Home & Garden
On May 8, 1927, the Development page of the Oakland Tribune devoted its leading column and central photograph to what it called “a unique apartment structure.”
“Thornburg Village, a conception of the art of humble European builders with names long forgotten, is now far enough advanced for public appreciation,” announced the article. “Located in a grove of trees almost at the edge of the university campus, on Spruce Street just above Hearst, this unique project is daily attracting interested spectators. Combining in its style the influences of villages from the Scandinavian peninsula to the Mediterranean, methods of construction are exhibited evoking the past […].”
A detailed description of the exterior followed: “The first unit of Thornburg Village centers in a circular court, reached through an arched entrance. Brick paving is irregularly laid, pitching to the center. The walls, not only of the court but the exterior as well, are a combination of brick and stone with contrasting colors and textures as if traced and warped by time. Outside stairs lead to each of the eight apartments, straight and rigid lines in the exterior openings being avoided by fitting each unit at different floor levels. Large windows are the rule, and the charm of the strange building is enhanced by carved heads, or grotesque gargoyles hanging above the first story. The roof lines are broken, appearing as irregularly laid stone, soft and weathered, with tile along the ridges.”
The article went on to describe the interiors, whose walls resembled hand-hewn stone and timber, with earthen fireplaces breaking through. Dowelled oak floors carried a hand-crafted appearance. In the kitchens and baths, stone and colored treatments were preferred over glazed tile. The mark of milling machinery was nowhere to be found.
The developer and builder of this bohemian complex was a 25-year-old Californian by the name of Jack Wood Thornburg, who planned to build several groups of buildings on the site, each one unique and individually owned. Thornburg advertised for investors in the same issue in which the Tribune carried the article.
The architect of Thornburg Village was William Raymond Yelland (1890-1966) of Oakland, who specialized in storybook-style design. A native of Saratoga, CA, Yelland graduated from UC Berkeley in 1913 with a B.S. in Architecture before spending a year at the University of Pennsylvania.
During World War I, the architect was stationed in France, absorbing there the esthetic influences that would shape his career. In 1920 he joined the Oakland architectural office of Miller and Warnecke, and by 1924 he had opened his own practice at 1404 Franklin Street.
In 1925, Yelland built a Medieval-style building on Shattuck Avenue for the Tupper & Reed music store. Clad in brick and crowned with an steeply pitched roof surmounted by the effigy of a piper, the building attracted much attention, which young Thornburg couldn’t have failed to notice.
Why Thornburg desired to model his development after old European styles is not clear. He was born in Long Beach in 1901. His father was a rancher. By the time Jack was 9, the family had moved to Pasadena, where Thornburg père was managing a water company. Jack was the youngest of five brothers. In 1920, at the age of 18, he was working as a machinist on a stock ranch managed by his brother Wayne in Prescott, Arizona. Another brother, Max Weston Thornburg, married Leila Baldwin Berry of Berkeley and was living in her parents’ house at 2700 Benvenue Ave.
It may have been Max’s presence in Berkeley that attracted Jack to the area. A mechanical engineer, Max would follow his father-in-law to a career at Standard Oil of California. In 1941, he was appointed Petroleum Advisor to the U.S. State Department. After World War II, he became chairman of the Board of Engineers of Standard Oil of California and was instrumental in the oil development of Bahrain, living in the Middle East for several decades.
Jack is said to have studied at the University of California; engineering appears to have been was his chosen field. In 1923 or 1924 (accounts vary) he married the first of his four wives, Frances Ferris Geidner (1906-1947) of Los Angeles. The ceremony was performed by the captain of a tugboat on board his vessel, three miles off the San Diego coast. The couple had two children, but in August 1927, shortly after Thornburg Village was completed, the impetuous Frances sued for annulment, claiming there was no record of the marriage and seeking custody and a division of $40,000 in community property. In court, Jack was charged by his father-in-law with having kidnapped Frances. Despite the brouhaha, the couple remained married.
A year after the first part of Thornburg Village opened, an addition called Norman Towers was ready for occupancy. It was touted in the newspapers as a “French-Norman type structure.” This time, Jack Thornburg was credited with the architectural design as well as with construction. Lillian Parker Allen was the owner.
The Tribune described the “high gabled and broken roof lines” finished in “a shingle thatch of striking hues and colors.” Inside, doors and half-beams were hand-carved. “The floors are of various woods, some in mahogany plank laid with wooden dowels, some of parqueted redwood block laid on end, and others of oak plank. Lighting fixtures also are individual and of hand-made wrought iron from the studio of the Berkeley Craftsman. The fireplaces are in brick and plaster, odd-shaped and elevated.”
Norman Towers comprised 12 apartments of two and four rooms “in studio types.” They came with stream heat, “genuine Frigidaire,” and Rip Van Winkle wall beds. It was thanks to this addition that the complex has acquired the moniker Normandy Village.
While living in Berkeley, Jack Thornburg learned to fly. In June 1928, he was listed as having received his pilot’s license. At the time, his address was 1843 Spruce Street (Thornburg Village), but by 1929, he and Frances had moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Here Jack went into the aviation business, establishing Arizona Air Service Inc., a flying school.
Thornburg’s most illustrious flying student was the 21-year-old future Senator Barry Goldwater, who used to sneak out of the house before dawn for his flying lessons. In his 1979 memoir With No Apologies, Goldwater reminisced: “In 1930 I decided to learn to fly. My instructor, Jack Thornburg, had a Great Lakes biplane with an inverted four-cylinder air-cooled engine. It was the only time I ever kept a secret from Mun [his mother].”
Arizona Air Service was forced out of business by the depression. Thornburg worked nine years as a pilot for TWA before enlisting in the Navy in 1940. His new assignment was as Naval Air Transport Service operations officer for the Caribbean and South America. According to his obituary, published in the Oakland Tribune on Feb. 26, 1972, Commander Thornburg won the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945, when he flew the first Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport plane into Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the evacuation of more than 9,000 wartime casualties, despite extremely unfavorable weather conditions.
His outfit, the Naval Air Transport Service evacuation squadron, (VRE-1), received the Navy Unit Commendation for outstanding heroism in support of the Okinawa campaign operations. At the time, Frances Thornburg and their four children lived in Orinda.
Out of the Navy in 1946, Thornburg joined Waterman Airlines as vice-president and general manager. The company’s six-plane fleet consisted of two DC-4s and four DC-3s, with which he operated a non-scheduled service to Puerto Rico, Central America, England, Germany, and South Africa, and an intrastate line between six Alabama cities.
In early 1947, at the age of 45, he was picked by Waterman to run TACA Airways, S.A., a struggling Central American airline acquired by his parent company, Waterman Steamship Corp. Waterman controlled TACA until 1961, but Jack Thornburg was gone by then, having formed Thornburg Engineering and bought ranchland in San Diego County. He died in Santa Ysabel, CA, in 1972.
Thornburg Village was acquired in 1936 by David and Rebecca Roth. Mrs. Roth was the daughter of pioneer downtown butcher Simon Fischel, who ran a meat market on the corner of Shattuck and University Avenues since the late 1870s. Rebecca continued to expand the complex between 1941 and the mid-1950s, engaging the San Francisco architect Charles E.J. Rogers to design the new buildings. In July 1950, after she had added four new units, Berkeley Gazette columnist Hal Johnson recalled the days when the same location had been the site of Professor Martin Kellogg’s home, and when Spruce Street had been called Bushnell Place.
Congregational clergyman, professor of Latin, and seventh president of the University of California, Prof. Kellogg was one of the first two faculty members hired in 1859 by the new College of California. As early as 1877, Kellogg was listed in the city directory as residing on the east side of Bushnell Place, which he named in honor of the 19th-century Congregational clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell. Hal Johnson recounts that Kellogg ran a farm on his homestead and kept a cow that he milked himself, delivering milk to his neighbors.
Kellogg planted many trees on his block, earning Bernard Maybeck’s indirect praise in his booklet Hillside Building: “With neighborhood cooperation the roadside banks, terraces, etc. can be planted systematically in blocks instead of lots […] long avenues of trees with houses back from roads, hidden behind foregrounds of shrubbery. Bushnell place is such a one.”
By the time that Johnson was rhapsodizing about Kellogg’s farm, Spruce Street had already become a street of apartment buildings. Alone among them, Thornburg Village fills the viewer with enchantment.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).