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JULY 2018

July 2018

The History Corner

by David Mostardi, Club Historian

Once Upon A Hillside: 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago

“STRIFE BESETS FASHIONABLE BERKELEY! A row has developed between factions of the fashionable Hillside Club of Berkeley over the invasion of portable houses and disruption of the club is imminent. Social ostracism of the builder of the houses and appeals to the courts and Town Trustees are threatened.”

So trumpeted the San Francisco Call newspaper on 9 October 1906, when it reported on a simmering argument at the Berkeley Hillside Club. The Call article is quoted in the new Summer 2018 edition of California, the UC Berkeley Alumni Association’s quarterly magazine, in an article by Barry Bergman entitled “Houses in the Hills: Berkeley’s Early Bohemian Architecture.”

The Call article is the lead story in the “News of Counties Bordering San Francisco Bay” section on page six, complete with a large photograph of Madge Robinson (husband of photographer Oscar Maurer) in one of her trademark posh hats, flanked by a photo of Charles Keeler. Here is the full text of the Call story:

“The fashionable Hillside Club is threatened with disruption as the result of a fight between a number of its most prominent members over the matter of portable houses which Paul A. Needham has put up in the Hillside section of Berkeley. Two women members of the Hillside Club, Mrs. Oscar Maurer, and Mrs. Paul A. Needham, indulged in a bit of verbal warfare over the question at the last meeting of the club on Saturday night, and the argument brought to a head a quarrel which has been smoldering for a month.

“One result of the controversy, conservative members of the club predict, is that Mr. and Mrs. Paul A. Needham, who are sponsors for the portable house idea, will be asked at the next meeting, of the Hillside Club to resign from that organization. Should this proposal be broached the partisans of the Needhams and the Maurers may be expected to take sides, and a battle royal ensued.

“The club’s opposition to Needham’s portable houses is based on the love of the beautiful and the purpose to make and keep the Hillside district an artistic residence section—a place of pretty homes, where art is exhibited in architecture and landscape gardening. They regard Mr. Needham's invasion of the district with portable houses as treason to the club’s aims, and Needham is looked upon apparently as a vandal because he is to profit by the installing of the cheap houses in the high-priced Hillside district.


“Mrs. Oscar Maurer, wife of the artist, brought up the matter at the club’s meeting last week, after it had been informally discussed by members for a fortnight or more. She denounced the portable houses as a blot on the Hillside region, and scored those responsible for the intrusion of the ‘shacks.’ She is declared to have recommended

social ostracism for the perpetrators of the offense if legal measures should fail to wipe out the portable dwellings. The latter idea, however, Mrs. Maurer today partially repudiates, saying that social ostracism need not be talked of until petitions to the Town Trustees for relief have utterly failed.

“When Mrs. Maurer had finished her denunciation of the owners of portable houses last Saturday night at the club meeting, Mrs. Paul A. Needham took the floor. She was not afraid of social ostracism, apparently, and did not heed the club's known opposition to her husband's business enterprise. She counseled the critics to withhold judgment until the portable houses should be painted and finished inside, and then, she thought, the houses might be found to be as worthy as those of the folk who disliked them.


“No action was taken in the matter, by the Hillside Club but a petition to the Town Trustees is to be prepared, asking for, relief and protection from the invasion of the so-called ‘shacks.’ This is not expected to accomplish the desired end, however, as Needham is said to have so constructed his portable dwellings as to keep them within the provisions of the building ordinance.

“The proposal to ask for the resignation of Mr. and Mrs. Needham from the Hillside Club is likely to precipitate a row of splendid proportions, the first in the history of the Hillside organization, and if the word of prominent members is authoritative, the call for the resignation of the Needhams may be expected at any moment.

“Mr. Needham smiles at the prospect. He has given freely of money and land and time to philanthropic and church work, and does not fear comparison, he says, between his own record as a public-spirited citizen and the record of those who judge him now.

“The Hillside Club recently completed a beautiful clubhouse in the district. Charles Keeler, the poet, and other celebrities have taken much interest in its adornment.”

Aside from this article, nothing is known about the Paul Needham’s portable homes on the hillside. Needham is known to have designed two buildings in Berkeley, including a shingled ten-unit apartment house at 1354–64 Scenic. He may also have been the architect on his brother William’s storybook house at 2333 Rose. Paul Needham and his wife Mabel indeed left the Hillside Club soon thereafter, but I can find no record in the Board minutes of an expulsion.

Thanks to Daniella Thompson for information on Paul Needham.

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