would not become fully built until the late ’30s. 

In 1906, there wasn’t a single building on the western side of Euclid Avenue’s 1800 block. The eastern side boasted three structures, with nary a store among them. The north fork of Strawberry Creek ran in its open channel on both sides of the street. The creek isn’t visible in “A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.,” but the buildings along Euclid Avenue are. 

Before the streetcar makes its turn at North Gate, one can see the house of Rev. George B. Smyth at 2509 Hearst Avenue. The Smyth house occupied the upper third of a triple corner lot. The lower two-thirds, abutting on Euclid Ave., were planted with an orchard. Next door to the orchard was the Northgate Hotel at 1809 Euclid—a large, three-story-plus-basement structure, adorned with two front balconies and three round turrets topped by witches’ caps. A tall water tower rose in the rear. Just up from the hotel, across the creek, stood two homes built in 1892. 

1805 Euclid was a very early Brown Shingle (1891 was the first year in which this type of building appeared in Berkeley, the most prominent surviving example being the Anna Head School), featuring a round turret and a gable whose concave walls curved in to accommodate a central window. Its neighbor at 1801 Euclid had a plain façade and wood siding. 

The Northgate Hotel, designed and built by A.W. Pattiani in 1902, was torn down in late 1936 and replaced by the current one-story Art Deco commercial building, still clad with the original ‘30s glossy black tiles and vertical chrome strips. The Smyth house, built in 1891, gave up its orchard for the Euclid Apartments, which opened in 1913. The Smyth house itself was turned into a fraternity, then into a rooming house, and ultimately was razed and replaced by a food court. 

Against all odds, the two 1892-vintage houses at 1801 and 1805 Euclid Ave. still stand, albeit not as houses and not on Euclid. Both houses first appeared in the Alameda County assessment records in 1893. The corner house at 1801 Euclid was owned by Frank M. Wilson, the Indiana-born banker who swooped upon Berkeley in 1891 and purchased the entire Daley’s Scenic Park tract for $4,000 in gold. Wilson would quickly establish himself as a Berkeley VIP and in 1894 would engage contractor George Frederick Estey to build him a brown-shingle house on the crest of Ridge Road. Intended as the barn for a projected mansion that was never built, it served as the Wilson family’s permanent residence until 1969 and was razed in the late 1970s to make way for the GTU Library designed by Louis Kahn. 

Before his house was built, Wilson lived in San Francisco, and in October 1893 he rented the house of realtor and Shattuck brother-in-law Ralza A. Morse on the northwest corner of Shattuck Ave. and Bancroft Way. By then, he had sold 1801 Euclid Ave. to realtor Oscar G. May, but it’s possible that Wilson occupied the Euclid house before doing so, since the assessment record in his name shows personal property in the house. 

The shingled house at 1805 Euclid Ave. was built for William W. Clark, a Maine-born real estate agent, and his brood of four twenty-something offspring, three of whom were enrolled at the San Francisco Business College. The designer of the Clark house is not known. It might have been Fred Estey, who would soon build several other brown-shingle residences in the neighborhood. 

Much has been written about the professors and artists who were among the early residents of Daley’s Scenic Park, but little is ever said about the middle- and working-class families who settled on the Northside while their children were attending the university, or about the real estate speculators who saw an opportunity near the campus. At the turn of the century, Berkeley was a magnet for realtors—or for people who became realtors after practicing entirely different professions in their previous locales. 

Oscar G. May, born in New York in 1839, was a Congregational minister in Illinois and Wisconsin prior to arriving in California. In Berkeley, May initially pooled his resources with realtor Warren Cheney, but by 1896 he was running O.G. May & Co. at 2123 Center Street, with his son-in-law, Walter J. Mortimer, as junior partner. After May’s retirement in 1904, Mortimer took over the office, where two of May’s sons, Frank and William, also worked. 

Frank Morris May (1868–1936) spent the 1890s and early 1900s alternating between teaching in Tulare and Contra Costa counties and carpentry in Berkeley. According to his daughter, Evelyn May Tippett, Frank worked with Fred Estey for a while. In 1896, Frank would build a Dutch Colonial farm house for Olivia G. Wright, a widowed mother of six, at the top of Virginia Street. The house still stands. 

While his brother William, also a carpenter (as was a third brother, Robert), was content to work as a salesman for their brother-in-law, Frank was described by Evelyn as “a self-starter.” In 1905, he opened his own realty office at 2149 Center Street. In addition to selling real estate—a 1905 ad in the San Francisco Call listed an 8-room house on a corner lot east of Fulton Street; a 9-room villa near Dwight Way Station; an alfalfa ranch in Merced County; and ten acres in San Ramon Valley—Frank advertised “Plans Drawn, Houses Built.” Most of the houses he built were lost in the 1923 Berkeley Fire. 

Both the Mays and the Clarks had decamped from Euclid Ave. by 1900 but continued to own their respective houses for a number of years. These houses were the only ones on the block until 1902, when William and Mary Henry built the Northgate Hotel. 

The Henrys are best known today as the parents of Mills College president Aurelia Henry Reinhardt. William W. Henry, a native of Bennington, VT, who came to California in 1858, was for many years a wholesale grocer in San Francisco and southern California. The ups and downs of his business might have taken their toll on the family’s well-being had not his indomitable wife (a hardy pioneer who had crossed the plains from Iowa at the age of 13, riding alongside the covered wagon on a small pony) kept the family going and paid for the children’s music and speech lessons by taking in boarders. 

The Henrys first appeared in Berkeley in 1896, when Aurelia was a student at Cal, and the following year built a house at 2401 Le Conte Avenue, across the street from Frank Wilson’s home. A stately, turreted affair clad in brown shingles, the Henry house was constructed by Fred Estey. It was large enough to accommodate the couple, their youngest four children, five boarders, and a cook. 

A mere five years after building their hilltop house, the Henrys moved one block downhill and became hoteliers in earnest. He was 63, she ten years younger, but they would run the Northgate for 24 years, until Mary’s death. It was listed in the 1904 directory as a private hotel, and later advertised as “A Select Family Hotel with Homelike Surroundings, 35 Minutes from San Francisco.” 

The clientele consisted of middle-class and professional families, some of whom stayed for decades. Victor J. Robertson, treasurer of the Commercial Publishing Co. and editor of the San Francisco Commercial News, boarded with the Henrys on Le Conte Ave., moved with them to the Northgate, and was still there in 1930, after both William and Mary had passed away. Robertson was a prominent civic activist and longtime president of the Conference Committee of the Improvement Clubs of Berkeley, as well as heading the North Berkeley Improvement Club. In 1907 he initiated a campaign to check graft in Alameda County government and another for a new city charter. The following year, he called on the city to stop the Spring Construction Co. from blasting in the North Berkeley quarry (converted in the ’30s into the municipal Rose Garden). He was an ardent supporter of damming the Hetch Hetchy, cleaning up the city, improving public transportation, and beautifying Shattuck Avenue. 

While Mary Henry managed the Northgate, her husband turned his attention to realty and insurance. Berkeley’s swelling population in the wake of the 1906 earthquake must have improved his business, for he erected a small office next to the hotel, at 1807 Euclid. This office was located directly over the creek, which would exact its revenge in February 1940, flooding and destroying Reid’s drugstore, built on the northwest corner of Euclid and Hearst. 

Around 1910, the Henrys formed the W.W. Henry Investment Company and began buying properties along the avenue, including 1801 and 1805 Euclid. They moved into 1805 Euclid but soon found a more lucrative way to utilize it. In 1914, the creek behind the two houses was culverted, and the houses were moved to the back and attached back-to-back to form a six-unit apartment building at 2508 Ridge Road. The Henrys called it the Bennington Apartments, after Mr. Henry’s home town. 

The conversion, which placed the turreted shingled house at the front, included a lower floor in stucco, with interesting architectural details such as arched doors and windows, sturdy round columns, and an ornamental baluster. The architect is not known, but similar columns can be seen on several houses designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. The Euclid frontage, which remained unbuilt until 1929, was planted in trees. 

Today, 2508 Ridge Road is divided into 15 apartments and faces the rear of Euclid Ave. shops. Although its splendor has faded, the building can lay claim to being the oldest known residential Brown Shingle in Berkeley. 



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


Photograph: Daniella Thompson  

The Bennington Apartments at 2508 Ridge Road combines two houses built on Euclid Ave. in 1892. They were constructed by William and Mary Henry, parents of Mills College president Aurelia Henry Reinhardt.