On a narrow, winding country lane in the lower Berkeley hills stands an empty house, described affectionately by its neighbors as the Jensen Cottage. It is one of the most famous homes designed by the distinguished mid-century architect William W. Wurster. And Wurster Hall, the building that houses the College of Environmental Design on the UC Berkeley campus, is named after this famous architect.
The Jensen Cottage formed part of complex owned and occupied by the same family for over 100 years. During the late 1990s, a retired professor and his wife rented the home. They loved its elegant simplicity and graceful flow of space.
Built in 1937, the Jensen Cottage, like many modernist homes, is outlined by simple, straight, box-like lines. Inside, the rooms gracefully open to one another, giving the home a spacious, airy feeling. Both the downstairs living room and dining area, as well as the two bedrooms upstairs, open to views to the west.
Then, the Jensen Cottage was sold to an elderly woman, Mrs. Marguerite Rossetto. Behind that purchase, however, was her son, Louis Rossetto. The founder of Wired Magazine, Rossetto had sold the publication and bought a home at the far end of the same narrow, winding road on which the Jensen Cottage has stood since 1937.
When Rosetto began building additions to his own home, no one publicly complained, despite the fact that deafening noise and immense trucks that stopped traffic created a permanent nuisance. It was, after all, his property and everyone understood that he had a right to keep expanding his home. And, so he did, year after year.
But then, using his mother’s name, Rossetto applied for permits to increase the size of the Jensen Cottage by about 65 percent. The architectural plans call for a two-story addition which would add a second cube to the original home, significantly increase the footprint of the structure, alter its exterior, increase its floor area by about 60 percent and expand its street-side elevation by 100 percent.
In short, the proposed addition would obliterate the prismatic shape of the original house. While the architects did plan to replicate materials and window dimensions, they rejected designs that could have situated the addition behind the original home, slightly down the hill, and leave the form of the original house recognizable.
That’s when neighbors realized they needed to preserve the integrity of this historic home. Mrs. Rossetto, who lives on the East Coast, has only spent a few weeks in this home. She also confided to one neighbor, Sue Martin, that she doesn’t even want the house to be expanded.
But her son has different ideas.
Neighbors asked to meet with Louis Rossetto, but he refused their request. Then, they asked him to consider a compromise that would preserve the integrity and scale of the home. Instead of discussing the problem with his neighbors, he sent his architects and a “hired expediter” who explained that they had no authority to change the plans.
For those who may be unfamiliar with William Wurster’s historic reputation, he is, along with Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, responsible for creating and influencing Berkeley’s distinguished architectural landscape.
Many authoritative sources not only document Wurster’s distinguished career and reputation, but also describe the historical significance of the Jensen Cottage.
An article about this home, which was built in 1937, was featured in the periodical Western Homes in 1938. In 1983, Berkeley’s Architecture Heritage Calendar featured the Jensen home in its appointment calendar. In 1995, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curated a major exhibition of Wurster’s work, which included the Jensen Cottage. In 1996, the University of California Press published a book that accompanied the exhibit, edited by Marc Trieb and titled An Everyday Modernism, the Houses of William Wurster.
And what do architectural historians and critics have to say about Wurster’s significance?
Above all, they emphasize that he was a preeminent residential architect from the 1920s to the 1960s, who created a model for homes that influenced the distinctive Bay Area architectural style.
Words like “humility” and “everyday” crop up frequently in their descriptions of Wurster’s work, which never aspired to exotic shapes and showy materials:
“Wurster’s secret was that he never saw his houses as any more than a backdrop for well-lived lives and good views. ‘The picture frame and not the picture,’ he often said; and on that frame the best detail was ‘the unlabored thing that looks as inevitable as something that comes out of a frying pan just right, like an omelet in France.”
Architectural historians also praise Wurster for taking commissions for modest and inexpensive homes, of which the Jensen Cottage is a classic example. “This little house with its ship-cabin scale reflects Wurster’s belief that no job was ever too small for his interest,” wrote one architectural historian. Wurster applied remarkable skill to make his homes respect their sites, as well as modest budgets. As a result, the Jensen Cottage of 1937, wrote one critic, “has remained an enduring example of Wurster’s skill in planning compact dwellings. Disposed on two floors to maximize the minimal land provided by the tight and sloping site, this house of under 1,800 square feet appears much larger than its actual dimensions.”
Fortunately, William Wurster was not ignored during his lifetime. In 1969, the American Institute of Architecture awarded their highest honor, the Gold Medal Award. Marc Trieb, Professor of Architecture at U.C. Berkeley, wrote “For almost three decades William Wilson Wurster occupied a preeminent position in American residential architecture. His everyday modernism, which tempered national and international architectural trends with a concern for things local, provided a model for living in California, and through coverage in publications, the nation at large. As dean of the schools of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later the University of California at Berkeley, Wurster also exerted a formidable influence on architectural education from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Yet despite this list of impressive achievements Wurster is no longer well known.”
Thankfully, that is no longer true. Already, one Wurster house, “The Glass House,” located in Berkeley, has received landmark status. The Jensen Cottage, an early and classic example of elegant modernist architecture, deserves the same protection.
Unfortunately, the community which wishes to preserve this historic gem have encountered some obstacles. When they appealed to the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), the members of that board—for whatever reasons—failed to recognize the historic significance of the structure. As a result, ZAB quickly approved Rossetto’s plans to build a two-story addition to the cottage.
In response, the local community immediately filed an application to the Landmark Preservation Commission, asking them to designate the Jensen Cottage a historic landmark. At the same time, they appealed the ZAB decision to the City Council, which will take up the matter on Tuesday, Nov. 9.
What do these folks want? According to Brian Viani, who wrote the appeal and the application for landmark status, they want “the City Council to either approve their appeal of ZAB’s hasty decision or to defer any decision until the Landmark Preservation Commission has had time to evaluate the Jensen Cottage for landmark status.”
With a few minor exceptions, this historic home remains almost as it was built. Should the Jensen Cottage receive a landmark designation, it would be protected from turning into yet one more ostentatious McMansion in the East Bay hills.
The City Council should approve this community’s appeal and send the issue back to where it belongs—the Landmark Preservation Commission.
Berkeley is famous for preserving its architectural and historical heritage. The Jensen Cottage is part of that precious legacy.
Ruth Rosen is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Davis. Christopher Adams is a retired architect and city planner.