General History

The Historic McGee-Spaulding District:  A General History

The Historic McGee-Spaulding District was part of land granted by the king of Spain in 1820 to the Luis Peralta family.  The land was later purchased for speculation from Jose Domingo Peralta by four San Francisco businessmen.  In 1855, James McGee (1814-1899), an Irish immigrant newly arrived from the east coast, bought 115 acres east of California Street and began farming.  The terrain of this broad central area was relatively flat, with rich alluvial soil, and a reliable water supply from both Strawberry Creek and wells, due to a high water table.   

In 1876 the Central Pacific railroad came to the future downtown area, which then began to develop rapidly.  That same year, the Oakland Land Association bought up the western part of the District between California and Sacramento streets, and subdivided it into quarter-acre lots, calling it the Spaulding Tract.  The Tract may have been owned by N.W. Spaulding, who is listed in W.W. Ferrier’s history of Berkeley * 1  as an early rancher and also as a director of the Berkeley Ferry and Railroad Company, formed in 1874.  It has been claimed that he is the same N.W. Spaulding who was the mayor of Oakland from 1871-72, but so far we have been unable to find documentation that proves this fact.  According to the 1889 Tax Assessor’s book, an N.W. Spaulding owned four unimproved quarter-acre lots in Block 1.

Even though Berkeley’s incorporation in 1878 placed both the Spaulding Tract and McGee’s farm within the new town limits, the area remained sparsely populated, attracting chiefly absentee real estate speculators and businessmen in search of suburban estates.  One of the latter was Joseph Hume, who came to the west coast in 1868 and entered into the salmon canning business in Astoria, Oregon.  He was known for the quality of his salmon.  In 1881 he moved to Berkeley where ran a Victorian-style mini-farm *2  on eight acres between Dwight and Bancroft ways.  He continued to run salmon packing companies in Alaska, sometimes being away for six months at a time.  The tax assessor listed his personal property as horses, wagons, cows, piano, furniture. The City Directories from 1880 through 1888 show him living at the corner of Dwight Way and Spaulding. In 1894 he moved farther up Dwight to a palatial mansion he had built at the corner of Dwight and Milvia.  It was to become the first Herrick Hospital.  

William Clark, an investor, and his wife Lillie bought four of Hume’s acres in 1885 and planted an orchard.  They moved into the large Victorian at 1545 Dwight Way, built in 1884 by Berkeley designer/builder/artist Alphonso H. Broad (1851-1930). *3    The Clarks sold the top one acre of their land to John Hunter, a West Berkeley businessman, who was vice president of the Parker Match Company.  In 1895, he built an impressive Queen Anne cottage (now officially the Hunter House, at 2418 California Street, Landmark #231); he, too, treated his lot like a farm.  Although the Spaulding Tract had been subdivided for almost twenty years when Hunter moved there, only four other homes had been built in the two sections bounded by Bancroft Way, California Street, Dwight Way and Spaulding Avenue.  The remaining lots had been sold in large parcels and were being held for future development or farmed by absentee owners.

First A.H. Broad house in 

Berkeley, 1545 Dwight Way

Photo Courtesy Berkeley

Architectural Heritage


Meanwhile, James McGee, who had become well-known both as a member of the first Board of Trustees (as the five city council members were then called) and for donating the land for St. Joseph’s Presentation Convent and Academy and the original St. Joseph’s church, decided to subdivide his land.  The McGee Tract was surveyed and divided into blocks and roads in 1885.  The map was filed with the County of Alameda in May of 1886.  McGee did not, however, begin selling lots immediately--by 1892, only a few had been sold.  (As late as 1904 a large part of the Tract was still undeveloped.  An item in the February 26, 1904 San Francisco Call announced the sale by Mary Ann McGee of 21 blocks to George Sterling of the Realty Syndicate.)  

Despite its nearness to downtown, the unpaved streets, difficulty of access, and the Dwight Way sewer’s habit of overflowing every winter, continued to deter most buyers.   Until the horsecar line began operating along Addison in 1891, the lack of public transportation connecting the one-and-one-half miles between east and west Berkeley helped the area retain its character as a rural enclave between the two.  As the local newspaper put it, visiting the town hall, then at University and Sacramento, was like an expedition to “the rural districts of the frontier.”  Earlier McGee had offered to donate land for a town hall “situated about three hundred feet from the actual center of the town” at University and Hamilton (now McGee Avenue).  The Board of Trustees was in favor of the site, but a lack of money and the rivalry between east and west Berkeley operated to defeat his idea.  

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 Street and Bancroft Way, and cows were often tethered along California Street between Addison and University.  A May 1895 issue of the Berkeley Advocate complains about cows on the street:  “Because California street, between Addison and University avenue, is not built upon and is but little traveled, some one seems to have forgotten that it is a public street and stake [sic] cows along the sidewalk, regardless of the rights of passers by.  Or it may be that they think there is no pound keeper at the present time.  However, his office has not been declared vacant yet and will, no doubt, be filled next Monday evening.”    

In August 1900, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that Carl Bygum of Catherine Street (now Roosevelt Avenue) and Allston Way was arrested and charged with violating the ordinance that prohibited the keeping of more than two cows on an acre.  He was fined $3 and was instructed  “to arrange his dairy so that he will not be in conflict with the law.” 

All this began to change as new health and zoning regulations discouraged backyard farming.  And in 1903, completion of an electric streetcar line from Center and Shattuck to Delaware and Fourth Street gave easier access to the area.  A major transformation came after 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 commuters to west Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco, were snapped up.  Middle-class homeowners appear to have settled closer to downtown, in the McGee Tract, while the more affordable Spaulding Tract took on a blue-collar character.  The District finally became part of the urban pattern in 1911 and 1912 when electric trains -- the Key System along Sacramento Street and the Southern Pacific down California Street-- began operating.  

At this time Strawberry Creek had not yet been culverted.  A 1903 Sanborn insurance map shows the creek running freely through from McGee Avenue to California Street, with no development on either side for half a block.  There was a small cemetery at the southwest corner of the Presentation grounds, close to the creek.  In 1923, the remains of Mother Mary Teresa Comerford and other Presentation Sisters were removed to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Oakland.  Allston Way, which ended at California Street, finally became a through street in 1933 when the creek was culverted.

  Such was the gradual process of settlement that left the District a true suburb in a city, with wide streets, tall trees, and (despite later subdivisions) larger-than-usual lots.  All the major periods of domestic architecture to be found in Berkeley are abundantly represented.  As the downtown area was modernized and the University expanded, many of the displaced older houses were moved onto the larger lots still available here, so that the District became a sort of unofficial Preservation Park.  At that time, due to the expense of building materials, demolition was seen as a last resort.  

But all that changed in 1955 when the Berkeley Master Plan was revised.  Under the revised Plan, much of the District was rezoned to R-5, high-rise and high density, so that, beginning in the late1950s, and throughout the1960s, many of the fine older residences were demolished and replaced by modern apartment houses of poor quality, often referred to as “dingbats.”  Finally, neighborhood resistance to these demolitions led to the formation of a flatlands neighborhood group that successfully blocked the construction of a second large apartment building on Roosevelt near Dwight Way.   Moreover, the group not only created a small park in the vacant lot but prevailed upon the City to turn it into a City park (now the Becky Temko Tot Park).

In 1973, the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO), calling for an updating of the Master Plan, was passed by the voters and adopted by the City Council.  Then in true Berkeley fashion, the residents organized to initiate a petition to have their District downzoned to R-2 (duplex or less).  More than a thousand of them signed the petition.  Finally in 1975, after a two-year delay, the City staff recommended that the entire District be zoned R-2.  Thanks largely to the downzoning, but also to the NPO, the District has retained its character, and continues to offer suburban amenities in a central city location.  Because of this change, the individuals who had demolished a small house at 2223 Grant Street were no longer allowed to build a four-unit apartment building there, as planned.  In 1977, the lot was still vacant and thus available when Don Warren needed to move his newly purchased 1894 Victorian from 1770 University Avenue (see Buildings Moved).

An 1894 Victorian being moved in 1977 from 1770 University Ave. to a vacant lot at 2223 Grant St.  The lot became available after the District was downzoned in 1975 and the owners were no longer permitted to build a four-unit apartment building in place of the small residence they had torn down.


  *1 William Warren Ferrier, Berkeley, California, The story of the evolution of a hamlet into a city of culture and commerce, (Berkeley, 1933: published by the author).

  * 2 Term used by Virginia and Lee McAlester in America’s historic neighborhoods and museum houses, (New York, 1998:  Alfred A. Knopf).

 * 3 California Architect and Building News, 1884

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