Home & Garden Columns

East Bay, Then and Now: Westenberg House: The Grande Dame of Benvenue Avenue

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday May 01, 2008 - 10:38:00 AM
The Westenberg House in it early years. The Claremont Hotel is visible in the distance.
BAHA archives
The Westenberg House in it early years. The Claremont Hotel is visible in the distance.
The massive front door.
Daniella Thompson
The massive front door.

Old Berkeley may have been solidly Republican, but it never lacked for colorful and even eccentric characters. How else to explain the flights of fancy some early Berkeleyans commissioned when building their homes a century ago? 

One wouldn’t expect a Methodist minister to build an oversized storybook house, yet this is precisely what went up at 2811 Benvenue Ave. in 1903. The owner, Charles Albert Westenberg (1862-1927), was a self-contradictory man, adamantly opposed to card playing and dancing yet not at all scrupulous about profiting from the despoliation of nature or the ruination of his friends. 

Westenberg was born in Pittsburgh, Penn., the son of a German agar maker. His brave mother gave birth to 14 children and outlived at least three of them, as well as her husband. While Charles was still a child, the family moved to Ohio, where he grew up and met his first wife, Louise Arndt, the daughter of Methodist physicians. Charles and Louise’s only child, Helen Lois, was born there in 1886. 

Having been ordained as a Methodist Episcopal minister, Westenberg set out for southern California. In 1891 he was posted to San Diego County, serving at the First United Methodist Church in National City and at St. Paul’s Church of the Voyager in Coronado. Louise died that year, leaving him with the 5-year-old Helen. 

From 1892 to ‘95, Westenberg was pastor of St. Paul’s Church in San Bernardino. At the Friday Morning Club of that city he met Miss Jessie DeWolfe (1856-1948), a Vermont-born schoolteacher of Dutch ancestry and a devoted Methodist. At the time, Miss DeWolfe was in charge of teaching the girls at the California State Reform School in Whittier. The couple was married in Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 1895 before moving to Santa Barbara, where Charles took over the pulpit at the First United Methodist Church and the chaplaincy of the Masonic Lodge. One of his accomplishments in Santa Barbara was the establishment of a “Fishermen’s Club,” a band of young men whose task it was to secure a list of all the tourists at the local hotels and boarding houses and to invite them to attend the church during their stay. In 1899, the Record of Christian Work commended Westenberg on this work, which helped counteract the evil of Sunday sightseeing. 

Mrs. Westenberg wasn’t idle either. In 1897, she was secretary of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the California Conference of the ME Church (she would be elected president seven years later). On April 11, 1898, she gave birth to Margaret Bethany Westenberg and now had two girls to rear. 

Charles Westenberg’s tour of duty in Santa Barbara came to an end in 1899. The family moved to San Francisco, where Charles became superintendent of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society. In June 1900, he took his 60 wards on a six-week camping vacation in Cazadero. He still preached occasionally, but—as Jessie would tell Hal Johnson of the Berkeley Gazette four decades later—his voice gave out in 1901, forcing him to give up the ministry and go into business as a broker. 

The impetus appears to have been a trip he made in 1900 to Palenque, Mexico, as a member of a committee sent to investigate the property of the Chiapas Rubber Plantation and Investment Company. The other committee members were Los Angeles Superior Court judge Lucien Shaw (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California), Santa Barbara postmaster Orlando W. Maulsby, Reverend L.M. Hartley of Redlands, and Ernest Alexander Girvin, a California Supreme Court reporter and Berkeley resident. 

Girvin, a close friend and future business ally of Westenberg’s, had attended Hastings College of the Law in 1881. He professed sanctification that year, joined the Trinity Methodist Church in San Francisco, and received a local preacher’s license. At the age of 27, he co-authored the book Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of the Language (A.L. Bancroft & Co., 1884). In 1896, dissatisfied with the rigidity of the Methodist Church, he made the acquaintance of Dr. Phineas F. Bresee, who had just founded the evanglical Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles. Early the following year, Girvin organized the First Church of the Nazarene in Berkeley and became its first pastor, fulfilling this role alongside his court work. 

Returning from Mexico, the committee released a flattering report on the Chiapas plantation, as the San Francisco Call reported on Dec. 16, 1900: “24,000 acres of the choicest rubber land of Mexico, upon which over 700,000 vigorous young rubber trees now thrive. On the plantation also are numerous mahogany trees, some of which are of prodigious growth, thus demonstrating the richness of the soil.” 

The enterprise clearly made an impression on Westenberg and Girvin, since they both got involved in the rubber business. The former was president of the Rio Michol Rubber Plantation Co. (with Girvin as corporate secretary), managing director of the Chiapas Rubber Plantation Co., and a broker for their securities. At the same time, he acted as president of the United States Gold Dredging Co., again with Girvin as secretary. 

The Westenbergs lived in San Francisco until 1903. Fortune must have smiled on Westenberg’s business dealings, for in February 1903—a little over two years after leaving the ministry—he bought three adjacent lots on Benvenue Avenue, in the recently subdivided Berry-Bangs Tract. 

His new home, designed by Albert Dodge Coplin (1869-1908), cost a substantial $11,000. Coplin, one of the more popular and prolific architects in the East Bay, was the son of Alanson Coplin (1835-1906) a clergyman who had withdrawn from the Methodist Church to form his own evangelical Church of Christ. The Coplins settled in Oakand in the late 1870s, and Coplin père put food on the table by acting as general agent for Dr. Warner’s Health Corsets and other “dress reform and hygienic garments.” Alanson’s Corset House was a longtime fixture at 1157 Broadway, where young Albert worked as a clerk before turning to contracting and building in the early 1890s. 

As in the alliance with Girvin, it may have been the Methodist connection that drew Westenberg and Coplin together. In designing the Westenberg house, Coplin pulled out all the stops. The house was the first on its block, surrounded by open land that had been wheat fields as late as 1902. Coplin heaped on steep gables that echoed the Berkeley hills looming to the east. 

Clad in clapboard on the ground floor and shingles above, the house is fronted by one of Coplin’s signature asymmetrical clinker-brick chimneys (a similar chimney may be seen at 2920 Hillegass Avenue). Situated on the northernmost parcel of a triple lot, the house presented its flank to the street, facing a vast garden to the south. The massive front door, almost as wide as it is tall, is set in the south façade between enormous twin gables. In the rear, the old converted barn and carriage house are still extant. 

The garden was Jessie Westenberg’s pride and joy. When Berkeley Gazette columnist Hall Johnson visited her in 1943, he wrote that “the gardens look as if they had been lifted from Golden Gate Park and brought across San Francisco Bay.” Those being war years, the Westenbergs cultivated a large Victory garden behind the ornamental shrubs and roses. 

After the house was completed in October 1903, Coplin was a favorite dinner visitor. He never forgot to bring chocolates for little Bethany, while his own two children—the products of a failed six-year marriage—were all but ignored. In 1908, when he was killed in a freak accident involving his own pistol while on a car outing with a young woman, the former Mrs. Coplin, a music teacher who divorced him on charges of cruelty, said only, “I am too busy teaching to talk about Mr. Coplin.” 

In the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Charles Westenberg moved his office from the Crocker Building in San Francisco to the First National Bank Building in downtown Berkeley. Here he engaged in a succession of business enterprises, some more profitable than others.  

For a while he was treasurer (Girvin was secretary) of the Copper Canyon Mining Co. of Mayer, Arizona, organized in 1905 and apparently moribund by 1909. In May 1907, Westenberg was one of a group of Berkeley capitalists who formed the San Francisco Motor Car Company. In their planned West Berkeley factory, they intended to build “high-grade delivery wagons and motor vehicles of all types used in freight transportation,” reported the Oakland Tribune. The factory was never built, but the company acted as agent and dealer of Dolson Automobile Co. of Charlotte, Michigan, selling the now forgotten Dolson car. 

The United States Gold Dredging Co. and the Consolidated Gold Dredging Co. also did not fare well. On Jan. 8, 1911, Ernest Girvin filed a lawsuit against his old friend, accusing him of having defrauded him and other inverstors of $150,000 by misrepresenting the value of the mining claims. “Westenberg is the only one who has made anything of this company,” complained Girvin in court. Later the same month, another disgruntled investor launched a separate suit. 

Only a year before being sued for fraud, Westenberg addressed the congregation of the College Avenue Methodist Church, denouncing the sins of card playing and dancing. The newspapers did not report the outcome of the lawsuits, but Westenberg was soon enough out of the gold dredging business and into the sheet metal business. The Mexican rubber plantations petered out during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, “when the laborers became more interested in fighting each other than working on the plantation,” as Jessie Westenberg told Hal Johnson. Now Charles turned his attention to real estate, and in the last decade of his life was listed as a building contractor. 

The Westenberg House, now in the hands of its third owner, will be open for viewing on BAHA’s Spring House Tour this coming Sunday, May 4, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. See berkeleyheritage.com for full details. 


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

Beautiful Benvenue, Elegant Hillegass 

Berkeley Architectural Heritage Spring House Tour 

Sunday, May 4, 2008 

1 p.m.-5 p.m. 

Tickets: $35; BAHA members $25 

(510) 841-2242 




The following sentence has been omitted from the original version of this article: 

Charles and Helen’s only child, Helen Lois, was born there in 1886. 


It has been replaced with: 

Charles and Louise’s only child, Helen Lois, was born there in 1886.