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Kenney Cottage Serves as Rare Example Of Early Prefabricated Architecture

Friday July 18, 2003

Before Berkeley became a fully built city and empty lots were plentiful, moving buildings from one place to another was common. Although houses were moved off University Avenue to nearby residential areas when University Avenue changed to a more commercial thoroughfare, a few residential buildings have survived this transformation. 

The recently demolished Doyle House, 1892, was one of these. Another residential building which has survived, although not in as good or even habitable condition as the Doyle House had been, is the Elizabeth M. Kenney-Meinheit Cottage. Despite its small size and humble condition, the cottage has interesting and significant historic connections. 

The Kenney-Meinheit Cottage was originally located at 2214 Addison St., east of Shattuck Avenue and next to Berkeley’s first volunteer fire department. The cottage was built in 1887 for Elizabeth M. Kenney, who operated a stationery store in the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot at Center and Shattuck. She and members of her family, including a nephew, James Kenney, who would become Berkeley’s first fire chief, lived in the cottage until 1898 when it was sold to Ludwig Meinheit.  

In 1906 Meinheit moved the cottage from the downtown to what was then a more quiet neighborhood on University Avenue. The Meinheit family, whose son William became a firefighter under James Kenney, owned the cottage until the early 1960s.  

Sometime in the early 1970s the former Kelly Moore Paint Company building was constructed in front of the cottage and the cottage, at the rear of the lot, was adapted as a separate storage structure and essentially treated as a shed.  

When a demolition permit application was reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2001, Jill Korte, a member of the commission, determined that the seemingly unimportant storage shed was a rare example of an early prefabricated building system designed and manufactured by William H. Wrigley in Ocean View (now West Berkeley).  

Wrigley’s method of prefabricated construction was patented on Dec. 13, 1881, as a “Portable House.” Drawings and written explanation describe the modular system of upright posts grooved to hold vertical wall boards (panels). This created a double wall system that could be assembled off site. The Kenney-Meinheit House has no nails and is entirely built of redwood.  

Of the five known “Portable Houses” constructed in Berkeley only the Kenney-Meinheit Cottage still stands. However, a shipment of Wrigley’s “Portable Houses” were sent to Australia, so there may be some still standing there. 

Sometime in the next few weeks the Kenney Cottage will be moved again. Instead of being demolished, this example of perhaps the earliest prefabricated house in the country will be temporarily relocated (thanks to Director of Public Works René Cardineaux) to 1275 University Ave. on a small piece of city-owned land.  

Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.