Home & Garden
Few houses in Berkeley (or anywhere, for that matter) can boast the picturesque setting and colorful history of Kingman Hall, the student co-op at 1730 La Loma Avenue. Perched above the oak-wooded canyon of Strawberry Creek, the building overlooks a sunken garden with a creekside amphitheater. Built in 1914 for Nu Chapter of the Theta Xi fraternity, the house has mirrored the history of Berkeley over the past 95 years.
Theta Xi, an engineering fraternity, established its Berkeley chapter in March 1910. The first ten members took up residence in the old Kappa Sigma house at 1739 Euclid Avenue—an ornate High-Peaked Colonial Revival affair designed in 1900 by Thomas D. Newsom. The original owner was Demetrius Satoff, a Bulgarian-born shoemaker and realtor doing business at 2121 Center Street.
Four years after its founding, Nu Chapter arranged for more desirable lodging. On May 3, 1914, the Oakland Tribune announced: “Theta Xi will move on August 1 to occupy their new $27,000 structure at Le Conte and La Loma. This house is the gift of wealthy alumni and is complete in every detail. It contains accommodations for thirty besides the sleeping porches and two guest rooms. A billiard room in the basement is also being planned for. The first floor outside will be constructed of brick and the remaining two stories will have a rough plaster finish.”
The completed building, a 25-bedroom dormered country villa with a triple-arch entrance loggia, ended up entirely stucco-clad with the exception of its brick base. The architects listed in the building permit were Drysdale & Thomson, Sharon Building, San Francisco. The contractor was the Barry Building Co. of Oakland.
While nothing is currently known about Thomson, Charles W. Drysdale (1872-1918) was the right-hand man of eminent San Francisco architect George W. Kelham (1871-1936), who had his offices in the Sharon Building, which he had designed. Constructed in 1912, the building teemed with architectural offices, but it’s not likely that Drysdale & Thomson had an independent practice, since Drysdale worked for Kelham until the end of his short life. Thomson, possibly a structural engineer, may have been another Kelham employee.
Kelham received his architectural training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in 1898 joined Trowbridge & Livingston of New York as a designer. In 1906, he was dispatched by this firm to San Francisco as project supervisor for the rebuilding of the Palace Hotel, which had been devastated in the earthquake. Here Kelham opened his own office, and in October of the same year brought Drysdale out from Chicago to run his office.
Charles W. Drysdale was born in Illinois and worked for a while in Washington, D.C. For a dozen years before his premature death he oversaw all of Kelham’s major architectural projects, including the rebuilding of the Palace Hotel, supervising the building of the Panama Pacific Exposition (1915), and designing the Carnegie (Main) Library at the San Francisco Civic Center (1917).
Drysdale died suddenly of heart failure on Sept. 4, 1918. His obituary, published the same month in The Architect & Engineer, informed, “A short time before his death Mr. Drysdale was conversing with his chief and apparently was enjoying the best of health. He expired at his desk before medical assistance could be procured.” The same article reported that “Mr. Kelham was especially pleased with Mr. Drysdale’s work in connection with the building of the Carnegie Library in the San Francisco Civic Center. The minutest detail was not overlooked here. Mr. Drysdale personally designed and superintended the construction of the new Elks’ home in San Rafael, himself being an active member of that order. Mr. Kelham pays a high tribute to the worth and character of the deceased. ‘He was the fine type of man and in every way a credit to the profession,’ said Mr. Kelham.”
Kelham would go on to succeed John Galen Howard as the University of California’s supervising architect, a position he retained from 1927 until his death in 1936. His Berkeley designs include Bowles Hall (1928-29); the Life Sciences Building (1930); International House (1930); Moses Hall (1931); McLaughlin Hall (School of Engineering, 1931); and Harmon Gymnasium (1933, now altered beyond recognition).
Drysdale’s design for the Theta Xi chapter house was apparently a success, for in October 1914, a mere ten weeks after it had opened, the building was selected by the students’ executive committee to serve as housing for the varsity football squad during its last weeks of training.
Theta Xi’s Nu Chapter resided at 1730 La Loma Avenue until 1964, but trouble began several years earlier. On October 4, 1959, a physics student by the name of Donald S. Wood limped into Cowell Hospital. Two days earlier he had been initiated into Theta Xi, and now he was suffering from acute nephritis. While young Wood was reluctant to talk about what had taken place, his father, a Los Angeles aircraft company executive, charged that Donald had been beaten with a paddle and forced to eat a large chunk of raw liver.
The Wood incident took place shortly after a University of Southern California student had choked to death on a piece of raw liver during his fraternity initiation, and California Attorney General Stanley Mosk issued a stern warning against such practices. UC officials and the Berkeley police launched an investigation to determine whether hazing had taken place.
Such was the uproar that State Senator Fred S. Farr announced his plan to introduce a bill prohibiting freshmen from joining fraternities and sororities, saying that it would give students time to exercise mature judgment and help eliminate irresponsible hazing practices. The system, claimed Senator Farr, was particularly bad at Berkeley, where many students dropped out when they failed to be pledged. “This is a major loss, not only to the individuals but to our society, which can’t afford to let good brains be wasted,” said Farr.
Three weeks after his initiation, Donald Wood was still in the hospital. The investigation revealed that he was put through a series of exercises that contributed to his physical exhaustion, in violation of university policy. He had not been given raw liver but fed mush with a color additive, and he was accidentally struck in the stomach with a paddle. Dr. Glenn Seaborg, then the Berkeley campus chancellor, announced that the university was withdrawing recognition of Nu Chapter for one year. In addition, seven of the chapter’s officers were placed on probation for the duration of the academic year. The Woods elected not to press charges.
Youthful anti-establishment sentiment in the 1960s robbed fraternities of their cachet, shrinking their memberships. Simultaneously, the university exerted pressure on the Northside Greek-letter societies to move south of campus. Theta Xi’s Nu Chapter disbanded in 1964 and was not reestablished until 1977.
With the fraternity gone, 1730 La Loma Ave. became a rooming house for male students popularly known as Toad Hall. In 1969, the building was purchased by Harold Mefford, a Castro Valley and Hayward attorney who had just co-founded the East Bay’s largest builder of low-income housing, the Eden Housing Corporation.
Mefford’s professed intention was to provide affordable housing to students, but he rented to all comers. Craig Healy, a Toad Hall resident during the Mefford period, says that the house functioned more like a commune than a rooming house. One of the residents was Joy, Country Joe McDonald’s personal secretary, who lived in a basement room. Author/Merry Prankster Ken Kesey and rock star David Crosby used to buy their drugs from one of Toad Hall’s residents, and their cars were often seen parked in front of the house. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Toad Hall was an epicenter of the Berkeley counterculture-the coolest place to live.
The neighbors weren’t thrilled. A letter from the late Elena Herr to the Zoning Officer complained about the strange and transitory nature of the tenants, as well as the shoddy appearance: “Blankets and pieces of cloth hang from the windows in the way of curtains and the front lawn is being used as a parking lot. […] Cars and motorcycles are also being repaired there.”
The Mefford era was short-lived. In 1973, he sold the building for $127,000 to the Living Love Center, a non-profit organization led by Ken Keyes Jr., author of Living Love-a Way to Higher Consciousness. The center conducted Weekend Consciousness Growth Intensives and disseminated “The Living Love Way” via broadcasts on KQED-FM every Saturday evening from 7:30 to 8 p.m.
The neighbors found no reason to be satisfied with the new arrangement. A request for service in May 1973 noted “A very large bus, possibly a converted Greyhound, used as a permanent living quarters by its owner, is parked conspicuously in the front yard of 1730 La Loma.” The follow-up report revealed that Keyes himself was “temporarily living on the bus because he is a paraplegic.”
The battle to dislodge the Living Love Center continued for four years, with numerous complaints from neighbors, city inspections, and inter-departmental memos. But all attempts were to no avail. Then the center itself decided to pull up stakes. On Nov. 22, 1976, it approached the city of Berkeley with an offer to donate the property for park use if it could be determined that it was located on the Hayward fault line. The city declined the offer. Fearing a proposed apartment development, Elena Herr approached the University Students’ Cooperative Association, suggesting they buy it. The building was, in fact, sold to the co-op for $300,000 in 1977.
USCA dedicated 1730 La Loma Avenue in October 1977 as Harry Kingman Hall, in honor of the general secretary of Stiles Hall (University YMCA), who in February 1933 inspired 14 UC students to establish the first student housing cooperative in Berkeley.
The 50 residents of Kingman Hall carry on the traditions of their various predecessors in the annual Living Love party, an initiation rite that takes place each fall. Residents and initiates dress in toga-draped sheet; one by one, the newbies descend, book in hand, into the dimly lit entrance hall, where an electronic keyboard provides eerie background music. Whether this tradition incorporates occult artifacts from the Theta Xi fraternity is not publicly known.
Kingman Hall was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in January 1999. The Theta Xi chapter house is now located in the Cornelius Beach Bradley House (Edgar A. Mathews, 1897) at 2639 Durant Ave., designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in Nov. 1997.
Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).