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Male, born 1876-03-25, died 1949-03-18

Associated with the firms network

Dickey and Donovan, Architects; Donovan, John J., Architect; Flagg, Ernest W., Architect; Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones, Architects

Professional History


His obituary in the Oakland Tribune of 03/19/1949 provided some clues about his early work history: "A native of North Andover, Mass, Donovan, was forced to go to work in textile mills at the age of 14 because of the death of his father. At 23, he was foreman of brick work on a project at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. It was then that he decided to study architecture." (See "John J. Donovan," Oakland Tribune, 03/19/1949.)

Early in his working life, John J. Donovan apparently worked in the building trades. Before he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become an architect, he seems to have labored in the building trades. He may have been a brick mason before he ambitiously talked his way into MIT to learn a white-collar profession. An article published in the San Francisco Call in 1912 said of him: "Donovan worked his way up from a bricklayer while attending night schools in Boston, and is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." (See "Easterner To Be City Architect," San Francisco Call, vol. 111, no. 37, 01/06/1912, p. 17.)

Draftsman/Construction Superintendent, Ernest Flagg, Architect, Architect, New York, NY, c. 1903; (for Flagg, Donovan worked as the construction superintendent of the Singer Building, New York, NY, 1906-1908, the tallest building in the world between 1908-1909; it was surpassed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in 1909, which, in turn, was surpassed by the Woolworth Building, New York, NY, in 1913.)

Designer, Palmer, Hornbostel and Jones, Architects, Pittsburgh, PA. Donovan came out to Oakland to serve as a superintendent for the Oakland City Hall, the commission for which Palmer and Hornbostel won in a well-publicized competition. According to a note published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumni periodical in 1915, Donovan arrived in Oakland on 04/05/1911, " act as supervising architect of that [the Oakland City Hall]." (See "News from the Classes: 1906," Technology Review, vol. 17, no. 4, 04/1915, p. 316.)

Principal, John Donovan, Architect, Oakland, CA, 1912- . In 1912, Donovan leased his first office in the Security Bank Building in Oakland. (See Oakland, California, City Directory, 1912, p. 961.)

Partner, Donovan and Dickey, Architects, Oakland, CA, 1916-1917. Both Donovan and Charles W. Dickey (1871-1942) had expertise in school design, and formed a brief partnership.(See Robert Jay, The Architecture of Charles W. Dickey: Hawaii and California, [Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992], p. 104.)

From at least 1916 until 1921, Donovan maintained his office in Room #512 of the Pacific Building, 414 13th Street. (See Oakland, California, City Directory, 1916, p. 1292 and Oakland, California, City Directory, 1921, p. 1106.) In 1934, Donovan operated his architectural practice at 950 Parker Street, Room B, in Oakland. (See Oakland, California, City Directory, 1934, p. 860.)

Professional Activities

Donovan became very well known during the 1910s and 1920s for his work designing and supervising the construction of Oakland, CA's schools. A notice in the Architect and Engineer of California reported in 1915: "Although several hundred extra copies of the March issue of the Architect and Engineer were printed, the entire edition was exhausted within a few days after publication. Form the interest shown it is evident the type of school building adopted in Oakland meets with general favor, or it may be the novelty of the one-story, semi-open air structure has arounsed the curiosity of municipal bodies and educators to the extent that they seem unable to obtain too much information on the subject. Some more fine examples of California school houses are planned for readers of this magazine, including the work of William H. Weeks of San Francisco, which will be shown in the May number. In June or July the school buildings in Southern California by Architects Allison and Allison, of Los Angeles, will be shown." (See "Public Interested in School Architecture," Architect and Engineer of California, vol XLI, no. 1, 04/1915, p. 107.) These three designers, Donovan, Weeks and Allison and Allison, obtained a great number of school commissions during the 1910s and 1920s, a period of rapid population growth in CA and great expansion of public school systems.

President, American Institute of Architects (AIA), Northern California Chapter.

Member, California State Board of Architectural Examiners, 1919-1933.

Donovan co-wrote the book "School Architecture" that was used widely in architectural planning for new schools in the 1920s. (See John J. Donovan, "School Architecture," [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921].)

Donovan served as Campus Architect for Saint Mary's College in Moraga, CA; he also designed some buildings on the campus of another Catholic school in the Bay Area, Santa Clara University. Donovan served as one of three architectural consultants working on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.


HIgh School/College

Donovan was said to have attended public schools in North Andover, MA. and taken night school classes later on in his life. In the late 1890s, Donovan worked as a brick mason on a dormitory at Phillips Academy, and this experience was said to have fired his ambition to get an education and become an architect. The Phillips dormitory on which he may have worked could have been Bancroft Hall, a three-story, brick dormitory completed in 1898.

Graduate, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, 1903. According to The Phillipian, the newspaper of Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, John J. Donovan graduated from the prestigious prep school in 1903. He would have been 27 at the time. The journal reported in 1907: "'03--John J. Donovan graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1906, and entered the office of Ernest Flagg, architect, in New York. He is supervising architect of the Singer Sewing Machine Co.'s forty-one story building, now being erected at the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, which, when completed, will be the highest building in the world." (See "Alumni Notes," The Phillipian, vol. XXIX, no. 48, 04/27/1907, p. 15.)

B.S., Arch., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, 1906. According to a review of his book on school architecture written in 1921: "A quarter of a century ago a young bricklayer begged Professor Chandler to allow him to become a special student of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In goodness of heart, Professor Chandler consented. He saw in the impetuous youth the qualities of leadership, but it is safe to say he did not expect him to become one of the leaders among schoolhouse architects of America." (See Frank Irving Cooper, "Reviews and Abstracts," Journal of Educational Research, vol. 4, no. 4, 11/1921, p. 321.)

Donovan at first felt self-consious about his late graduation from both Phillips Academy and MIT, but got over it. An East Bay Times article quoted him as saying: “I was very much concerned about my age … but I soon learned that whether I graduated or not, at 30, I would be just as old, whether or not I attended Andover and Tech.” (See "Yellow daffodils sprucing up Oakland," East Bay Times, 02/19/2006, updated on 08/17/2016, accessed 03/27/2017.)



John Joseph Donovan did not have a standard biography. Finding biographical documents on his early years is difficult, due to the large number of Irish-descended men named "John J. Donovan" alive in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Even still, the paucity of American birth documents or US Census data on him is unusual and hard to explain.

By his own account, John Donovan was born in North Andover, Massachusetts, but was orphaned as a boy and forced to find work in local textile mills at 14. An article in the East Bay Times in 2016 referenced local biographical documents held by the City of Oakland that shed light on his early years: "According to his biographical statement, on file at the city planning department Cultural Survey office, Donovan had been orphaned early in life and sought to learn a trade, so he would not have to work long hours for minimal wages in the textile mills near his hometown of Andover. 'Shortly after becoming a brick-layer journeyman and becoming familiar with blue prints and drawings,' Donovan writes, 'I was made foreman of the brick work on a dormitory at a private school — the Phillips Academy.' After the job was completed, 'without going into detail,' he writes, the ambitious young worker was back at the school the following year as a student. (See "Yellow daffodils sprucing up Oakland," East Bay Times, 02/19/2006, updated on 08/17/2016, accessed 03/27/2017.)

The architect, however, may not have been completely candid when discussing his past. Documents exist that indicate that a "John J. Donovan," born on 03/25/1876, came to Boston, MA, on 06/05/1892, from County Cork, Ireland. As he had arrived as a minor, Donovan applied in 1898, at age 22, for naturalized citizenship. Two Lowell residents, T.H. Muldoon and John H. Nolan, served as witnesses for Donovan's naturalization process. (See, Source Citation National Archives at Boston; Waltham, Massachusetts; ARC Title: Copies of Petitions and Records of Naturalization in New England Courts, 1939 - ca. 1942; NAI Number: 4752894; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: RG 85, accessed 03/27/2017.) This naturalization document indicated that Donovan lived at 230 Fayette Street in Lowell, MA, in 1898. Lowell was close to Andover, MA, where Donovan may have been working as a construction worker at Phillips Academy.

Other documents, including baptismal records, indicate that this John J. Donovan's early years were spent in Ireland. He was baptized on 05/25/1876 in Kilmacabea, County Cork, Ireland, but his parents--Bath Donovan and Bess Gormans--resided at the time in the town of Corran. These possible biographical facts, could also explain why Donovan got such a late start in life

Donovan attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, before working in New York, NY, for about five years, c. 1906-1911. He migrated to Oakland, CA, by 04/1911 where he came to supervise the erection of Palmer and Hornbostel's $2 million Oakland City Hall.

The 1920 US Census reported that Donovan and his family resided in the tony Crocker Highlands tract of Oakland at 1166 Clarendon Crescent. They were affluent enough to afford a servant, a Danish woman named Anna S. Hansen (born c. 1880). (See, Source Citation Year: 1920; Census Place: Oakland, Alameda, California; Roll: T625_89; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 79; Image: 409, 03/27/2017.) The family had moved into the house by at least 09/1918; the architect had listed this address as his residence on his World War I draft registration form. (See, Source Citation Registration State: California; Registration County: Alameda; Roll: 1531211; Draft Board: 4, accessed 03/27/2017.)

In 1940, the 1166 Clarendon had an estimated value of $20,000, well above the average Oakland home price. The entire family, including his son-in-law, Roger W. Stevens, a salesman, and a 1-year-old granddaughter, Dorothy, continued to live at 1166 Clarendon Crescent.

He remained in Oakland for his entire life until dying of a stroke at age 72, a week before his 73rd birthday.


At his death, Donovan also had two sisters: Mrs. William Crowley, of Melrose, MA, and Mrs. Josephine Fox, of Saint Petersburg, FL.


Donovan married May Ella Coogan (1880-1980). May was a well-known singer c. 1910, who came from a family of lawyers. Her father, Timothy C. Coogan (born c. 1849 in CT), had his own practice c. 1910. Her brother, Albert J. Coogan, was also lawyer who lived at the family home at 748 Oakland Avenue in Berkeley, CA, in 1911. Her mother was Mary E. Watson Coogan (born c. 1857 in CT), who managed the house. May also had a sister, Margery Coogan Campbell (1886-1957). (See, Source Citation Year: 1910; Census Place: Oakland Ward 1, Alameda, California; Roll: T624_69; Page: 19B; Enumeration District: 0082; FHL microfilm: 1374082, accessed 03/27/2017 and Oakland, California, City Directory, 1911, p. 274.)

He wrote about May Ella late in his life: "'The best thing I have ever done was to marry a fine Oakland, California girl and we are blessed with three lovely children, for which all credit is due their mother.'" (See "Yellow daffodils sprucing up Oakland," East Bay Times, 02/19/2006, updated on 08/17/2016, accessed 03/27/2017.)


Donovan had three children, two daughters and a son: Jane, John, Jr., and Dorothy. At the architect's death in 1949, Jane went by the name of "Mrs. Roger Stevens." She resided in Piedmont, CA, Dorothy Donovan (1917-1981) in Oakland, and John J. Donovan, Jr., (1916-1993), Berkeley, CA. Dorothy became known as Dorothy Child.

Biographical Notes

In 1918, his World War I draft registration card indicated that Donovan was of medium height and build, and had grey eyes and hair. (See, Source Citation Registration State: California; Registration County: Alameda; Roll: 1531211; Draft Board: 4, accessed 03/27/2017.)

Member, Athenian Nile Club, Oakland, CA; Member, Claremont Country Club, Oakland, CA.

Sources have not agreed on Donovan's birth and death dates. The California Death Index indicated the following birth and death dates: 03/25/1876, 03/18/1949; Henry and Elsie Rathburn Withey, in their Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased), (Los Angeles: New Age Publishing Co., 1956), p. 179, indicated that the dates were: 03/25/1875-03/20/1949. A New York Times obituary indicated that Donovan died on 03/18/1949 as did an obituary published in the Oakland Tribune. It seems, therefore, that the correct dates are 03/25/1876 and 03/18/1949 as per the California Death Index. PCAD originally noted Donovan's death date as 03/20/1949; this date was derived from the Witheys' generally unreliable book,

Associated Locations

  • North Andover, MA (Architect's Birth)
    North Andover, MA

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PCAD id: 3415

Bowie Estate Company, Loft Building, San Francisco, CA1918-1919San FranciscoCA
City of Oakland, City Hall #5, Oakland, CA1912-1914OaklandCA
City of Oakland, Public Library, Alden Branch. Oakland, CA1917-1918OaklandCA
City of Oakland, Public Library, Branch, 5606 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland, CA1917-1918OaklandCA
Donovan, John J. and May Coogan, House, Crocker Highland, Oakland, CA1918OaklandCA
Eureka City Schools, Eureka High School, Eureka, CAEurekaCA
Key System, Oakland Substation, Oakland, CA1937OaklandCA
Oakland Board of Education, Clawson School #2, Clawson, Oakland, CA1915OaklandCA
Oakland Board of Education, Oakland Technical High School, Temescal, Oakland, CA1912-1913OaklandCA
Oakland Municipal Auditorium, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Claremont Middle School, Rockridge, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Cleveland Elementary School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Dewey, Admiral George, Elementary School #2, Fruitvale, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Durant School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Emerson School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Fremont High School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Jefferson School #1, Jefferson, Oakland, CA OaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Lakewood School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, McChesney Elementary School, Glenview, Oakland, CA1913OaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Santa Fe School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Oakland Unified School District, Washington School, Oakland, CAOaklandCA
Pacific Nash Motor Company, Showroom/Garage, Oakland, CA1928-1929OaklandCA
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, Saint Anne's Parish School, Lodi, CA1922-1922LodiCA
Sacramento City Unified School District, Oak Park School, Sacramento, CA1913-1914SacramentoCA
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island Substation, Yerba Buena Island, San Francisco, CASan FranciscoCA
State of California, Department of Public Works, Division of Highways, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge #11933-1936
State of California, Department of Public Works, Division of Highways, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Firehouse, Yerba Buena Island, San Francisco, CA1936San FranciscoCA
State of California, Department of Transportation (Caltrans), San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Electric Railway Terminal Building, South of Market, San Francisco, CA 1937-1939San FranciscoCA
Sterling Street Substation, San Francisco, CASan FranciscoCA