The Cannon House, 1631 La Vereda House, Berkeley, California

Stumbling on Stories, Part 2

The Cannon House, 1631 La Vereda House, Berkeley, California The Cannon House, 1631 La Vereda Road, Berkeley

During a Mother’s Day visit to Molly and Mark in San Francisco last year, we explored the North Berkeley neighborhood where my mom grew up and my grandparents and their parents lived.

We located a house I grew up thinking was owned by my great-grandparents, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, an impressionist painter, and her botanist husband, Dr. William Austin Cannon, in the North Berkeley Hills and had a chance encounter with the home’s current owner.

Last week, in another serendipitous connection, Daniella Thompson, website editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, commented on the blog post I wrote about that day and connected more dots in my sketchy portrait of the great-grandmother I never knew:

Jennie V. Cannon owned not one but three houses on the 1600 block of La Vereda Road. The house at 1631 La Vereda (the first acquired by her) is one of the oldest on Berkeley’s Northside. It was built in 1895 for Theodore C. W. Petersen, a painting contractor who specialized in friezes and is known for having decorated the interior of California Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

In 1927, Jennie Cannon had a charming painting and drafting studio built directly to the south of her house … at 1633 La Vereda. … In 1928, Jennie Cannon commissioned architect and neighbor Lilian Bridgman to design for her a new house-cum-studio at 1629 La Vereda.

[Later correction from Daniella: the studio-like house at 1633, the small structure, was actually built in 1931 and replaced an earlier and smaller studio dating to 1927. The much larger Bridgman designed structure in the photograph with Jennie below was a rental from the first. Jennie was apparently an asute real estate investor and landlord!]

Wrought-iron stair railing at Jennie's little studio Modern wrought-iron stair railing at Jennie’s little studio

When Daniella emailed photos of the two studio/houses, I recognized them. I had shot my own pictures that May day, intrigued by their architectural details.

Daniella also sent a biography from An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. As I read it, stories I knew fell in place in the context of her life. (My comments are in parenthesis.)

Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

Born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon became a painter, lithographer and writer of newspaper articles about art. She was especially known for her paintings of the Arizona landscape.

She grew up in Battle Lake, Minnesota. Both her mother and step-mother died when she was young, which caused her to drop out of school at the age of nine and enter again at age 17. By 1888 (at age 19), she was a teacher in her home-town area (one of the few respectable jobs open to young women).

Untitled painting, near Tucson, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon Untitled painting, near Tucson, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

Later she studied at Hamline University in St. Paul, 1891–1895, and in 1897, attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, California where her art teacher was Bolton Brown from whom she received her first formal art training.

In 1898, she married William Austin Cannon, who was also a Stanford student (and whose first wife had died in Yosemite several years earlier), and they moved to New York where she enrolled at the National Academy of Art and the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase. Her husband earned a PhD (in Botany) from Columbia University.

Jennie in the studio designed by Berkeley architect Lilian Bridgman Jennie at the studio/house designed by Berkeley architect Lilian Bridgman

In 1905, she and her husband relocated, this time moving to Tucson, Arizona (he arrived in Tucson in 1903 to found the Carnegie Institute’s Desert Botanical Laboratory; Jennie and my granddad Milner and his toddler brother George followed after their house was finished) where she stayed primarily… except for trips to London–1910–1911, (while Dr. William botanized the Sahara Desert in North Africa) and New York–1917–1918. Until 1913, she stayed in Carmel during the summers. In 1918 (when Dr. William sailed to Australia to study the deserts there), she moved to Berkeley, California, and remained there until 1948 when she went back to Tucson (where she lived with her younger son, George).

(They separated in 1918 and eventually divorced. Dr. William, a founding member of the Ecological Society of America, married again–twice. Jennie never remarried. She participated in the lively art colony of the Berkeley Hills, where she met poet and journalist Mira Maclay, who wrote about architecture for Sunset Magazine. In 1929, Jennie’s eldest son, Milner, married Mira’s daughter, Janet Maclay, after the two met at University of California Berkeley. Mira built my grandparents a house, where they raised my mom. She lived in the attached mother-in-law apartment. Jennie died in Tucson.)
Untitled Carmel (?) seascape, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (one of my favorites) Untitled Carmel seascape, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (one of my favorite of her paintings)

(Jennie’s) exposure to the Arizona desert launched her serious career as an artist, and she did many paintings of the desert and mountains as well as the Grand Canyon, historic missions, and native Indians. She also painted in New Mexico and along the California coast, especially at Carmel and La Jolla. Among her titles are “In Old Tucson,” “Taos Indian Pueblo,” “Carmel Mission,” and “Along the Apache Trail.”

In addition, Cannon painted still lifes and city scenes of New York and San Francisco, and she exhibited widely including the Carmel Art Association, the San Francisco Art Association, and with the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

She was also art editor of the Berkeley Gazette in the 1920s, and lectured on art. Her autobiography of her early life is titled “Watershed Drama, Battle Lake, Minnesota.”

Her work is in the John Vanderpoel Art Association of Chicago and the Otter Tail County Historical Society Museum in Battle Lake (and in private collections).

A talented woman who apparently found happiness by building a life–and a room–of her own. I want to know more.

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment in back of my grandparent’s house

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home, to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

The Big Sur Coast, by my great-grandmother, Jennie Cannon

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

My great-grandmother, Janet Maclay (Cannon) with her horse, Danny Boy

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with  Danny Boy (~1918)

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

Molly shares my fascination with family stories, so when we were planning my recent visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

On the appointed day, they drove me through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. Molly navigated through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

The top of the campanile from 1631 La Vereda Road

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad. We parked there, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at the street.

My great-grandparents’ house at 1631 La Vereda Road

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon,” I said, and he interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

As Molly navigated carefully down that steep bit of street, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Molly and Mark, for exploring Berkeley with me. And thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.