Home & Garden Columns

East Bay: Then and Now: North Gables: Early Exemplar of Equal Opportunity Housing

By Daniella Thompson
Friday November 30, 2007

In 1948, University of California enrollment at the Berkeley campus reached 22,000 students, making adequate housing the number-one problem facing the student body. That year, the California Alumni Association published the book Students at Berkeley, which contained a large chapter devoted to housing and analyzed potential student housing sites. 

The Northside was judged unsuitable for student housing owing to “very unfavorable topography” and “remoteness from the center of student activities.” Older buildings—the Victorians and Colonial Revivals now prized as historic resources—were also deemed inadequate for student habitation. 

As an example of “adaptation of old and unsuitable buildings,” the book displayed two photos of Victorians, one of which was the North Gables boarding house at 2531 Ridge Road. The 19th-century houses were unfavorably compared with the university-owned Stern Hall, built in 1942. 

The 1962 Long-Range Development Plan (LRDP) for the campus proposed new university buildings to be constructed on four Northside city blocks facing the campus between Highland Place and Scenic Avenue. Existing structures—public or private—were to be demolished, including the historic Cloyne Court Hotel, North Gate Hall, and Drawing Building, all designed by John Galen Howard, and the former Beta Theta Pi chapter house, designed by Ernest Coxhead. 

On the Southside, the housing development suggested by the Alumni Association dictated a radically clean sweep of the twenty city blocks between College Avenue, Bancroft Way, Fulton Street, and Dwight Way, retaining only “institutions of quasi-public and social character” and the Telegraph Avenue-Bancroft Way business district. The rest was to be occupied by “elevator-type living centers” with “generous open space for recreation and amenity.” 

Miraculously, the sweep wasn’t quite as radical as intended, and many historic buildings on both sides of the campus were spared. On the Northside, Cloyne Court Hotel, North Gate Hall, the Drawing Building, Beta Theta Pi, and many pre-1923 residences were eventually designated as landmarks. The Victorian at 2531 Ridge Road—for which a landmark application was never written owing to insufficient information—not only survived but continues to house students. 

This charming, turreted house, now divided into six apartments, was one of the earliest homes built in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract. The first improvement on the site was recorded in 1892, and by the following year it had more than doubled. After passing through two owners in as many years, the property was acquired by one William Fisher, who may have briefly lived in the house but never long enough to be listed in the Berkeley directory. 

Next door, at 2527 Ridge Road, another Victorian went up at the same time. This house was acquired by James and Margaret Pierce, who lived in it until 1904, when they became managers of the newly completed Cloyne Court Hotel and sold their home to the Swiss vice-consul, John Freuler. Until the mid-1910s, Strawberry Creek ran in its natural channel across the back yards of both houses. 

Unlike its next-door neighbor, 2531 Ridge Road was always occupied by renters. Beginning in 1899, it was the home of Mrs. Annie E. Benson, a 65-year old widow from Pennsylvania. In the 1900 U.S. census, Mrs. Benson listed her occupation as Landlady. This in itself was not remarkable, but the 1900 census revealed two facts about Mrs. Benson that were remarkable indeed. For one, her race was listed as Black, making Annie Benson the only African-American head of household on the Northside. The one other person listed as Black in the neighborhood at the time was a domestic living in the household of her employers. (Five other persons—the wife and four children of realtor Herman Murphy—were also listed as Black in 1900; however, all subsequent census records marked them as White.) 

The second revelation about Mrs. Benson is even more interesting. In 1900, her tenants at 2531 Ridge Road were Austin and Ethel Lewis and their three children. 

Attorney, writer, socialist, and civil libertarian, Austin Lewis (1865–1944) was a highly visible figure in his day. Born in England, he immigrated to the United States in 1890 with his parents and siblings. The family arrived in Berkeley circa 1898 and established the private Glenholm School in their home on the corner of Shattuck Ave. and Berryman Street, at the current entrance to Live Oak Park. 

Why Austin Lewis, who was practicing law in San Francisco, chose to leave the family home and move into a rental on Ridge Road is not apparent, unless he did so expressly to help Annie Benson. 

Lewis was a tireless activist and lecturer in support of labor and women’s suffrage. Shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, Lewis published a series of books on socialism. The first was a translation of Friedrich Engels’ Feuerbach: The Roots of the Socialist Philosophy (1903), followed by his own The Church and Socialism (1906), The Rise of the American Proletarian (1907), The Militant Proletariat (c. 1911), and Proletarian and Petit-Bourgeois (1910s). 

In 1901, Berkeley gained another socialist in the figure of future mayor J. Stitt Wilson (1868–1942), a former Methodist Episcopal minister turned lecturer, who in 1903 bought a Maybeck-designed house on Highland Place, two blocks to the east of the Benson-Lewis household. The house—built in 1896 and destroyed in 1956—is known to architectural historians as the Laura G. Hall House, but considering that Ms. Hall occupied it for no more than a year, while Stitt Wilson owned it for several decades, it might be more appropriate to name it after him. 

Like Lewis, Wilson published socialist tracts, including The Message of Socialism to the Church and The Impending Social Revolution, or The Labor Problem Solved (both in 1904). Unlike Lewis, Wilson was obliged to publish them at his own expense. 

Lewis and Wilson were the two luminaries of the Socialist Party, and both ran in California gubernatorial races on their party’s ticket. In 1906, Lewis garnered 5.1% of the votes in a four-way race won by Republican James N. Gillett. Four years later, Wilson collected 12.4% of the votes in a three-way race won by Republican Hiram W. Johnson. Lewis, who ran for the U.S. Congress from the Fourth District that year, came in third behind the Republican and Democratic candidates. 

As friend, mentor, and sometime lawyer to a large coterie of writers and poets, Austin Lewis counted Jack London, Herman Whitaker, and George Sterling in his circle. Influenced by Lewis, London wrote The Iron Heel, a dystopian novel set in the future and depicting the triumph of capital over socialism. 

In September 1909, Lewis was one of 25 literary figures who organized the Press Club of Alameda, which would evolve into the California Writers’ Club. At the time, the club was the only California organization of its kind to include both men and women members. Lewis was elected as the club’s first president. 

Among the causes that engaged Lewis’s interest were the efforts to free Tom Mooney and Warren Billings—two labor leaders falsely accused of planting a bomb in a 1916 San Francisco parade—and to repeal California’s criminal syndicalism law, which classified dissident speech as a felony punishable by imprisonment. 

The Lewis family stayed at 2531 Ridge Road only briefly. By 1901 they had moved to 3108 Harper Street, and two years later they decamped for Oakland, where they lived at 3103 Stuart Street (in 1927, Highland Hospital would be built across the street from their house). Annie Benson, now listed in the directories as a cook, continued living at the Ridge Road house until 1904, when she moved to 1536 Shattuck Avenue. Her new house stood on the site now occupied by the parking lot between the French Hotel and Bank of America. 

While the Swiss vice-consul was living next door, 2531 Ridge Road became the home of William O’Brien, a blacksmith. In 1919, the house was taken over by Edna G. White (1884–1957), a former school teacher from Illinois, who established in it a boarding house for female students. She called it North Gables. 

North Gables was run along the lines of a co-operative. Residents paid $25 a month ($30 in the ’40s) for room and board, supplementing their rent payments with five weekly hours of work that included cleaning, cooking, serving, dish washing, gardening, and repair. About a quarter of the thirty lodgers worked an additional two hours a day and lived rent-free. 

Like all such living accommodations, North Gables required the approval of the Dean of Women and underwent regular inspections. During the 1920s, it was expanded fore and aft—the front façade, which had originally featured a polygonal window bay in the southeast corner and a small entrance porch at the southwest, gained a deep porch running across its entire length, with a sleeping porch above it. 

North Gables weathered the Depression and World War II, enabling a great many girls of slender means to obtain university education. The boarding house ceased operation in 1949, after Miss White’s health deteriorated. The building has since passed through many hands and was eventually converted into apartments. Its former next-door neighbor is long since gone, having made way for the Hotel Slocum, now known as the Stebbins Hall co-op, named after Dean of Women Lucy Ward Stebbins, who in 1933 awarded North Gables third-place honors for scholarship. 



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


Photograph: Daniella Thompson  

2531 Ridge Road, built in 1892, is one of the oldest buildings on the Northside.