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Artists Thrive in Live/Work Lofts at 800 Heinz Ave. By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday August 09, 2005

If you’re going to be a starving artist in Berkeley, then the place to starve is 800 Heinz Ave. 

A landmarked former margarine factory that’s been converted into affordable live/work spaces, the building houses a fascinating collection of creative folk. 

The two-story structure was landmarked in 1985 as part of a compromise that allowed owner Wareham Development to demolish landmarked properties in exchange for converting the Art Deco structure at 800 Heinz Ave. into rent-controlled and affordable live/work space. 

Here is a glimpse into the work and lives in four of the building’s 18 units:  


Shea and Strange 

John Shea, a photographer and paper artist, and painter Betsy Strange were married when they moved into their first floor space in 1978. 

“I looked into the window and couldn’t figure out where I’d be able to fit my darkroom,” said Shea. “I put in plumbing, then got caught by the building inspectors.” 

The trouble began a few years later when Wareham bought the property after a previous owner went bankrupt. Wareham served eviction notices on the tenants and the residents hired a lawyer of their own, Zona Sage, who engaged in a ten-year battle with the owners to keep their homes. 

“Loni Hancock was mayor, and she really helped. She brought us together and kept us from yelling at each other,” Strange said. 

In 1987 Wareham agreed to most of the tenants’ demands, and the first tenants, including Shea and Strange, were granted their units under rent control for life, as long as they paid their rents. 

The firm also agreed to provide the other units as affordable housing live/work units for very low-, low- and moderate-income tenants. Current rates run between $700 and $900 a month, with the original tenants paying less under rent control. 

In return, Wareham won the right to demolish another landmark building and a massive brick smokestack. The settlement also created a child care center and a theater in adjacent buildings, as well as a restaurant in the 800 Heinz building. 

Limited parking and the difficulty of attracting audiences closed the theater, Strange said, and the building was later leased to Bayer Pharmaceuticals as office space, though the theater sign remains. 

Though Strange and Shea have since divorced, subdividing their unit in the process, they remain good friends—which is good, they said, since neither wants to move. 

“There’s good people, good studios, good light, great neighbors and it’s a good place to raise a kid with good schools,” said Strange. 

A member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts Artists Gallery, Strange is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she has both worked and taught.  


The Lessers 

Ira and Corliss Lesser represent an artistic rarity, a team of collaborative artists who’ve managed to stay together for 36 years. 

The son of a New York policeman and a mother who was also an amateur artist, Ira Lesser was an abstract expressionist who first exhibited in a gallery on East 10th Street in Manhattan in 1959, and within two years had a one-man show at the Key Gallery, 

He moved west via Mexico in 1964 and met his mate five years later. 

Corliss was born in Los Angeles and was trained in the more figurative graphic arts. 

The couple began their collaboration shortly after they met, but after Ira suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1977, the process began in earnest. A year later, Ira also branched out into photography. 

“I knew I was a collaborative artist from the start,” Corliss said. “After his heart attack, he needed my energy. He would get tired and ask me to finish.” 

“[Berkeley City Councilmember] Dona Spring was kind enough to tell us about the building,” Corliss said, and after three or four years on the building’s waiting list—which currently numbers about 200—the Lessers were able to move in during 1995. 

Much of their work, done in vibrant acrylics on expansive canvases, is frankly political. 

“We went through all these periods,” said Ira. “At first it was purely sexual, then after the attack made me vegetarian, we started dealing with more spiritual conflicts.” 

“It’s been fabulous having this dialogue. It really helps us live with what’s happening in this world,” said Corliss. 

Many of their works deal with human rights, and the artists were especially pleased University College in London selected one of their paintings to promote their masters program in human rights. 

Other works deal with 9/11 and the Iraq wars of the two Bush Administration. 

Their daughter, born in 1990, has begun painting, adding a third member to the Lesser collaboration. 

“This place is wonderful” said Corliss. “It’s really been nice.” 

For a closer work at the Lessers’ art, see their web site at 


The architect 

Fittingly for a resident of 800 Heinz Ave., Steven Grover is an architect with an unusual practice. 

“I design bicycle bridges and other similar public structures,” he said. “You might say I’m a sculptor, but on a grand scale.” 

Another New York native, Grover started out as a child actor—most notably playing the child John Quincy Adams in the PBS The Adams Chronicles series. 

A graduate of New York City’s High School of Music and Arts, he earned his architecture degree at Stanford and practiced in Zurich for several years. 

His first major work in Berkeley was serving as design coordinator for the bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 80. 

Since then, he’s designed similar structures for Santa Cruz and Durham, N.C., an underpass in Palo Alto and the El Cerrito BART station. 

“In 1989, I was the second person to move in after the settlement. I could never have built a successful career as an architect and engineer had it not been for this building,” he said. “I had a chronic disease for the first 10 years I lived here, and I couldn’t have made it without the support of my neighbors.” 

While he is designing a new home to be built in Montclair, Grover said most of his commissions are bike and pedestrian bridges and other public sector works. 

Grover is no stranger to activist tenants. 

“I grew up in a building in New York that was condemned and the tenants got together and got city backed loans to renovate the structure,” he said. The result was Manhattan’s first cooperative, with his mother as president. 

“This building feels a lot like that,” he said. “It’s a workspace where I can really create.” 

Though he loves the building, Grover said he also wishes that the interior walls were better insulated and that Wareham had installed double pane windows while removing the elevator and gas lines. 

“But it’s a great building,” he said. 

A portfolio of his work may be found at  



Claire B. Cotts is a creator of paintings that are both primitive and sophisticated, haunting acrylics done in muted tones, many with religious overtones. 

“I also illustrate children’s books and I do a little sculpture,” said the soft-spoken artist. 

A Fulbright Scholar and a resident since 1996, Cotts had been on the waiting list two years when she was offered her second-floor unit as a sub-lease from a fellow Fulbright winner who had used her award to study in Turkey, where’d she met someone and decided to stay for a while. 

“The best things about the building are the nice neighbors and the fact that it feels very safe. It’s very affordable, too—otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to stay in the Bay Area,” she said. 

Her unit is a perfect space for a children’s book illustrator, thanks to the day care next door.  

“Usually studios are in rough urban areas, but every day I get to hear choruses of the ‘Itsy-Bitsy Spider.’” 

The child of a family of doctors and lawyers, Cotts said she began painting as a teenager. Gaining national recognition, she has one show currently open at a gallery in Healdsburg, and another coming soon in Atlanta. 

She describes her work as “figurative and narrative, story-telling and lyrical. The adult stuff tends to be kind of dark, but with the kids’ stuff, I get to play with light.” 

What she finds especially gratifying are the comments readers have posted about her illustrations on “With the other painting, they’re sort of lost,” she explains. 

Among the books she’s illustrated are The Christmas Gift; El regalo de Navidad by Francisco Jiménez, The Remembering Stone by Barbara Timberlake Russell, and Manuela’s Gift by Kristyn Rehling Estes, a 1999 Parents’ Choice Award Winner.  

For more of her work, see