Home & Garden Columns

Maybeck Connections on View at Gifford McGrew Open House

By Steven Finacom
Friday June 22, 2007

One of Berkeley’s most important and historic brown shingle homes—with Maybeck connections, too—is currently for sale at 2601 Derby Street. An Open House is scheduled from 2-4:30 p.m. this Sunday, June 24.  

The residence—the five-bedroom, three-story Gifford McGrew House—embodies both a remarkable design history and character, and more than a century of Berkeley history. Prominently situated on the corner of Derby and Hillegass, across from Willard Park, it is on the market for $1,595,000.  

The house was “designed by Maybeck and the owner with ideas contributed by their common friend, Charles Keeler” Maybeck’s biographer, Kenneth Cardwell, writes in Bernard Maybeck: Artisan, Architect, Artist.  

And Leslie Freudenheim in Building with Nature characterizes the house as “designed by Bernard Maybeck, possibly executed by Charles Keeler, with advice from McGrew’s friend (Reverend) Joseph Worcester.”  

There you have connections to three of the most important apostles of the architectural and cultural movement that brought Berkeley a distinctive brown shingle aesthetic.  

The contractor is said to have been A.H. Broad, who was one of Berkeley’s first elected town trustees, an artist, and a busy builder who left distinctive homes and early school buildings all over town, some of them now City Landmarks.  

Cardwell writes that “The McGrew house and its predecessors became the examples of a ‘movement towards a simpler, a truer, a more vital art expression’ when, a few years later, Charles Keeler assumed the spokesman’s role for the modest house and ‘the simple life.’ ”  

In 1895 Maybeck had designed the Keeler family home on Highland Place in a steep-roofed style very similar to the McGrew House. Keeler would publish his influential treatise The Simple Home in 1904, thus placing the McGrew house midway in time between Maybeck’s first brown shingle commissions in Berkeley and the popularization of his design philosophy in Keeler’s book.  

The house was built for Gifford McGrew but he wasn’t, as the real estate listing implies, “University Librarian.” A 1978 obituary for McGrew’s daughter, Mary Edith McGrew, refers to her father as becoming “assistant librarian” at UC when the family arrived from Massachusetts in 1899.  

Joseph C. Rowell reigned then as University Librarian, and would not retire until 1916. The McGrews were Unitarians, so their social lives intersected at Berkeley’s First Unitarian Church—itself a Craftsman masterpiece still standing at Dana and Bancroft—with a number of other local families, including the Keelers, involved in the “building with nature” movement.  

Mary Edith attended Cal and, upon graduation in 1903, won the University Medal, awarded to the most distinguished graduate of the year. For 36 years she was principal of Berkeley’s then-prominent private, college prep, A-to-Zed School. She died at 96.  

There have been several owners and some remodeling and structural upgrades at the house since then. The house was last on the market in 2004 with an asking price of $1.3 million. The front door is off Derby, midway on the side of the long ground floor and indented beneath a substantial overhang. The spacious entry hall, frames a wonderful, gleaming, staircase that ascends to a landing, then doubles back and up to the second floor. To the left is the long, rectangular, living room. 

Turn in the other direction and there’s an ample dining room with a brick fireplace and built in cabinetry. The kitchen, at the rear of the ground floor beyond the stairwell, is the one major disappointment in the house. The floor is covered with big, square, terra cotta pavers more suitable to a suburban hacienda, and the cabinets and counters have a Home Depotish air completely at odds with the rest of the house. Anyone with $1.6 million to buy the house will presumably have something left over to remodel the kitchen, and one hopes a new kitchen is closer to the original character of the home. Off the kitchen in one direction there’s a narrow room for laundry. 

On the other side a little, generously-windowed, breakfast nook opens to the garden, and a passage leads to what the realtor describes as a cottage, but is more of a single, rustic, room connected to the house and adjoined by a full bath. French doors open from the “cottage” to a secluded patio. 

The eastern yard is not that large, but a little more extensive than it seems from the street. Fence, trees, and a clambering red trumpet vine wall the garden off from the Derby Street sidewalk. The west yard used to be the front garden extending out to the Hillegass sidewalk. Years ago the house was complimented by a gem-like, perfectly tended, lawn on this side. Later, however, the space was fenced in along Hillegass. There’s a gate for cars and the garden is part graveled parking area. 

Back inside, the main stairs pause at a wide, windowed, landing where a side door conceals a tiny, handsome, half bath. A short side stair leads up to the only full bath on the second floor, which also communicates with one of the four bedrooms on that level. The staircase debouches into an ample second floor hall, surrounded by bedrooms: one big but narrow; two spacious; one—at the west end—extremely large with a corner fireplace and a door that opens onto a wide west facing deck with massive ornamental railing and balusters, all of it supported on the extended end of the living room below. From the second floor hall a smaller staircase ascends to the attic which is almost a full residence in itself.  

The steep roofs allow for high, vaulted, ceilings, the structure of two roof gables perpendicular to each other subdivides the space into separate volumes, and an interesting, partially open, bathroom is tucked away in one corner. Skylights, a freestanding stove on a brick hearth, and a huge west-facing window and small balcony complete this impressive level.  

The segmented window was added in the 1980s if I remember correctly and is, from the outside, the most visible change to the house. Although it altered a primary façade it was done quite contextually and helps create a wonderful space inside. From top to bottom—in most areas save the kitchen and laundry room—the house is a treasury of unpainted and original woodwork—polished floors, and old growth redwood paneling, exposed beams, and trim. Wide, vertical, boards with narrow battens cover most of the interior walls, the structure of the ceiling is creatively exposed, and there are several clever built-ins at various levels. 

It’s possible to honestly mourn the ancient trees felled over a century ago to supply this much clear-heart redwood while still admiring the house as a wonderful human artifact. Most of the windows are finely crafted, there are three intentionally simple red brick fireplaces, and period light fixtures—or at least good facsimiles—in most key locations. This is a magnificent, complex, beautiful house and a Berkeley treasure. 

It also, sadly, has no landmark protection. Some modifications will probably be made. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a new owner paying $1.6 million and not wanting more than one bathroom on the second floor. But a new owner insensitive to character and history could also drastically alter this house, as was recently done to another corner brown shingle a few blocks away on Regent Street. That would be a national architectural loss and a severe visual and cultural tragedy for Berkeley. Some dedicated volunteer should come forward—and soon—to research and write a city landmark application for this remarkable piece of local heritage. 

Meanwhile, take advantage of the rare opportunity this Sunday to see the interior of the house. The listing agent for 2601 Derby is Tricia Swift, Broker Associate at The Grubb Company. Office telephone (510) 339-0400/333, e-mail tswift@grubbco.com, website at Grubbco.com or 2601Derby.com An interesting sampling of older interior and exterior photos of the house, taken years ago by Kenneth Cardwell, can be found by searching for “McGrew House” at www.mip.berkeley.edu/spiro. 


Photograph by Steven Finacom. 

The shingled exterior of the McGrew House with its distinctive steep-roofed gable.