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HISTORY OF THE OXFORD STREET SITE

The Oxford Street location has its own unique history, captured in an abbreviated form on a landmark plaque that Congregation Beth El designed in cooperation with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). It is located by the creek, at the Oxford Street entrance to Congregation Beth El.


1945 Congregation Beth El Groundbreaking on Vine Street

The site where Beth El now stands once housed the home and gardens of Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne who moved his family and two freed slaves from St. Louis shortly after the Civil War. The freed slaves were among the first African-American residents of Berkeley. Byrne completed his 18-room Italianate home in 1868, which was placed where Beth El stands today.  His wife, Mary, an avid arborist, imported trees for the land, some of which remain on the premises to this day.
Henry Berryman, a wealthy coal merchant and importer, acquired The Byrne House in 1870 and soon after subdivided the farm acreage surrounding the house. He became so prominent in North Berkeley life that the Southern Pacific depot at Vine Street was known as Berryman Station. He, and his partner, Felix Chappellet (whose wife's name was Milvea - sound familiar?), developed the Berkeley Water Works company and built Berryman Reservoir on Codornices Creek.

In 1902, Mrs. Eliza Gay Welcher received the land and house as a wedding gift from a family member (perhaps an uncle) by the name of Sinclair. Until then, the house was called The Byrne House after its first owner, Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne. Mrs. Welcher and her husband Mendell Welcher renamed the property The Cedars.Mendell Welcher died shortly after they moved in 1904. Mrs. Welcher continued to live at The Cedars until her passing in 1948. Details of Mrs. Welcher’s ownership of The Cedars illustrate the unique history of this beautiful site. During this period, Mrs. Welcher engaged a large staff to help her manage both the house and the grounds. Thanks to Ruth Uyeda Hayashi, who lived on the grounds from infancy through the age of 14, we now know considerably more about this period (based on an April 2014 interview).

Ruth’s parents, Gonrokuro and Teruyo Uyeda, were employees of Mrs. Welcher. Ruth’s father was chauffeur and gardener.  Her mother assisted with Mrs. Welcher’s frequent parties.  At this time, Berkeley’s restrictive ordinances made it unlawful to rent or sell property to Asians beyond a small, prescribed area in South Berkeley. Because the Uyeda family worked for Mrs. Welcher, they were permitted to live in North Berkeley. 
 
Gonrokuro Uyeda became ill shortly before the Japanese internment in 1942. Ruth (Yoshine, her childhood name) speculates that her father’s illness prior to their forced departure to Topaz Internment Camp in the Utah desert may be partly explained by his effort to leave the grounds in topnotch condition. Sadly, Ruth and her mother were required to leave for Topaz without him. He died in a California hospital (1944). After the war, Ruth and her mother returned to The Cedars (1945).
 
Imagine The Cedars as Ruth experienced it. Her most vivid memory is the impressive modified Italian villa at the center of the site, anchored to Oxford Street by a gracious driveway. The “big house,” as Ruth still refers to it, sat proudly on well-groomed grounds shaded by numerous fruit trees—plum, apricot, and persimmon. Wisteria, irises, dahlias and many varieties of roses brightened the landscape accentuated by the open creek flowing downhill. A few smaller structures dotted the grounds including a summer guest house, chicken coop, bird aviary, water pump, and the modest cottage occupied by Ruth and her parents.
 
The Uyeda cottage was located by Spruce Street where the Congregation Beth El community garden now flourishes. An oil painting by artist Thomas Matsuoka, a gift to the Uyeda family, captures the beauty of the creek-side location of their two-bedroom, one-bath home. (see below)

Ruth recalls how the back door of the cottage faced the creek. She could hike downstairs from the rear of the house, then walk along the rim of the creek’s bank, taking in the serenity and peaceful sound of the rippling water. Ruth enjoyed the one-and-a-half acres as her private playground. Her father, however, warned her not play in the creek. Then, as now, the banks were dangerously steep and he did not want to climb down to rescue her if she got into trouble.  Her father had created a path down to the creek, trimming back the bushes and tree branches that hung over the path, then using them for mulch along the banks. He would regularly clear out debris obstructing the creek. Despite her freedom, Ruth had one other limitation—Mrs. Welcher’s admonition that no other children were allowed to play on the grounds.
 
The “big house” with its 18 rooms, impressed Ruth. She was awed by the grand foyer and staircase, eight bedrooms, enormous kitchen, and grand piano, where Mrs. Welcher permitted young Ruth to practice. The house staff included a couple (Mr. and Mrs. Hosokawa) who served as the butler, maid, and cook, and a young schoolboy (Yukio Sera). Mrs. Welcher hired her staff from the Japanese-member Christian Layman Church. Upon their return from Topaz, Ruth and her mother were asked to move into “the big house” to ease the work of the housekeeper, Mrs. Weaver. Ruth’s mother cared for Mrs. Welcher who was then in her nineties. Ruth helped out in the kitchen. Her other duty was to sweep pine needles and leaves in the long, tree-lined driveway that extended from Oxford Street around to the back of the mansion, a seemingly unending job.
 
Ruth remembers Mrs. Welcher, her white hair pulled back into a tight bun, posture erect, as being fair and good to everyone. When her father was alive, she gave him the use of the car on Sundays for family excursions. Mrs. Welcher always looked out for Ruth, and advocated for her to attend the local neighborhood schools. Before the war, the Japanese American children were sent to a few schools in the “flats.” After the war, Ruth was allowed to go to nearby Oxford Elementary School.

Upon Mrs. Welcher’s death, her relatives (the Robinsons with connections to the Hawaiian island of Niihau) assumed control of the site. Their offer to gift the land to the city of Berkeley as a “natural add-on” to Live Oak Park was turned down (1950). Ultimately the Robinson family deeded the land to the Christian Missionary Alliance which constructed a cinder block structure behind the “big house.” In 1952 a church member/contractor, without permission, culverted and partially filled the creek. Sometime in the 70s, the East Bay Chinese Alliance was deeded the land. The financial burden to maintain “the big house” was an uphill battle. Still, in 1976 the house was listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Two fires of suspected arson in the mid-1980s eventually destroyed the house, resulting in the loss of the property’s landmark status. At this point, the Chinese Alliance Church rented the land to community gardening groups who remained until Congregation Beth El broke ground for its new home.

The congregation’s commitment to preserve significant historical elements of the site can be seen today by the presence of the original Oxford Street entryway, the ornamental metalwork on top of the western fence, the Oxford Street retaining wall, the preservation of most trees and plants that were native to the site, and Codornices Creek.


Moving the Torahs to the Oxford Street Building in 2005.

 

Mon, November 28 2022 4 Kislev 5783