Author Archives: njeskow
Davis House faces a number of threats to its continued existence. On a tangible level, there are risks to the structural and aesthetic features of the house. On an intangible level, the house risks losing its historic and cultural contexts, and the lessons that may lie therein.
Maintenance of the structure requires a great deal of money. The house committee and the greater BSC organization have to pay for regular upkeep on all the historic features. Elements like brick and wood erode over time, and need restoration or replacing. Aesthetic features such as carved woodwork require costly specialized labor to restore. More significantly, the house sits almost directly over the Hayward Fault, but has never been retrofitted for earthquake safety. Doing so would cost a great deal of money; similar retrofitting at the university’s Archeological Research Facility cost upwards of $70,000.
To ease this financial burden, Davis House may be able to turn to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. This organization advocates for heritage sites around Berkeley, and can be very useful in advocating for the procurement of grants and other financial packages. Similarly the National Trust for Historic Preservation may take an interest in the house because of its advanced age and architectural pedigree. Both groups could be very useful in the establishment of a heritage site at Davis House. Other interested parties may include the Julia Morgan school for Girls in nearby Oakland, as well as California Polytechnic State University, who keep an archive of material related to Julia Morgan.
On an intangible level, what risks being lost is the history and heritage from Davis House’s past incarnations: first as private residence, then as sorority. Even its co-op history may be lost in the constantly revolving cast of residents. Much of our goal in establishing a heritage site is to preserve these histories and aspects of cultural heritage, and indeed our interpretive projects serve this goal directly.
However, we may also turn to local and national groups for added support. The Alpha Xi Delta sorority, although no longer at Berkeley, may have an interest in the histories of their alumnae. The Berkeley Student Cooperative may wish to engage more directly with their past, as well. And as a cooperative living house, Davis House may be of interest to NASCO – the organization that represents cooperative living across North America. Finally, we may look to the alumni community of Davis House, dispersed across the country, who continue to take an active interest in the time they spent calling Davis House home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Davis House Cooperative sits at 2833 Bancroft Steps in Berkeley, California. It is a short walk from the University of California’s campus, uphill from the International House and shares a parking lot with Memorial Stadium. In its 102-year history, it has changed little despite its role has changed in the community.
An exterior of brick leads to a second floor of white stucco. A carved wooden trim, painted green, highlights the entire facade. Wrought-iron balustrades sit under the windows and iron lanterns sit by the front door. A gabled roof barely peeks above the neighboring trees and shrubbery; the house is so effectively hidden by its landscaping that it can be difficult to get an impression of the whole building from the outside. Yet the interior reveals a lush reminder of Berkeley’s past: heavy oak doors give way to grand halls with intricately carved wood paneling, mixing natural and classical themes in their scrollwork. Four large fireplaces feature heavy mantelpieces and marble framing. Elaborate neoclassical light fixtures hang from high, vaulted ceilings.
Today, Davis House is a part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC). This system of cooperative living houses operate on a principle of student self-determination, with the day-to-day operations of co-op houses being implemented and managed by the students who live there. Davis House is therefore managed by a constantly rotating body of residents. The house currently holds 36 residents, and these students are responsible for cooking meals, for cleaning house, and for overseeing the house’s own budget.