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Berkeley’s biggest, most expensive historic mansion asks $7.5 million

Legacy of Bay Area tycoon long troubled, looking for a new owner

In the past, Berkeley’s Spring Mansion at 1960 San Antonio Drive proved a surprisingly divisive piece of work, considering that it’s a Berkeley landmark modeled after the residence of an Austrian empress.

Nevertheless, last time it came on the market, in 2010, we dubbed it a "cement palace" and compared original owner John Hopkins Spring to Donald Trump. (Which was at least a marginally less controversial comment in those days.) To be fair, the storied home was not in great shape then, appearing by turns stuffy and neglected.

Now, this seven bed, six and a half bath mansion circa 1914 that takes up three acres in the Berkeley Hills, requires three addresses (and to think, most of us peons are scraping by with just one…), and features doorways that are one foot thick has reappeared after a long and mysterious absence.

In the meantime it received a makeover that we must admit did away with much of its previous stuffiness and hopefully gave it a little of the TLC it needed.

It’s also garnered a hefty new asking price: $7.5 million, making Berkeley’s most expensive home, beating out even that oil baron’s estate on Claremont by nearly $3 million. Longtime readers may remember that in its previous incarnation, the Spring home changed price tags more often than most people change socks.

Originally a mammoth 12-acre project that was visible from San Francisco (!), the Spring Mansion broke ground in 1912, the passion project of San Francisco-born land baron John Hopkins Spring, who developed huge tracts of the East Bay and dotted the general Bay Area with several signature buildings (many of which sadly no longer exist).

Spring was one of the bay’s original high rollers; according to legend, he once bet the land that would eventually become the Claremont Resort in a game of checkers.

Spring himself only briefly lived in the $153,000 Berkeley mansion (that’s $3.6 million today) designed by Hume Castle architect John Hudson Thomas, leaving it behind when he walked out on his first wife and straight into a San Francisco mansion with his second wife. For 50 years after that it served as a school, then it spent 30 more as the abode of modern day real estate tycoon Larry Leon.

Since Leon sold it in 2005, it’s been called a "white elephant," since its tremendous size and historical significance make it an impractical investment for, well, anyone who doesn’t feel up to maintaining its 12,000 square feet of Tuscan columns, half-moon stairs, centerpiece atriums, and enough fireplaces to consume all of California’s native wood.

In light of its tempest-tossed history, this new offering might be called something of an optimistic gamble. Then again, times (and markets) have changed a lot recently, and by any standard, the legacy of John Spring’s monument to his first marriage cuts quite an impressive figure indeed.