Walter Ratcliff

Post image for Walter Ratcliff

Style: First Bay Tradition, a blend of Arts and Crafts and historical eclectic with an emphasis on vernacular traditions and indoor-outdoor living.

Active: Ratcliff designed several hundred houses, primarily in the East Bay, both speculative and custom, plus churches, schools, offices and stores, between 1901 and 1940. Most were built during the teens and ’20s.

Known for: His houses were brown shingle or Tudor, then English cottage and, after a 1922 trip to Mexico, increasingly Spanish. All are well proportioned and detailed, and many are recognizably Ratcliff.

The following is from an article by Dave Weinstein, special to the San Francisco Chronicle

Midway through the design of a house or bank, a school or skyscraper, Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. would often turn to a book on European architecture, part of his prized collection. He’d find a detail and copy it.

“In his time, it was perfectly proper and in good taste to do that,” said his son, architect Robert Ratcliff, in an oral history.

Walter Ratcliff, one of the Bay Area’s greatest eclectic architects, was no mere copyist — though he was always proper and in good taste. He’d pull a Tudor mullion from one book, a Spanish grille from another. But there was never anything bookish about his buildings.

A Ratcliff building has a wholeness to it that transcends its components. Beautifully proportioned and nicely detailed, his buildings are sometimes stately but never imposing — not even his banks. There is a repose about them that homeowners love and visitors feel, and a joyfulness as well. And by all accounts, the character of Ratcliff’s buildings resembles the character of the man.

Ratcliff’s hundreds of houses and dozens of commercial, civic and institutional buildings remain East Bay landmarks.

It’s hard not to smile when cruising past his old Day Nursery, that dream of the French countryside on Sixth Street south of University Avenue in Berkeley. There’s the Wells Fargo bank at College and Ashby avenues, with its heroic arches and stenciled ceiling. In 1925, Ratcliff gave Berkeley its skyline with the 12-story Chamber of Commerce tower.

But it’s his homes that Deborah Bowen, who lives in one of his lovely Spanish Colonials, was thinking about when she observed: “A lot of my Berkeley favorites are his. I didn’t realize.”

Ratcliff, who was largely self-taught, wasn’t an innovator like his friend Bernard Maybeck, nor as avant-garde a designer as fellow Berkeleyan John Hudson Thomas. Ratcliff doesn’t come across as an incipient modernist, as these men do.

But no one else has defined the look of Berkeley as much as Ratcliff, who was born in England and moved to Berkeley as a teenager. Few architects were as financially successful, or achieved so much success so quickly. Ratcliff is also the only architect of the so-called First Bay Tradition whose firm remains in business and family owned.

“Ratcliff used the same elements over and over again, but he was creating something absolutely new each time,” says Anthony Bruce of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. “He’s really good at massing volumes and gables, and pleasing proportions.”

Ratcliff arrived in America in 1894 and in Berkeley in 1897. He began his architectural career around 1901, designing brown-shingled spec houses in partnership with a friend, Charles Louis McFarland, while still studying chemistry at UC Berkeley, according to Woody Minor, an architectural historian and author of “The Architecture of Ratcliff,” to be published later this year.

The son of an “erudite clergyman,” according to Minor, Ratcliff decided on a career in architecture after graduating from Cal. He made the grand tour of Italy and France, studying for six months in Rome, thanks to his uncle, who ran Ratcliff Copper and Brass Works in England.

Ratcliff gained experience working for Berkeley architect John Galen Howard, briefly had a partnership in San Francisco, then went solo in Berkeley in 1908. He ingratiated himself with Berkeley’s business leaders, and was soon one of the primary designers for housing tracts developed by Mason-McDuffie. It probably helped that both Ratcliff and Duncan McDuffie were naturalists and hikers.

Named city architect in 1913, Ratcliff oversaw construction of schools and firehouses, designing some himself, appointing colleagues to do others.

Working with McFarland, Ratcliff also built many speculative houses in the East Bay suburbs — often among the first and grandest houses in a tract. Together they founded a real estate financing firm that became Fidelity Savings and Loan, according to Minor. Fidelity was also a client for Ratcliff’s spec homes.

Ratcliff’s rapid rise amazed his son Robert, who continued the firm when his father retired. “By 1910 he was doing some of the biggest buildings on this side of the bay,” he told Suzanne Riess of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office. “I have often been amazed that he somehow transformed himself that quickly into this field.”

Ratcliff’s style emerged early. Though his houses include brown-shingled, redwood-sided chalets, stucco bungalows, Tudor half-timbered English cottages, haciendas, Mediterranean and even the occasional Prairie-tinged house, almost all show pleasing proportions, a love for the out-of-doors and restrained but effective decoration.

Ratcliff loved rows of arched French doors and windows and Mission-like loggias along gardens. His front doors, which are always well crafted, solid and varied, often open onto an entryway that in turn opens onto a garden. “You came in and you went out,” says Ratcliff’s grandson, Kit Ratcliff, of the 4,500-square-foot family home, which Ratcliff designed in 1913 at the height of his career. “It’s real sweet.”

Many Ratcliff houses have halls that function less like a room and more like a breezeway. Deborah Bowen’s living room opens front and back on her gardens. “On a nice day it’s wonderful,” she says. “It almost feels like you’re sitting outside.” Bowen loves the layout of her house, with its generous rooms, central staircase and easy flow. “It makes sense,” she says.

Other Ratcliff owners say much the same. “I could feel the rooms were right,” says Robert Shimshak, who’s owned the Ratcliff family home since 1978. “It had the golden mean.”

“I bought it because it was elegant and it was a beautiful location and the proportions are superb,” says Hayne Leland, who lives in an English cottage in the Berkeley hills with flared dormers, diamond pane windows, spacious rooms and broad stairs.

Even Ratcliff’s smaller cottages often had baronial “great halls,” 15 or more feet tall, sometimes with balconies from a library. Living areas are often two steps down from the entry, with steps curving like flowing water.

From the outside, a Ratcliff house can be spotted by its gables — they often have a slight flare, and the rafter ends are generally covered, suggesting thatch. His roofs are often rolled, also to suggest thatch.

When Ratcliff does expose the ends of his rafter beams, he often does so in a pattern — three quiet, square beam-ends supporting a gable. Dormers are another signature, three or four in a row, sometimes sandwiched between two larger front gables.

Ratcliff’s front doors, reached by brick steps leading to a brick porch, are topped by a small roof. These, like his porch roofs, are rarely supported by posts. Instead, Ratcliff turned to brackets attached to the wall.

“It’s almost like he signs them,” Anthony Bruce says of these interior trademarks, such as paired brackets over the fireplace, and a curved leaf motif incised on the fireplace.

Fireplaces are often trapezoidal. Ceilings are often beamed, the beams apparently hewn by hand. For his own dining room, Ratcliff provided a series of miniature barrel vaults between each beam, a motif he used several times.

Ratcliff was not one for bold gestures, in his work or in his life. Quiet and reserved, he always dressed for dinner and for work. He worked almost every day, starting early and finishing late.

A superb tennis player and a skier, Ratcliff was a founding member of the Sierra Club Ski Club, hiked in the Sierra with John Muir, and helped survey Mount Rainier while a college student. “He felt he had the greatest set of climbing legs known to man,” Robert said. Ratcliff was still playing tennis in his late 70s and repairing fences on the family “ranch” — 1,000 acres straddling Highway 1 in Mendocino County — in his 80s. For relaxation, grandson Kit recalls, Ratcliff would canoe solo on San Francisco Bay.

Ratcliff played violin and sang, his wife, Muriel, played piano, and their children were expected to perform at family musicales around the piano in the great room.

Ratcliff, whose firm had as many as eight draftsmen through the 1930s, found himself with a new career in 1933 when McFarland, his longtime associate and the man who had been running Fidelity, died. Ratcliff became a banker. Although Ratcliff never enjoyed banking, Robert Ratcliff said in his oral history, he was conservative and conscientious and left the firm in good shape.

As building slowed during the Depression and halted during the Second World War, Ratcliff’s longtime draftsman Scott Haymond ran the architectural practice.

Ratcliff continued to design, however, turning out several houses in Orinda just before the war, and working and continuing with the firm, Ratcliff, Haymond and Ratcliff. After the war, he came to the office less and less and retired in 1955.

Toward the end of his life, Kit Ratcliff remembers, Walter and Muriel would spend their days in the garden reading to each other. They enjoyed Winston Churchill.

“He was about providing something of lasting value, not something that’s ‘me, me, me,’ ” Kit says. “He would be looking for the nuances as well as the big gestures, to make sure something is done well. He liked the vernacular styles that have been proven, that will delight, that people really will value.”

Ratcliffs to see

  • Downtown Berkeley is dotted with Ratcliff landmarks, including the Elks Club, 2018 Allston Way; Armstrong College, 2222 Harold Way; Chamber of Commerce Building, 2140 Shattuck Ave., Fidelity Savings, 2323 Shattuck Ave.; and the Mason McDuffie Building (today, Scandinavian Designs), 2101 Shattuck Ave.
  • Other Berkeley landmarks: Wells Fargo, 2959 College Ave. at Ashby; the former Day Nursery, 2031 Sixth St., near University Ave. Holy Hill is also rife with Ratcliffs, including the Pacific School of Religion’s Benton Hall and Holbrook Library, 1798 Scenic Ave., and the Church Divinity School’s Gibbs Hall, Dean’s House and chapel, 2451 Ridge Road.
  • Houses: In the Claremont neighborhood, 97 Parkside shows such Ratcliff touches as groups of dormers with square beam-ends, small roofs over front doors and large brackets, a polygonal bay window and brick walks. Also worth a look in Claremont: 18 and 31 Alvarado Road; 2957 Avalon; 2716, 2721 and 2730 Belrose. In Oakland, 44 Eucalyptus is an early gem.
  • In North Berkeley, 875 Indian Rock Ave. shows the Ratcliff porch and flared eaves; 2119 Marin Ave. wears a lovely second-story cap. The house Ratcliff did with Purcell and Elmslie is just off Marin at 832 Shattuck Ave.
  • Mills College, Oakland: Ratcliff was the college’s supervising architect in the 1920s. His work includes the music and art buildings.

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