Origins of the Town, the College, and the Apartments

The site of today's City of Berkeley was the territory of the Chochen/Huichin band of the Ohlone people. Evidence of their existence in the area include depressions in boulders where they ground acorns and a shellmound, now mostly leveled and covered up by the shoreline of San Francisco Bay at the mouth of Strawberry Creek. Other artifacts were discovered in the 1950s in the downtown area during remodeling of a commercial building near the upper course of the creek.

The first people of European descent, most of whom were born in America, arrived with the De Anza Expedition in 1776. Today their arrival is memorialized by signs on Interstate 80 along the Berkeley portion of the San Francisco Bay shoreline. The De Anza Expedition led to establishment of the Spanish Presidio of San Francisco at the entrance to San Francisco Bay—famously named The Golden Gate—which is due west of Berkeley. Luís Peralta was among the soldiers at the Presidio. For his services to the King of Spain he was granted a vast stretch of land on the east shore of San Francisco Bay (the contra costa, "opposite shore") for a ranch, including that portion that now comprises the City of Berkeley.

Peralta named his holding Rancho San Antonio. The ranch mostly raised cattle for meat and hides with some hunting and farming on the side.

Peralta gave portions of the ranch to each of his four sons. What is now Berkeley lies mostly in the portion that went to Peralta's son Domingo, with a little in the portion that went to another son, Vicente. No artifact survives of the ranches of Domingo or Vicente, although their names have been preserved in the naming of Berkeley streets: Vicente, Domingo, and Peralta. Legal title to all land in the City of Berkeley remains based on the original Peralta land grant. The Peraltas' Rancho San Antonio continued after Alta California passed from Spanish to Mexican sovereignty after the Mexican War of Independence. The advent of U.S. sovereignty after the Mexican–American War, and especially the Gold Rush, saw the Peralta's lands quickly encroached on by squatters and diminished by dubious legal proceedings. The lands of the brothers Domingo and Vicente were quickly reduced to reservations close to their respective ranch homes. The rest of the land was surveyed and parceled out to various American claimants.

Politically, the area that became Berkeley was initially part of a vast Contra Costa County. On March 25, 1853, Alameda County was created by division of Contra Costa County, as well as from a small portion of Santa Clara County. The area of Berkeley was at this period mostly a mix of open land, farms and ranches, with a small though busy wharf by the bay. It was not yet "Berkeley", but merely the northern part of the "Oakland Township" subdivision of Alameda County.

Late 19th century: The College

In 1866, Oakland's private College of California looked for a new site. It settled on a location north of Oakland along the foot of the Contra Costa Range (later called the Berkeley Hills) astride Strawberry Creek, at an elevation about 500 feet (150 m) above the bay—where it commands a fantastic view of the Bay Area and the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate.

According to the Centennial Record of the University of California, "In 1866 … at Founders' Rock, a group of College of California men watched two ships standing out to sea through the Golden Gate. Lawyer/financier and College Trustee Fredrick Billings —the first lawyer to practice in San Francisco—thought of the lines of the Anglo-Irish Anglican Bishop George Berkeley, 'westward the course of empire takes its way,' and suggested that the town and college site be named for the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish philosopher."

The College of California's College Homestead Association planned to raise funds for the new campus by selling off parcels of land adjacent to it. To this end, they laid out a plat and street grid that became the basis of Berkeley's modern street plan.The first residential parcel was bought by , co-founder of the College of California and soon-to-be Regent of the University of California Samuel H. Willey. The Willey House stood at 2709 Dwight Way, the future site of the Bishop Berkeley Apartments. (Shown in the photograph at the top of this page.) However the plan to finance the College by selling residential parcels fell far short of the intended goal so collaboration was begun with the State of California, culminating in 1868 with the creation of the public University of California.

As construction began on the new Campus more residences were constructed in the near vicinity. At the same time a settlement of residences, saloons, and various industries grew around the wharf area called "Ocean View." A horsecar ran from Temescal in Oakland to the university campus along what is now Telegraph Avenue. By the 1870s the Transcontinental Railroad had reached its terminus in Oakland. In 1876 a branch line of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Berkeley Branch Railroad, was laid from a junction with the mainline called Shellmound (now a part of Emeryville) into what is now downtown Berkeley. That same year the main line of the transcontinental railroad into Oakland was re-routed, putting the right-of-way along the bay shore through Ocean View.

There was a strong prohibition movement in Berkeley at this time. In 1876 the mile limit law was passed, which prevented sale or public consumption of alcohol within one mile (1.6 km) of the new University of California. In 1899 Berkeley residents voted to make their city an alcohol-free zone. Scientists, scholars and religious leaders spoke vehemently of the dangers of alcohol.

The first post office opened in 1872.

In 1878 the people of Ocean View and the area around the University campus, together with local farmers, incorporated themselves as the Town of Berkeley. The first elected trustees of the town were the slate of Denis Kearney's Workingman's Party, who were particularly favored in the working class area of the former Ocean View, now called "West Berkeley." The area near the university became known for a time as "East Berkeley."

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The modern age came quickly to Berkeley, no doubt due to the influence of the university. Electric lights were in use by 1888. The telephone had already come to town and electric streetcars soon replaced the horsecar. The movie to the left is a silent film made in 1906 that was shot from a moving streetcar. The film shows portions of North Berkeley and the adjacent University of California campus. The routes shown include the final portion of the #4 line (built in 1901), which originated in downtown Oakland. The #3 Oxford Street line, seen at the start of the film, also originated in Oakland. The #3 line closed in 1932. Later-model streetcars on the #4 line were replaced by buses in 1948. The Hearst/Euclid avenues portion of that line is now part of the #65 Grizzly Peak bus line.

Early 20th century: Expansion

Berkeley's slow growth ended abruptly with the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the most severe natural disaster in California history. The earthquake and subsequent fire virtually leveled San Francisco, rendering thousands of people homeless. Since the town of Berkeley and other parts of the East Bay escaped serious damage thousands of refugees moved across the Bay.

In 1908, a statewide referendum that proposed moving the California state capital to Berkeley was defeated by a margin of about 33,000 votes. A legacy of this ballot measure that survives was the naming of streets in the vicinity of the proposed capitol grounds for the counties of California.

In 1909, the citizens of Berkeley adopted a new charter, and the Town of Berkeley became the City of Berkeley. Rapid growth continued up to the Crash of 1929. The Great Depression hit Berkeley hard, but not as hard as many other places in the U.S., thanks in part to the University.

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Although the 1920s were a period of tremendous material growth the most dramatic event of that decade in Berkeley was another natural disaster. In the early afternoon of September 17, 1923 a fire began in Wildcat Canyon in what is today Tilden Park. On that hot fall day the fire—fueled by a strong, dry northeasterly wind—burned upward to the crest of the hills, then raced down the canyon of Codornices Creek into populated parts of North Berkeley. Proceeding in an irregular southwesterly direction, the fire reached Hearst Street to the south and a few parts of Shattuck Avenue to the west. The blaze was more than a match for the Berkeley Fire Department, so Chief G. Sydney Rose called in help from Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, Piedmont and San Francisco. The San Francisco units arrived by ferry about 90 minutes after they were called. They stationed themselves at University and Shattuck Avenues and were credited with saving downtown. Hundreds of university students were massed along Hearst and kept the flames from crossing into the campus. But the fire continued burning until the wind shifted to the southwest. The cool ocean breeze blew the flames back on themselves and allowed fire fighters to finally extinguish the blaze.

Fortunately, the conflagration resulted in no deaths or serious injuries. But it destroyed 584 buildings and seriously damaged more than 30 others. Total economic loss was about $10,000,000—a real bundle in 1923—and approximately 4,000 people were left homeless.

Bishop Berkeley Apartments: Construction and Advertisement

On the present-day site of the Bishop Berkeley Apartments Dr. Samuel Hopkins Willey built a Gothic Revival cottage in 1865, the first registered residential address in the new town. Dr. Willey died in Berkeley in February, 1914 at the age of 93. In August, 1922, executive secretary of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Charles Keeler recommended that the home be preserved as a possible museum and landmark. The City Council of that time was favorable to the idea but did not act on the recommendation and Willey's home was demolished in August 1928.

Oakland Tribune newspaper, March 10, 1929:

"Endowed with the glamor of early California history, a modern apartment structure to be known as the Bishop Berkeley apartments has arisen at 2709 Dwight Way in the college community. At this location formerly stood the first house to be built in Berkeley. Samuel H. Wiley, president of the embryo College of California, was the owner, and the home was a center of interest for the social gatherings as early as 1866. Tthe story is told that at one of these the problem of a name for the community was considered, and the suggestion "Berkeley" was made by Frederick Billings, a trustee. The quotation by Bishop Berkeley, Westward the course of empire takes its way. was the inspiration, and the name was unanimously adopted by the trustees. Mrs. Anna B. Pray, daughter of the venerable Dr. Billings, is the authority for the story.

The new apartment which now adorns the site again reveres the Bishop and with its distinguished appearance will serve to fix his quotation in the minds of many. W. N. Herrod and Marguerite Herrod are the owners of the structure, which is said to represent an investment of approximately $325,000. Imposing in appearance, of an English type of architecture in red brick and shaded by immense trees, the entire picture is in keeping with the English atmosphere. Entering the structure one finds off the vestibule an immense sunken lounge room, sumptuously furnished, reached by marble steps. Off the lounge is a large card room with comfortable fireplace and furnished invitingly.

Much attention has been given to the architectural woodwork. The music room ceiling is conspicuous by its panels and beams of redwood. The interior trim of the lounge, music room and elevator cab is of Phillippine mahogany. The balance of this work throughout the building is of vertical grained Oregon pine. All this architectural woodwork is from the mill of Lannom Brothers Manufacturing Company.

Individuality is expressed in the rich wall coverings, with their delicate colorings carried into the woodwork decorations. Every modern facility has been provided including elevator service, genuine Frigidaire, steam heat, Wedgewood ranges, Marshall Stearns beds, etc. A service closely approximating that of a hotel is to be maintained. There are apartents of from two to five rooms, some of them furnished. Sound deadening is also a feature of floors and walls. In the floors there is a four-inch layer of sand, spread when hot, between layers of building paper with tongue and groove pine below and heavy oak above.

W. H. Weeks, Oakland and San Francisco architect, is responsible for the design. Furniture selections are from Breuner's of Oakland.

The next big growth occurred with the advent of World War II, when large numbers of people moved to the Bay Area to work in the many war industries, such as the immense Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond. One person who moved out of Berkeley to play a big role in the outcome of the War, was U.C. Professor and former Berkeley resident J. Robert Oppenheimer, 'father of the atomic bomb'. During the war an Army base—Camp Ashby—was temporarily sited in Berkeley.

1950s and 1960s: Social and Political Consciousness

The postwar years saw moderate growth of the City as events on the U.C. campus began to build up to the recognizable activism of the sixties. In the 1950s McCarthyism induced the University to demand a loyalty oath from its professors, many of whom refused to sign the oath on the principle of freedom of thought. In 1960, a U.S. House committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco to investigate the influence of communists in the Bay Area. Their presence was met by protesters, including many from the University. Meanwhile, a number of U.C. students became active in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, the University in 1964 provoked a massive student protest by banning distribution of political literature on campus. This protest became the Free Speech Movement. As the Vietnam War rapidly escalated in the ensuing years, so did student activism at the University, particularly that organized by the Vietnam Day Committee.

Berkeley is strongly identified with the rapid social changes, civic unrest, and political upheaval that characterized the late 1960s. In that period, Berkeley—especially Telegraph Avenue—became a focal point for the hippie movement, which spilled over the Bay from San Francisco. Many hippies were apolitical drop-outs, rather than students, but in the heady atmosphere of Berkeley in 1967–1969 there was considerable overlap of the hippie movement and the radical left. An iconic event in the Berkeley Sixties scene was a conflict over a parcel of University property south of the contiguous campus site that came to be called People's Park.

The battle over disposition of People's Park resulted in a month-long occupation of Berkeley by the National Guard on orders of then-Governor Ronald Reagan. In the end, the park remained undeveloped, and remains so today. A spin-off, "People's Park Annex," was established at the same time by activist citizens of Berkeley on a strip of land above the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway construction along Hearst Avenue northwest of the U.C. campus. The land had also been intended for development, but was turned over to the City by BART and is now Ohlone Park.

1970's to 1980's: Renaissance

Corporate Media's focus on Berkeley’s reputation for social and political protest overlooks the social revolution that delivered benefits to virtually all Americans: widespread interest and activity in natural health and healing made Berkeley and San Francisco world centers of the alternative health movement; Asian martial arts were popularized; World religions gained prominence: Buddism, Hinduism, Vedanta, and Taoism. Berkeley was unique in the Bay Area for its many music venues and Berkeley’s cafes were recognized as open, vital meeting places for people from all over the San Francisco Bay and beyond. The Humanities were well represented at U.C. Berkeley and visitors and scholars from around the world appeared at cafés and book stores on Telegraph Avenue. 'The Avenue' or 'The Ave' was alive with strollers, shoppers, spectators, and performers at all hours of the day and night up to and past midnight.

Living was cheap. No one slept on the streets. Anyone could find affordable shelter and anyone who wanted to work could find a job. At a time when rich Californians were richer than ever before in history, the State treasury held a surplus and the Medi-Cal act, which ensured that no Californian went without medical and dental care, demonstrated the feasibility of socialized medicine in America.

People learned to live in collective households to leverage their purchasing, personal, and political power. They joined food co-ops. Fresh produce and whole grains were purchased in bulk at wholesale prices and members ate well for a fraction of retail cost. During these decades People streamed into Berkeley from every state in the Union to experience the pleasures and excitement of the California social revolution at ground zero.

This era began to decline when the fallout from Proposition 13—so-called 'homeowner's tax relief', but in reality tax exemptions for big business and rich individuals—ate into the state budget. At the same time, speculation in rental housing drove rent prices so high that local people began to have difficulty paying for housing.

1990's to present: After the Gold Rush

In previous decades businesses and institutions unique to Berkeley were gradually copied by surrounding communities: cafés and coffee shops, massage and meditation centers, bookstores, special restaurants, so it became less necessary to visit Berkeley to experience such things. At the same time corporate and on-line sellers forced local bookstores such as Cody's Booksk and Black Oak Books' Shattuck Avenue location to close. Chain stores have replaced locally-owned businesses and many of of Berkeley's music and dance venues closed, making Berkeley a quieter town than it was in its glory days.

Political protests continue: in 2006, the Berkeley Oak Grove Protest began protesting construction of a new sports center annex to Memorial Stadium at the expense of a grove of oak trees on the UC campus. The protest ended in September 2008 after a lengthy court process.

The tradition of controversy has continued: in 2007–08 Berkeley received media attention when citizens demonstrated against a Marine Corps recruiting office in downtown Berkeley and a series of controversial motions by Berkeley's City Council regarding opposition to Marine recruiting. In the Fall of 2011, the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement made its appearance on the campus of the University of California and as an encampment in Civic Center Park. There have also been large demonstrations on the U.C. Campus to protest substantial hikes in student fees.

More recently, people in Berkeley who respect and want to retain the U.S. Postal Service have demonstrated continuously at the Berkeley Main Post Office to protest the activities of the husband of U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, Richard C. Blum, a U.C. Regent, whose venture capital real estate firm, CB Ellis, is colluding with certain elements in the U.S. Gov't. to sell off post offices at fire-sale prices to Blum's rich friends.


Today the Bishop Berkeley Apartments continues its 80+ years-old tradition of welcoming students and citizens from near and far who come to Berkeley to live and learn. We thank you for pausing to consider this bit of history and perhaps even coming to join the long, often distinguished roster of residents at this historic address.


Material on this page is drawn from Wikipedia articles—extensively edited and re-written—the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), and other sources.

Remarks on the 1923 fire are from Berkeley, A City in History by Charles Wollenberg.