Home & Garden Columns
What are those curiously attractive houses whose second floor, contained within a steeply pitched main gable roof, is far larger than the first floor? Why do we see them standing in clusters of two or three in Berkeley and Oakland but rarely elsewhere?
This unusual style is one of the variants of Colonial Revival and appears to have emerged from the union of Queen Anne and Eastern Shingle Style. In the mid-1890s, this picturesque hybrid evolved in the San Francisco Bay Area into a local Colonial Revival sub-genre that is particularly evident in the East Bay. A middle-class building style, it is typically expressed in a simplified, rectangular mass under a single gable roof with laterally projecting dormers.
Many high-peaked Colonial Revival houses feature small corner porticos, often supported by a Neoclassical column. The gable frequently boasts a Palladian or a prow window, which is sometimes balustraded. The exterior walls are clad with narrow clapboards or shingles, with a typical arrangement being shingling on the second floor and clapboarding below.
The earliest known high-peaked Colonial Revival house in the East Bay may be a residence designed by Edgar A. Mathews at 1535 Saint Charles St. in Alameda, which Alameda Museum Curator George Gunn dates from 1894. The earliest known house documented in Edwards’ Trancripts of Records is the H.F. Munson residence designed by Hugo W. Storch (1873–1917) and built in 1895 at 2354 East 23rd St. in Oakland’s Fruitvale District.
If Hugo Storch was the first to build in this style, the one who popularized it was the prolific Oakland architect Alfred William Smith (1864–1933). Smith’s success with high-peaked Colonial Revival was documented in an Oakland Enquirer article published in June 1899: “One of the mos t distinctive features of recent local building operations is the wonderful popularity suddenly achieved by the style of house known as the Dutch Colonial, whose principal characteristic is a high-peaked roof. The idea in this city originated with J. H. S impson, who since he first began building such structures, has put up 10. However, the style has been adapted and enlarged upon by architect A. W. Smith who since the 10th of January of last year  has put up no less than 27 houses, all on this pecul iar line of architecture. [...] Mr. Smith ascribes the popularity to the growth of the artistic in the building public, which has caused a departure from the strict rules of architecture and given rise to the development of the picturesque style.”
The st yle became so popular that many builders began imitating it. Between 1900 and 1905, high-peaked Colonial Revival was all the rage. Even “name” architects such as Julia Morgan, Albert Dodge Coplin, and Thomas D. Newsom were commissioned to design residence s in this style. When the houses were constructed on a speculative basis, the builder would typically put up two or three in a row, making sure to give each house distinct detailing to differentiate it from its brethren. Good examples of such clusters may be seen on the 2000 block of Woolsey Street; the 3000 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; the 2300 block of Webster Street; and the 2100 block of Haste Street. Sometimes identical designs may be found on adjacent streets or even a good distance apart. The trio on MLK Jr. Way exhibits the same design found in a pair on the 2800 block of San Pablo Avenue, which was built by A.W. Smith. Curiously, descendants of the builder Carl Ericsson believe that it was he and not Smith who built the MLK threesome.
A lthough high-peaked Colonial Revival houses may be seen in various California towns such a Napa and Redding, they usually stand there as lone examples. San Francisco evolved its own variant of high-peaked Colonial Revival row house, with additional floors and a gable that is not fully contained within the roof.
Berkeley and Oakland are unique in possessing large numbers of these houses. By my estimate, Berkeley alone has close to 200 specimens, which constitute an open-air museum that should be cherished and preserved.e