Homegrown Landscape Architect – David Thorne

by Jerry Barclay

Landscape Architect David Thorne’s Oakland legacies run deep. His father, Beverley D. Thorne, was a noted modernist architect who uniquely developed the use of steel as the structure for his residential designs (more on this later). The offices of David Thorne Landscape Architect are located at 3315 Grand Avenue – the original location of Dreyer’s Ice Cream when the company was founded in 1928 – which Beverley purchased in 1993.  The Thorne family thoroughly renovated the building and it became the new location for Beverley’s firm and David’s growing company, along with other commercial tenants.

David was born and raised in Oakland and attended public school at Joaquin Miller, Montera, and then Skyline High School, before heading to UC Berkeley where he majored in Landscape Architecture. David has lived in Oakland all of his non-college years and raised his family here with his wife, Esther Saidman. He is clearly proud of his Oakland roots and the influence Oakland and the Bay Area have had on him.

David did not arrive at Cal as a landscape architecture major. He entered as a freshman in the Fall of 1973 with interests in geography, art history, and a general curiosity. Early on, he took an introductory class in landscape architecture and was immediately hooked. Asked what drove his interest in landscape architecture, David cites it as the most broad-based design profession: site planning and design, grading and drainage, horticulture, environmental design considerations, plant design, and the integration of all of those with architecture and construction. At UCB’s College of Environmental Design, David was most influenced by professors highly talented and successful in their profession, and in the teaching of hand sketching, theoretical design, and understanding the importance of developing a design concept – the “Big Idea” – and how to engage an audience to talk about it.  

At home, David’s father wasn’t the only talented parent. His mother was a graphic designer and fashion illustrator back when the only way fashion could be communicated was through hand illustrations. There was a lot of drawing in the Thorne household, and David is appreciative of his parents’ influence and his creative genes.

After graduation and a few years working in the profession, David obtained his license and soon thereafter established his own firm in 1983. Beverley Thorne had established an office at 462 Elwood Avenue, upstairs from Pride Cleaners on Grand Avenue, and David moved in to establish his own firm. His practice grew, and they expanded their presence at 462 Elwood over the ensuing years until Beverley purchased 3315 Grand.

David’s practice is nearly 100% residential. Most of his work is in the Greater Bay Area: Oakland, Piedmont, Berkeley, “Lamorinda,” and the Peninsula. More recently, clients have pulled David to the wine country, Socal, and Sacramento. Examples of his work are presented beautifully on his website, which is definitely worth checking out. When asked if there is an overarching principle to his designs, it becomes apparent that he isn’t tied to any one in particular. He likes to work in a variety of styles (this is very apparent from his website), influenced by his highly tuned sensibility and an assessment of important elements presented by a project’s site, microclimate, garden space, architecture vernacular (of the house) – and, importantly, the client’s preferences. 

David most enjoys working with people, especially his clients. When starting a project, he engages his clients by discussing their goals, what they like, what’s important in their lives. They walk the property and David listens and learns. He encourages and helps them to “stretch their goals” and expectations  – within reasonable constraints, such as budget – so that potential opportunities for something special are not overlooked.  A return visit with staff who form the project team enables a more in-depth assessment. He asserts that a successful design process relies on strong, accurate information – often a survey, plenty of photos, site orientation, structures, and other influences. The team will brainstorm at the office with sketches and preliminary concepts and typically develop three schematic designs to present to the client. With the client’s input, they will focus on the preferred concept and move the process forward. When asked what his greatest source of design inspiration is, David’s surprising response was “reflection” and “sleeping on it” – literally to “dream about it.” He really knows how to put his subconscious to work!

I first met David in 2002, when he provided landscape design services to my wife and me to upgrade our modest garden in the upper Lakeshore area. He was such a pleasure to work with – no pretense, no attitude, just a genuine desire to satisfy and fulfill expectations via his talent. He was incredibly friendly, insightful, competent, and highly professional. We were overjoyed with the outcome. I have no idea whether he dreamed about it but now I have to wonder.

David Thorne Landscape Architect employs a staff of twelve representing a range of experience and backgrounds. His studio is organized into a few small teams, each having its own projects. David averages forty to fifty projects a year that vary in scale and stages of development. Almost half of the company’s staff lives in Oakland; the other half in nearby communities. He points to a diverse staff and culture within the company that reflects the notion of Oakland. Their work in a wide range of styles is “… just like Oakland.”

He thinks being centered in Oakland – and especially in such a great location – has provided many benefits, including great access to public transportation and to freeways that take his team to the locations of their design work. Lake Merritt and the nearby Rose Garden provide walking opportunities, including a weekly one-on-one “walk with Dave,” when one employee accompanies him on a walk around the lake to discuss their work and other fertile topics. Many of the firm’s employees have come from nearby landscape design programs at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Merritt College, and being close to those institutions has given the firm the opportunity to attract top designers and collaborators. David stated that “the nature of Oakland, the amazing art, music, food, rich culture is a fantastic draw for so many folks to live close by or in this amazing place called Oakland and having them want to live and work here is definitely a benefit [to] us being based here.”

David enjoys his free time most in the outdoors. When his two sons – now young adults – were growing up, the family, accompanied by the family dog, would often enjoy walks or hikes together. Nowadays it’s him, Esther, and their dog. He loves cultivating his vegetable garden and cooking. Extensive world travel has been both a great pleasure and an opportunity to experience and learn from diverse cultures, architecture, ecologies, and designed landscapes.

Here’s more about David’s legacy. Beverley D. Thorne grew up in Piedmont and graduated from Piedmont High. He was an Air Force pilot in WWII, after which he enrolled at UC Berkeley, graduating with an architecture degree. He started his practice in 1954 in an office on Claremont Avenue near the Star Market. According to David, his father was quite a Renaissance man. Unlike most architects today, Beverley was very accomplished at structural engineering. Given his pursuit of using steel framing systems for residential projects, and a dearth of residential contractors capable of constructing the steel systems, Beverley took welding classes at night school for a year. He began raising the steel frameworks using very basic methods (no mobile cranes available then!) and performing the welding – often with help from clients. 

One of Beverly’s first projects, which brought great attention to his work, was the 1954 Dave Brubeck Residence in Berkeley, constructed soon after Brubeck had made his music breakthrough and become famous. The design on a steep hillside site was dramatically modern and enabled by Beverly’s use of structural steel. A highly informative and fascinating video of Beverly and his work, “The Man of Steel,” reveals his personality, building designs, and provides a keen historical perspective on his mid-century genre. The five-minute video is highly worth the time and can be seen via this link. While he slowed down in his later days, passing away in 2018 at the age of 94, he never fully retired or ended his creative pursuits.

The Thorne family has a very long history in the Grand Lake neighborhood, contributing to Oakland’s commerce and culture. For nearly sixty years, the Thornes have sprinkled creative homes and landscapes throughout Oakland and the East Bay enriching our environs.  

Epilogue:

Dreyers Grand Ice Cream has quite an Oakland history and a legacy of its own. The roots of the two partners who founded the company – William Dreyer and Joseph Edy (of Edy’s Candy fame) – predate their partnership. It is a very interesting story, and more can be learned via these links:

https://www.icecream.com/us/en/brands/dreyers/our-story

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyer%27s

Jerry is a graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. After a long career in construction and real estate development – which included the redevelopment of Old Oakland, construction of Stern Grove, and a management role for the Christ the Light Cathedral – he is now happily retired. Jerry was appointed Chair of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee by Pat Kernighan in 2007. He and his wife, Caryn, have lived in the Grand Lake Neighborhood for thirty-seven years, and he is a regular shopper at the Grand Lake Farmers Market.