From devastation came opportunity, particularly for one young man named Jack Thornburg. Then just 21, he began to plan out a new neighborhood filled with fairy-tale charm and secret corners.
To find it today, you need to know what you’re looking for. Normandy Village is tucked away on an ordinary street, just off the intersection of Hearst and Spruce. A few steps up Spruce and you’re transported to another world. The collection of a few dozen apartments, homes and condos comprise perhaps the best example of the storybook architectural style, which had a brief, magical moment in California in the 1920s. The look is more fantasy than reality, an imagined dream of a French-English village straight out of “Beauty and the Beast.”
No one is quite sure who conceived of Normandy Village’s unusual style, but at some point Thornburg joined forces with Oakland architect W.R. Yelland.
There are a few different stories about Yelland’s creative process. The most common is that he served in France during World War I, coming home full of ideas about thatched roofs and curvy outdoor staircases. Although he enlisted for the Great War, there’s no hard proof he was indeed deployed to France. Another tale says Yelland toured Normandy during his honeymoon, but that’s decidedly revisionist romantic history; he didn’t marry until 1930.
The most likely source of his French fascination is another trip. In 1920, the Oakland Tribune announced the then-Oakland High drawing teacher was leaving for a European holiday. Immigration records show Yelland returning from Marseilles a few months later.
Full of inspiration, Yelland set to work designing some of the East Bay’s most fantastical creations. Among the first was the Tupper Reed Building on Shattuck, which opened in 1925. It’s still there today, looking ready to topple over at any moment.
Next, he collaborated with Thornburg on their charming little neighborhood. They initially planned for it to be a true European village, complete with retail and grocery stores. But ultimately the city’s zoning rules prohibited this, and the pair instead began opening up homes starting in 1926.
A glowing May 1927 story in the Tribune explained the excitement around Normandy Village. “Large windows are the rule, and the charm of the strange building is enhanced by carved heads, or grotesque gargoyles, hanging above,” it read. Frescoes of fairy-tale roosters called chanticleers, still cheery today, were done by Yelland himself. Inside, the homes were decidedly modern, though, with electric ranges and top-of-the-line plumbing. “Only in the conveniences can an accusation of conventionalism be made,” the Tribune said.
Normandy Village quickly became a hot commodity — which is still true now. Berkeleyans jockey for position when rare listings come up, and some even rent there in the hopes a permanent vacancy will someday materialize.
The one drawback? Curious, photo-taking tourists, who arrive from around the world to see the anachronistic slice of medieval life right next to the UC Berkeley campus.
The final footnote to Berkeley’s prettiest neighborhood is the unusual life of Jack Thornburg.
After finishing the project, he left real estate. He got his pilot’s license in the late 1920s (although some stories claim he was a World War I flying ace, this seems highly unlikely), and in the 1930s joined the nascent airline TWA as one of its very first pilots. During World War II, he became a famed commander for flying rescue missions to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In civilian life, he enjoyed teaching young pilots, including 21-year-old Barry Goldwater. In his memoir “With No Apologies,” Goldwater wrote, “I decided to learn to fly. My instructor, Jack Thornburg, had a Great Lakes biplane with an inverted four-cylinder air-cooled engine.
“It was the only time I ever kept a secret from [my mother].”
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