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Home tours take historic turns

By Matt Lorenz Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2001

The architectural walking tour in and around Live Oak Park on Sunday, orchestrated by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, was attended with the sort of bright, colorful, Sunday weather no walking tour should be without.  

But then, it was really the people who were bright and colorful. The weather seemed simply to agree. 

It was BAHA’s 26th annual house tour, and it received a garrulous turnout from residents of Berkeley and the Bay Area. 

Showcasing the works of such famed, local architects as Bernard Maybeck, Henry Gutterson and Julia Morgan, all the houses on this 10-house tour were designed and built in the first 15 years of the 20th century. But as BAHA staffer Lesley Emmington-Jones said, “It’s not just about the architects; it’s the story of the owners and the people of Berkeley as well.” 

It is a self-guided tour, and this was perfect. Informed by the learned yet accessible descriptions in BAHA’s tour-book, people wandered at their own pace, enjoying, in turn, the richly-carved interiors and the verdant exteriors that contrasted each other throughout the day. 

Dim, inner hallways and spacious, barely-sloping stairwells were content and crowded with visitors absorbed in admiration. Leaving these inner recesses, moving on to the next house, there was the feeling of having emerged from a movie matinee – from one attractive world into the next. 

“The houses are beautiful,” said Anne Dini, who drove in from Livermore, “but it’s also a beautiful time of the year to see the flowers and gardens.” 

In selecting the new area that will be showcased each year, the walking tour provides BAHA with a unique impetus to research and document the history of different parts of Berkeley. Tour-volunteer Tim Reynolds, who wrote one of the guidebook descriptions, expressed the kind of intimacy such a tour can offer the researcher and, by extension, the tour-goer.  

“When I actually meet the current owner and walk through the house, I’m able to see what was there originally and what was remodeled – where living spaces were changed, bathrooms removed, walls removed. It illustrates how living styles have changed in the last hundred years.” 

Keeping with the collective enthusiasm of the day, volunteers and visitors felt tremendous gratitude toward the present owners, who graciously opened up their homes and lives to other architecture-lovers of the Bay Area. 

“It’s an incredible act of generosity,” said tour volunteer Pierce MacDonald. “I’ve met some of the owners, and they seem so calm about it all. I think it’s great.” 

Evelyn Larson, one of the owners of the first house on the tour (a Swiss Chalet designed by Maybeck), was genially accessible to any visitor who wanted to chat with her.  

“It’s amazing to come home and pull up and there’s this throng of people going up and down the stairs of your house, looking around. It’s wonderful,” Larson said. “I feel that – having a house like this – I’m happy to have other people see it. We’re really into the community, and it’s nice to support it.” 

While everyone was thankful for the generosity shown by the owners, the owners seemed thankful to BAHA.  

“BAHA is a really good organization,” Larson said. “They help to preserve landmarks and educate people, and they do it for practically no money; membership costs almost nothing.” 

“BAHA keeps a conscientious watch on the preservation of the historic fabric we have here in Berkeley,” said architect and BAHA-member Richard Ehrenberger. 

As one of the founding members of BAHA, which began in 1974, Ehrenberger observed that there hasn’t always been such interest in architecture and in events like the BAHA tour. 

“In the ’60s people just didn’t have the appreciation for old buildings that they have now. Old buildings were waiting for new and better use. There’s been a great increase in the awareness and appreciation for the architecture of the immediate past.” 

Though BAHA’s house tour is usually only held annually, this year may be the year for those who need a second chance. 

“Occasionally we do it twice a year,” Emmington -Jones said. “We’re expecting to do another later this year around the creek-side and grounds of the Claremont Hotel.” 

Perhaps it will rain. But probably not.