Berkeley History Project Creates Online Map of Local Sites

By Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside

John Hudson Thomas built this house at 959 Indian Rock Ave. for his daughter. (Robert Kehlmann/Berkeleyside)
John Hudson Thomas built this house at 959 Indian Rock Ave. for his daughter. (Robert Kehlmann/Berkeleyside)

The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project has been calling attention to Berkeley’s history since 1997, when it started to place oval plaques on historic sites around the city. In 2012, the group launched a new website and created a new category — E-Plaques — to note not only important architectural structures, but the everyday life that makes Berkeley unique.

The E-Plaques mark things like the newt crossing in Tilden Park, the old garage where Creedence Clearwater Revival rehearsed in 1970 for their album “Cosmo’s Factory“, and Berkeley’s “foreign policy.” Want to know why Berkeley has all those traffic diverters? The project will tell you why.Berkeleyside-logo

The project just revamped its website to make it easier to use. Users can click on a map of a plaque or E-Plaque and bring up a neighborhood map, which will tell you about other interesting places nearby. The hope is to draw more participants, people who will write about unique Berkeley experiences, or share what it is like to live in a historic or unusual home. (See how to submit here. The only caveat is that subjects cannot be living.)

“The idea is to have a self-portrait of Berkeley by Berkeley,” said Robert Kehlmann, artist, former chair of the Landmarks Commission and the chairman and founder of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. “There are lots of people out there with lots of knowledge about interesting things, who have lived next door to interesting people. They don’t have to be famous people.”

In an effort to showcase more history about Berkeley, Berkeleyside will be highlighting some of the stories from the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. First up: John Hudson Thomas, one of the most influential architects in Berkeley. He lived from 1878-1945.

Carl Wikander wrote the following essay about John Hudson Thomas for the site:

Captain-Maury-House-1317-Shattuck-Ave.-photo-2014-R.Kehlmann
Thomas built this house, at 1317 Shattuck Ave., for Capt. Maury. (Robert Kehlmann/Berkeleyside)

In the early part of the last century, John Hudson Thomas created a series of monumental houses remarkable for their grandeur, architectural verve and robust imagination. While reminiscent of other grand edifices, such creations as the Spring Mansion and Hume Cloister exemplify an architect whose unique and richly fantastical vision can be seen in signature elements ranging from gables and walls of unexpected thickness to Vienna Secessionist ornamentation. Thomas, who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete, also emphasized interior architecture through his use of inglenooks, gothic windows, stepped chimneys and tapestry-covered walls.

Born in Nevada, Thomas graduated from Yale in 1902 and completed a graduate program in architecture at the UC Berkeley in 1904. He then joined the office of John Galen Howard, where he worked until leaving to form a partnership in 1907 with another of Howard’s architects, George Plowman. The pair built many Craftsman-style houses to accommodate the burgeoning population in the East Bay — especially Berkeley with its new trolley lines — following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After the partnership was dissolved in 1910, the work of Thomas was marked by an eclecticism of styles that ranged from Neoclassical to Prairie School, Mission, Gothic and Dutch Colonial.

John Hudson Thomas designed the Spring Mansion at 1960 San Antonio Rd in Berkeley. (Courtesy of Robin Gaskins)
John Hudson Thomas designed the Spring Mansion at 1960 San Antonio Rd in Berkeley. (Courtesy of Robin Gaskins)

Thomas sought both to incorporate current technological developments with modern kitchens and other conveniences and to recreate the appearance of such traditional forms as half-timbering and thatched roofs. The versions of the English Cottage that he produced late in his career (1941-1947 Yosemite Avenue) were the culmination of this blending of old and new.

Among his many prominent Berkeley structures are the Wintermute House (227 Tunnel Road) and landmark houses at 1317 Shattuck Avenue (Captain Maury House), 2900 Buena Vista Way (Hume Cloister), 1730 Spruce Street (Loring House) and 1960 San Antonio Road (Spring Mansion).

KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.

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