Home & Garden Columns

Open Home in Focus: Historic Victorian Barlett House on View This Sunday

By Steven Finacom
Friday September 14, 2007

Among surviving Victorian homes in Berkeley, the 1877 Bartlett House, 2201 Blake St. at the corner of Fulton is rare, possibly unique. There are similar houses in San Francisco, and others in Oakland and Alameda, but not in Berkeley. 

It’s a substantially unchanged 130-year-old home, particularly on the outside. Retaining a spacious lot in a built-up district, it is designated a City of Berkeley landmark. 

The house is for sale for $1,349,000.  

The listing agent is Arlene Acuna, Marvin Gardens Real Estate, www.2201Blake.com, or 510-206-0793. There’s a real estate open house this coming Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 1-4 p.m. 

“The Bartlett houses, in their original setting with virtually no exterior alterations, no structures added to the site since 1892, and with some of the earliest accessory buildings which have survived in the city, are probably the most pristine representation of Victorian Berkeley still in existence,” the landmark nomination notes. 

The Italianate Victorian is a tall, deep and narrow, wooden two-story house with a hipped roof flattened on top and once provided with a widow’s walk observation platform. A formal front porch facing Blake Street leads to a double entrance door, adjacent to a window bay. The wide roof overhang is somewhat out of the ordinary. 

Inside, there’s the standard Victorian entry hall with a steeply impressive staircase rising straight to the second floor. The ground floor has two parlors, the second, inner, one provided with a marble fireplace and pocket doors. 

The hall and the second parlor open into a large room across the width of the house with bay window on the west. Here, things get architecturally interesting. 

This room was once divided in half, with kitchen on one side and dining room on the other. The partition is now gone and this is an airy space with marble fireplace, but kitchen fixtures, including sink, stove, and a closet-like pantry remain along the east wall. 

Directly behind this room there’s the original kitchen space, now fitted out as a bedroom or dayroom and opening to back porch and to a side hallway converted into a downstairs bathroom (note the pass-through from the pantry towards the hall-turned-bathroom). 

Off the rear covered porch there’s a narrow, freestanding, one story structure, reputedly once for servants. 

Spare a thought for Berkeley’s early domestic working class, often immigrants, living very simply in tiny rear or upstairs rooms like these. Their labors and quarters literally lay behind the comfortable lifestyles of the middle and upper classes. 

Other early features—a carved railing, a wall mounted wire mesh pie safe, a side storage room for firewood and coal, and laundry sinks—complete the back porch. 

Round the corner and across the yard is the original stable building. 

Venerable pear trees shed their autumn fruit. A new property line is reportedly being established to divide the freestanding houses at 2201 and 2205 Blake into two parcels for separate sale. 

There’s an ornate recessed side entry on the west of 2201 facing Fulton Street, almost a second front door to the house, approached between the trunks of two large cedars.  

Next to this entry you can see, through a west-facing window, a steep and extremely narrow staircase. Upstairs though, no stair appears; it’s concealed beneath a trap door in the floor of a second floor porch. 

The second floor begins at the south with a window-bayed master bedroom that spans the full width of the house. It’s furnished with a ponderous but impressive dark wooden bedroom set, scaled to the large, high, dimensions of the room. 

Along the east wall there’s a connecting bedroom (reportedly an original bathroom), then a smaller current bathroom. Tucked between the two is a closet-like room with built-ins and a winding stair to the attic (not 

open for viewing). A drawer in the bathroom wall is extremely deep and double-ended, opening to the closet on the other side. 

The back of the second floor contains two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a glassed-in side porch. From the front staircase a narrow hallway with rounded corner walls zigzags towards the back of the house; it’s a bit like a passageway on a ship. 

In the 1940s the upstairs was apparently converted to two residential units, sharing the bathroom. 

The house retains many of the features that make Victorians special (and 

also sometimes hard to heat). There are high ceilings, large vertical double-hung windows, three window bays, two marble fireplaces, refinished wood floors, and decorative ornamentation. 

One feature of the house that was talked about for years in local historical circles is now irretrievably gone. The original wallpaper and floral ceiling decorations have vanished, replaced with a blandly pleasant interior paint job in neutral white, creams, and light yellows. 

Outside, the house has been painted a deep gray, with lighter trim, consistent with its color for many years. Sitting well back from the street behind a shadowy screen of large evergreen trees—deodar, atlas, incense cedars—the dark house has seemed mysterious for generations. 

A long-time neighbor says that in the 1970s it was called the “haunted house” and she met people who had called it that in the 1920s. 

Stately and reserved perhaps, but haunted, no.  

The house was built by Alfred Bartlett, born in 1841 on an English farm. He did a stint in the British Navy then stowed away to New York at age 15, learned carpentry and retailing, and worked his way aboard a ship to San Francisco in 1857.  

He bought a wagon and turned an early love of books into a career as a traveling bookseller. This brought prosperity enough to buy property and in 1868—the year the University of California was founded—he married Teresa Whitney, a New Yorker who would remain his “faithful and affectionate wife” for more than half a century. 

In 1876, Bartlett bought the Blake Street property at auction and the following year he built 2201 Blake and moved his family there “for the sake of the health of my wife and two daughters.” 

This is a recurrent theme in East Bay history—moving across the bay, glad to get away from chilly, foggy, San Francisco. 

Bartlett continued in book selling and real estate. The landmark nomination for 2201 Blake says the family was “frequently mentioned in the local newspapers, and appear to have been well-liked.” Bartlett even ran for town marshal, unsuccessfully, and two of his three daughters earned degrees from nearby UC. 

In 1892 the Bartletts built the house next door at 2205 Blake, apparently as a rental property. They eventually spent much of their time living in Fresno. Alfred died in 1924, Teresa in 1919. 

In the 1920s the Schendels purchased 2201 Blake. Howard Coleston, Sr. who grew up on Fulton Street, married into the family in the 1940s, the same decade the Bartlett House was reportedly converted to apartments. 

The adjoining houses descended through the Schendel/Coleston family until the present day. 

Alfred Bartlett had written once to his future wife, “You may like a city for a while, but I expect you would soon long for the liberty and natural pleasures of a country life.” Semi-rural Berkeley in the 1870s probably fit that bill. 

The Bartlett House stands on one of 140 “residence lots” put up for auction in October 1876 by Francis Shattuck, subdividing property homesteaded by Berkeley pioneer George Blake. 

This was just a few years after the University of California had moved to its Berkeley site, and the same year Berkeley was formally incorporated as a town. 

Shattuck had arranged for a steam train line to run up his property tract, and rail service began in 1875. The trains made a stop at “Dwight Way Station” just a block northwest of the Bartlett House site, and for years property owners and merchants around that nexus tried hard to make it the center of Berkeley’s growing Downtown. 

The neighborhood escaped that fate, meaning that many early buildings, commercial and residential and including the Bartlett House, survive on the surrounding blocks. 

As the 19th century wore on to a close, the neighborhood was a pleasant residential district of Victorian family homes, both substantial and modest, convenient to campus, commerce, and transportation. 

In the early 20th century, remaining vacant lots filled in with additional houses in newer architectural styles. Depression and World War II resulted in the subdivision of many larger, older, houses into smaller units, while the University population grew and rental demand increased. 

By the 1950s and ‘60s this was sometimes dismissed as a district headed towards dereliction, unfashionable in those days of “suburban flight.” On every block some houses were torn down and replaced with large apartment buildings, including some of Berkeley’s most intrusive stucco “ticky tacks.” 

By the 1970s this was also a district where grassroots neighborhood activism and revival began to emerge. There were rent strikes, communes, and residents successfully protested the “Fulton Freeway”, then a congested southbound commute route to Ashby Avenue. One of Berkeley’s earliest traffic barriers blocks Fulton next to the Bartlett House. 

Not unusual for a district so close to a large university campus, the neighborhood contains many multi-unit structures and short term residents. However, there are a surprising number of long-term residents, both owners and renters. 

For a feel of the neighborhood—-and the really significant collection of early Victorians it contains—stroll a block or two in each direction from the Bartlett House. 

The Bartlett House is well worth a visit on Sunday to see the fine traditional Victorian interior and setting.  

But if you think about buying it, I hope you are someone who truly wants to live in a classic Victorian and make it comfortable without unsympathetic modernist “updates”, “improvements”, and “remodels.” 

And I also hope you value a large, level, yard for its gardening potential, not as a place to build. 

Although this property is privately owned, it’s also a true community cultural treasure.  


Photograph by Steven Finacom. A path framed between cedars approaches the west entrance of the Bartlett House.