Charles H. Spear House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2017)
The Charles H. Spear House is one of the most notable and elegant Colonial Revival residences in Berkeley. Constructed in 1904, the building is remarkably intact, retaining a very high degree of its historic fabric and detail. Among the building’s significant features are a symmetrical façade; a cornice decorated with molded corbels and egg-and-dart molding; a central dormer with arched window; a pair of oval portholes set in wide, molded casings and ornamented with medallions and elaborate scrollwork; a central portico with a circular canopy decorated with dentils and egg-and-dart molding, supported by two round columns with Ionic capitals and flanked by two pilasters, also with Ionic capitals; and two large triple-window bays set in wide, molded casings and surmounted by arch pediments ornamented with dentils and scrollwork.
Charles Henry Spear (1862–1928) was a well-known political figure in the State of California. He began his political career in 1884 as Assistant Postmaster of West Berkeley, rising to Postmaster in 1885. He served as Berkeley’s City Clerk from 1886 to 1893 and was elected Alameda County Recorder in 1894. In 1900, he was appointed Port Warden in San Francisco. In 1902, Spear acted as chairman of the state’s Republican Campaign Committee, and in 1903, Governor George C. Pardee made him president of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners. His term coincided with the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, and Spear received high praise from Commander Charles J. Badger, U.S. Navy, for restoring “normal business conditions in the shipping district in the shortest possible time.”
In 1923, Spear was reappointed president of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners, this time by Governor Friend W. Richardson. Resigning from that position in 1925, Spear became general manager of Los Angeles Harbor, remaining in that office until 1927, when ill health forced him to retire and return to Berkeley, where he passed away the following year.
The architect of the Spear House has not been identified, but the builder was well known in both building and political circles. As a contractor, Robert Greig (1861–1931) was Berkeley’s premier practitioner, constructing some of the city’s most prominent buildings, including City Hall (1908); the first public library (1904, demolished); Berkeley High School’s main building (1901, demolished); the Masonic Temple (2105 Bancroft Way, 1905); and the Barker Block (2486 Shattuck Avenue, 1905).
Like Charles Spear, Robert Greig was prominent in the Republican Party. In 1915, he was appointed as Berkeley’s Building Inspector, and in 1924 he became Director of Housing for the State of California. “He was a recognized authority on building codes, and many of his suggestions were incorporated in the State Building Law and in housing regulations,” stated his obituary.
When the Charles H. Spear House was built, the neighborhood north of Berkeley Way was purely residential, composed of Victorians and Colonial Revival houses. The area’s character persisted largely unaltered until the 1950s, when large, boxy apartment buildings began to replace many historic houses.
In the 1960s, BART acquired and removed the houses along five and a half blocks on the north side of Hearst Avenue between Milvia Street and Sacramento Street. Concurrently, commercial establishments began replacing some of the houses along Grove Street. These days, the east side of the 1800 block and the west side of the 1900 block of M.L. King, Jr. Way are composed entirely of commercial buildings, making the Spear House a rare and noteworthy reminder of the street as it used to be a century ago.
The landmark application is accessible online.