Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Telegraph and Durant: From Ritzy Enclave to Commercial Hub

By Daniella Thompson
Friday March 07, 2008
Hotel Carlton was built in 1906-07 on the site previously occupied by the Knowles mansion.
Daniella Thompson
Hotel Carlton was built in 1906-07 on the site previously occupied by the Knowles mansion.

Teeming with pizza, bagel, and t-shirt outlets, surrounded by ethnic-food courts and cheap retail arcades, the intersection of Telegraph and Durant Avenues is inconceivable as an exclusive residential enclave reserved for millionaires' mansions set amidst spacious gardens and fronted by orderly rows of palm trees. 

Yet this was exactly how Telegraph Avenue looked in the first decade of the 20th century, when the street extended to Allston Way, meeting the UC campus at Strawberry Creek.  

In 1903, the south side of Bancroft Way contained more empty lots than houses. The west side of Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Durant was divided into two enormous lots, of which only the southern one—measuring 200 by 200 feet and extending from the middle of the block to the Durant Ave. corner—was occupied. On this lot, at 2318 Telegraph Avenue, stood the imposing Classic Revival mansion of William E. Knowles. 

Knowles was a real estate executive who had made a fortune in Alaskan gold mining and oil. His house, built in 1900 and one of the showplaces of Berkeley, basked in lonely splendor, with nary a building across the street. 

On the southeast corner, diagonally across from the Knowles residence, stood an even more elegant mansion belonging to lawyer-capitalist Louis Titus. On the southwest corner, one could admire the very large and formal Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter house. 

Today, any mention of fraternity houses will invariably evoke visions of Animal House. Not so at the turn of the last century. In March 1900, when the San Francisco Call devoted a Sunday magazine page to fraternity life in Berkeley, only four of the 14 fraternities located here owned their chapter houses, and the photos that illustrated the article could have been published in House Beautiful. 

Delta Kappa Epsilon was one of the fraternity-owned houses, and a photo of its parlor and hall, complete with lace curtains, a horn Victrola, and the ubiquitous billiard table, made an appearance in the Call magazine. Another featured house belonged to Phi Delta Theta, Louis Titus’s fraternity. Located at 2401 Durant Ave/, on the corner of Dana Street (now a U.C. parking lot), the house boasted tastefully furnished interiors. On June 2, 1901, the Call informed, “The Phi Delta Theta boys are noted for their orderly house […] one would never dream that the house was run entirely by a lot of students. Everything is exactly so, and one could look for dust with a microscope and not have the labor rewarded.” 

In the summer of 1900, presumably while the resident students were away on vacation, the 28-year-old Titus was living in the Phi Delta Theta house with his wife Lottie, infant daughter Dorothy, sister Ethel, and the family’s servant, Minnie Loeser. Why were they living in a frat house? Probably because they awaited the completion of their new mansion a block to the east. Strangely, their deed to the land was not recorded until after the house was completed in November. 

Both Louis and Lottie Titus grew up in Liberty, San Joaquin County. His father was a prosperous farmer, hers a wagon maker and blacksmith. But the rural surface concealed a penchant for learning. Lottie’s mother would shrug off her housewifely role in middle age and begin a new career as an osteopath. Three of Louis’s uncles were school teachers in Wisconsin, and one of them, Daniel Titus, also practiced as a pharmacist before launching a lucrative law career in San Francisco. 

Lottie and Louis came to Berkeley for their schooling. He enrolled at the University of California—the 1891 Berkeley directory listed him as a resident of Phi Delta Theta Hall, at that time located on the corner of Bancroft and Audubon [College Ave.]. Lottie graduated from the Anna Head School and the Mills Seminary in Oakland. She was teaching in a private seminary in Berkeley and he was a young attorney just out of college when they decided to tie the knot in 1892. 

Louis got his introduction to big-time wheeling and dealing at his uncle’s law office and never looked back. Barely into his 30s, he was a major player in real estate development, banking, transportation, water, lumber, and oil. 

Allied with leading business figures such as Francis “Borax” Smith, Frank C. Havens, Wickham Havens, John Hopkins Spring, Allen G. Freeman, Phillip E. Bowles, Joseph Mason and Duncan McDuffie, and Perry Tompkins (the latter two Phi Delta Theta brothers), Titus served as director or officer of key enterprises including the Realty Syndicate, the Claremont Hotel Company, the Berkeley Traction Company, the University Savings Bank of Berkeley, and the Big Lagoon Lumber Company. 

From 1906 to 1910, Titus was president of the People’s Water Company—the private precursor to EBMUD—negotiating two 10% rate reductions with the Oakland city council in order to avoid litigation. Nowadays he is best remembered for having masterminded the idea to relocate the state capital to Berkeley and construct the Capitol building in Northbrae. At the time (1907), the idea was taken seriously enough to be approved by the Assembly. Happily for us, the voters of California nixed the measure. 

In addition to his far-reaching corporate activities, Titus was frequently buying and selling large tracts of land. He also headed the Berkeley Development Company, and in November 1904, the San Francisco Call announced that he was erecting a new business and apartment block on the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft. Designed by Henry Meyers and Clarence Ward, El Granada still stands. It’s been owned by the Munger family for three generations and was restored in 1995, regaining its Mission-style gables, absent since the 1950s. 

But the Granada was not the first harbinger of change on Telegraph Avenue. The initial shot across the bow was delivered by contractor John Albert Marshall, who earlier that year began building a three-story business block on the lot adjacent to the Knowles mansion. As if that weren’t enough, construction began on the Epworth Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Durant-directly across the street from Knowles. 

Knowles was not pleased, and on December 23, 1904, while a crowd of pedestrians watched, he had his mansion picked up and moved half a block east, to 2521 Durant. On that occasion, he predicted to the Oakland Tribune that his well-to-do neighbors, Louis Titus and Seneca Gale (the latter lived at 2251 Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, future site of Sproul Plaza), would follow suit. 

Knowles did not tell the newspapers that he had already sold Gale a new lot adjoining his own on Durant Avenue. Gale was a retired Michigan capitalist who had made his money in grain. Like Knowles, he could recognize a trend when he saw it and knew how to capitalize on it. Not long after moving to Durant Avenue, both sold their previous home lots to developers. 

Knowles sold his lot in October 1905 to Carlton Hobbs Wall, a young Alameda millionaire who would gain notoriety for automobile collisions. The price was $17,500. Carlton and his brother Edward soon broke ground for an apartment and store building projected to cost $30,000, but the 1906 San Francisco earthquake made them change plans and transform the structure into a first-class hotel. 

Like Titus, the Walls called on Meyers & Ward for the design of their four-story, clinker-brick building. Named Hotel Carlton, it was leased to Mrs. W.F. Morris, whose Cecil Hotel burned in the San Francisco fire. It cost $125,000 and boasted all the latest amenities, including an elevator, telephones, and a 135-foot dining room with dance floor. 

Seneca Gale waited until September 1906 to sell his lot. The price was again $17,500, and the buyer was none other than John Marshall, who planned to build a $100,000, 125-room hotel on the site. “A roof garden and other modern hostelry features will be provided,” announced the San Francisco Call. C.M. Cook, who had designed a number of houses for Marshall, was the architect. The building that finally emerged, however, was the 5-story Alta Vista, with six storefronts on the ground floor and 23 balconied apartments above, but no roof garden. It would be razed in 1946, after the university had taken possession of the Telegraph Ave. stretch between Sather Gate and Bancroft Way. 

And what of Louis Titus? He quietly left his home in March 1906. The reason did not become apparent until Lottie Titus filed for divorce in September 1909. Then she revealed that her temperament and inclinations were out of tune with those of her husband. He was highly ambitious and liked to socialize in fashionable circles, while she was interested only in her home and children. He wanted her to entertain lavishly, she wanted to teach Sunday school. He left her twice—four and 14 years into the marriage. 

The mansion at 2500 Durant Ave. was part of Lottie’s divorce settlement, but two break-ins in March 1908 made her uneasy, and she moved to Santa Barbara, leasing the house to a Napa millionaire. By 1910, she had sold it to Duncan McDuffie, who in turn sold it back to Titus. Having remarried in 1910 and built a new mansion in Piedmont, Titus sold 2500 Durant in 1913 to J. Arthur Elston and George Clark, U.C. graduates and law partners. Elston was former executive secretary to California governor Pardee, president of the U.C. alumni association, and a future U.S. Congressman. 

Elston and Clark retained Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. to design and manage construction of a five-story, 48-unit brick apartment building with four storefronts. When completed, it was listed in the Berkeley directory as “Cambridge Hotel Apartments, 2-, 3-, and 4-room apartments and single rooms completely furnished, thoroughly modern elevator service.” The owners lived in the building. Next door, at 2510 Durant, they had Ratcliff build a cinema. Christened the Campus Theatre, it didn’t survive long. By the late 1920s it had become a store and is serving that function until today. 

The Marshall Block that prompted William Knowles to move his house in 1904 is long since gone. So are the Delta Kappa Epsilon house and Epworth Methodist Church. Photos of these vanished buildings may be seen in the book Picturing Berkeley—A Postcard History, edited by Burl Willes and available from BAHA. 

Seneca Gale died on his yacht in 1910, and Knowles followed him three years later. A food court stands on the site of the Knowles mansion. You can catch a glimpse of the much altered Seneca Gale house behind Cafe Durant. 


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