Home & Garden Columns
When Berkeley boosters publicized the city circa 1905, they invariably pointed to the 1700 block of Le Roy Avenue as their shining example. Situated one block to the north of the UC campus, the short stretch between Le Conte Avenue and Ridge Road boasted two of Berkeley’s most opulent and ballyhooed residences: the Volney D. Moody house, known as “Weltevreden,” and the Allen G. Freeman house, “Allenoke.” Each was designed by a fashionable architect (A.C. Schweinfurth and Ernest Coxhead, respectively) and was clad in clinker brick-a material popular with Arts and Crafts builders.
The two estates were separated by the north fork of Strawberry Creek, which could be traversed by two clinker-brick bridges.
Allenoke’s owner, Allen Gleason Freeman (1853-1930), was born on a farm in Flushing, Michigan, the third of seven children. As a teenager, he worked on the farm, as did his elder brothers. Eventually he migrated to Chicago and entered the firm of J.K. Armsby Co., wholesale commission merchants who would come to control the distribution of fresh and dried California fruit and Alaskan salmon. It was probably in Chicago that Freeman met his future wife, Jessie Katherine Marsh (1858-1940), who was listed in the 1880 U.S. census as a reporter living in Hyde Park, Cook County, IL. Their marriage took place on May 25, 1887.
The Freemans appeared in San Francisco the same year. By now, Allen was general manager of J.K. Armsby Co. In 1903, the company’s office would be located at 138 Market St. and include canned fruit, dried fruit & raisin, and bean departments. The canned fruit was marketed under the Argo, Ambassador, and Red Dart labels. Later, George Newell Armsby, the founder’s son, would engineer the merger that gave birth to the California Packing Corporation (Calpak), whose most famous brand was Del Monte.
Living in San Francisco and then in Oakland, the Freemans were active members of the Unitarian Church. In 1890, Mrs. Freeman was treasurer of the newly established Pacific Coast Woman’s Unitarian Conference. The founding of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley in 1891 gave the couple a reason to move here.
In 1897, the congregation purchased land on the corner of Dana and Bancroft, and the following year, a shingled church designed by Schweinfurth was erected (it is now the University Dance Studio). The Freemans lived nearby, in a duplex at 2401 Telegraph Ave., which was then a highly desirable address. Duncan McDuffie would occupy the other flat in 1904, and Louis Titus lived a short block to the north. In 1902, Freeman and Titus were among the founding directors of the University Savings Bank of Berkeley.
As the character of Telegraph Avenue was being transformed from high-end residential to apartments and retail blocks, the well-to-do began to move out. But even before the first business block went up, Allen Freeman bought a large parcel on the corner of Ridge Road and Le Roy Avenue, in Daley’s Scenic Park. Volney Moody, another Unitarian, had already built a manse on the same block in 1896, and a year earlier, the Unitarian Maybeck heralded the birth of the local Arts and Crafts movement by designing a brown-shingle house for Charles Keeler two blocks to the east.
Schweinfurth, the architect of the Moody house and the First Unitarian Church, was already dead in 1903, when Freeman engaged the firm of Coxhead & Coxhead to design his house. Ernest Coxhead (1863-1933), like Maybeck and Schweinfurth an important early shaper of the First Bay Region Tradition, was English-born and -trained. In 1886, he and his older brother Almeric (1862-1928) established a practice in Los Angeles, moving to San Francisco four years later.
Ten years prior to the Freeman commission, Coxhead designed the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house (now Goldman School of Public Policy) a block away. It resembled a row of houses in an old English village. For Freeman, Coxhead created a large Colonial Revival house with oversized gambrel dormers on the north and south façades.
In many respects, Allenoke owes a debt to the Los Angeles house of business tycoon and art collector Edwin Tobias Earl, who in 1890 invented the refrigerated railroad car for shipping oranges to the East Coast. An earlier Coxhead design, the Earl house was built at 2425 Wilshire Bvld. in 1895-98 and demolished in 1957. Both houses featured steep roofs set with disproportionately large dormers (albeit in different styles); a projecting front porch fenestrated with arched openings on three sides and crowned with a neo-classical balustrade; a large, rectangular windowed bay projecting from the living room; and clinker brick exteriors. As in many other Coxhead residences, the rustic exterior belies a formal, rich interior.
Allenoke was completed in 1904 and thrown open that fall in a series of cello and piano recitals performed by Frederick Stickney Gutterson and his wife Minnie Marie, who had recently returned from Europe. The San Francisco Call described the first recital on Nov. 8 as “one of the smartest musical affairs that has taken place on this side of the bay,” adding, “Mr. and Mrs. Freeman have just finished one of the most artistic residences in Berkeley.” The audience included “Oakland’s elite as well as society of the college town,” among them professors Soule, Rising, and Haskell; notable neighbors such as the Moodys, the Keelers, photographer Oscar Maurer, and Thomas Rickard, president of the Town Board of Trustees from 1903 to 1909; architect Clinton Day, and painter William Keith.
The childless Freemans entertained regularly and famously. A luncheon offered in March 1908 for Professor Jacques Loeb’s mother-in-law numbered among its guests the wives of developer Frank C. Havens and UC president Benjamin Ide Wheeler. “The menu was served in Mrs. Freeman’s Chinese dining room,” informed the San Francisco Call, adding, “The details of the affair were carried out in the Chinese fashion.”
A prominent clubwoman and patron of the arts, Katherine Freeman directed her charitable impulses toward the Berkeley Day Nursery and the Fabiola Hospital in Oakland. Her husband, meanwhile, went into business for himself, founding the Continental Salt & Chemical Company (later Alviso Salt Co.). He also became an importer and traveled regularly to Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. Katherine accompanied him on some of these business trips.
In 1919, the Freemans erected a Georgian Revival carriage house across the street, at 2533 Ridge Road. Mirroring the materials of the main house (clinker brick walls, slate roof) and reviving the oversized neo-classical elements so often used by Coxhead (dormers, porch pediment), this charming two-story structure was designed by Clarence A. Tantau (1884-1943), a Bay Area architect best known for his Spanish-style buildings. The carriage house sports two decorative chimneys, two hipped and one arched dormer gables, a fanciful glazed entrance porch on the second floor, and an enormous carriage lantern appended to the façade.
The Allenoke estate, intact to this day, boasts a formal garden designed in 1923 and featuring a pergola, two fountains, and flower beds bordered by boxwood hedges. The imposing entrance gate is constructed of the same clinker bricks used for building the house and the surrounding wall.
Mrs. Freeman died in January 1940, leaving an estate of close to $285,000. Wishing her house to go on being used “for the pleasure of many people,” she willed it to Robert Sibley, executive manager of the California Alumni Association. Between 1912 and 1924, Sibley and his family had lived around the corner, five of those years as tenants in the house of Mrs. Freeman’s sister.
After making various bequests to relatives and friends (including a combined $54,000 to Sibley and his wife), Mrs. Freeman willed the residue of her estate to the University of California. However, when the State inheritance tax appraiser filed his report on Sept. 27, 1941, it transpired that bequests and taxes had reduced UC’s residue to a mere $1,181.
A notable conservationist and hiking enthusiast, Sibley (1881-1958) led the movement that resulted in the 1933 legislation establishing the East Bay Regional Park District on EBMUD surplus watershed lands. He served as director and president of the district from 1948 until his death in 1958. In Sibley’s honor, one of his favorites parks, Round Top, was renamed Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve.
During the 1940s, the Sibleys entertained countless students and alumni at Allenoke. In 1952, they published their recollections in the book University of California Pilgrimage: A Treasury of Tradition, Lore and Laughter, where they recount that “one time we had 400 people for breakfast.”
Robert’s second wife, Carol (1902-1986), was a well-known community figure in her own right. She served as president of the Berkeley School Board from 1961 to 1971 and presided over the successful racial integration of Berkeley’s public schools (as well as surviving a recall attempt launched against her and other board members who had voted for the program, the first voluntary desegregation of a public school district in the United States). She contributed her time and energy to many civic groups, including the charitable organization A Dream for Berkeley, and was a founder of the All Berkeley Coalition (ABC), which played a key role in Berkeley politics in the 1980s.
Following Robert Sibley’s retirement, the couple built several rental income units on the Allenoke estate. In 1949, a two-story, four-unit, flat-roofed redwood & stucco apartment building was erected in front of the carriage house by architect-builder John F. Pruyn. The following year, two similar buildings were constructed along the north portion of the main property. In 1956, the southern part of the clinker brick wall along Le Roy Avenue was replaced by four garages with a trellised roof garden. Another three-car garage was carved out of the brick wall in 1959. The same year, following Robert Sibley’s death, Carol Sibley converted the main house—made a duplex in 1952—into six units.
The 2533 Ridge Road carriage-house property was willed to Robert’s daughter Catherine, a protegée of Max Reinhardt and responsible for bringing his famous production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Faculty Glade. In 1976, Mrs. Sibley built a Japanese-style pavilion, designed by Michael Severin, between the two apartment buildings north of the main house. There she lived until the end of her life.
In the late 1980s, Allenoke was acquired by Dr. Frederick M. “Ted” Binkley (1924-2006) and his wife Marian. An eminent vascular surgeon at UCSF, Binkley had played varsity football and basketball as a student at Cal and lived at the Phi Kappa Psi house, located a block away from Allenoke, at 2625 Hearst Avenue. Under the Binkleys’ watch, Allenoke was restored to it original grandeur and single-family use. It was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in November 1986.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).