THE HISTORIC McGEE-SPAULDING DISTRICT

McGee-Spaulding Historic Map

 The District and environs in 1892, looking north. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way was then named 'Sherman', and Jefferson Avenue was 'St. Joseph'. McKinley and Roosevelt Avenues were named 'Mary St.' and 'Catherine St.', after the daughters of James McGee. City Hall had not yet been moved from University and Sacramento, and the Southern Pacific's Dwight Way and Berkeley stations served commuters to Oakland and San Francisco. The above image is from a map issued by Chas A. Bailey, Berkeley Land Owner, 20 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. 

Are you unfamiliar with the historic McGee-Spaulding District? The McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Interest Group’s introduction to the district is excerpted below. Many thanks to Lynne Davis, Pat and Michael Edwards, and Anna Taylor for providing this information. For more information from the McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Group, visit their website at www.mshhig.com. Scroll past the introduction for a self-guided walking tour and a list of places of historical interest.

 

THE HISTORIC McGEE-SPAULDING DISTRICT: AN INTRODUCTION 

by the McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Interest Group 

Walk down University Avenue, turn left at Jefferson, and pause before the noble facade of St. Joseph the Worker. You are now entering one of Berkeley’s oldest and best preserved districts. It was created, in classic mid-19th century fashion, by the union of a land company’s ill-timed investment with an Irish immigrant’s strategically placed farm. The district has gained both unity and character from its boundaries: on the north, University Avenue; on the west, Sacramento Street; on the south, Dwight Way; and on the east, what is now Martin Luther King, Jr., Way but was originally Sherman Street. All quite early became major thoroughfares, handy for transporting produce, supplies, and people. But no such thoroughfare divided the area they enclosed. With its relatively flat terrain, rich alluvial soil, and reliable water supply (from Strawberry Creek), the district soon attracted the notice of James McGee, an Irish immigrant who had come to Alameda County in 1854. He bought enough land for a farm and by 1866 owned and worked the 115 acres south of Addison and east of California streets. Just who owned the 45 acres between McGee’s farm and Sacramento Street remains unclear. We do know that in 1876, two years before Berkeley was incorporated, this area was subdivided into quarter-acre lots by the Oakland Land Association and named the Spaulding Tract, possibly after N.W. Spaulding, a former mayor of Oakland who owned several of the lots.

The Association may have hoped to profit from the annexation of Berkeley to Oakland, a move strongly favored by some elements in the business community. In any case, Berkeley’s incorporation in 1878, which placed both the Spaulding Tract and McGee’s farm within the new town’s limits, did not hasten the development of either. The tract remained sparsely populated, attracting chiefly absentee speculators and businessmen in search of suburban estates. One of the latter was Joseph Hume, a successful investor who also ran a Victorian-style minifarm on eight acres between Dwight and Bancroft ways. William Clark, a manufacturer who commuted to work at the Pacific Spring and Mattress Company in San Francisco, and his wife Lillie bought four acres of Hume’s land and lived for many years in the large Stick Style Victorian (built by A.H. Broad in 1894) that still stands at 1545 Dwight Way. John Hunter, a West Berkeley businessman, built an impressive Queen Anne “cottage” on the one acre he bought from the Clarks in 1895. Now officially the Hunter House, it was declared a Structure of Merit in 2000 (Berkeley Landmark #231).

Meanwhile, James McGee had become well known for having donated the land for both St. Joseph’s Presentation Convent and Academy and the original St. Joseph’s Church, built in 1886. The new St. Joseph’s church, a gem of Classical Revival architecture (and, since 1991, a Berkeley Landmark), was built in 1907 on land adjacent to the original church site. McGee was elected to Berkeley’s first Board of Trustees (as the five city council members were then called), and offered to donate land for a permanent city hall -- in the hope, some say, that the area around St. Joseph’s would become the city center. The offer was quickly buried in controversy. As for the city center, its future location had already been determined by the Central Pacific Railway’s new line down Shattuck Avenue.

McGee died a rich man, but nobody (though his two daughters lived on in Berkeley) has found where his money went. By the late 1890’s the rest of his property had been subdivided and was up for sale as the McGee Tract. However, despite its nearness to downtown and the Berkeley Town Hall located at University Avenue and Sacramento Street, the entire district remained a kind of suburb. Unpaved streets, difficulty of access, and the Dwight Way sewer’s habit of overflowing every winter continued to deter most buyers. Above all, the lack of transportation connecting East and West Berkeley caused the district to retain its character as a rural enclave between the two. There was no street railway connection between the eastern and western parts of University Avenue until 1891; people had to walk the mile and a half between the two sections if they had no conveyance of their own. An 1891 view of Berkeley shows the McGee Tract as mainly open land and the Spaulding Tract covered with trees. As late as 1895, barley was being harvested and threshed between Addison and Bancroft, and cows were often tethered along California Street between Addison and University. According to a local newspaper, visiting the town hall, then at University and Sacramento, was like an expedition to “the rural districts of the frontier.” Finally, in 1899, in a move that forever altered Berkeley’s center of gravity, the Town Hall was moved to Grove and Center Streets. The job was accomplished by one horse at a cost of $999. The move took 30 days and the Town Trustees continued to use the building en route.

All this was to change as new health and zoning regulations discouraged backyard farming and placed limits on the number of cows that could be kept in a backyard. Milk testing was instituted in the 1920’s and the City Hall Annex (James W. Plachek architect, Landmark #122) was built to house the offices of the Department of Milk Inspection. Completion of a streetcar line down University also improved access to the district. But the greatest transformation came with the earthquake of 1906, when people fled across the bay in search of new homes and home sites. Vacant lots in the district, now more convenient for commuting to West Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco, were snapped up, and the former suburb underwent its first wave of development. It finally became part of the urban pattern in 1912, when the Southern Pacific ran a line of its electric street railway down California Street.

There was still plenty of room for growth. During the 1920’s and 1930’s many fine old houses, which can still be seen throughout the district’s neighborhoods, were moved here to make way for the new Berkeley High School and U.C. Berkeley’s Edwards Field. At that time, due to the expense of building materials, demolition was seen as a last resort. In the 1960’s, this also changed. Demand for housing was used as an excuse to demolish innumerable distinguished old buildings and replace them with large, cheaply built blocks of apartments that altered, and sometimes destroyed, the character of established residential neighborhoods. Finally, a grassroots effort to forestall further destruction led to the passage, in 1973, of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which placed strict restrictions on neighborhood demolitions. Also at this time, large portions of the flatlands were downzoned. The same movement impelled the City Council to pass the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which, through its “structure of merit” designation, was also designed to protect the unique character of central Berkeley districts such as ours.

 

 

WALKING TOUR AND POINTS OF HISTORICAL INTEREST: 

District 4 includes the following Berkeley landmarks and non-residential buildings. Scroll down to find a walking tour, presented by the McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Interest Group.

 

 

Landmarks

Institutions (in addition to those listed under Landmarks, above):

Neighborhood Storefronts:

Suggested Walking Tour:

Start at City Hall (Landmark #1), 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Turn right (west) at Allston Way, then left (south) onto McKinley Avenue.

At Bancroft Way turn right (west) and walk toward Roosevelt Avenue.

At Roosevelt Avenue turn left (south) and walk toward Dwight Way.

If you would like a break at this point, stop at the Becky Temko Tot Park at 2424 Roosevelt before continuing on to Dwight Way.

At Dwight Way turn right (west) and walk toward Jefferson Avenue.

At Jefferson Avenue turn right (north) and walk toward Channing Way.

At Channing Way turn left (west) and walk toward California Street.

At California Street turn left (south) and walk toward Dwight Way.

At Dwight Way turn right (west) and walk toward Spaulding Avenue.

Turn right (north) onto Spaulding Avenue and walk toward Bancroft Way.

At Bancroft Way turn right (east) and walk toward California Street.

At the corner of California Street and Channing Way look to your right (east).

Continue along California Street to Allston Way.

If you would like to take another break, stop at Presentation Park across Allston Way on California Street and/or at Allston Way turn left (west) and walk toward Spaulding Avenue; at Spaulding walk toward Addison Street.

Turn right (east) at Addison Street and walk toward McGee Street.

At McGee Street turn right (south) and walk toward Allston Way; at Allston turn left ((east) and walk toward Grant Street.

At Grant Street turn left (north) and walk toward Addison Street.

At Addison Street turn right (east) and walk toward MLK Way.

The tour ends here.