Home & Garden Columns

Open House in Focus: Elmwood Townhouse in Cluster on View This Sunday

By Steven Finacom
Friday August 31, 2007

The address 2411-31 Russell St. in southeast Berkeley is a small cluster of mid-century townhouses on the edge of a fashionable neighborhood where stately brown shingle and period revival houses claim most of the curb appeal and attention. 

But this complex of more modest homes is, its own way, very liveable and contextual. One two bedroom unit—2427 Russell—is currently for sale at $534,900. John Koenigshofer is the listing agent, at Elmwood Realty. (www.erihomes.com) 

There’s an open house this coming Sunday, Sept. 2, from 2 to 4 p.m. 

2427 is tucked into the northeast corner of the larger of two buildings in the complex. It’s one of nine townhouses forming a shallow “C” facing the street and bracketing a smaller, two-unit, building. Encircling the property is a driveway that leads to 11 covered parking spaces along the rear property line. 

Inside, the unit is a simple, two-story, cube. The front door enters a living room with a stairway in one corner, diagonally across from a dining nook. The dining area leads around into the kitchen, in the rear of the first floor.  

Upstairs are two bedrooms—one large, one smaller—and a bath. The bedrooms look out from different sides of the building.  

On paper the unit seems small—some 924 square feet—but in reality it’s not claustrophobic. Windows face east, northeast, and west, there’s natural light and the spaces flow well.  

The units are “really well designed, they’re super-efficient” says David Lehrer, head of the homeowner’s association. 

The architecture is quite uncomplicated, reflecting mid-century Modern values. Small features—like a sculptural metal railing on the staircase, simple tilework, a fluted bathroom window—substitute for more elaborate and extensive decorative details. Stairs and floors are finished hardwood. The unit has been nicely painted for staging and sale.  

The kitchen appears to have several original features—tile counters with raised rims, a big triangular tile shelf perfect for plants above the sink and below the corner windows, and a built-in ironing board cabinet now fitted with tiny storage shelves. A skinny doorway leads to storage under the staircase.  

There are small closets upstairs and down and storage closets by the parking, and the closet in the larger bedroom has a deep niche above the stairs for extra storage.  

This could be a compact but quite liveable home for a single resident, a couple or two separate adults without children, or perhaps a single parent or family with one child.  

Most units—including the one for sale—look out the front onto a courtyard, and have a rear door opening to the driveway or parking area. There’s a common laundry room at a back corner of the complex. 

The landscaping along the public sidewalk is slightly raised and handsomely planted—in part by a UC Botanical Garden staffer who owns a unit—and the tranquil center court has a rectangle of lawn and flowering shrubs and other foundation plantings. 

Simple principles also shape the exterior architecture. The roof pitch appears shallow, almost flat. Outside walls—painted in peaceful cream tones--have a band of red brick across the base, stucco above, and painted horizontal boards at the top. Some windows project slightly in very shallow bays. 

I haven’t been able to find much of the history of this property, only some tantalizing possibilities. The realtor gives the year of construction as 1946, right after World War II ended.  

Post-War housing was scarce in Berkeley, since wartime needs and labor shortages had diverted resources from private residential construction at the same time there was a big influx of immigrants into the East Bay to work in war industries. 

One resident says he’s heard these units were built for UC professors. A long-time neighbor up the block recalls coming across early photos of the buildings in an archive of one-time U.S. Navy housing.  

I’ve never heard of UC housing at this site, but it’s conceivable. As the war came to an end, the University had a number of long term and temporary arrangements to house not only home front students but a large number of veterans coming to college on the G.I. Bill. Further research awaits. 

Whatever the early history, it has followed the trajectory of many of Berkeley’s small multi-unit complexes. Built to meet high housing demand, it spent decades in rental use. Conversion to condos followed in the late 1990s as detached single family homes in Berkeley became unaffordable for many residential buyers. 

Today, the residents are “a cross section of Berkeley”, says Lehrer. Some are tenants who purchased their units; others bought after the condos were created. They include owner occupants who are “professionals, several teachers, some UC employees” including one professor, plus a few renters says Lehrer. 

The property is self-managed, with a group of five residents heading up the homeowner’s association. Twice a year, Lehrer says, all the residents help out with a landscaping work party. 

The complex lies near the southwest corner of the Willard neighborhood. The Elmwood shopping district is just three blocks east, up Russell Street.  

Most of the buildings in that direction are large single family homes from the early 20th century when the area was developed as the Berry-Bangs Tract (see the Valentine/Dakin house article in the July 6 Planet for a more detailed neighborhood description). 

Immediately to the west there once was a mansion on a huge lot between Russell and Oregon, dating to when south Telegraph was a pleasant residential street with large lots and homes. The house was torn down in the 1960s and replaced with a bland, six-story, office building partially ringed by a large parking lot. 

If you visit 2427 Russell also walk one street north to the 2400 block of Oregon Street to see an eclectic row of houses ranging from a huge, white columned,, house to what may be southeast Berkeley’s smallest detached home on a postage stamp lot.  

Or go up Russell and south on Regent Street to one of Berkeley’s cutest bungalow courts with a semicircle of doll-house cottages, the Presbyterian Mission Homes, used by clergy families on sabbatical. 

There’s public transportation nearby on Ashby and Telegraph. Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, and the Telegraph Andronicos are within easy walking distance, as are Le Conte Elementary School, Willard Junior High, and the Willard Swim Center and park. Alta Bates Hospital is a few blocks south, and immediately east of the condo unit is an older house inconspicuously used for medical offices.  

Although just a block north of busy Ashby, this stretch of Russell Street is relatively quiet, despite the installation a few years ago of a largely unneeded traffic signal at the Telegraph intersection. Russell is a City “bicycle boulevard,” blocked to through traffic west of College. 

In this neighborhood scattered pre-war two and three-story apartment buildings—some in courtyard designs—generally harmonize with the surrounding single family homes in the way that later 1950s/60s apartment buildings—and many present day “infill” buildings—don’t. 

I decided to write about this Russell Street property in part because it has several qualities that should be kept in mind by those so anxious to make Berkeley more “liveable” by building more multi-unit housing.  

By any objective standard this eleven-unit property is fairly dense. Three free-standing Berkeley homes—or two suburban ranch houses, or one Marin County or Menlo Park manse—would fit on a land parcel this size.  

But these units don’t feel crowded. They share one or two side walls, but there’s no one living above or below. Several have windows on three sides. The residents get light and air. The lack of private yard space would be a drawback for some, but fine for non-gardeners. Units have separate, ground level, entrances and porches.  

At two stories this housing doesn’t tower above its detached residential neighbors. It fits in along the street, with setbacks and landscaped space. The development doesn’t include the security gates and grates, walls and fences, under-building parking and ostentatious “loft” interiors that make too many new multi-unit properties bulky and forbidding places.  

By having a mix of single family homes and properties like this (as well as lots of hidden housing in backyard cottages, in-law units, flats, and attics) a Berkeley neighborhood can be, in reality, relatively dense while still feeling fairly green and suburban in the most positive sense. 



Photograph by Steven Finacom. 2427 Russell fits into a sunny corner of the townhouse courtyard.