Home & Garden
Berkeley is full of storied buildings, but few can boast the sheer historic wealth concealed within the walls of the Neo-Georgian brick mansion overlooking Hamilton Creek at 2425 Hillside Avenue. Since 1971 the home of the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (Padma Ling), the building had altogether different beginnings, as well as a different appearance.
It began its life circa 1890, on a double lot in the Batchelder tract, built as the home of Charles Denslow Ford (b. 1858), a lumber man from Mendocino. Ford’s father, Jerome Bursley Ford (1821-1889), was a forty-niner from Vermont. In the spring of 1851, his San Francisco employer, the notorious entrepreneur Henry Meiggs, dispatched Jerome north to attempt a salvage from the clipper Frolic, which had foundered the previous year on the Mendocino coast.
The ship had been carrying a valuable cargo of Chinese imports from Hong Kong to San Francisco, but all Ford managed to espy of the fabled hoard were elegant silk shawls that adorned some of the local Pomo women. No matter. Jerome Ford found something far more valuable—an abundance of gigantic redwood trees—and walked back to San Francisco to report his discovery.
Meiggs ordered a sawmill from the east coast and purchased the ship Ontario to deliver the mill to Mendocino. Meanwhile, Ford drove a team of oxen overland, arriving in June 1852. He purchased land for the mill and became its first supervisor. Two years later, when Meiggs became overextended and fled to South America, Ford and Edwards C. Williams took over his California Lumber Manufacturing Company and restructured it as the Mendocino Mill Company.
Jerome B. Ford became one of Mendocino’s leading citizens. He was instrumental in establishing the Mendocino Presbyterian Church and was the major donor for its Gothic Revival sanctuary building, a California Landmark designed by S.C. Bugbee and Son of San Francisco. (This church served as the model for the Church of the Good Shepherd in West Berkeley, which was designed by Sumner Bugbee’s son, Charles L. Bugbee.) Ford’s house on Mendocino’s Main Street now serves as a museum and visitor center.
In 1873, Ford moved to Oakland for the benefit of his children’s education. His eldest son, Chester, succeeded him in the business, which was now called the Mendocino Lumber Company. The second son, Charles, would become the company’s treasurer and work in its San Francisco office.
About 1883, Charles married the statuesque Nellie Lincoln. Seven years later, they built an imposing Victorian house on Hillside Avenue in Berkeley. At the time, the area was open land consisting of grassy slopes and wooded canyons; little stood in the way of the uninterrupted vistas opening to the north, west, and south. Perhaps this home was too isolated. As the Fords’ daughter Aline reached “coming out” age, the family decamped for San Francisco. Aline, reportedly as handsome as her mother, entered society and soon found an eligible husband in Lewis Pierce, a wealthy Solano County stock rancher.
In 1899, the Fords’ Berkeley house was acquired by another Charles, this one the Maine-born master mariner Charles Edward Foye (1830-1913). Still active in his seventieth year, Captain Foye made the acquisition shortly after moving his office from San Francisco to Oakland. Foye and his wife Harriet were childless, but their household usually included some relatives. Apparently the Berkeley residence was less than ideal, for Foye returned to San Francisco the following year, although he continued to own the house until the summer of 1904.
On Aug. 2, 1904, the Oakland Tribune published a deed transfer of four lots in Block B of the Batchelder tract—including the Foye house—from Charles and Harriet Foye to Charles C. Hall. In December 1906, Foye sold Hall the rest of Block B for a reported $1,000.
Charles Crocker Hall (1836-1914) was a retired publisher from Syracuse, New York. Born in Ellington, Conn., he was the son of John Hall, a Yale graduate, county judge, and founder of the Ellington School, a highly regarded college preparatory. Judge Hall was the author of a popular series of reading books, designed for various levels of primary and secondary instruction, as well as of a book on resurrection, titled How Are the Dead Raised, and With What Body Do They Come?, published posthumously.
Judge Hall married twice and fathered 16 children. His first wife, Sophia, delivered the eldest 11 within a span of 20 years before departing this world, no doubt utterly exhausted. The second wife, Harriet, bore five children in eight years and was fortunate to have survived her husband.
The scholarly Judge Hall instilled in his children a love for books, and several of his sons went into the book trade. The first was Levi Wells Hall (b. 1818), who ran a bookstore in Springfield, Mass., where his younger brother, Francis Hall (1822-1902), clerked in the late 1830s. In 1841, Francis began to clerk at a bookstore in Syracuse, NY, and Wells subsequently bought it. A year later, with financial assistance from Wells, Francis opened his own store in Elmira, NY. By the 1850s, his store had become the gathering place for local intellectuals and abolitionists.
In 1858, Francis sold the store to his younger brothers, Frederick (b. 1827) and Charles Crocker, and the following year departed for Japan in the wake of Townsend Harris’s newly negotiated treaty of Amity and Commerce with that country. During his seven years in Japan, he wrote close to seventy articles for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. An abridged version of his 900-page journal is available in paperback as Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866.
Quick to seize a commercial opportunity, Francis co-founded the firm of Walsh, Hall & Company at the treaty port of Kanagawa. It became the leading American trading house in Japan. His fortune made, Francis returned to Elmira but continued traveling and, next to Bayard Taylor, was considered the greatest American traveler of his time.
Frederick and Charles renamed their Elmira business Hall Brothers, listed as booksellers, stationers and dealers in wallpaper. An ad they placed in the 1863 Elmira directory described the concern as “The Cheap Cash Bookstore” and promised “Where can always be found a well-selected stock of miscellaneous & standard books, including all the latest publications of the day. Any foreign or American book procured to order. School books of every variety used in this section.”
In 1872, Charles married Mary A. Corbett of San Francisco, and six years later, with wife and two children in tow, established himself in Syracuse and began publishing Graves’ Printed Index. The Library Journal, official organ of the Library Associations of America and the United Kingdom, reviewed the Index in 1881: “If you index borrowers, books, authors, subjects, periodicals, or anything, this will be found invaluable. Half the work is printed and so ingeniously arranged and notched that the exact word can be opened to at a single motion. After protracted use we give this Index the highest place as a library labor-saver and strongly recommend its trial.”
Graves’ Printed Index made Charles Crocker Hall a wealthy man. He retired from business in 1903 and came to Berkeley the following year. He appears to have remodeled his new home extensively, judging by photos of his palatial library and by the Palladian windows—a feature alien to Victorian architecture—on some of the gables.
Mrs. Hall soon threw herself into local affairs, joining women’s clubs and suffrage organizations. In December 1905, she hosted over a hundred ladies of the Berkeley Political Equality Club in an afternoon lecture by Louise Benson on the subject of “Divorce, Race Suicide and Marriage.” Amidst great hubbub, Mrs. Benson stated, “Divorce is not a menace to social morality. It is a remedy that is demanded by a social disease,” and argued for women’s participation in law-making powers, especially where laws that bear most directly upon women’s interests are concerned.
The Alameda County Equal Suffrage Society held its 1906 and 1907 conventions at the Hall residence. By 1908, Mary Hall was vice-president of the Political Equality Club (the president was Mary McHenry Keith, wife of the famous painter), and the next year saw her the president of the Town and Gown Club as well as of the Alameda County Political Equality Club, declaring to the Oakland Tribune that “Suffrage will come to pass sooner or later.”
After Charles Hall’s death in 1914, none of his adult children chose to live at 2425 Hillside Avenue. His second born, Frederick Francis Hall (1876-1955), lived for many years on the other side of Hamilton Creek, at 2411 Hillside Avenue. Another son, John Edward, lived at 2309 Eunice Street. The property was eventually sold to the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and the latter hired architect Warren C. Perry to design a new chapter house on the site.
Perry, a graduate of the University of California’s School of Architecture and one of its earliest and longest-serving faculty members, designed the Delta Tau Delta house in 1927, the same year in which he would replace John Galen Howard as director of the school. The building permit, issued on March 8, called for a three-story, 28-room building with brick veneer and a slate roof, to be constructed at a cost of $35,000. The architectural style is Neo-Georgian, stately and dignified.
By the 1960s, fraternity life had gone out of fashion. In 1971, Delta Tau Delta retrenched (their current house at 2710 Durant Ave. is much smaller), selling its grand house on Hillside Ave. to Lama Tarthang Tulku, founder of the Tibetan Aid Project, who would go on to establish the Nyingma Institute and Dharma Publishing, also in Berkeley (in 1973, the Nyingma Institute acquired the old Psi Upsilon chapter house at 1815 Highland Place).
Renamed Padma Ling, 2425 Hillside Ave. sports an assortment of Buddhist trappings that are somewhat startling to the novice viewer. Most if it, though, is well-hidden behind shrubbery, concealing, perhaps, stories for future generations.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).