Home & Garden Columns

Head for the Berkeley Hills

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday August 11, 2006

“Bring your own” is a good motto to remember when visiting the neighborhoods of the Berkeley hills. With no shopping district or quaint cafes, there’s little to tempt your dollars. Unless you’re in the market for a home. Then you’re in trouble, big trouble, because what the hills area does offer is hard to resist: a showcase for architectural excellence, eye-filling views, rock outcropping parks, hidden pathways and an appealing sense of space within nature.  

East of Arlington Boulevard, bordered by Kensington on the north and Oakland on the south, lies one of the last Berkeley areas to be developed. Here streets named after California counties climb steeply, some wide and shaded by mature sycamores, others narrow and winding, laid out to match the contours of the land.  

Cutting across hillsides are steps and pathways, allowing glimpses into backyard lives. When few roads existed, paths provided easier access to the streetcar line and a shortcut to the university for resident professors. With more than 120 to choose from, they’re an exploration in the making, each unique in details of stonewalls, benches, paving, urns and wooden pergolas. 

Arlington Circle, the hub, and the streets that spoke-off from it are the unofficial gateway to the hills, designed by John Galen Howard to serve as the entrance to a proposed new state capital. Though supported by the local populace, the measure was defeated statewide. Instead, today, we celebrate Berkeley with the second Marin Circle Fountain, installed in 1996, 38 years after a run-away truck demolished the 1911 fountain. 

The Berkeley hills are a living testament to great architects, from inception to the present. One-story bungalows to three-story homes surrounded by towering redwoods, in earth-toned stucco and natural woods atop concrete and fieldstones, homes mirror the environment they adopted. Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan’s Craftsman and Brown Shingle, the Prairie Style of John Hudson Thomas, John Galen Howard’s Beaux Arts, designs by William Wurster and architects of the Second Bay Tradition—all are represented. Newer homes may utilize updated materials, but the aesthetics and attention to detail remain—textured stucco and natural woods, small-paned windows, field and flagstone, wood fences and gateways, balconies and decks as inviting outdoor living spaces. 

Public outdoor spaces, aka parks, are plentiful and varied, tucked into canyons, landscaped on hillsides and developed around massive stone outcroppings. Sizes and amenities vary, but most afford panoramic views reaching from Oakland, across to San Francisco and north to Richmond. 

In the North Berkeley hills, I revisited two walking routes I’d enjoyed when my children were young, many years ago. Both circuits combined architectural candy with the chance to participate in park life. Along the way I greeted some of Berkeley’s noteworthy homes as old friends and made new acquaintances. 

My historic architecture walk circles from the Rose and La Loma Steps, up Buena Vista Way, along Greenwood Terrence and Tamalpais Road, returning through Codornices Park and the Rose Garden. Though some areas are steep, the overall distance is less than two miles. 

Bernard Maybeck designed Rose Walk as part of a planned hillside community. Faded pink steps and pathway led me past homes of earth-toned stucco, weathered wood and red tile roofs, with flower-filled gardens open to view. Following the curve of step-down benches I reached Le Roy Street and a home designed by John Galen Howard. Its blunt shape reminded me of the prow of a large ship. 

Maybeck’s designs were as varied as the number of artisan bread bakeries in Berkeley. On La Loma, a home resembling a Roman villa, distinctive in muted hues, with arched windows and small colored tiles inset to create diamond-patterned motifs. On Buena Vista, the “Sack House,” Maybeck’s answer to the 1923 fire that destroyed nearly 600 homes. The distinct outlines of burlap sacks dipped in concrete and hung like rough shingles, contrast with the graceful roof and overhanging eaves of the nearby Prairie-Style Matheson House. 

Another Maybeck, designed as a Bavarian cottage, hides behind its own forest of trees. On the door of the garage I saw the often photographed painted motifs. The old Volvo nearly buried beneath branches and fallen leaves added to the “Enchanted Forest” feel. 

Further up Buena Vista, Randolf Munro completed the stunning Temple of Wings, with massive Corinthian columns and concrete balconies. Above, John Hudson Thomas’ Hume Cloister, modeled on a 13th century Augustinian monastery, has curved walls of rough stone blocks and round tower that bypass time and location. 

Greenwood Terrace contains the work of William Wurster who designed Greenwood Common in the 1920s as a private enclave. Ringed by houses in the Second Bay Tradition, the lush common of broad lawn, towering pines, alleyway of flowering plums and million-dollar views reflects tranquility. 

The John Hudson Thomas at the end of Tamalpais Road tops my list of favorites. Pale green trim around small paned windows, timbers and textured walls, stone garden wall topped by flowers are all surrounded by towering redwoods and firs. 

Tamalpais Path follows the hill down to Codornices Park where recreation and nature receive equal billing. Groves of oak, bay and redwood shelter picnic tables, playground equipment entertains the young, while softball and basketball court all ages. A highlight is the 40-foot concrete slide where a long line of cardboard toting kids waited their turn. 

Across Euclid Avenue, the Berkeley Rose Garden, originally a 1933 WPA project, blooms. More than 3,000 bushes and 250 varieties, a cornucopia of colors, occupy tiered rows on 3.6-acres. A lovely spot to take in this botanical wonder is a stone and wood bench beneath the redwood pergola covered with climbing roses. 

My second neighborhood walk takes in three of Berkeley’s “rock” parks plus an added attraction, all near Indian Rock Avenue. Indian, Mortar and Grotto Rock Parks take advantage of volcanic outcroppings and boast spectacular vistas. Steps carved into the rhyolite surface provide easy rock-top access, acorn-grinding depressions serve as reminders of the Ohlone, stunted trees anchored in cracks and multi-colored lichen attest to the tenacity of nature. I watched budding climbers test their skills, young adults share a picnic and lone individuals feast their eyes. 

Nearby, at the end of San Diego Road, is the back entrance to John Hinkle Park where a twisted-branch canopy of lofty bay and oak create a cool, wooded environment. Steps and paths lead down to a small amphitheater, areas of lawn, picnic and playground facilities and two narrow creeks. This park is ripe for imagination-inspired adventures as well as quiet contemplation. 

The Berkeley hills covers several miles and offers opportunities for both active and passive enjoyment - popular with bicyclists, motorcyclists, walkers and those who arrive just to take in the views. Steps away you’ll find Tilden Park and the Lawrence Hall of Science, each worthy of visits. So pick up coffee, pack a lunch, carry your camera and wear comfortable shoes—head to the Berkeley hills. 



Photograph by Marta Yamamoto. 

Bernard Maybeck’s Prairie-Style design with low roof, overhaning eaves and pleasing blue hues stands on Buena Vista Way. 




Codornices Park: 1201 Euclid Ave. between Eunice Street and Bayview Place 


Berkeley Rose Garden: Euclid Avenue and Bayview Place 


Indian Rock Park: Indian Rock Avenue at Shattuck Avenue 


Mortar Rock Park: 901 Indian Rock Ave. at San Diego Road. 


Grotto Rock Park: 879 Santa Barbara Road 


John Hinkle Park: 41 Somerset Ave. between Southampton Avenue and San Diego Road 


Map of Berkeley’s Pathways: Wanderers Association, www.berkeleypath.org, $4.95.