Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Knitwear Magnate Looked to Europe for Building Inspiration

By Daniella Thompson
Friday January 25, 2008

The settlement of the residential blocks south of the UC campus began, naturally, on the streets closest to the university and progressed southward. In 1903, the area now known as the Willard neighborhood, comprising the Hillegass and Berry-Bangs tracts and bounded, clockwise, by Dwight Way, College, Ashby, and Telegraph Avenues, was most densely built along Benvenue and Hillegass Avenues north of Derby Street. 

By 1911—five years after the San Francisco earthquake—Benvenue, Hillegass, and Regent Streets were almost completely built out to Ashby Avenue, streetcars and commuter lines were running along Ashby and College, and a cluster of local shops and services served the neighborhood. 

The homes built along Benvenue, Hillegass, and Regent were spacious and elegant—often architect-designed—and many featured brown-shingle exteriors and craftsman interiors complete with wood-paneled walls and beamed ceilings. It was a fashionable neighborhood, populated by businessmen and professionals. Apartment buildings were unknown here. 

This changed on May 6, 1916, when the Berkeley Daily Gazette announced: 

The new apartment house, “Hillegass Court,” 2821 Hillegass Ave., is just completed for the owner, G. A. Mattern, and is rapidly being occupied by families which had made their choice of apartments during its construction. Architects Wright & Rushforth, of San Francisco, have endeavored to carry out a design suitable to the character of its surroundings, with ample lot area for lawns and shrubbery on all sides, with a driveway to the garage located on the south and in the rear. The central court arrangement affords a degree of privacy to the three entrances, there being one in each wing, and within the terraced court is sufficient area for a nice display of lawn. 

There are a total of sixteen apartments of two, three and four rooms each, with sleeping porches to eight of them. The owner has spared no expense to provide the essentials to health and comfort; light, air, sun, heat and ventilation are well provided for. The basement being high and dry, affords ample storage facilities for tenants, besides a social room, kitchen, laundry and the usual basement equipment. Louis Engler of this city was the contractor, and the cost amounted to about $30,000. 

Hillegass Court went up on a triple lot that had remained open on the block between Stuart and Russell Streets. A handsome, C-shaped structure, it bears a vague resemblance to a lakeside Kurhaus in an Alpine resort. According to a legend that circulated for many years among the tenants, the design is a copy of a 1912 French building Mattern admired. Since there is no record of Mattern having traveled to Europe in the 1910s (he would travel there frequently between 1921 and 1940), it’s possible that he might have seen such a building in a magazine or in an architectural journal shown him by the architect. 

The architect, George Rushforth (1861–1943), was an Englishman who, with his new bride, immigrated to California in 1887. The couple’s first stop was Los Angeles, where their eldest son was born. By 1890, they had moved to Stockton, where they lived for a decade and a half, bringing three more sons into the world. In 1902, George designed Stockton High School. 

In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, Rushforth shifted his field of operations to San Francisco. The move was motivated not only by the better professional opportunities available in the Bay Area but by the need to educate four sons born between 1888 and 1894. 

In 1907, Rushforth opened an office at 2277 California Street with two compatriots, George A. Wright and Bernard J.S. Cahill. He commuted from Berkeley, where the family home was at 2321 Blake St. 

A practical architect, Rushforth was no prima donna; he sought to give his clients what they wanted. This flexibility is evident in the variety of styles seen in his work. Among the better-known San Francisco buildings designed by Wright, Rushforth & Cahill is the 7-story Hotel Whitcomb at Market and Eighth Streets (1911), which was adapted by the architects for use as a temporary City Hall from 1912 to 1915. 

In Berkeley, Rushforth’s most famous work is the Gothic-style Trinity Methodist Church (1927–28) and Trinity Hall (1934) on Dana Street between Durant Ave. and Bancroft Way. 

Rushforth’s connection to his Hillegass Court client was a family affair—his second son, Archibald (1890–1976), married Mabel Mattern and worked in her father’s business. The firm was the famous Gantner & Mattern Co. of San Francisco, later known as Gantner of California. It manufactured sweaters and coats, knit underwear and hosiery, but was especially known for its swimwear. In 1907, it advertised ladies’ bathing suits from $1.90 to $40, men’s from $1 to $6, and boys’ from 75 cents up. Girls at the time did not seem to merit their own swimwear. 

The company promoted its aquatic apparel by exhorting the public to learn to swim, offering a pair of water wings free with every suit. It maintained a baseball team, the Gantner-Matterns, who played in an amateur league that included St. Mary’s College in Oakland. In March 1906, the team played a benefit game against the university’s varsity team, with U.C. president Benjamin Ide Wheeler pitching the first ball. The proceeds went to pay off the $900 mortgage on the house of James Tate’s widow at 2022 Delaware Street. Mr. Tate, known as “Jimmie Potatoes,” had been a university gardener for 20 years. 

The company’s owners, John Oscar Gantner (1868–1951) and George Alfred Mattern (1864–1945), were immigrants’ sons. Gantner’s father was a Swiss saloon keeper, while Mattern’s was a German boat maker. In 1870, the Gantners lived next to another Swiss immigrant family, the Pfisters. John Pfister (born c. 1809) was a brewer who supplied the Gantner saloon. 

The family connections continued into the next generation, but not in the same field. By 1880, John Jacob Pfister (b. 1844) was running the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company, manufacturers of crochet and knitted goods, bathing suits, tights, underwear, sporting uniforms, and importers of bolting cloth. That year, 16-year old Alfred Mattern was working in a woolen mill. He would rise to superintendent at J.J. Pfister & Co. while still in his mid-twenties. At the same time, John O. Gantner would become Pfister’s corporate secretary. 

Mattern, who could never make up his mind whether he was George A. or Alfred G., first appeared in the Berkeley directory in 1893, residing at 2157 Dwight Way. The last time he was listed as a Pfister employee was in 1897, and two years later his occupation was given as “manufacturer.” In 1907, he built a new house at 2701 Regent Street and Derby (the site is now a lawn facing the Willard Park mosaic bench). 

Not much has come down to us about G.A. Mattern’s personal life. He fathered a boy and two girls. His son, Hermann A. Mattern, and his son-in-law, Archibald W. Rushforth, would spend their careers as managers at Gantner & Mattern. The only family member who didn’t fit the business mold was the youngest daughter, Laurinne Easter Mattern, who edited the 1915 commencement issue of the Anna Head School publication, Nods and Becks, and listed herself as an orchestral musician in the 1930 U.S. census. 

In December 1907, the San Francisco Call recorded that G.A. Mattern was one of 750 citizens who attended a Merchants’ Association banquet promoting consolidation of all the cities around San Francisco Bay. A rare lighter note was struck by the same newspaper in August 1910, when it reported, “Frightened by the shouts of his son, who had a nightmare, G.A. Mattern, a wealthy manufacturer of 2701 Regent street, jumped out of bed at an early hour this morning and fell off the sleeping porch of his home, 15 feet to the ground. […] He is now suffering from a fracture of the hip and other injuries.” Awakened by his own screams, Hermann found his father in the garden and summoned Dr. Edith Brownsill, who lived at 2614 Channing Way (current site of the university’s Crossroads dining center). 

In the late 1910s, the Matterns would build a new home at 100 Tunnel Road, but before departing from the Berry-Bangs tract, they beautified it with Hillegass Court. Ron Erickson, a former tenant in the building, described it in 1986: 

There is still a low-ceilinged dance room in the basement, about 60’ x 30’, with original light fixtures, a wood dance floor, and a small serving area at one end. It is thought to have been a meeting-place for the Red Cross during the war. 

Many if not all rooms contained wall beds, built-in ironing boards (still being used), and cabinets just outside each apartment door, accessible for deliveries. All the apartments differ in small, charming details. The larger ones have built-in china closets or secretaries. 

The ornamental work in the exterior design is reflected somewhat in the original stair banisters. All hallways, and much of the apartment interiors, is paneled in beautifully grained cedar divided by three-inch ribs. Unfortunately, all woodwork in the halls was painted a light green, probably in the Fifties. Fortunately, this paint is scraped off fairly easily without chemicals, revealing a rich-grained, brown-reddish stained surface. Altogether, except for superficial alterations, the building seems to be in its original form. 

Once Hillegass Court was completed in 1916, Mattern erected a house for Mabel and Archie Rushforth on the open southern third of the property. To design this unprepossessing Brown Shingle, he didn’t have to go farther than his in-law, Rushforth père. 


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


Daniella Thompson 

Hillegass Court, an elegant 1916 apartment building at 2821 Hillegass Ave.