Open, expansive grasslands, streams meandering from oak-studded hills, a few rural homesteads and scattered livestock was the scene in the Albany area in the 1890s. So it must have been a surprise to newcomers to look up and see a palatial, opulent building, festooned with turrets and gables, looming in the distance over the pastoral setting.
Completed in the early 1890s, the four-story had 60 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms, and was considered the height of luxury at the time. It was built by Maurice B. Curtis, a famous and flamboyant actor who arrived in Berkeley in the late 1880s and quickly became one of the East Bay’s most notable, and later notorious, citizens.
Some years earlier, Curtis—whose real last name was Strelinger—landed the lead role in a play called Sam’l of Posen. (Posen Avenue, in Albany and Berkeley, is named after this stage production.) The play was so successful that Curtis bought it and toured the country performing with his own theater company, amassing prestige and wealth in the process.
In the 1880s he settled his theater company in San Francisco and began buying up tracts of land in Berkeley, selling them for a profit. Soon he began to acquire land near today’s Berkeley/Albany border. It was here, at the present site of , that he built his grand hotel.
Surrounded by gardens, the hotel was well-equipped to entertain Curtis’ theater and business friends, and utilizing these connections he sold residential lots in the surrounding area to create a stylish, upscale neighborhood. He and his wife (also his leading lady), Albina de Mer, built a house near Sacramento and Hopkins streets. Today, nearby Albina Street bears her name.
Curtis called his resort Peralta Park to honor Jose Domingo Peralta, a member of the family that received the 1820 Spanish land grant in the East Bay. Peralta had built an adobe structure near the area a few decades earlier.
Given his fame and riches, Curtis quickly became one of Berkeley’s prominent citizens. Within a few months of his arrival, he organized a West Berkeley bank, became the president of the new Berkeley Electric Light Company and financed a new fire station, named Posen Station, among other ventures.
Various accounts of Curtis indicate that not all his business dealings were honest, yet the charismatic actor was popular.
“I remember Curtis coming to Berkeley,” said Berkeley Councilman George Schmidt in a 1920 obituary about the actor. “He wore a fine big overcoat and an expensive hat and he walked away with the town…..He was the greatest promoter I ever saw. He gave the biggest lunches and dinners at his home, and gathered all kinds of wealthy people from San Francisco there. When he finished feeding them they were ready to buy the world.”
To ensure easy access to his hotel, which at the time was in an undeveloped area (much of the hotel site would later become part of Albany), Curtis convinced a local railway company to run a branch horsecar line out Sacramento Street to Hopkins Street, thus connecting the hotel to the more developed areas of Berkeley.
Unfortunately, his resort plans never fully materialized. In 1891, Curtis attended a theater performance in San Francisco. As the night wore on, he began drinking heavily and ended up having a run-in with the police. A scuffle ensued, a shot was fired and Curtis was accused of murdering a police officer.
Curtis maintained his innocence, and although evidence weighed against him, after a series of controversial trials he was found not guilty. Curtis sold his lavish hotel to help pay the fees associated with his defense.
Although he attempted to continue acting, even starring in two films, his reputation was never again the same. He died a poor man in 1920 at a county hospital in Southern California.
The Peralta Park Hotel was subsequently used for two different schools until 1903 when the and established Saint Joseph’s Academy for Boys. The Christian Brothers dubbed the building “The Palace.”
In 1927, they moved Saint Mary’s College High School to the site and used the hotel as a resident’s hall. Tragically, a 1946 fire, which broke out in one of the building’s towers, destroyed the top two floors, along with their ornate decoration. The Christian Brothers continued to use the bottom two floors until the building was finally demolished in 1959.
Very little remains today of the original Peralta Park. A large Victorian house on Albina Street stands out as a reminder of the grand resort and its surrounding chic neighborhood, and a lone, towering palm tree, once part of the Peralta Park gardens, remains on the Saint Mary’s College High campus—a last tribute to Curtis’ dream.
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