Two generations ago many architects, designers, and their patrons were throwing out the traditional rulebooks and conventions and venturing into new territory. Sleek buildings and vehicles appeared, matched with equally avant-garde clothing, appliances, furniture, music and art. It was the height of the Deco or Moderne era.
On Sunday, Aug. 29, locals will have a rare opportunity to step into an outstanding architectural product of that time, a unique Berkeley home from the age of Hollywood movie spectacles, swank Manhattan penthouses, and “streamline” décor.
The J.W. “Call Me Joe” Harris House at 2300 LeConte Ave. can be viewed from basement to balcony during “An Afternoon of Art Deco Glamour,” a special 3-6 p.m. open house, hosted by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).
Billie Jean Harris D’Anna, daughter of the original owner and a resident of the house as a child, is scheduled to attend, along with prominent architectural historian and Art Deco Society co-founder Michael Crowe. Well-known author Jane Powell will also be on hand to talk about the house. Refreshments will be served.
From the 1920s through the ‘40s a number of important institutional and commercial buildings in Berkeley were built in the Art Deco or Moderne architectural styles. Prominent survivors include the Community Theatre, Central Library, and United Artists Theatre. However, only a few Moderne residences were constructed in Berkeley, and the Harris House is among the best.
If you’ve driven, walked, or bicycled up Hearst Avenue from Oxford with the UC campus on your right, you’re probably familiar with the three-story house that’s seemingly all curves, standing on a small triangular lot where LeConte descends to meet Hearst.
Step inside at the Aug. 29 event and you can easily imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in the mirror-lined living room, or Claude Rains wreathed in shadow and cigarette smoke awaiting some mysterious assignation on the curving second floor balcony.
The Harris House is a three-bedroom, two-bath, family home, not a mansion. It’s the architectural character of the house that makes it opulent, particularly on the inside. The event is a one-time opportunity to see that interior.
There’s hardly a room that’s conventionally square or rectangular. From breakfast nook to basement nearly every area has at least one curved wall.
The living room is entered from a two-story triangular atrium with an elegant staircase. A second staircase sweeps regally from the entrance lobby to the lowest level. The living room seems like a stage set with inset fluorescent light panels framing a mirrored fireplace fronted by a black marble hearth resembling a half moon in eclipse.
No fewer than 240 glass blocks are built into the living room walls, and the room flows into a curved, glassed-in, conservatory flooded with daylight.
Upstairs, the master bedroom is oriented to face double doors opening onto a curved balcony like the bridge of a ship, running along the whole projecting front of the second floor.
Period features from the 1930s remain throughout the house, all meticulously maintained and refurbished by the family of the current owner. They include inset light fixtures and an “all electric kitchen” with original burners that fold up against the wall when not in use and a top-loading 1930s dishwasher.
Tropical hardwoods panel the octagonal formal dining room where one corner wall opens to reveal a “secret” bar cabinet with glass shelves and mirrored sides. Aluminum details adorn the house, from the fireplace screen to the sinuous staircase rails.
The master bathroom is walled with beige marble, with the floor painted to match. A second bath is covered—floor, walls, ceiling—with original tilework and has a circular mirror that pulls back to reveal a medicine cabinet shaped like a ship’s porthole.
The house is currently unfurnished and between renters, and the owners generously offered to make it available for the BAHA event.
Berkeley architect John B. Anthony designed the Harris House in 1936 as a family home for Joseph W. Harris, a successful local merchant called a “human dynamo” by the Berkeley Daily Gazette.
Raised in Brooklyn, Harris served in the Navy, worked in his father’s business, and moved to Berkeley in 1923 where he opened a tiny shop on Shattuck Avenue.
By 1939 he had expanded the store to cover much of the 2000 block of Shattuck Square where the Kaplan building now stands just across from the BART station. The “House of Harris” sold a wide array of men’s and boy’s clothing and specialty items like Boy Scout uniforms.
Sleekly replete, like Harris’s home, with curved corners and hundreds of glass blocks, the three story commercial building proclaimed his slogan, “Call Me Joe” in an enormous lighted marquee that was said to be visible from North Oakland.
“Berkeley has been swell to me,” Harris told an interviewer in 1939. He was 42 at the time and his portrait adorned a special eight-page section of the Berkeley Daily Gazette that celebrated the enlargement of his business. He was a “large property owner here and in Oakland” the Gazette said, and his name was familiar throughout the East Bay and beyond.
Today, it’s probable that only Berkeley old timers remember the House of Harris. But the elegant 1936 family home of “Call Me Joe” remains, and still draws the eye and admiring attention.
Steven Finacom is a regular contributor to the Daily Planet and a member of the board of directors of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.