TBT: The scene of last weekend’s downtown Berkeley fire as it looked in the 1940s

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A downtown fire in Berkeley last weekend damaged a city-designated “structure of merit” at 2111-13 University Ave.

As the photos above, from 1948, and below, from 1946, show, the building (built in in 1911) was once the Varsity Market.

“I’m very glad there are no reported injuries and the fire appeared to be controlled before it spread too extensively on this extremely important historic block,” said Berkeley Voice columnist Steven Finacom of the Berkeley Historical Society and the Berkeley Architectural Association. “As a historic preservationist, I’m concerned that the damaged building not be demolished as a result of this fire. The City of Berkeley has approved a plan to renovate this building and other structures on the block, with restored historic commercial facades, and new apartments built behind. It’s extremely important that this facade be retained and incorporated into that project.”

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Finacom provided the photos of the weekend fire below, as well as the information on the building from the historical designation of the Acheson block.

(Courtesy Steven Finacom)
(Courtesy Steven Finacom)
building history. 2111-13 University Avenue
(Courtesy Steven Finacom)


UPDATE: From Daniella Thompson of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association:

2111-2113 University Avenue is not a designated Structure of Merit. This erroneous information, cited by consultant Frederic Knapp in his Historic Outline for the Acheson Block (June 1910), was gleaned from a City of Berkeley document, the Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines, Appendix, List of Landmark and Significant Buildings, 1994.

Here is the complete list of designated Structures of Merit:http://berkeleyheritage.com/berkeley_landmarks/structures-of-merit.html


Similar scenario to 1991 Oakland firestorm played out in 1913

claremont hotel 1920s

An October fire fanned by high winds and fueled by abundant eucalyptus trees and tall grass sweeps through the Oakland-Berkeley hills and threatens the landmark Claremont Hotel. That describes the events of the disaster known as the Oakland Firestorm of Oct. 19, 1991 that is coming up on its 25th anniversary.

It also sums up a fire that broke out on Oct. 6, 1913 in the Berkeley hills that overwhelmed the young city’s firefighting capability. The Claremont residential district in Berkeley had been established for less than a decade and was still developing. The hotel itself had been under construction for a number of years, stalled at points by financial issues.

“Following an architectural competition, ground was broken in 1906 for the Claremont
Hotel, designed by Charles W. Dickey,” the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association writes on its website. “It was not only to be a glorious destination site, seen from all vistas around the Bay, but it was also to be a large garden park enhancing the environment for the building of beautiful homes.”

According to Historic Hotels of America, “construction was held up — first by the earthquake of 1906 and then subsequently, the Panic of 1907.”

The fire was reported by a resident around noon, the San Francisco Call reported, and Berkeley soon had to seek assistance from Oakland in battling the blaze. (Berkeley’s department had been a full-tme professional company for less than a decade, formed in 1904 after City Hall burned down.) Also assisting were “hundreds of residents.”
claremont hotel fire 10 6 1913
Coverage from the San Francisco Call
of the Oct. 6, 1913 fire that swept
through the hills, a scenario similar
to what happened on Oct. 19, 1991.

The blaze threatened not only the hotel, described by the Call as “one of the largest framed hostelries of the west,” but homes in the fashionable Claremont neighborhood. The fire did not claim the hotel, but did spread unchecked along Tunnel Road through the largely unpopulated hills, “fanned by a high wind” and burning down “trees set out by the People’s Water Company (a forerunner of EBMUD) five years ago.”

The fire burned several hundred acres in the hills, according to the Call account, but no property damage or injuries were reported other than the loss of the trees.

The hills would be much more developed by the time of the 1991 firestorm that claimed 25 lives and destroyed 3,642 homes, with damages estimated at $1.68 billion. Some claimed at the time that resources were diverted to from fighting that fire to prevent its spreading to the Claremont Hotel. Others say that if the fire had reached the Claremont, it would have more easily spread into lower Berkeley and possibly reached the UC Berkeley campus.

The Claremont finally did open in May of 1915, in time to serve tourists to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

claremont opening 05 03 1915


Pacific Coast League baseball reunion event returns Aug. 20

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Opening day ceremony at Oakland Oaks Ball Park in Emeryville during World War II.

The late Dick Dobbins, a Berkeley native and later a high school principal in Contra Costa who died in 1999, was among the foremost collectors and compilers of artifacts from the golden age of baseball’s Pacific Coast League from 1903 until the arrival of Major League Baseball on the West Coast in 1958.
Dobbins, then attending Berkeley High School, rescued records, trophies and other items of the Oakland Oaks after the team departed and its Emeryville ballpark was being torn down in 1956. It became a lifelong passion for Dobbins, and that love is carried on at an annual event named in his honor.
The 22nd annual Northern California Dick Dobbins PCL Player and Family Reunion will be held 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at Ryan O’Connell Hall, 575 West Estudillo Ave. at San Leandro Boulevard in San Leandro.
The day always includes players and PCL enthusiasts and a program about the history of a league that was good enough that many considered it “the third major league” at its height.
Admission is $25 with lunch (RSVP by Aug. 15) or $8 without.
To reserve a seat send a check made out to PCLHS to PCLHS, 420 Robinson Circle, Placentia, CA 92870. Or call Mark Macrae at 510-538-6245 for more details.

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Pitcher Charlie Gassaway of the Oakland Oaks.

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El Cerrito High grad Ernie Broglio, who pitched for the Oakland Oaks before advancing to the major leagues, is one of the organizers of the annual PCL reunion.


Vintage images of Richmond’s past as city turns 111 today

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A 1907 aerial illustration of the young city.

Richmond became a city on Aug. 7 1905 and turns 111 today. Here are some images of the city’s early years and an Oakland Tribune account about the death of Richmond pioneer John Nicholl on July 29, 1914.
Here is a quick summation of Richmond’s early years from the city website:

Early Industry (1895-1901)
In 1895, Augustin S. Macdonald visited Point Richmond and conceived the idea of a transcontinental rail terminal and ferry service to provide a direct route from Richmond to San Francisco. Macdonald presented his idea to the Santa Fe Railroad and in 1899 the railroad established its western terminus in Point Richmond. The first overland passenger train arrived in Richmond from Chicago in 1900. In 1901, Santa Fe moved its shops to Richmond and the Standard Oil Company built its refinery.

Industrial Growth 1900-1940
When Richmond incorporated as a city in 1905 it had a population of 2,150 and was already an established industrial town. The city charter was adopted in 1909, and by 1910 the town numbered 7,500. Within a few years the following substantial industries locate to Richmond: Winehaven, Pullman Palace Car Shops, American Radiator, Standard Sanitary Company, Stauffer Chemical Company, and several others less well known. Town sites began to emerge around these industries, as Rancho San Pablo’s vast grain fields were subdivided into uniform city lots.

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Point Richmond 1907.

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Point Richmond 1907.

Warning after the 1906 earthquake.

Richmond RE Brochure-image
Promotional real estate map.

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bank of richmond 1912

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Standard Oil refinery in 1912.

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Early Richmond promotional brochures.

Read a first-hand account of the city’s early years by Henry Colman Cutting, who has a boulevard named in his honor, by clicking here.


Vintage views of El Cerrito Plaza, which opened this month in 1958

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The original El Cerrito Plaza shopping center was dedicated this month 58 years ago.

el cerrito plaza dedication 10 23 1958

The opening came two years after an arson fire destroyed the historic Castro adobe on the site that allowed construction of the shopping center to begin.

Here, through the courtesy of the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce, are views of the center’s dedication on July 9, 1958, along with photos and promotional material from the center’s early years. Our thanks to the chamber for sharing its archives.

el cerrito plaza dedication 07 09 1958

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ec plaza opening albert lovett

el cerrito chamber plaza courtyard 1971

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el cerrito plaza fiesta 1961

capwells ec plaza ca 1970

ec plaza sports car spectacle 1961a

kirbys el cerrito plaza

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ec plaza courtyard

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ec plaza aerial

ec plaza 1961b


Berkeley: Vintage views of Adeline Street as a major streetcar corridor

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A shop on Adeline in 1949.

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The 3200 block of Adeline Street in Berkeley looking toward Oakland in 1952.

The annual Juneteenth Festival in Berkeley returns from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 19 on a five-block stretch of the Alcatraz-Adeline corridor south of Ashby Avenue that will be closed to motor traffic.
Adeline has seen a lot of changes since Key System streetcar tracks ran down the middle of the street, the reason it remains so wide today.

More changes are in the works. Berkeley is holding workshops and discussions about its Adeline Corridor plan, so we thought it would be interesting to offer some views of Adeline as it looked in the years after World War II for comparison of what it was, what it is now and what the city and community envision for the thoroughfare.

Berkeley lists these as the goals for its Adeline Corridor Plan:

Objectives of the planning process include:

Identifying community goals, including but not limited to, affordable housing, local jobs, historic preservation, and an arts district
Identifying priorities for physical improvements, such as a cohesive streetscape design, public art, pedestrian safety, improved connectivity and increased accessibility, and “complete” streets
Identifying opportunity sites to help achieve these community goals
Better positioning the City to receive funding for physical improvements along the Corridor

Our friend and railroad expert John Stashik notes that in two of the photos, the portion of “double track with switch into single track were used by Key System trains of the F line from 1941 to 1958. The rail geographically west of Key’s tracks was used as a freight lead for Southern Pacific to access customers at Ward Street. Originally a double track line for the Red Trains until 1941.”

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Adeline Street at Woolsey in 1949.

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Adeline Street at Woolsey looking toward downtown Berkeley in 1949.

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Another view of Adeline Street at Woolsey in 1949.

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1946 views of Golden Gate district for Love Our Neighborhood Day in Oakland and Berkeley

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San Pablo Avenue looking toward downtown Oakland in 1946, with the Gateway Theatre on the left. The Oakland Tribune tower is visible in the distance

In honor of the second Love Our Neighborhood Day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 4 along a stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland and Berkeley, here are some vintage views of the Golden Gate neighborhood in Oakland.
One of the events during Love Our Neighborhood Day will be a walking tour of the Golden Gate and Paradise Park neighborhoods led by author and historian Gene Anderson.
The walk will set out at 11 a.m. from the southeast corner of 59th Street and San Pablo, and last about two hours.
San Pablo Avenue will be closed to motor traffic from Stanford Avenue in Oakland to Ashby Avenue in Berkeley for the street party.

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Detail showing the Gateway Theatre on San Pablo near Stanford. The building is now a church.

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San Pablo Avenue at 65th Street in 1946, showing Trader Vic’s in its original location, left, and Walt’s Trading Post on the right.