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East Bay Then and Now: The Circuitous Career of Berkeley’s Favorite Undertaker

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:43:00 AM
The Hull & Durgin mortuary building at 3051 Adeline St. was designed in 1923 by Hutchinson & Mills.
BAHA Archives
The Hull & Durgin mortuary building at 3051 Adeline St. was designed in 1923 by Hutchinson & Mills.

On the morning of Feb. 1, 1895, a Berkeley carpenter by the name of A.E. Spaulding entered Stricker’s cigar store at 2132 Shattuck Ave. Laying a bundle of medications on the counter, he announced that he wished to leave it there. Then he walked to the rear of Durgin & Bleakley, a furniture and undertaking establishment at 2129 Center St. Leaning against a barn, Spaulding shot himself through the heart with a 38-caliber revolver. 

While the county’s deputy coroner and the city’s health officer were wrangling about the disposition of the body, it came to light that Spaulding had been afflicted for some time with kidney and gastrointestinal ailments that compelled him to go without food for many days. Letters found in his pocket attested to his deranged state of mind. 

Not long before his suicide, Spaulding had made arrangements for a burial casket, but contrary to his own preference, Spaulding’s body was carried down to West Berkeley and back before being taken to an Oakland funeral parlor. 

In December 1895, Durgin & Bleakley had another disagreement with the coroner, this time over the body of Charles Starr, whose family wanted him embalmed by the Berkeley undertakers, while the coroner prevailed, sending the corpse to the Albert Brown funeral parlor in Oakland. 

Forty-seven years later, the 1943 telephone directory carried a full-page ad for Hull & Sons, Pioneer Funeral Directors and The Little Chapel of the Flowers, 3051 Adeline St. The headline promised “A Reference Built on 50 Years of Service, 1892-1942,” and the tagline signed off, “Serving You for Half a Century.” 

The Hull mortuary on Adeline Street had been in business only since 1923, but it was building on its circuitous connection to the original Pioneer Funeral Directors, a name Durgin & Bleakley adopted circa 1900. The exact date of the mortuary’s establishment has yet to be documented, as Durgin & Bleakley did not make an appearance in the city directory until 1895. 

Initially, both partners lived on the premises. Within a year, the enterprise had grown sufficiently to separate furniture store from mortuary and residence from business. Frank W. Durgin managed the undertaking half, while Robert Bleakley ran the furniture store. 

By 1901, the business had moved down the block to the very heart of downtown Berkeley. An ad in Sunset magazine placed them in the Library Building, 2158-2160 Shattuck Ave. 

Bleakley never made much of a mark on Berkeley’s public life. Durgin (1860-1933), on the other hand, plunged into civic affairs with gusto. He was a leader in the local State of Maine Association, a member of the executive committee of the Funeral Directors of Alameda County, Grand Pursuivant of the Berkeley Masonic Lodge, and active in the Board of Trade. 

Around 1906, Bleakley went his own way, opening a furniture store at 2484 Shattuck Ave. Durgin replaced him with Walter A. Gompertz (1873-1965), who until then had worked as a cashier in San Francisco. The younger man was even more socially active than Durgin, holding high offices in the Masonic order and the Knights Templar, besides being a Shriner and an Elk. Gompertz would serve on Berkeley’s board of town trustees in 1909, works as the city’s commissioner of finance in the mid-1910s, and join the school board in 1915. 

The Durgin-Gompertz Co. premises were located at 2178-2180 Shattuck Ave. An advertorial in the Jan. 25, 1911 issue of the Oakland Tribune called the business Berkeley’s largest furniture store. “The quarters occupied comprise over 11,000 feet of floor space and are stocked to their utmost capacity with furnishings for the parlor, library, hall, sleeping chamber, dining room, and the kitchen, whether it be a cosy cottage or a more pretentious structure,” rhapsodized the anonymous Tribune writer. 

Less than two years into the new partnership, Durgin founded a second mortuary under the name Berkeley Undertaking Co., Inc. This business was located at 2133 Allston Way, and its telephone number, Bkly 1111, differed from that of the Durgin-Gompertz Co. number (Bkly 1110) by a single digit. 

By 1911, the presidency of the Berkeley Undertaking Co. had been taken over by William B. Ward. Gompertz continued as officer of both companies until 1915 or so, when Durgin changed the name of the earlier business to F.W. Durgin Undertaking Company. 

For several years, the two mortuaries founded by Durgin continued their separate operations, Durgin conducting business and maintaining a residence at 2174 University Ave., Ward working out of premises at 2201 Bancroft Way. 

In 1922, a new player entered the scene. William Mark Hull (1887-1967), a Napa man who had come to Oakland a few years earlier, acquired the Berkeley Undertaking Co. from William Ward. Without wasting time, he purchased land on the corner of Adeline and Essex streets and engaged the Oakland architectural firm of Hutchinson & Mills to design a two-story building to house the undertaking parlor on the ground floor and the owner’s residence above. 

The Hull mortuary building, which cost $28,000 and opened in February 1924, is a strange amalgam of English country vernacular and Mediterranean-influenced architecture. The curved roof, once covered in wood shakes, is meant to resemble thatch. The second-floor walls incorporates pseudo half-timbering in the Tudor Revival style, while the ground floor boasts large arched windows with mock stained glass. The arched windows originally illuminated the Conservatory Chapel within. 

While Hull was building his new mortuary, Frank Durgin was running into a land-use obstacle on University Avenue, where property owners successfully petitioned City Hall to zone funeral parlors off the street. Durgin needed a new location for his mortuary. Coming full circle, he sealed a partnership with Hull and rejoined the business he had founded two decades earlier, now renamed Hull & Durgin. 

The partners ushered a new era for the firm and for Berkeley in 1928, when they hired the Oakland architects Slocombe & Tuttle to design a new chapel next to the mortuary. Legend has it that Hull’s mother showed Francis Harvey Slocombe (1893-1947) a picture of the chapel from her home village in England and asked him to copy it. Whether she influenced the design or not, Slocombe produced one of Berkeley’s most charming Storybook-style buildings: thick walled, curve-roofed, and thrusting aloft a quaint bell tower. 

Christened The Little Chapel of the Flowers, the building was flooded with natural light through large arched dormers on its long sides. Below the dormers, stained-glass windows were embedded in greenhouse-like niches. The vaulted ceiling was supported by massive struts rising between the dormers. The rough plaster walls were impregnated with terra-cotta pigmentation that cast a warm glow on the interior. An exquisite stained-glass window behind the altar completed the fairytale-like scene. 

So striking was the chapel that it immediately became the centerpiece of the mortuary’s marketing effort. The Great Depression struck shortly after its opening, and the public may have perceived it as an expensive frill. To counteract such an impression, Hull & Durgin launched an innovative newspaper advertising campaign, in which the point was hammered home that the best funeral service amid beautiful surroundings costs no more than lesser service “in some small, incomplete establishment.” 

The ads carried similar layouts and graphics, but the headline and copy changed regularly. One ad, published on Dec. 28, 1932, gave five reasons why “The Little Chapel of the Flowers can provide funeral services of finer character at lower cost.” The first claimed that “This beautiful establishment was made possible by fortunate real estate investments on the part of Mr. William M. Hull … not by taxing patrons.” The second cited lower overhead brought about by high patron volume. The third asserted that “the beautiful buildings, grounds, equipment and motor fleet are owned outright, not leased … another important economy which is passed along to patrons.” On-site maintenance and volume purchases were pointed out in the fourth. The final reason stated that “the owner of this mortuary participates actively in its management … thus no high salaries for managers, and no profits going to outside capitalists.” 

Non-sectarian, the chapel was made available for weddings as well as for funerals. At the height of its popularity in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the site of over 500 weddings. 

Frank Durgin died in 1933, but the mortuary’s name remained unaltered until 1941, when it was changed to Hull & Sons. Francis Harvey Slocombe went on to design William Hull’s Tudor Revival residence (1930) at 611 Arlington Ave. In 1954, when Hull & Sons expanded their operations to Walnut Creek, their new Ranch-style chapel was built to Slocombe’s design. 

In the 1960s, the Hulls’ Berkeley mortuary was sold to the undertakers McNary & Morgan, who continued at the same location under the same name until opening McNary & Morgan Chapel at 3030 Telegraph Ave. about 1970. The old mortuary was acquired by a real estate developer who remodeled it into offices and shops. 

Since 1976, the former Little Chapel of the Flower has been home to Marmot Mountain Works. Much of the original interior is still intact and visible amid the outdoor equipment and camping gear. 

 

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