The grocery business used to be a very lucrative one in the early days of the 20th century. Some East Bay retail grocers amassed considerable wealth, not to mention social prestige. Stephen J. Sill was one of them (his store building, designed by James Plachek, still stands at 2145 University Ave., now occupied by Berkeley Ace Hardware). Another was Frederick Charles Koerber (1876–1953), who owned several grocery stores in Oakland and Berkeley before branching into real-estate development, mortgage banking, and municipal politics.
Fred was born in San Jose, one of nine siblings. His parents had immigrated from Germany as teenagers. George Koerber was a wood dealer, an occupation taken up by his son Adolph. Another son, John, became a grocer, and Fred most likely got his start with him.
Eventually Fred moved to Oakland, where he married the widow Sarah Elizabeth Cash Cook (1870–1956) in 1904. His store was located at 1932 Broadway, and he was active in the California State Retail Grocers’ and Merchants’ Association, serving on the reception committee in 1906, when the association held its annual convention in Oakland.
In 1907 Koerber, a shrewd businessman, constructed a building of stores and apartments at the junction of the newly completed Ashby Avenue streetcar line and the College Avenue Key Route lines. This Edwardian edifice, whose architect is unknown, is said to be the earliest commercial building in the Elmwood district. The Koerber grocery was relocated to this building, and the owners took up residence in one of the apartments on the second floor.
The upscale grocery trade was based on home deliveries, and Koerber delivered. On March 21, 1908, his delivery business suffered a temporary setback reported in the Oakland Tribune:
“A. N. Kite, driver for Frederick C. Koerber, dealer in groceries and fruits, 2649 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, was thrown 40 feet through the air from his seat, but landed uninjured, when his wagon was struck by Telegraph Avenue car No. 350, at Sixtieth Street and Telegraph Avenue this morning.
The wagon was smashed to pieces, the car crashing clear through the center of the side, and the horse was badly injured.
Fruits and groceries were scattered for half a block and for over an hour the small boys of the neighborhood fought over the spoils.”
Business flourished, and Koerber quickly added to his holdings on adjacent lots. In 1909 he obtained a permit to construct a one-story, two-room store on Ashby. By 1911, he owned three contiguous commercial buildings. On his World War I draft card in 1918, he reported two business addresses: 5498 College Ave. in the Rockridge district and 469 13th St. in downtown Oakland. In 1919, Koerber was fined $5 after another store of his, Key Grocery at Fifth and Washington in Oakland, was charged with selling rain-damaged prunes. “Fermented prunes may be all right as the main ingredient of a home-made brand of booze,” opined the Tribune, “but they are prohibited from sale by Oakland grocery stores.”
By the early 1920s, Koerber had moved on from the grocery business to pursue other activities. In March 1923, he filed his candidacy for a seat on the Berkeley City Council in the May election that would launch the city manager form of government. He was endorsed by the merchants’ association of his district but wasn’t elected that year. In 1925 he ran again, on a slate of four candidates endorsed by the Berkeley Municipal League. All four (the others were Thomas Caldecott, Captain John Atthowe, and Walter Mork) won their seats, with Koerber coming in fourth, having garnered 6,700 votes.
By mid-September, a mere four months past the election, Koerber tendered his resignation, claiming that “owing to the press of private business he was unable to devote the required time to the council.”
The private business concerned mainly real estate. In November 1922, it was announced in the Tribune that a four-store building Koerber was erecting next to the George Friend Company’s office [on the northwest corner of Solano and Colusa Avenues] was nearing completion. “Residents of the Berkeley Park district will soon have a shopping center of their own, and will not have to depend on downtown stores,” predicted the paper.
George Friend (1875–1963) was a former actor who for many years starred in stock companies at Oakland’s Ye Liberty Playhouse and Fulton Theatre. In 1906, he eloped with 15-year-old Gertrude Spring, daughter of the flamboyant capitalist John Hopkins Spring. The bride’s father was furious, but by 1911 he forgave the couple and put George to work selling properties in his newly subdivided Thousand Oaks tract. George started in the office of Newell-Murdoch Co. (Newell was another Spring son-in-law), became the manager within a year, and a year later had taken over the firm, as Newell and Murdoch pursued their own developments.
By 1915, Friend had moved his office from downtown Berkeley to Solano Avenue. He took with him several salesmen from the old office, including Thomas R. Weldon and Reed W. Thomas, and added new ones, among them an English-man called Percy Nutt. The association of this trio with Fred Koerber may have begun in 1922, when he built the four stores next to Friend’s office.
On Feb. 10, 1923, the Berkeley Courier reported, “The property situated on University just behind the Courier Building has just been sold. There will be a building upon it before the summer is here.” On April 9 of that year, the Tribune gave further details: “A one-story business block and basement will be erected on the south side of University avenue, 252 feet west of Shattuck avenue, by Fred C. Koerber and Henry Bischoff, according to an announcement made today. The building will have a frontage of 51 feet on University avenue with a depth of 90 feet and will contain three stores and basements.”
What Koerber ended up building was a six-story block—the tallest in Berkeley. When he changed his mind and why he changed it has not been explained, but on Sept. 15, 1923, the Berkeley Gazette announced on its first page:
Actual work on Berkeley’s biggest building, the new Koerber Block, on the south side of University avenue, just east of the U.C. Theater, has been started. Contracts call for the completion of the structure by February 1, according to Fred C. Koerber who, with Dr. L. L. Koerber, his sister, and H. C. Bischoff, well-known local builder, will be the owners.
When completed, the building will represent an investment of upwards of $200,000. It will be six stories of steel, brick and cement and considerably larger than the Berkeley Bank Building, at present the city’s tallest building. The building will be of Class A, strictly fireproof construction, and will have a frontage of 51 feet and a depth of 80 feet.
Henry C. Bischoff was not a well-known local builder (that was John A. Bischoff, father of the artist Elmer Bischoff) but a grocer with a store at 2848 Grant St. In the 1930s, he would move his store to 2635 Ashby, in Koerber’s Elmwood building.
More interesting than Bischoff was the third partner, Lillie Louise Koerber, M.D. (1879–1959). A strong and independent woman, Lillie graduated from San Francisco’s Cooper Medical College in 1901 and took up residence in the Mission district, where she spent her entire working life as a physician and surgeon. She was a member of the California Organization of Women Physicians for Federal Recognition and was listed in Who’s Who Among the Women of California in 1922.
Lillie Koerber’s domestic life was highly unconventional for her time. She was always head of the household, remained unmarried into her seventies, brought up a girl she adopted on her own, and for over four decades maintained what appears to have been a personal and professional partnership with a Greek-born physician by the name of John N. Tavlopoulos.
It might have been Lillie’s investment that made the Koerber Building mushroom from the planned one story to the actual six, with 60 offices above the ground floor.
Who designed the building? We don’t know. The façade features elegant arched windows on the top floor (KPFA had its first home there in 1949) and is clad with handsome terra cotta tile in Beaux-Arts relief patterns, yet no architect’s name appears on the blueprints or in any newspaper account. The construction was managed by Berkeley Building Co., which was initially based in George Friend’s office on Solano and Colusa.
Two days after the Gazette announced the beginning of construction, the great Berkeley Fire decimated close to 600 homes on the Northside. This might explain why the Koerber Building was completed three months later than planned. Immediately after the fire, Berkeley Building Co. began placing ads in the Gazette. These depicted a cottage and invited, “Let us build your home. We finance and plan all classes of construction on percentage or contract.”
As the Koerber building neared completion in April 1924, the official leasing agents began taking daily ads in the Tribune, targeting “doctors, dentists, and all professional men” and promising “neat, attractive, well lighted, fully equipped offices in a building located where all the transportation meets.” The agents were none other than Thomas, Wheldon & Nutt, whose relationship with Koerber allowed them to open their own realty office at 2029 Shattuck Ave., where they also ran the Berkeley Building Company.
In the meantime, Fred Koerber had become a stockholder in the East Bay Bond and Mortgage Corporation, where he was able to observe that “the modern, carefully managed mortgage company offers an unusually profitable opportunity for those unable to operate in a large way on their own account.”
In February 1933, he sold the Koerber Building to the state manager of the State Farm Mutual Insurance Company. “As part of the transaction,” reported the Tribune, “Koerber obtained a 3,600-acre ranch near Duncans Mills, on the Russian River, which he says he plans to subdivide.”
What Koerber did with the ranch has not been revealed. For once, his business acumen may have deserted him. Fortunately for the rest of us, Duncans Mills remains one of the most bucolic and least developed hamlets on the Russian River.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).