Hidden Town and Gown History in North Central Berkeley

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:53:00 AM

Southwest of the intersection of Sacramento and Rose streets in north central Berkeley there’s a site with a century and a half of hidden history. The story involves what was Berkeley’s second oldest house, early local farm life, a nearly forgotten reverse in university expansion, and a final outcome that’s visible today, a small residential subdivision built on the eve of World War II. 

Today’s district of modest homes across the street from Jefferson School was once, like the rest of Berkeley, part of the Domingo Peralta rancho. The Peralta family lived nearby in an 1840s adobe along Codornices Creek. That original Peralta house was supplemented in 1851 by a two-story wooden dwelling built of fir timber purchased from a trading ship. 

After the Gold Rush, the vast Peralta holdings in the future Berkeley shrank to 300 acres, and then almost nothing.  

As the Peralta fortunes shifted so did the wooden house, Berkeley’s second-oldest known residence. It was purchased by American “pioneer” John Schmidt, moved a few blocks south in 1876, and enlarged. Schmidt and his wife, Katherine, had nine children and a large farm site he acquired through her brother, John Everding.  

A half-century later the principal remaining actual farm property occupied only about 20 acres at the southwest corner of Rose and Sacramento; the old wooden house still stood on the remnant farm. Around it, a patchwork of small residential subdivisions had grown up, served by a network of streetcars that, at one point, ran along several nearby routes including Sacramento and California streets.  

From 1921, there’s a curious newspaper reference to Schmidt daughter Sophie having offered the remaining land to the City of Berkeley for an “automobile park.” The city apparently didn’t buy. 

Instead, the property was purchased by the University of California in 1923 for research by the College of Agriculture, then headquartered on the Berkeley campus. And thereby hangs a partially un-researched tale. The outline is apparent, but much remains to be documented in the University Archives. 

Preparing the Schmidt property for use would involve “removal of 430 trees and stumps,” according to a 1924 UC report. “The 18 acres [sic] in the tract should be divided among the college of agriculture,” the report added, detailing uses from pomology to floriculture to forestry.  

Development would not proceed harmoniously, however. In March 1925, the Oakland Tribune reported neighbors claiming there were research pigs “inhabiting the 20-acre Schmidt tract, recently acquired by the University of California for an agricultural experimental farm.”  

University officials said no, they were goats, and they belonged not to the university but to the tenants leasing the property. However, the dean of agriculture added, “the university contemplates erecting a building on the tract for experimentation and making serum, but denies that any animals are or will be used.” 

In April 1925 papers reported “contracts have been let for…clearing, plowing and harrowing the 23-acre [sic] Schmidt tract at Rose and Sacramento Street.”  

That would seem to imply cultivation, but a year later a proposed fowl use had appeared and neighbors were again disputing the use of the site in what the Oakland Tribune termed “Chicken Ranch Row.”  

“Efforts of the University of California to provide college education for poultry within residential confines has resulted in a zoning controversy…” The university argued, “the chicken farm will be conducted scientifically and…the chicken houses will be made attractive. Agricultural experts at the university claim it would be a show place in Berkeley.” 

Neighbors were not mollified and the university ultimately moved the research project. In the late 1920s poultry research was established in a terraced ravine in lower Strawberry Canyon. Eventually it moved to UC Davis. 

Meanwhile, down on the farm—the Schmidt Tract, that is—it’s not completely clear what new research uses took place, but the university continued to own the property through the 1930s. An aerial photo published in 1934 shows the land as a patchwork of open fields, with one corner somewhat darker, perhaps tree-covered. 

And what of the old Peralta/Schmidt house? A map of the property from 1917 shows the site largely open, with one large house near the center and another cluster of dwellings and outbuildings—including a “wagon shed”—on Sacramento, north of Cedar.  

The 1924 university site report said the agricultural development “would leave three quarters of an acre for the house and yard,” and “the house was found to be in a good state of repair and should be left on the property.”  

This structure appears to have remained until sometime in the 1930s. In 1931 the Oakland Tribune, in an article on early Berkeley history, made reference to “the old Peralta house, a part of which is still contained in the former Schmidt home at Sacramento and Rose Streets.”  

Historian J.N. Bowman later researched the history of the several Peralta homesteads in the East Bay and, in a 1951 journal article, wrote that the building “served as a storeroom and tool shed until August 1933, when the whole building was torn down and sound lumber from all the parts was used to erect a garden house on the same site. This new house was razed about 1941…” 

So that was the apparent end of Berkeley’s second non-indigenous residence and first “American era” house. 

Agricultural research was not long-lived on the property. In 1928, the university bought the much larger Gill Farm on San Pablo Avenue at the edge of Albany and, in 1939, announced that 36 acres—half again as large as the Schmidt Tract—on the Gill site would be devoted to agricultural research. The focus of university agricultural growing grounds shifted to far northwest Berkeley and Albany. 

In March 1940, the university decided to sell the Schmidt Tract. This was possibly the largest retrenchment of university landownership in Berkeley during the 20th century. The property then quickly came into its next—and present day—use.  

The purchaser was Chris McKeon. He has been described as one of the “Big Five” San Francisco developers of this period, along with individuals like Henry Dolger. They specialized in infilling new residential subdivisions into undeveloped patches of San Francisco, the north Peninsula, and the inner East Bay.  

McKeon got formal city permission to subdivide the property for housing in 1941. Like developers everywhere, he chose a name that emphasized the past of the property as that past was obliterated. The Berkeley enclave of new houses sprouting on old farmland and growing grounds was christened “University Gardens.”  

Unlike pre-Depression subdivisions, which often emphasized opulence and exclusivity, these late-Depression developments seemed to focus on the economizing middle class, with homes aimed at “the average American family,” as one real estate ad for University Gardens put it. 

University Gardens houses were economical, but not stark. “Visitors to University Gardens are impressed with the extra value built into these attractive homes and this in spite of rising costs,” McKeon said in a December 1941 Oakland Tribune article.  

“Unusual features in these moderate-cost homes include parquet and plank floors, beautifully tiled baths, separate stall showers tiled clear to the ceiling, steel Venetian blinds, etc.,” publicity said. “In addition, all walls are canvassed over fireproof lath and plaster.” 

Homes were “five or six rooms with attached and detached garages. All are FHA financed and approved, the selling prices starting at $6,000. Many of the best features of home construction are to be found in these homes, such as tiled kitchens, baths with stall showers, blower-type furnaces…” 

McKeon laid out nine blocks and planned 150 homes in what he called “elevated bedroom and ranch house types with a variation of detail according to the desires of the purchaser…” Rolled curbs, quiet curving streets, and attached garages still give the interior of University Gardens a somewhat postwar suburban feel. There are few street trees, probably since a planting area between sidewalk and curb wasn’t provided on the interior streets. 

To attract buyers, a University Gardens model house referred to as a “garden villa,” was built at 1528 Sacramento St., and furnished by Breuner’s, the Oakland furniture company that also once had a downtown Berkeley store on Center Street. The model house still stands, although altered. 

“The model home has been furnished…to demonstrate the comfortable living that can be enjoyed by home owners in University Gardens…it also illustrates the attractive landscaping which is installed with every completed home,” publicity said.  

“Breuner’s Decorating Staff provides here how beautiful and easily separate pieces from our Wishmaker’s Federal American Ensemble blend with other 18th Century furniture,” Breuner’s publicity proclaimed. “See this home and you’ll see how the ‘seven magic Wishmaker colors’ complement other traditional 18th century shades. Freedom of expression is the keynote: freedom to mix and match…and be assured of harmony as never before!”  

“The furniture of the living room combines the best of Duncan Phyfe’s work with the English work of Chippendale and Sheraton. The living room walls are interestingly covered with canvas and blended in the warm glow of peach bloom.” 

The master bedroom emphasized “all-American modern, using streamlined furniture,” while the guest bedroom had more traditional mahogany furniture, and the “modern kitchen is planned to give the housewife every possible modern convenience.” 

Sixty-five of the homes, McKeon claimed, had been “purchased before the first residence was completed.” The Berkeley Gazette reported “throngs of visitors coming out to visit every day” during the sales period. 

Although its builders looked to the future, University Gardens came at the very end of an epoch. It was one of the last local residential developments before World War II. On Dec. 7, 1941—in the midst of the marketing period—Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States was plunged into World War II. 

While the publicity continued—there were additional puff pieces on the development in the Dec. 21, 1941, Oakland Tribune, and in January 1942—the market would change.  

Suddenly, instead of having to entice buyers with modest amenities and affordability, East Bay developers would find great demand for whatever functional housing they could throw up, as war industry workers flooded into the East Bay. 

If the university or McKeon had still held the undeveloped land when the war began, it’s quite possible University Gardens would have had a different future. Instead of detached homes, it might have been filled with war workers, then married student apartments, as was the University’s Gill Tract in Albany.  

Today, University Gardens still appears much as it probably did in the 1940s when it was completed. Small, trim, one- and two-story wooden houses, some since expanded, line streets including Keoncrest, Tomee, Juanita, Cedar, and Acton.  

Residents I talked to along some of those streets enjoy their quiet neighborhood. Some know it was built on the Schmidt Farm, although the “University Gardens” name doesn’t seem to be remembered. However it’s known, the district is now a long-established part of the developed fabric of northwest Berkeley.  

An earlier subdivision nearby was not nearly as lucky. The Realty Syndicate “Vista Del Mar” development just to the south, bordered by Virginia, Acton, Delaware, and Sacramento, was publicized in 1913 as “Berkeley’s Bungalow Park” and ideally located adjacent to transit, the Key Route interurban trains along Sacramento Street.  

By the 1960s the Key System trains had disappeared, but a new form of mass transit came to rest with crushing impact on that neighborhood. “Vista Del Mar” and its homes were excised from the map of Berkeley by the construction of the North Berkeley BART station and its immediately adjacent parking lots.  



Research for this article was greatly aided by Jerry Sulliger and Susan Cerny, two of the best-informed and truly collaborative people currently engaged in the study of our local history.