Home & Garden
When banker Volney Delos Moody (1829-1901) married the widowed schoolteacher Mary Robinson in the mid-1880s, he gave up the house of his first marriage and moved to 838 Alice Street in West Oakland. The neighborhood, now on the southern edge of Chinatown, was considerably tonier in those days. The Canoe Club had its boat house at the foot of Alice Street, and one of Moody’s neighbors was Solomon Lewis, owner of a famed Oakland jewelry store and reputedly San Francisco’s first hotelier, who resided at 854 Alice St.
With the Moodys lived Mary’s two grown daughters, May Virginia (b. 1869), a musician, and Margaret F. “Madge” Robinson (b. 1871). When May married Edmund S. Gray, a San Francisco hardware merchant, the latter moved in with the Moodys.
Edmund Gray’s spheres of interests were diverse. He was a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a councilmember of the Unitarian Club of California (Warren Gregory was vice-president at the same time) and, like Gregory, a connoisseur of architecture. This latter interest was shared by his wife and in-laws.
It may have been the founding of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley in 1891 that planted the idea of a move to this city in Gray’s mind, and he may have persuaded his father-in-law to make the move a reality. Moody himself was an agnostic and never belonged to any church (nor did he ever join a club or fraternity), yet the idea of building a home for his retirement years in the open hills north of the U.C. campus evidently appealed to him.
Moody’s vast acquaintance included Phoebe Apperson Hearst, whose son, William Randolph Hearst, began employing the architect A.C. Schweinfurth in 1894. Schweinfurth’s first completed project for Hearst was the Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, a country estate in Pleasanton that Mrs. Hearst appropriated while it was still under construction. It could have been Phoebe Hearst who recommended Schweinfurth to Moody.
In the 1890s, the Daley’s Scenic Park tract just north of the university campus was sparsely inhabited. Charles Keeler, whose house on Highland Place was built in 1895, considered himself a pioneer in a new district. Bernard Maybeck’s first commission, the Keeler house was one of the earliest brown-shingle, Arts & Crafts residences in Berkeley, and the new homeowner was concerned that “its effect will become completely ruined when others come and build stupid white-painted boxes all about us.”
In response, Maybeck charged him with the task of seeing to it that “all the houses about you are in keeping with your own.” Keeler began proselytizing, and within four years, a cluster of four steep-roofed Maybeck houses stood at the intersection of Ridge Road and Highland Place.
Years later, in his memoir about Maybeck, Keeler reminisced: “Mr. Moody, a retired banker of Oakland, came with his son-in-law to see our home, and we persuaded them to join our group. They had already picked another architect, Mr. Schweinfurth, to design a Dutch house for them. So they built a beautiful home in the canyon a block below us, and the two daughters of the house, with a few other ladies in the neighborhood, organized the Hillside Club to carry out through a formal club what we had been attempting to do informally in persuading a neighborhood to adopt the Maybeck principles in architecture.”
Moody purchased four contiguous lots on the southeast corner of Le Roy and Le Conte Avenues. The north fork of Strawberry Creek bisected the block, which stood entirely empty of houses in 1896. (In 1897, there would be two houses on the block, the second being the Loren E. Hunt house, a shingled Dutch Colonial still standing at 2625 Ridge Road.) The Moody property was sheltered by a dense grove of old oaks, and several oak trees stood in the middle of the yet-unpaved streets. A more scenic spot could hardly be asked for, and Schweinfurth designed a house to match.
On Nov. 6, 1896, the Berkeley Daily Advocate reported that “Mary Moody, the wife of an Oakland banker, has signed contracts for the erection of a dwelling on her extensive grounds adjoining the State University, which will differ both in outside appearance and inside arrangement from any other residence in that classic neighborhood. The house will be in Flemish style, of brick, and the entrance will be in the rear, as regards the road, over a bridge spanning a creek. The interior features of Mrs. Moody’s house will be its open and exposed construction. In the living room an application of Florence leaf will be made, producing an effect of iridescent gold between the beams, while in the dining-room turquoise blue will be set off by the dark colored beams.”
Further descriptions were provided in the article “The Later Work of A. C. Schweinfurth, Architect,” published in Architectural Review in March 1902: “The walls of the Berkeley house are built of dark red, or rich brownish ‘clinker bricks’—which before being used by Mr. Schweinfurth for this work were looked upon as inferior or refuse brick, but which have since gained much popularity. The varying degrees of vitrified color give the walls of the house a peculiarly rich and soft texture, quite free from the cast-steel appearance so much affected in brick-work until quite recently. The wooden beams are weathered gray, and on the lintel over the entrance to veranda is the name ‘Weltenreden’ [sic]. Although evidently inspired to some degree by Dutch work, and although its garden setting is almost Japanese, the whole is pervaded by the old Spanish feeling characteristic of the locality. The ‘fat’ columns of the veranda are built of ‘headers,’ with heavy flat tile abaci at the tops.”
The article went on to say: “The house reflects the architect’s personality. It was built for an intimate friend who was in sympathy with his views, and was erected not through mere slavish adherence to drawings made in the office, but by direct contact between the architect and the actual workers on the building. In other words, the architect selected the bricks for the brick-layer with his own hands, and indeed often laid them himself to prove that the work could be done as he intended.”
The result, according to Architectural Review, was that “It seems as if this house [...] must have stood here always; and rarely does Nature seem to welcome a work of architecture as she does this.”
Called Weltevreden (“well satisfied” in Dutch), the house was completed in 1897. It immediately attracted much attention, and its image appeared on numerous postcards and Berkeley promotional brochures. Herman Whitaker, writing about “Berkeley, the Beautiful” in the December 1906 issue of Sunset magazine, called Weltevreden “most beautiful of all” and the “premier residence of Berkeley.”
Once settled in the bucolic Northside, Madge Robinson and May Gray wasted no time in joining Keeler’s crusade to preserve the neighborhood’s beauty. For this purpose, they founded a women’s club in 1898 and named it the Hillside Club. The club’s mission was “to protect the hills of Berkeley from unsightly grading and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses; to do all in our power to beautify these hills and above all to create and encourage a decided public opinion on these subjects.”
In June 1899—five years before Charles Keeler published The Simple Home and seven years before Bernard Maybeck wrote Hillside Building—Madge Robinson’s article “The Hillside Problem” appeared in The House Beautiful, offering practical suggestions on the siting, positioning, and design of hillside homes. The examples illustrated in her article were based on northern California houses designed by First Bay Region architects such as Maybeck, A. Page Brown, Ernest Coxhead, and Willis Polk.
Thanks to his innovative work on Weltevreden, Schweinfurth secured, through Edmund Gray, a commission to design the First Unitarian Church’s building at Dana Street and Bancroft Way. Shortly after the completion of that edifice, both patron and architect departed this world. Gray died circa 1899, and Schweinfurth followed him a year later. As for Volney Moody, in 1898 he suffered a stroke that paralyzed him for the rest of his life. He died three years later, on March 27, 1901.
In its page one obituary, the Oakland Tribune reported: “Although physically powerless, Mr. Moody retained his mental vigor almost to the last. He thoroughly appreciated the fact that his end was rapidly approaching and with a prudence that had always distinguished him settled all his private affairs and calmly waited for the end.”
Settling his affairs included making ample provisions for his widow. Two years before his death, Moody transferred the title of Weltevreden and five choice Oakland properties to his wife.
In his will, she was given two-fifths of his estate, the remainder to be shared by Moody’s three grown children from his first marriage. Anticipating conflict among his heirs, Moody inserted a codicil into his will, mandating that any heir who attacked the terms of the will would forfeit his or her bequest, which would be given to the other side.
No sooner was the will unsealed than Moody’s children—William C. Moody, Nellie E. Blood, and Jessie L. Appleton—threatened to launch a nasty court battle, telling the Oakland Tribune that their father “gave the better part of the estate to his widow, allowing to his three heirs by his first wife only a part of what they thought they were entitled to.” The first Mrs. Moody, who had remarried in 1887 and was now living in Sonoma County, was said to be ready to enter the fray and reveal old family scandals, on the charge that she had been fraudulently shortchanged in her divorce settlement.
Other rumors leaked to the press by the first Moody clan painted Mary Moody as an unfeeling wife who, anticipating her husband’s demise, was studying French with her daughters “so as to enable them at the first possible moment to go to Paris and experience the pleasure of life in the gayest of all the capitals of the world.” It was also alleged that Moody’s cremation was not attended by the widow or any member of the family.
Moody’s codicil notwithstanding, nobody was disowned. The two feuding factions soon ceased their saber rattling, reached a compromise out of court, and re-divided the spoils. There was more than enough to go around.
This was the second part in a series of three articles on the Moody family.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).