All too often these days, regret is publicly expressed about historic buildings or urban blocks that used to lend charm and character to their cities but have been needlessly demolished, often replaced by impersonal structures that contribute little to local atmosphere and identity.
Berkeley’s Southside is such a place. This is where the college town began in 1866 with the College Homestead Association Tract subdivision. Little remains on the streets to link us with those earlier times. Since the 1950s, entire blocks of fine old Southside buildings have been demolished wholesale and replaced by institutional structures or by mediocre box constructions, trailing in their wake urban blight and degradation.
As a result of the gutting and blighting of the Southside, Berkeley's citizens organized in the 1970s to enact the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance and the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. During the same decade, the State Office of Historic Preservation gave a grant to the City of Berkeley to undertake a survey for the State Historic Resources Inventory.
One of the Berkeley buildings listed in the inventory is the Ellen Blood House, built in 1891, by the architect Robert Gray Frise, on the 2500 block of Durant Avenue. On the Inventory form, it is recognized as “...a particularly striking and sole holdover on that block from the 19th Century. Set in the middle of a spacious garden with California live oaks and loquats, [it] is a pleasant contrast to the surrounding buildings and gives a sense of history to the neighborhood.”
In 1999, a cluster of historic buildings on Durant Avenue and Channing Way were designated City of Berkeley Landmarks. Among them, the Blood House was designated as a Structure-of-Merit (unaminously upheld by the city council), cited as “a major contributing building to the early historic architectural and urban character of the Southside, particularly on a block that historically has been residential.”
Most passers-by probably do not notice the old Blood House because it is now surrounded by an asphalt parking lot (rose garden and live oak demolished circa 1988), and its exterior is dulled from neglect. In its day, however, it was a prominent Queen Anne that stood among other stately homes built on garden “villa” lots lining the streets of the Southside.
Ellen (Mrs. Stillman) Blood, who migrated West with her husband in the 1860s, ultimately to farm on land in Tulare County, raised six children and later came to Berkeley as a woman of means to reside on Durant Avenue while her children attended the university. In 1907, the Blood House changed hands when Perry Tompkins, the partner of Berkeley’s celebrated developer Duncan McDuffie, bought the property. He most likely stuccoed and altered the house in the 1920s to suggest the popular Period Revival style.
By 1930, Durant Avenue and the Southside had evolved from the little village of Victorians and country gardens to a busy urban townscape with electric street cars, new buildings of brick and stucco in the style of the City Beautiful Movement, and a cosmopolitan vitality. Handsome commercial buildings were built along Telegraph Avenue, and fine apartment houses were added to the surrounding streets. The Tompkins were not the only “Blue Book” residents to live on Durant Avenue in those days. Senator William Knowles resided across the street in a grand Colonial Revival house (demolished in 1970), Aurelia Reinhardt, president of Mills College, lived down the street, and John Galen Howard lived in an apartment up the street.
Durant Avenue also had clubs, churches, and even a hotel. Next to the Blood House, The Brasfield, now the Beau Sky Hotel (Shea and Lofquist, 1910, Berkeley City Landmark) was one of the first boarding houses for female students. Two doors down there was a traditional brick church (demolished in 1969), designed by James Plachek and built with funds from Lizzie Glide of Glide Memorial Church fame.
Beyond, there was the classically proportioned Campus Theater, which later became the first location of Tower Records. Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., the notable Berkeley architect who often partnered with Duncan McDuffie and Perry Tompkins, designed the Campus Theater in 1911. He also designed the two-story Italian villa-style apartment building called The Albra (1921, Berkeley Structure of Merit) on the other side of the Blood House. It is now hidden by shops that house Top Dog and La Burrita.
Well-preserved historic resources are essential to a proud and vital city. They are widely recognized as a way to stimulate economic activity. All agree that at the moment the Blood House is not a showcase but, a prominent residence in the 1890s, it retains an undiminished character that has the potential to contribute significantly to the memorable historical fabric still existing on Durant Avenue. Its villa lot invites an enhancing infill. Appropriately restored and adapted, the Blood House could be incorporated into a stunning new project. That’s why, in August 2003, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied demolition and requested that a viable alternative development be sought to creatively re-use this historic structure.
Too much traditional architecture seems expendable before the forces of “progress." Regret sets in only decades later, when it's too late to do anything about it.