Home & Garden Columns

East Bay—Then and Now: Bohemian Jewish Butchers Dominated Downtown Meat Trade

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:14:00 AM
Isaac and Elsie Fischel’s house, built on Bonita Ave. in 1890 and moved to 1624 Delaware St. in 1925, is the recipient of a BAHA Preservation Award.
By Daniella Thompson
Isaac and Elsie Fischel’s house, built on Bonita Ave. in 1890 and moved to 1624 Delaware St. in 1925, is the recipient of a BAHA Preservation Award.
The Nash Hotel, above, stands on the former site of Simon Fischel’s house. It was built in 1924 by his daughter Rebecca. The University Hotel (right) replaced Isaac Fischel’s house in 1909. The Nash Hotel entrance, top, retains some elegance.
By Daniella Thompson
The Nash Hotel, above, stands on the former site of Simon Fischel’s house. It was built in 1924 by his daughter Rebecca. The University Hotel (right) replaced Isaac Fischel’s house in 1909. The Nash Hotel entrance, top, retains some elegance.
Shattuck Ave. in November 1892. The Fischel Block is on the right, the Antisell Block across the street, and the Acheson Hotel on the left.
courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society
Shattuck Ave. in November 1892. The Fischel Block is on the right, the Antisell Block across the street, and the Acheson Hotel on the left.

Among the fortune seekers lured to northern California by the Gold Rush, the Jewish contingent was small but significant. Jewish immigrants would go on to play an important role in the economic and cultural development of the Bay Area, and Berkeley was no exception. Although early accounts rarely discuss Berkeley’s Jewish community, some members figured among the young town’s prominent citizens. 

One pioneer Jewish family—the Fischels—established itself in downtown Berkeley in the late 1870s, gradually acquiring land around the Shattuck-University axis. A few of the buildings they erected are still with us today. 

The Fischels immigrated from Bohemia, then a Crown Land of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The paterfamilias, Simon Fischel, was born in 1846 or ‘47 (records vary in respect to the date) and arrived in New York as a teenager in 1865. For over a decade, he worked as a butcher, acquiring U.S. citizenship in 1872. 

In 1870, Simon married his compatriot Rosa Bauml (1844-1909), and while still in New York, they brought two sons and two daughters into the world (another daughter would be born in Berkeley). The Fischels probably arrived here in 1878; the 1879 directory listed them on the southeast corner of Shattuck and University Avenues. 

In the 1880 U.S. Census, the Fischel household included not only Simon, Rosa, and their four elder children, aged 2 to 8, but Rosa’s younger brother, Jacob Bauml, and E.C. Twicker, both butchers. Their neighbors at the time are familiar names in Berkeley history: John Acheson, who ran the Acheson Hotel on the northeast corner of University and Shattuck, and Jonathan G. Wright, founder of the Golden Sheaf Bakery at 2026 Shattuck. 

That year, the Fischels resided in the Antisell Block, an unprepossessing commercial building on the southwest corner of the same intersection. The 1881 U.C. Blue & Gold Yearbook carried a full-page ad announcing, “Liberty Market, cor. University & Shattuck Aves., Antisell Block - Berkeley. Simon Fischel, Dealer in Beef, Veal, Mutton, Lamb, Pork, Salt Meats, Sausages, etc. Families supplied with all kinds of meats of the best quality at the lowest market prices.” 

Home delivery was key to success at a time when few customers possessed their own means of transport, but it could backfire. On Nov. 6, 1890, the Berkeley Advocate regaled its readers with this anecdote: “A lady called on Fischel & Co. the other evening and made arrangements for that company to supply her family with meat. The team was daily sent to the house, when it was discovered that no such family resided there. It turned out that Mr. Fischel was deceived of a young man who donned the garment of a virgin to fool Fischel.” 

As the pig carcasses hanging in front of his store attested, Fischel was neither a kosher butcher nor an Orthodox Jew. Nonetheless, he involved himself in Jewish affairs and would be linked to the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, a Reform temple founded in 1875 by Gold Rush-era settlers. At a time when Jews were barred from most fraternal societies, Fischel was a member of the Odd Fellows and the Freemasons. 

The Fischels didn’t stay long in the Antisell Block. On Dec. 11, 1880, the Berkeley Advocate reported: “Mr. S. Fischel’s family has removed from the Antisell Block to their new house on University avenue, near Shattuck street.” 

The new house was located on the north side of University Avenue west of Shattuck. When houses numbers were introduced, it became 2033 University Ave. The market, too, moved to the north side of the street, although Fischel’s annual advertisements in the Blue & Gold continued to list the Antisell Block as the address through most of the 1880s. 

Simon Fischel’s initial real estate investment was his mid-block home site, comprising lots 11 and 12 in the College Tract, on which he built a sizable two-story house with three bays and a side porch. Within two years, he had added lots 49 and 51, directly behind his home and facing Berkeley Way.  

In 1884, he and his brother-in-law and partner Jacob Bauml purchased a Shattuck Ave. lot directly to the south of the Antisell Block, on which they erected a narrow two-story building. The following year, Simon added two lots on the south side of University Avenue near Milvia Street. This was only the beginning. 

In 1888, Fischel and Bauml made a notable contribution to the downtown cityscape when they built the Fischel Block on the northwest corner of Shattuck and University. It was by far the most elegant building on the intersection, adorned with bay windows along the second floor, showy corbels under the eaves, a decorative metal railing along the roofline, and an impressive corner turret crowned by a witch’s cap. The Liberty Market occupied a storefront on the University Ave. side, next door to the University Bazaar. The rest of the building was given over to a hotel, which contained a dining room, kitchen, and office on the ground floor and guest accommodations above. The improvements were assessed at $10,000 in 1889.  

Initially called the Fischel Hotel, the establishment would become known as the California Hotel by 1891, when its image was included in the “Bird’s Eye View of Berkeley, Cal.” map distributed by land owner Charles A. Bailey as propaganda for the town’s charms. The hotel’s operator changed almost yearly, indicating a less-than-rosy balance sheet. 

On the other hand, the Fischel meat market flourished. Over the years, an ever expanding list of Fischels worked there. One of these was Isaac (aka Ignatz) Fischel, who appears to have been Simon’s brother. Isaac and his wife Elsie (aka Toni) purchased a double site at 2039 University Ave, next to Simon and Rosa’s house. Here they built a plain one-story house and raised a son and a daughter. A few doors to the west, Jacob and Lilly Bauml raised two girls at 2011 University. 

Isaac—not to be confused with another downtown butcher named Ignatz Fischel (1853-1912), a relative who ran a meat market at 2008 Shattuck and lived at 1924 University Ave.—bought a double lot on the northeast corner of Bonita (then called Louisa) and Berkeley Way, where in 1890 he built a one-story rental house. Isaac never got a chance to expand his holdings; death overtook him around 1893. 

Such was not the case with Simon and Rosa, who added two more lots to the pair on Berkeley Way and erected four identical rental houses, one of which was occupied by their son Charles, also a butcher. These houses survived until 1955, when the City of Berkeley purchased and demolished a row of seven houses to create the Berkeley Way parking lot. 

Simon Fischel died on April 4, 1907, two months before his younger daughters Sally and Rebecca were married. Rosa followed him on Feb. 6, 1909. She received brief obituaries in the San Francisco Call, which called her a “pioneer relict,” and in the Oakland Tribune, which described Simon as “the pioneer meat butcher of Berkeley.” Their various properties were divided among the surviving son, Charles, and his three sisters. 

Meanwhile, Elsie Fischel’s house at 2039 University burned down on July 4, 1908 after catching fire from a festive skyrocket. Elsie and her offspring, Charles and Clara, moved to their second house at 1923 Bonita Ave., which they had previously let to grocer George Hunrick of Rose Grocery fame.  

The following year, their old homestead on University sprouted the three-story University Apartments, with two storefronts—one of them a movie theater—on the ground floor. The building is now called the University Hotel. A launderette operates in the old cinema space. 

On her Bonita Ave. property, Elsie built two additional houses for rental. No sooner were they built than her tenants at 1933 Bonita, a plasterer and a sheet metal worker, ganged up on Charles Fischel and beat him with a broomstick during an argument over $1.25. Knocked off the porch and falling 15 feet to the ground, Charles cracked his skull and injured his vocal chords. The metal worker was sentenced to three months in jail.  

Charles eventually recovered his speech sufficiently to be arrested for using foul language in 1919, when a neighbor complained to the police that his Sunday rest was being disturbed. Fischel had been swearing at his smoking kitchen stove. 

A different mishap overtook Elsie’s daughter, Clara. Her 1907 engagement to an Alameda dentist came to nothing, and in 1912 she met one Joseph Guttman, a Hungarian who undertook to paint the Fischel home and was given room and board there. Within three weeks, Clara and Joseph became engaged, and she advanced him $70 to buy a ring. After borrowing an additional $135 from Elsie, Guttman vanished. Clara eventually found a husband but died in 1920, aged 36. 

Simon and Rosa’s youngest daughter, Rebecca, married David Roth, a San Francisco jeweler. In 1923, she decided to replace her parents’ home with a commercial building and obtained a permit for a one-story concrete building containing five stores.  

Early in 1924, she changed their mind and built three stories, including two hotel floors. Designed by San Francisco architect August G. Headman, the hotel was leased to James and Mary Reilley, who christened it after Mary’s maiden name, Nash. Rebecca owned the Nash Hotel until 1955. 

By the 1940s, the Fischel Block on the corner of University and Shattuck was gone, and in its place stood Berkeley’s first drive-in barbecue, the Cameo, housed in a concrete-and steel building with a glass and glass-brick façade. In 1950, the Cameo moved to the northeast corner of Shattuck and Channing.  

It was replaced by a modernist, two-story glass-and-aluminum building designed by Wally Reemelin, a Berkeley industrial engineer who was one of the first to build A-frame houses.  

The McDonald’s Department Store operated here until 1958, when it gave way to the House of Harris men’s clothing store, which had outgrown its Shattuck Square building. This legendary haberdashery remained until 1976. Since the late ‘70s, the site has been occupied by another McDonald’s—the hamburger chain. 

Elsie Fischel moved her Bonita house to 1624 Delaware Street in 1925. Having survived both her children, she died alone in 1934. During her last several years, she was dependent on the county for her welfare. Her 1890 house, which had fallen into disrepair, was purchased several years ago and restored. It is the recipient of one of BAHA’s 2008 Preservation Awards. 


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