Caption: Camellia’s Tea Room in Benicia, CA
ARTS & CRAFTS SOJOURN--A soft Bay Area rain fell as we exited the nearly 90-year-old Claremont Hotel. My wife, Phyllis and I were leaving Berkeley and headed for Benicia, a small town 15 miles away on the Sacramento River. For us, a big part of the charm when exploring all things Arts & Crafts in villages and cities across the country is staying at centrally located historic hotels like the Claremont situated in the renown Berkeley Hills.
Like so many, we’re Arts & Craft era junkies. We’re constantly seeking out historic sites, Craftsman shops, antique stores and vintage neighborhoods in other locales. We often parlay our explorations around her speaking engagements (national law enforcement management expert) before or after her conference appearances.
With the Claremont as a two-day home base, we were able to visit and touch bases with venerable cache of sites and souls steeped in craftsman era mythos. We said hello to Tim Holton, proprietor of Holton Studio Frame-makers, whom we met before at various Arts & Crafts fairs throughout the state. Holton is a world class frame maker, especially talented in the Craftsman genre. He gave us a must see list of Berkeley and environs.
The day before, we borrowed hotel umbrellas and strolled half mile over to Craftsman Home on Claremont Avenue and to our delight the Arts & Crafts store was crowded with fellow aficionados purchasing vintage furnishings and excellent pottery.
Next, we caught a cab on College Avenue and headed north to cozy Caffe Strada, where from our seats inside we could only imagine what fun it would be on a sunny day to sip lattes with chocolate swirls in the floating cream on the tree-lined street side patio. The night before we had mapped out a self-guided tour of the Cal campus the night before using Tim Holton’s tips, Google and an excellent local historical website: www.berkeleyheritage.com
From Caffe Strada, we walked two blocks east on Bancroft Way to the very last home built by architects Henry and Charles Greene, two brothers, who designed some of Pasadena, CA’s finest residential arts & crafts era masterpieces. Berkeley’s distinctive Greene & Greene is now a fraternity house located within a loud cheer of Cal’s famed Memorial Stadium.
We also visited historic homes and buildings designed by well-known Berkeley based Arts & Crafts era architects like Julia Morgan, John Galen Howard and Bernard Maybeck.
That evening, we dined like sweethearts at a window table at Jordan’s Restaurant on an upper level of the Claremont Hotel. The view out the window was fabulous, too. On a less rainy evening, we were told all three famed Bay Area bridges could be seen.
Early, the next morning, our son, Michael, who took time off from his studies at San Jose State met us at the hotel to drive us to Benicia, a 20 minute drive from Berkeley as the crow flies. But if the crow is driving in rainy commuter traffic the trip can take two hours. Luckily, we caught mild mid morning, midweek traffic North on I-80. But instead of driving through I-80 industrial terrain (vision Newark to the Hudson River), we took a more rustic route via State Highway 4 to Martinez, a jewel box town, where we toured the John Muir House, the residence of the early naturalist and conservationist.
We arrived in Benicia (pop. 26,000) at noon and our first stop was California’s first capitol under U.S. rule (1853-54), located just off of First Avenue, the shopping and historical heart of this Main Street town. There we learned the town was named for the wife of General Mariano Vallejo, a general in the Mexican army charged with maintaining law and order in Alta California prior to the U.S. war with Mexico in 1848.
Ardent architectural history tourists will find a vast inventory of Victorian and Arts & Crafts era neighborhoods. Notably, Benicia reinvented itself from being a military town after WWII to an economically balanced suburban city that offers much to do on a day visit. A big part of the area’s makeover is the transformation of the Benicia U.S. Army arsenal into an arts community with its brick warehouses converted to civilian usage.
Inside the old arsenal is Bradbury & Bradbury, a noted wallpaper maker with a fine reputation in Arts & Crafts and Victoriana circles. Although, B&B manager Beverly Philips says she won’t turn away an unannounced visitor to its 30-year-old wallpaper design and manufacturing studio, it's best to make an appointment before attacking the labyrinth of warehouses and alley sized roads to find her. Better yet use the internet catalog to pursue its ample inventory.
Area antique dealers like Adobe Antiques and quaint restaurants, like Camellia Tea Room of course, welcomed us without an appointment. At Camellia’s, we hit the daily double as our savvy waitress jotted down six antique shops on a note card for us after serving us Camellia’s famous homemade scones and tomato soup.
Camellia’s and the rustic Union Hotel (both on First Street) have stunning Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper as part of the interior design. And, it’s hard to resist having a glass or two of excellent California wine at the hotel’s turn of the 20th century bar while admiring the wallpaper.
It was a fun two days. If you make the soon to be famous Berkeley to Benicia trek—go west to east--that way you'll be going against the congested traffic so dreaded in the Bay Area.
This article by Thomas Shess first appeared in Arts & Crafts Home, a national newsstand publication, Winter, 2009. Photo by Author.