History of Davis House

The property now called Davis House was originally commissioned by Richard A. Clark, lawyer for the estate of the wealthy Hearst family. Clark had previously worked with the architect Julia Morgan, designer of some of California’s most famous landmarks from that period, most notably the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

1914 photograph of neighboring Strawberry Canyon

When construction finished in 1913, the Clark house was in a fairly quiet hillside neighborhood; they were only a few steps from what was then open country in Strawberry Canyon. The house was a luxury dwelling, equipped with electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and three marble fireplaces. These features have remained, as have certain features of the house’s accessibility. Berkeley is a very walkable city, and the house’s construction in 1913 did not account for the expansive popularity of the automobile. As a result, the house is uniquely inaccessible. No entrances are near the street, and the main entryway of the house can only be reached by climbing bancroft steps, far from the street. Morgan built the house to feature a dramatic interplay of natural lighting and shadow, a feature that is still very noticeable today despite the addition of landscaping, particularly in the dining room. 

1914 block book showing makeup of neighborhood

In the next ten years, the neighborhood would radically change with the construction of Memorial Stadium only a few hundred feet from the Clarks’ backdoor. Around this time, the Clark family moved out and the house was purchased by the Omicron chapter of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority. Sorority houses became very popular during the depression as a cheap means of housing women attending school, and became a place of safety for women leaving home for the first time.

1928 Alpha Xi Delta Blue and Gold yearbook page

Houses like Alpha Xi Delta often had (and still do today) “house mothers,” a matron who would live with the girls and ensure that they behaved morally by curtailing drinking and monitoring activities with the opposite sex. Although our documentation is limited, it is almost certain that Alpha Xi Delta had a “House Mother” fulfilling such a role, as a house of so many young women living unsupervised would have been scandalous. Around sixty young women lived in the house during this time, and the sorority added two large sleeper porches onto Morgan’s original design to house them all. The surrounding houses are still mostly owned by other sororities, fraternities, and some co-ops. In 1930, the imposing International House was built at the bottom of the hill, bringing students from all around the world to what had previously been an all-white neighborhood.

1969 USCA board minutes proposing purchase, naming of Davis House

The sorority resided in Davis house until the 1960s when the popularity of sororities and fraternities at UC Berkeley began to decline, and Alpha Xi Delta was forced to close their Berkeley chapter. Meanwhile, the Berkeley Student Cooperative was trying to decide how to make up for a shortage of student housing; each passing year had meant a long waiting list for entry into co-op housing. Over the summer of 1969, the Berkeley Student Cooperative purchased the old Alpha Xi Delta house for $75,000. Richard Clark house was renamed Davis house, purportedly in honor of a local community activist affiliated with the BSC. It was opened formally to junior, senior, and graduate student residents in 1970. Residency was eventually expanded to include lowerclassmen as well, but Davis has earnt a reputation for being clean and quiet. The house has remained a part of the student co-op housing system ever since, with nearby neighbours of Sherman Hall and Castro co-op.


Posted on December 11, 2015, in Anthro136kF2015, Davis-House. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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