On many an April 18, the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Berkeley Gazette columnist Hal Johnson used to trot out one of his favorite stories: “The Barker Block, on the northwest corner of Shattuck Ave. and Dwight Way, had just been built ... Brick cornices crashed. Damage was quickly repaired. Soon the building was housing book concerns that were burned out in San Francisco.”
Still standing at 2486 Shattuck Ave., the landmark building, designed by A.W. Smith in 1905, is the most visible monument left of James Loring Barker, a leading Berkeley citizen and booster for five decades.
Largely forgotten, Barker (1841–1919) was one of Berkeley’s earliest champions. His list of contributions to the town’s development is little short of astounding.
Although Francis K. Shattuck often gets all the credit, it was Barker who “was the prime mover in inducing the Central Pacific Railroad Company to Berkeley, and it was largely due to his persistent efforts that the right of way and the necessary subscriptions for that improvement were secured, investing three months’ time and a considerable amount of money in bringing the enterprise to a successful issue.” Such was the assessment published in The Bay of San Francisco: A History (Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1892) 16 years after the Central Pacific opened the Berkeley branch line and while both Shattuck and Barker were still alive.
William Warren Ferrier, a Congregational minister turned newspaper editor and distinguished Berkeley historian, knew Barker personally. In his 1933 book, Berkeley, California, the Story of the Evolution of a Hamlet into a City of Culture and Commerce, Ferrier enumerated some of Barker’s civic accomplishments. In addition to bringing the railroad to Berkeley in 1876, they included the establishment of Berkeley’s first newspaper, The Weekly Advocate, in 1877; leading the movement for Berkeley’s incorporation in 1878; advancing money to the newly formed Berkeley School Board for the purchase of land and for building East Berkeley’s first schoolhouse in 1879; organizing the Association for the Encouragement of Neighborhood Improvements in 1880; spearheading electric lighting for Berkeley’s streets by organizing the East Berkeley Electric Light Company in 1887; and leading the movement to establish Berkeley’s first public library in 1893.
James Loring Barker was born on June 12, 1841, to a Congregational family in Charlestown, Mass. His father, George Barker, was captain and part owner of the ship Sea King, which in 1860 carried missionaries from Boston to Ceylon. At the age of 18, James was apprenticed to a hardware business in Boston. In 1862, he sailed to San Francisco, but not on his father’s ship—the Sea King was lost on a voyage to Liverpool that fall.
During his first decade in San Francisco, Barker was a salesman for several well-established hardware firms. He is said to have launched his own hardware business in 1872, but the 1869 city directory already listed James L. Barker & Co., commission hardware, at 223 Sansome Street.
The previous year, James had married Mary C. Rasché (1843–1910), daughter of German immigrants. The young couple resided at 911 Pine St., but by 1872 they had moved to Oakland. Barker had his eye on the East Bay all along; according to Ferrier, he bought his first 40 acres in Berkeley from Francis K. Shattuck in 1867. The Barker Tract comprises eight city blocks bounded by Bancroft Way, Shattuck Avenue, Dwight Way, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Way.
Barker continued in business in San Francisco, setting up on Market Street as a manufacturer’s agent and importer of iron pipe and plumbers’ supplies. In 1877, he built a fine Italianate house at 2031 Dwight Way (the site is now Herrick Hospital’s parking lot). In this house, he and Mary brought up two daughters and two sons.
Having sold his San Francisco business in 1878, Barker was ready to develop his Berkeley investments. In the early 1880s he set up adjacent twin offices next to his home at Dwight Way Station. One storefront offered real-estate and insurance services under the Berkeley Village Improvement Association banner, while the other sold hardware, lumber, and building materials.
An 1887 business foray to Chicago turned into a stay of almost a year, but Barker returned and began building speculative houses on recently subdivided farmland, most notably in the College and Golden Gate Homestead tracts in north-central Berkeley. Paying heed to other expanding markets, he opened a plumbers’ supply business in downtown Oakland.
In 1891, Barker deeded some of his land to the city, so Haste Street could be opened through his tract. In 1894, his name topped a petition calling for a new city charter.
Prominent in Congregational church organizations, Barker was involved in many major undertakings. In 1897, he chaired a committee for famine relief in India, sending off a ship full of grain and beans. His knowledge of conditions in India was no accident—his eldest daughter, Lydia Gertrude (1969-1952), had gone to Madurai as a missionary in 1893. Barker continued to support her, and in 1903 erected the India Block on the southwest corner of Adeline and Harmon Streets so that proceeds from its rentals could be turned over to the mission.
Barker was a director of the Congregational Church Extension Society of San Francisco, initiating a fund to provide sites for new churches. As a trustee of the Pacific Theological Seminary, his was one of the key 1899 votes that determined the school’s move from Oakland to Berkeley.
It’s not surprising that Barker was also a leader of the local temperance movement. In 1897, after voters decided to make Berkeley a dry city, the Town Board of Trustees balked at the prospect of losing its annual $1,800 revenue from liquor licenses. Barker and banker A.W. Naylor stepped into the breach, guaranteeing the city a payment of $450 each quarter on condition that prohibition be enacted immediately.
The arrangement worked for year, until the Town Trustees voted to repeal prohibition amid much recriminations and charges of hypocrisy. Not until the end of 1906 did the trustees adopt a resolution to revoke all liquor licenses.
In October 1900, Barker was elected president of the Berkeley Board of Trade. The same month, he led a petition asking the Town Trustees to refuse a permit for a hospital on Channing Way between Shattuck and Milvia. The reasons given were that those blocks were thickly built up with houses; that a hospital would be a nuisance and a menace to the health of the locality, and that it would depreciate property values.
It must have come as a cruel shock to the Barkers when, in 1904, Dr. Francis Leroy Herrick opened the 25-bed Roosevelt Hospital in the former Joseph B. Hume house next door to their own residence.
In 1905, the famous orator William Jennings Bryan delivered a lecture to a rapt audience of a thousand at the Berkeley Theater. Bryan was thrice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States, while James Barker was a lifelong Republican but that didn’t stop Barker from showing Bryan around town in his automobile.
Berkeley was growing, and in 1905 Barker judged the time ripe for building a large mixed-use block on his Dwight Station corner. The architect was the prolific and versatile A.W. Smith (1864-1933), who had designed Barker’s India Block. Even before the building was complete, Barker offered space in it to the Berkeley Post Office, which had outgrown its premises at Center and Oxford Streets.
On April 18, 1906, the Barkers were awakened at 5:12 a.m. by a “giant power and shaken as a terrier dog would shake a rat,” he later recalled. “Looking from my bedroom window, I saw the brick walls of my new building, 100 feet away on the corner, crumbling and falling down, and it seemed to me that the end of the world had come. […] In 10 minutes everybody was out of doors, and surveying the damage done. My own building presented as deplorable condition as any. When finished it will have 80 rooms for apartments and stores. Fortunately the apartments not being ready were not occupied. Briefly, my damages are about $10,000 in Berkeley and exceed perhaps the damages of any other single individual.”
As Hal Johnson pointed out, Barker profited by the disaster, since refugees from San Francisco soon flooded Berkeley in search of accommodations. Among his new tenants was the Royal Academy of Science.
Even after retiring in 1906, Barker’s civic benevolence continued unabated. When Clarence S. Merrill was appointed Postmaster and required to post a $45,000 bond to Washington, Barker served as one of his bondsmen. When the City Council appointed a civic committee on public charities, Barker’s name was at the head of the list.
James Loring Barker died on Christmas Eve, 1919, following an illness of three years. Aside from an obituary in the Berkeley Gazette, his death was almost unremarked. His house was demolished in 1976 following an unsuccessful campaign to preserve it.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).