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Henderson Tapscott Building & Capelis Airport

Today at 532 Liberty, at the corner of Liberty and Willow Street, still stands the old Henderson Tapscott real estate office building which was once used as a Baptist Church but is now a private residence. This building had been moved from the southeast corner of San Pablo Avenue and Central Avenue where the now Kiefer Furniture Store is located. In 1906, this building had served as a real estate office for the Henderson Tapscott Developers. This was a shingled building with four-sided peaked roof and a large open porch that ran nearly all around it. At the rear of the building, about 50 feet from the office, was a small outhouse (which everyone had in those days as there were no sewers in this village). [Editor's note: Kiefer's furniture store closed in 2001.]

San Pablo Avenue was a dirt road then and a single streetcar track ran past this tract office on its way to Richmond from Oakland. In those days most of the people built within walking distance of the streetcar because they wanted to be near the transportation.

Looking up into the hills one could see only a few scattered buildings and only a very few trees growing here and there, with an occasional tent standing where someone was living while he completed his home.

Later, in 1927, a large building was constructed at Central and San Pablo Avenue where the Henderson Tapscott building stood in 1906. It 1927, long before Kiefer Furniture Store moved into this building, about a mile of telephone poles were blown down during the terrible wind storm along the city's San Pablo Avenue. The building had been used for a number of purposes. It had been used for a garage, and the American Legion had held various doings in this building, including a few smokers. Amateur fights were held inside what they called "Little Madison Square Garden" under the promoters Louis Davis and Mike Dolan. For a short time they also had skating in the building. Various people had also occupied it doing business as a body shop, including Carl Allen, Red Dunn and Ted Olsen.

One of the great attractions in the late 1920's was the construction of the Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation. Ltd., and the first plane was constructed in this building. Sam H. Capelis, the inventor, was president, Charles W. Zimmerman, was vice president, L. A. Girard, publisher of the El Cerrito Journal was secretary, and Thomas Phillips, treasurer. The Board of Directors included, John L. Grondona, Carlo Fara, W. J. Prater, Charles De Long, Harry C. Schroeder, Francis Aebi, and George Zanes.

Sam H Capelis was of Greek descent and lived in El Cerrito at 7115 Donal Avenue, where the Castro School now stands. He had raised several acres of various types of berries, which he sold. He also raised and sold rabbits and goats.

It has been said that the Capelis plane was the first twin motor situated on the wing airplane and that he had also invented a special safety stabilizer of some sort. This plane was later hauled to the old Oakland Airport where the Capelis Corporation held their meetings.

On the first flight, which was successful, they flew over El Cerrito and hundreds of local residents were outside waving at the plane as it passed over, as a number of local people had invested in this project. It had been rumored that some of the proposed investors were from another airplane manufacturer who saw the plans of the Capelis Corporation and used them for their own benefit.

The following notes were taken from the El Cerrito Journal of Thursday, May 22, 1930: "One week before above date the State granted a permit to the Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation, Ltd., to operate a ferry service. The corporation would also continue with its plan to construct the monster Safety Aeroplane designed and patented by Capelis to carry a larger number of passengers than has yet been carried by any heavier than air machine. It is the present plan of the corporation to eventually construct a factory in El Cerrito where the larger planes will be constructed and marketed. The starting of the ferry service is secondary to the plans to building planes".

Then on Thursday, July 24, l930, the El Cerrito Journal noted: "Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation, Ltd., of El Cerrito, on Tuesday morning was awarded a lease on the Berkeley Municipal Wharf at the foot of University Avenue for five years during which time the corporation intends operating an airplane ferry service between Berkeley and San Francisco and at the same time operate service to several other points in California.

The awarding of the lease to the Capelis Corporation was made at the submission of its bid at the public auction held by the Berkeley Council and at which several other companies were expected to bid. The local company's bid was the only one submitted, when the time for bidding came.

"The Capelis Corporation, which is composed almost entirely of El Cerrito, Richmond and Oakland business men, intends to start operation of the airplane ferry service as soon as the remaining details of the organization are completed. The corporation does not intend to abandon its original interest of building airplane, but on the contrary will continue along that line as well as operate the airlines."

Other information that I have been unable to obtain may come to light by some old timer in El Cerrito at a later date. There is lots of information to be uncovered such as what was the exact invention that Capelis designed, date of the plane's first flight, and why the corporation failed, etc. All of the Capelis airplane work started in the now Kiefer building at San Pablo Avenue and Central in El Cerrito and not in the old El Cerrito Theater portion nearby, which was constructed in 1937.

The following year the El Cerrito Volunteer Fireman Department held a Christmas party for the children in the area. With the help of volunteers, the Mayor of the City of El Cerrito played Santa Claus and helped pass out candy, apples, and oranges, as the children left the theater. The really needy children in the city had toys delivered to their homes that had been repaired and repainted to almost their original condition, during the year, by the volunteers.

After I had typed the previous information, I contacted Pierre Allinio, who is now living in Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico, in regards to the Capelis Corporation and also the airplanes that Pierre's father, Peter, had designed and built at what is now 609 Kearney Street. Pierre Allinio was raised here in this building, which is still standing on the west side of Kearney Street near Lincoln Avenue. He was a long time resident of this city and had been very active in city affairs until he moved to Mexico a few years ago.

The following is a quote of his letter he sent me to help in my research:

"Dear Mervin:

Re: concrete structure, corner Central (Kiefer Building)

It was built as a garage and auto display room during the 20's but never succeeded as such. Louis Davis used it several times for American Legion affairs. While I was involved in an endurance flight in Los Angeles (my dad's plane refueling Jimmy Angel's tri-motor, fall and winter of 1930), a Ford Agency moved in but lasted only a short while.

In 1929, I built two scale models for Harry B. Capelis. With these two models he raised a considerable amount of money which attracted a man named Young or Younger who taught aeronautical engineering. Young or Younger promptly took charge and moved into the "Kiefer Building" with his students and built a standard twin-engine plane-monoplane. Rumor had it that time that he had lifted the plane from Boeing. When tested, it was found to be overweight and not capable of a payload.

The remarkable thing about this episode it that not one stockholder or even Capelis had the slightest awareness that there was no resemblance whatsoever between Capelis' models and Younger's plane.

The automatic stabilizers you refer to were patented by my Dad in 1914, and proved successful on the plane he designed, built and flew in 1916. The two-place biplane he built on the ground floor of our home at 904 Kearney Street, Rust, California (now El Cerrito, house number 609).

My Dad also used his automatic stabilizer on his five-place cabin plane in 1922. The advent of the gyroscope automatic pilot eliminated the need of Dad's patent.

I have a considerable amount of early aero photos, plus a pair of curved dihedral wings (68 inches overall) that my Dad designed and built in 1908, plus 1912 photos of his first flight in a Curtis Pusher. I do not have anything left of his 1914 seaplane, but I do have the eight struts of his 1916 biplane. Nothing but photos of his 1922 five-place cabin plane, and also photos of his 1928 five-place cabin biplane.

Dad bought the property between Kearney Street and San Pablo (near Lincoln) in 1908. It was here he raised his family and followed his avocation of flying and building aircraft. I still have a copy of his 1919 plans for a 100 passenger aircraft.

I also have several albums pertaining to Cerrito City Club functions that are of historical interest, plus, of course, photos of my childhood, etc."

Jimmy Angel, who Pierre referred to above, was a well-known and daring pilot and was one of the best in those days, and did a lot of flying for Pierre's father.

Copyright Mervin Belfils, October 1975
Copyright El Cerrito Historical Society, June 2006

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