Walter H. Ratcliff Landmark

City Report Dec 17, 2002
Ratcliff Jr. Biography
Public Works HISTORY
City Council APPEAL

Walter Harris Ratcliff, Jr. was born in 1881 in London, England. His father, an Episcopal clergyman, was headmaster of a private school. In 1893 when Walter was twelve, the Ratcliff family moved to America, settling first in San Diego, later moving to Pasadena and finally to Berkeley in 1898. Walter attended Berkeley High School, and, with a major in chemistry, graduated from the University of California with honors in 1903.

While attending the University his interests turned toward architecture and with the help of his older friend Louis Mcfarland, who secured finances needed, Walter designed and supervised the construction of a speculative house in Berkeley in 1902. Both men realized a net profit of fifty dollars and with that success went on to build several brown-shingle spec" houses in the Oakland/ Berkeley area during the next few years under the name of the Alameda County Home Investment Company.

In 1904 Ratcliff left Berkeley for a "grand tour" of Europe, stopping first in England to visit his relatives and sketch English architecture. His uncle, president of the Ratcliff Copper and Brass Works in Great Bridge, sent him off to Italy with a letter of introduction, and while there he Intended the British School in Rome.

After two years of school and travel, Ratcliff returned to Berkeley and joined the San Francisco firm of John Galen Howard, where he participated in the work on the Hearst Mining Building at U.C. Later he worked on the Doe Library project (in 1927 he designed the present Morrison Memorial Library reading room in that same building)

By 1908 Ratcliff had opened his own architectural office, first in San Francisco as Ratcliff & Jacobs, and then in Berkeley (where it now the oldest East Bay firm). During the first few years he continued to work with Louis McFarland designing substantial shingled residences. These were similar to other craftsman designs of the period, but, with Ratcliff's knowledge of indigenous English architecture, he emphasized forms which suggested thatched roofs and half-timbered walls. The success of his work, coupled with his winning manner, soon awarded him commissions which varied from the small English cottage in Claremont Court for Miss Anna Head to the large Italianate mansion in Piedmont (now destroyed) for Senator A. H. Breed, and included the Berkeley Elks' Club and several apartment buildings.

About this same time Ratcliff met Miss Muriel Williams of Oakland who was an Anna Head School alumna. In 1912 she and Walter married and a year later they built their home on Roble Road, where they lived for the next sixty years.
In 1913, with over two hundred buildings to his credit, Ratcliff was appointed to the post of Berkeley City Architect, and in 1915 worked with the city to produce the state's first zoning laws. By 1916 he had designed several fire stations and supervised the building of five new schools at less than 10 1/2 cents per square foot. His own design of the Edison School was applauded by The Architect and Engineer (May 1916) for being "a model of artistic economy difficult to duplicate" and the City of Berkeley was praised for having chosen "a really first-class man for their City Architect.".

The year 1920 saw Ratcliff and Louis McFarland Join together again for a business venture. This time it was the founding of the Fidelity Mortgage and Securities Company, with McFarland as president and Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. as secretary. The firm has evolved into the present Fidelity Savings and Loan.
Ratcliff was by this time not only a prominent local architect, but also an important local businessman, and it is therefore not surprising that he was appointed to the prestigious position of Architect and Planner for Mills College in Oakland in 1923. A master plan had previously been commissioned in 1918 by Phoebe Apperson Hearst and executed by Bernard Maybeck. Ratcliff adopted the Maybeck plan which consisted in the Beaux Arts tradition, of two perpendicular axes, making a modification only in the east-west axis.

The College Board under the direction of President Aurelia Henry Reinhardt decided to construct the buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, a style becoming increasingly popular throughout all California. Ratcliff, in order to familiarize himself with a style he had never used, took off for a tour of Mexico, sketching and drawing early Spanish Colonial buildings. Upon his return he began designing private residences in this Spanish style and in 1925 completed the Art Gallery at Mills College. From this time on he alternated between Spanish and English styles in almost all his designs.

In 1933 Louis McFarland became ill and Ratcliff was forced to assume the duties of President of Fidelity Guarantee Savings and Loan. This fact, together with the building depression in the 1930's, severely limited new architectural commissions, and there is little record of his work throughout the 1930's and early 1940's. In 1946 his son Robert joined the firm and with Scott Hammond as a partner the firm became Ratcliff Hammond Ratcliff. Walter worked in the office until 1955 when he retired from architecture. Walter Ratcliff died in Berkeley in 1973 at the age of 92.
Source: Nicholas Hanson (1980) Archives. Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA)

  • In the twenties, Tudor and Elizabethan styles vied for public favor with the Spanish: when a fine home was planned, one of these types was usually chosen. Both were well adapted to Berkeley's climate and geographic conditions. The English type had been introduced into Berkeley by architect Walter Ratcliff, who designed many fine residences and several public buildings.
    Source: Berkeley – The first seventy-five years
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