Home & Garden Columns
THE four-bedroom home at 2828 Hillegass Ave., built in 1909 in what is now Berkeley’s Willard neighborhood, is one of the notable residential works of Clarence Casebolt Dakin a little-remembered, but very intriguing, Berkeley architect.
Standing midway on one of Berkeley’s most beautiful residential blocks, the house is towards the upper end of Berkeley’s housing market, currently offered for $1,695,000.
An Open House is Sunday 1–4 p.m. The listing agent is Barry Pilger, and there’s a website with information on the house at http://2828hillegass.com.
It’s an unusual design compared with many other local homes of the era. The roof has a very shallow pitch—making it barely visible from the sidewalk—and large, wide, windows give the two story house a low slung, horizontal, feel that's almost Prairie Style.
Prominent, white-painted, wooden trim boards frame and cross at the corners of each window, further accentuating this effect. The rest of the exterior has periodically been painted, but is now restored to wood shingles on the lower walls and vertical wooden battens on part of the upper walls.
Inside, the house feels substantial and pleasant with a sense of livability—large rooms, wide halls and stairs, a comfortable floor plan, lots of light, big closets—often associated with houses by Julia Morgan.
Entry hall, a huge living room, formal dining room, and kitchen occupy the main floor. The rectangular living room has a period light fixture, tiled fireplace with oak mantle, and large matching windows at east and west, facing street and garden. A six-foot wide oak door slides between room and hall.
Most of the downstairs interior woodwork is original, unpainted, oak. Curiously bracketed oak plate rails, a long window seat, and an enormous built-in sideboard with china cabinets frame the dining room. The wooden front door features subtly intricate metal work with an Art Nouveau feel.
A wonderful “study” with a double folding glass door, a wood ceiling, and garden view tucks under the main stairs, half a level down from the entry hall. The long, galley kitchen, remodeled in 1957, has yellow Formica counters and a vintage Wedgewood stove. A laundry area, sink, and toilet adjoin the kitchen, and a narrow staircase descends to the basement, (look for the remnant of a wooden laundry chute beneath these stairs).
Upstairs, four bedrooms—three large, one smaller—open off a wide hall along with two side-by side bathrooms, and two glassed in porches. Two of the bedrooms form little suites with a porch apiece, and one bathroom connects to both hall and front bedroom for modern “master suite” privacy. The positioning of the porches, one facing southeast and the other west, would allow sedentary residents (particularly housecats) to comfortably follow the sun throughout the day.
Out back is an expansive and secluded garden with stone patio, two small ponds, lawn, a generous edging of trees including apple, maple, redwood, and flowering magnolia, and a pink-flowered theme to the plantings. A children’s play structure stands behind a two-car garage.
This is a house that seems to have been on the cusp of modernity when built. Well-to-do Victorian design staples such as “back stairs” and bedrooms for servants are absent. Bedrooms have walk in closets, not wardrobes, and bathrooms are centrally placed. One ample living room replaces separate formal and family parlors.
In short, although it’s almost a hundred years old, the way the way this house was designed for living seems closer to our day than to the 19th century.
Clarence Dakin, the architect, was part of an interesting Berkeley family, one branch spelling the name “Dakin” the other “Deakin.” The eponymous Deakin Street in South Berkeley borders a block owned by family members along Telegraph between Prince and Woolsey.
Artist Edwin Deakin—uncle of Clarence—had both home and studio there and his paintings of California missions helped to ignite a nostalgia craze for California’s Spanish / Mexican era. Clarence’s father, Frederick Dakin, built the landmark Studio Building at Shattuck and Addison in Downtown Berkeley.
Born in San Francisco in 1880, Clarence Dakin studied in the College of Mines at the University of California, as did his brother Frederick who, like their father, pursued a career in mining.
When still in college Dakin met the young—16 year old—Henrietta (Etta) Lyser in a church group at Berkeley’s First Unitarian congregation. Dakin—who, with a heavy moustache, looks quite adult in his yearbook photo—was cast as her father in a play. They soon married, had a son, but later divorced.
Before the marriage Dakin “left college” his widow said in a 1970s oral history, “…he was studying mining engineering, and that was not what he wanted to do.” He seems to have initially worked as a real estate clerk and salesman but also picked up architectural training and experience. He’s identified as the designer of at least 15 buildings (primarily private homes , some for family) in Berkeley and others in Oakland.
He opened a professional design office at 110 Sutter St. in San Francisco in 1913, the same year he “was granted a certificate to practice architecture” in California. He worked on some projects with cousin Edna Deakin, a skilled architect in her own right. A notable collaboration was their redesign of the iconic “Temple of the Wings” following the 1923 Berkeley Fire.
2828 Hillegass came fairly early in Dakin’s design career and fits among what the Architect & Engineer called “a number of high class residences and bungalows” that he designed in Berkeley. The house was built for insurance agent Edward S. Valentine.
Valentine, age 50 in 1910, had a wife, Alabama, and three sons, Edward, Roy, and Joseph who would have been about 16, 13, and 11 when the house went up. They were presumably prosperous enough to afford a large, custom built, house in one of Berkeley’s better residential neighborhoods.
By 1915, however, the Valentines had relocated to 2001 Channing, a Colonial Revival house that still stands today across from the Berkeley High School softball field. This seems like a step down in elegance, and makes one wonder about the circumstances of their move.
2828 Hillegass was successively home to three or four different owners. In 1952, Harry Q. Mills, perhaps a widower, told a realtor it was “too large” for his needs and sold it for a reported $23,750 ($1,000 less than his initial asking price) to the Ferrier family, owners until 1988. They were the ones, presumably, who remodeled the kitchen in 1957, the same year Clarence Dakin died in Southern California.
The house stands in the midst of the Berry-Bangs Tract, one of Berkeley’s early 20th century residential subdivisions covering most of 13 square blocks north of Ashby Avenue, west of College Avenue, and south of Derby Street. Today, this area combines with the adjacent Hillegass Tract to the north to form the Willard neighborhood, centered on Willard Park.
A period brochure describes the Berry-Bangs development as “the Choicest Residence Tract in Berkeley” and a “First Class Neighborhood” with “Not One Objectionable Feature” which, in those days, included “grocery(s), saloon, wood-yard, laundry, or other objectionable buildings.”
It seems to have been a big success and must have felt busy with construction and families moving in during the early decades of the 20th century. Stately and substantial houses--most of which survive today—quickly went up on generous lots in that era.
Now-vanished streetcar lines on nearby College and Telegraph provided convenient access to the business centers of Oakland and San Francisco. Residents included attorneys, real estate developers, brokers, mining engineers, accountants, businessmen and, my favorite, the all-purpose “Capitalist.”
The Tract was also convenient to the University and several academics lived there or nearby. The developers were, however, at pains to point out the district was “within easy walking distance of the University buildings, and yet not so near as to make it a desirable location for fraternity and boarding house (sic), thus eliminating these somewhat objectionable features.”
Although one high-rise apartment building stands a block away, this portion of the neighborhood largely escaped the mass demolitions and “ticky-tacky” infill development of the 1950s and 60s elsewhere near campus. As a result, ample original character is still clearly visible along the wide streets and in home settings like 2828 Hillegass.
This article was prepared with considerable research help from Daniella Thompson. A more detailed and expanded version will later appear, with more photographs, under “Essays” on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage website at berkeleyheritage.com
2828 Hillegass Ave, Berkeley
Sunday, July 8, 1-4 p.m.
Photograph by Steven Finacom
The horizontal character of 2828 Hillegass and the curious, white-painted, window trim visually set it apart from neighboring brown shingle homes.