Commission Denies Landmark Status to Amos Cottage

Friday May 14, 2004

After nearly two hours of pleas and discussion, the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission Monday night denied a request to bestow “structure of merit” status on the Amos Cottage, built the year Berkeley became a city. 

The effort to save the modest, 1878 Italianate Victorian home at 2211 Fifth St. was spearheaded by neighbor Stan Huncilman, a sculptor who lives in another Victorian a few houses away. 

“This house is as old as Berkeley,” Huncilman told commissioners. “This is not about its present condition or the costs of renovation but about the preservation of the history of Berkeley.” 

Sally Sachs, board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, presented petitions signed by 150 participants in last Sunday’s tour of Berkeley Victorians calling on the commission to spare the house. 

“It’s important to save examples of working class cottages as well as Victorian mansions,” said Stephanie Manning, who lives in another Italianate Fifth Street cottage a block to the north. 

But the preservationists launched their campaign only after the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board had approved demolition of the house to make way for a six-unit residential complex on the site. 

Architect Timothy Rempel, who owns the property with spouse Elizabeth Miranda, appeared to argue against preservation. 

“Given the dilapidated condition of the structure and its lack of exterior or interior integrity and low historical value, we want to replace it with needed housing,” Rempel said. “Six families will be able to live where one does now.” 

“You make a sham of what cultural value means,” declared Miranda. “The building doesn’t have merit.” 

Though 11 citizens spoke in favor of saving the structure, 14 rose to denounce it—many of them architects and computer graphics artists. Rempel had also collected pro-demolition letters from professors of architecture. 

“People who live in the neighborhood say the building should stay, and people who work there say it should go” said contractor Richard Schwartz, author of Berkeley 1900 and a proponent of sparing the structure. 

While the humble structure lacks the majestic grandeur of some of Berkeley’s better-known Victorians built for bankers, merchants, developers and university officials, supporters of the landmark designation cited the dwelling’s significance in the history of working class Berkeley. 

The dwelling is a block south of other Victorians incorporated in the new Sisterna Historic District 106, created by the commission three months ago. Only one home in the district is older than the dwelling at 2211 Fifth St. 

West Berkeley offered a haven to immigrants from Ireland, Mexico, Chile and Germany, who provided the labor to keep the neighborhood’s soap factory, planing mill and grist mill working. 

Mary Amos, a native of New York, had been widowed less than two years when she built the home for herself and her two young children.  

A later owner, James Balcom, worked as a teamster for the Standard Soap Company, one of the first industries to set up shop in West Berkeley. Another owner had worked as a miner before hiring on to drive a team for Standard Soap. 

Two later owners bore Hispanic surnames, and the last owner ran a small doll factory in the basement. 

Preservation proponents pointed to the building’s uniqueness as a home built by a single woman—a considerable accomplishment in an era when women were effectively second class citizens with few rights. 

When it came time for the commission’s debate, Leslie Emmington, who moved to give the cottage protection as a structure of merit, said the building “can shine with history.” 

But Adam Weiss said it “wasn’t reasonable” to “landmark something when it no longer has integrity. We should focus on buildings with enough elements still present.” 

The call for landmark designation failed on a 5-4 vote..