Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: The Bentleys of Le Conte Avenue: 96 Years of Service and Art

By Daniella Thompson
Friday December 14, 2007

Among the original Northside residences that survived the Berkeley fire of 1923, the Bentley House at 2683 Le Conte Avenue is one of the least assuming. Built in 1900 by the prominent Berkeley contractor and amateur artist A.H. Broad, this modest Dutch Colonial Revival residence is the quintessential “simple home” advocated by Charles Keeler in his 1904 book of the same name. 

Clad in unpainted shingles and strategically positioned at the crest of the hill, the house is sited at the center of its lot, surrounded by a garden that has always been informal, a graceful reminder of the Hillside Club’s Living with Nature ideals. 

The modest house accorded well with the personality of its first owner, the Rev. Dr. Robert Bentley, a leader of the Methodist Episcopal Church on the West Coast. 

Dr. Bentley purchased the lot in 1898 with the intention of building a retirement home. At the time, the family was living at 2210 Chapel St., near the First Trinity Methodist Church, located at Allston Way and Fulton Street (current site of Edwards Stadium), of which Dr. Bentley had been the pastor from 1892 to 1897. 

Reminiscing about Dr. Bentley in the 1980s, his grandson, the well-known printer, poet, calligrapher, and liberal arts professor Wilder Bentley (1900–1989), recalled that after a busy and peripatetic life, the minister had looked forward to a home of his own where he and his wife, Frances, could settle down in restful retirement. That hope was not to be fulfilled, as he lived only a few months in his new home, passing away on Sept. 28, 1900 after a brief illness. 

All the local newspapers devoted substantial space to Dr. Bentley’s obituary and funeral services, with the San Francisco Call outdoing its rivals in the bombast of its headline, “EMINENT DIVINE CLAIMED BY DREAD DESTROYER AT HIS BERKELEY HOME.” 

Robert Bentley was born in Cambridge, England, on May 6, 1836 or 1838 (accounts vary). He was the eldest son of the family. His father died when he was 12, and a year later the family came to America. He studied at Northwestern University and the Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) in Evanston, Illinois, and was licensed as a preacher in the annual Rock River Conference of the M.E. Church. 

Beginning his ministry in Chicago, Bentley married Frances Harvey in 1863. Their eldest son, Robert Irving, was born there in 1865. Three years later, they came to California and Dr. Bentley took charge of the Central Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Later he was pastor in Portland, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley. 

The U.S. census recorded the Bentley as living in San Francisco in 1870 (their second son, Charles Harvey, was born there the previous year) and in Sacramento ten years later. By 1880, the family had grown to include a third son—Edward, born in 1871—and a daughter, Mary, born in 1878. 

From 1886 to 1892, Dr. Bentley served as presiding elder of the M.E. Church’s Oakland district. After five years as pastor of Berkeley’s Trinity Church, he became presiding elder of the Sacramento district, territorially the largest in California. 

In 1891, Dr. Bentley founded the Fred Finch Orphanage (now the Fred Finch Youth Center) in Dimond, Oakland. He continued as its president until the end of his life. 

In September 1900, Dr. Bentley attended the California Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Pacific Grove, where he was appointed presiding elder of the Oakland District for the second time. Eleven days later, he was dead of either heart disease (according to the S.F. Call) or malarial fever (per the Oakland Tribune). 

At his memorial service, held on Sept. 30 at the Trinity Methodist Church in Berkeley, “the church was not large enough to hold the many friends who came to pay their last tribute of respect to the deceased,” reported the Tribune. 

Following Dr. Bentley’s death, his widow continued living on Le Conte Avenue. In 1904, she shared her home with the first African-American co-ed at the University of California. On February 8 of that year, The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported on its front page, “The first colored co-ed to register at the University of California is Miss Regina Crawford, whose home is in far away Meridian, Mississippi. [...] Miss Crawford is now staying at the home of Mrs. Robert Bentley, widow of the late Rev. Robert Bentley of the Methodist Church. She is being given employment by Mrs. Bentley and is thus enabled to support herself while carrying on her University work.” 

The Bentley sons were thriving in San Francisco. Robert Irving Bentley founded a fruit canning company, which his brother Charles, a Beta Theta Pi at Cal, joined following his graduation in 1891. In 1899, their company merged with seventeen others to form the California Fruit Canners Association, which used the Del Monte name as one of its many brands. 

In 1905, Charles Bentley’s wife died, leaving him with two young children. His mother joined them in Pacific Heights, leasing the Berkeley house to renters. When Charles remarried in 1909, Frances returned to Berkeley, living at various addresses. 

In 1920, Frances and her unmarried daughter Mary were lodgers in the old Henry boarding house at 2401 Le Conte Avenue, then run by Emma Greet. (The boarding house, built in 1897 by George Frederick Estey, burned in 1923. The University Christian Church now stands on the site.) At the time, Mary Bentley was working as a secretary at the YWCA. Ten years later, mother and daughter were living in a house they had purchased at 758 Contra Costa Avenue, near John Hinkel Park. 

Frances Bentley died in 1934, at the age of 94. Following her death, Mary returned to 2683 Le Conte Avenue, residing there until her own death in 1940. 

Perhaps the most interesting figure in the Bentley family was Harvey Wilder Bentley, the eldest of Charles H. Bentley’s children. Wilder (after his mother’s maiden name) graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School in 1918. He attended Yale University and the University of Michigan, then spent several years in Europe providing relief work with French war orphans and later traveling. 

Wilder married Ellen Mayo in 1927. In the late 1920s, he was at the University of Oklahoma, where his book The art of Laurence Pickett Williams (1930) was published. From 1930 through 1933, Wilder worked at Porter Garnett’s Laboratory Press at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, honing his skills in the craft of fine printing. In 1932, he became an honorary associate member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. 

Having returned to Berkeley with their two young children, Wilder Jr. and Margaret (later Sevcenko), Wilder and Ellen settled at 1836 San Antonio Avenue. They found an old Acorn hand press that had been shipped around the Horn, bought it, and established a small publishing business, producing limited editions of finely printed books, portfolios, broadsides, scrolls, and cards. 

Their earliest publications were broadsides in the Acorn Series, beginning with Wilder’s own Excursion on the Bay and Unheroic couplets for the poets of New Albion (“Printed on the Acorn Press in the Thousand Oaks”). The following year, they began publishing under the Archetype Press imprint and opened a shop at Euclid Court, on the commercial block just north of the campus. Wilder taught Ellen how to set type, and it was she who did the typesetting and proofreading, in addition to sewing the books that Wilder designed. Their motto was “The fine printer begins where the careful printer leaves off.” 

One of the items Wilder “and his faithful spouse, Ellen” published at Euclid Court was N’en Parlons Plus!, Excerpts From Divers Papers & Chronicles of The Arts Club, 1937–1938. This 20-page folio was limited to 105 copies and issued for private distribution among members of The Arts Club and their friends. 

The Bentleys also printed William Saroyan’s A Native American (San Francisco: George Fields, 1938) in a limited edition of 450 copies, each signed by the author. By far the best-known book to emerge from the Archetype Press was Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail (1938). In addition to being a photographic masterpiece, the book became a promotional tool on behalf of the Sierra Club’s campaign to establish a new national park on federally owned land in the Kings River Canyon region southeast of Yosemite: 

Ansel Adams sent a copy to Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior. “The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive,” Ickes thanked him. He hoped that Congress would soon establish the park: “Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken—that is, provided they have your skill and artistry.” Ickes showed the book to his boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who kept it for himself. Kings Canyon National Park was established two years later. 

With the advent of World War II, the Bentleys closed the Archetype Press. The printing press was dismantled and stored in the basement of 2683 Le Conte Ave., which Wilder and Ellen had purchased from his aunt Mary’s estate. 

In addition to his printing activities, Wilder Bentley was a prolific poet, calligrapher, and brush artist. The Bancroft Library houses a large collection of his poetic output, practically all of it printed by the Archetype Press. In May 1943, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco exhibited his brush drawings. 

After the war, Wilder Bentley returned to teaching. Between 1946 and 1956, he was professor of English and Philosophy at the College of the Pacific and Stockton Junior College, both in Stockton. In 1957, he was appointed professor at San Francisco State College, where he taught until his retirement in 1971. A former student described him as “a white-haired, elderly, enthusiastic expositor of the beauties and significance of American writing” who “was well-known in the college, if not beyond it, as one of those professors who is an inspiring catalyst for receptive students.” 

Following his retirement from teaching, Wilder dedicated himself to the epic poem The Poetry of Learning (Archetype Press,1975–85). A collection of 26 scrolls (some rolling out to about 15 feet in length), it was printed on an 1870s-issue Palmer & Rey “Washington”-type hand press in the basement of 2683 Le Conte Ave. 

Wilder Bentley passed away in 1989. His widow Ellen continued living at 2683 Le Conte Avenue until 1996, nearly a century since the Rev. Dr. Robert Bentley purchased the lot for his retirement home. 


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



Photograph: Daniella Thompson  

The Bentley House at 2683 Le Conte Ave. with a curved staircase leading to the street.