Home & Garden Columns

Victorian ‘Enigma’ in Central Berkeley on View Sunday

By Steven Finacom
Friday October 12, 2007

2206 Jefferson Ave. in central Berkeley is a charming enigma of an old Berkeley house. Precisely when it was built and how it arrived where it is are matters of some mystery. 

However, it’s also manifestly a house here and now, and currently for sale with an asking price of $695,000. Chris Cohn from Pacific Union is the listing agent, and there’s an Open House scheduled for this Sunday, Oct. 14, from 2-4:30 p.m. Go to www.berkeley-properties.com and look under “Featured Properties” for listing details. 

The house is divided into two units, with an expansive, intriguing, garden.  

Architecturally, it’s a Victorian. I showed retired UC Professor of Architecture Kenneth Cardwell—also Archivist of the Berkeley Historical Society—an early photo of the house. He describes it as a “Renaissance Revival Victorian” and notes that was “a style that was popular in the 1870s.”  

Other architectural experts generally agree it looks like a 1870s or 1880s design. In 1976, historian Mark Wilson led a Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association walking tour of the neighborhood which identified it as “Italianate” and “early 1880s.” 


An exact date is not yet known and some postulate construction as late as 1905; we’ll see, however, that the house appears to have existed by 1903 at the latest, and possibly much earlier. 

In early photos of Berkeley, one-story, raised basement, Victorian homes like this punctuate the landscape. Most are gone today. Regardless of when it was built, this is a rare local survivor. 

The 1911 Sanborn (fire insurance) maps show the current location as an empty lot. The neighborhood McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Interest Group thinks this house was moved around that time from the vicinity of Bancroft and Milvia, perhaps when Berkeley High School was expanding south. 

To check, historian Daniella Thompson looked up the 1903 Sanborn map for Bancroft west of Milvia. Eureka! A house that looks very much like this one, at least in plan form, appears at 1935 Bancroft, part of a now-vanished residential enclave where the newer Berkeley High School gymnasium now stands.  

House moving wasn’t uncommon in early Berkeley. It was a shifting residential landscape. Vacant land was plentiful and often inexpensive, and most buildings were wooden and rested on simple foundations of brick. Jacking up a house, or even an apartment building, putting it on rollers, and having horses drag it down the block or across town occurred again and again.  

Despite the apparent move, 2206 Jefferson has retained much of its original exterior, including horizontal board siding, large window bays, raised detailing below the roof eaves, and the roof form itself.  

The most prominent features of the exterior are three large “slant bay” windows. Some window sashes are divided vertically into two smaller panes, hinting again at an early construction date when large sheets of window glass were not available.  

Below the window bays there are curiously curved bases that taper down and back to the house wall, like corbels. Formed of numerous carefully fitted pieces of wood, they resemble enormous wooden wine glasses sliced in half. 

Inside, the house has been considerably altered.  

Start at the double front door, up the steps from the street. Note the large metal door ringer set low in one of the door panels. Inside the vestibule, turn left into the main front room.  

This big space enjoys light and extra room through two bay windows and was, presumably, the original front parlor, typically used in Victorian homes for the best quality furniture, knick-knacks, and guests. 

Beyond the vestibule there’s a bathroom and a bedroom. West of the parlor a large kitchen opens up through a door and horizontal window to a big sunny deck along the south wall of the house. 

The kitchen is probably inserted in the space of the second, family, parlor. 

If you stand outside on the deck facing the house, look to the left of the kitchen doorway and the right of the kitchen window. You’ll see joints running up and down the wall where different sections meet. Between them the original parlor windows probably stood; they’re just visible in the earliest photo of the house, before it was subdivided. 

Enter the second unit from the deck, through a door inserted in the back window bay. The living room could be the old dining room of the house, and retains several early—quite possibly original—doors and a Victorian style fireplace surround and mantle. Behind the fireplace there’s a bathroom, and straight ahead, opposite the entry door, a bedroom.  

Beyond the bedroom is a large kitchen. At the back of the unit the house divides into several small spaces. There’s a tiny pantry-like room, an even tinier hall (look up for the slanted porch awning, now enclosed within the house) and two back rooms, one the second bedroom, the other the “plus” room.  

From outside, look at the rear of the house to appreciate the merging of varied roof forms and wall sections hinting at the various additions. Inside, look for quirky features such as doors to nowhere, remnants of previous reconfigurations. 

Ceilings are high, and most floors are hardwood or carpet. An early real estate listing (1969) mentions pine floors, presumably now covered up. The front unit is listed as approximately 799 square feet, the back as about 980. A shared laundry and storage are in a partial basement, under the back unit and accessed from the yard. The units are prettily painted and staged. 

To the north and west, the house sits quite close to the property lines and adjacent structures, some just touching distance away from corner windows of the rear bedroom. Southward, the house is lightened by its large garden. 

The early Sanborn maps show this as its own lot, with a small garage, but it’s all garden and patio today and integrated with the house, but extending much deeper into the center of the block than the house. 

It’s notably planted, with palms and tropicals emphasized. A plant expert who walked through the garden with me pointed out several rare or unusually large and attractive specimen plants. Advice to buyers: at least identify the botanical treasures of the garden before extensively altering it.  

Present day neighbors on the block remember an early 1980s resident of the house calling himself “Bear,” who worked on this garden and frequently offered plants to neighbors. 

The garden is functionally and visually divided into front, middle, and rear patios, with clustered plantings and pathways in between. It’s intelligently laid out. Each unit of the house opens onto part of the shared deck, but has its own stair to the garden and to one of the patios. 

Many generations lived here, and some very limited research hints at their history. 

A “Sofinnia” or “Syphina” Inger lived here at 2206 Jefferson and paid property taxes in 1911. Sleuthing on genealogical websites turned up information that the Ingers may have been a Mormon family from Utah. 

In 1913 a “J.W. Savacool” was living at 2206 Jefferson. Quite possibly a developer or realtor, he also had a business address for a “City and County Lands” enterprise at 2185 Shattuck.  

The next person who can be directly connected with the house so far is a Mrs. Corinne Neal who lived there in the 1930s and into the 1940s. A neighbor down the block remembers her giving piano lessons—25 cents each—in the second parlor.  

Around 1946 Mrs. Neal apparently sold the house to a couple named Nilson. That same year they sold to a Dorothy Jakala. In 1947 a “Fern S. Magistrini” appears to have had partial ownership and in 1949 Jakala and Magistrini sold to “Vincenyo and Terisena Cortese,” according to the fragmentary real estate records at Berkeley Architectural Heritage.  

Quick transitions in a tumultuous decade! 

The next available real estate record shows the house going on the market for $22,500 in 1969. By then it was already subdivided into units; quite possibly the division occurred much earlier, since older Berkeley homes were often partitioned into rentals in the 1930s and 1940s. 

In 1972 the house was listed for sale at $28,500. In 1973 it appears to have sold, and in 1977 there’s another possible sale to someone with the last name of Sataki. Later came the current owners who, the realtor says, have been there for about 24 years. 

Surrounding the house is the pleasant and fascinating McGee/Spaulding neighborhood. Someone once carved “Love” in wet concrete in front of 2206 Jefferson. That’s a word you hear frequently when you ask neighbors what they think of living in this area. 

Tucked between Downtown on the east, University Avenue on the north, Sacramento Street on the west and Dwight Way on the south, it was once bisected by Strawberry Creek (now underground) and farmed by Irishman James McGee.  

In the 1870s McGee donated land to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who built a convent on the block just north of this house. A school and the original St. Joseph the Worker church, Berkeley’s first Roman Catholic Parish, were soon added.  

The surrounding blocks remained substantially in agricultural uses through the 19th century, although streets and Victorian homes began to appear. To the west of McGee’s farm the smaller Spaulding Tract was subdivided and sold for home lots.  

Nearby turn of the century and early 20th century streetcar and interurban railway lines—one ran along California Street—and an influx of new residents after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire resulted in rapid development. Fields and cows gave way to home lots, bungalows, cottages.  

By the late 1920s this was a well-established Berkeley neighborhood. In the 1950s and 1960s rapid construction of apartment buildings threatened many of the older homes and quiet residential blocks, but unbridled demolition and development was slowed in the 1970s by civic and political activism. 

Today, the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of one and two story homes surrounded by gardens, some apartment buildings, and venerable Berkeley institutions including Washington School, St. Joseph the Worker Parish, and Berkeley’s first Jewish congregation, Beth Israel.  

Present-day residents range from old Berkeley families here for generations to urban homesteaders of the 1960s and 70s, to UC faculty families at the former Presentation High School campus. The streets are generally wide and quiet, although there’s some fast traffic along Allston.  

Stand at the corner of Jefferson and Allston and look north and east. You’ll see in the distance the towers and edifices of Religious Berkeley (St. Joseph’s), Civic Berkeley (Old City Hall), Educational Berkeley (the domed Cyclotron at UC) and Commercial Berkeley (the former Great Western / Powerbar Building). 

One long-time resident facetiously calls the 2200 block of Jefferson the “broccoli forest” for its rows of stately, dome headed, dense and handsome, melaleuca linariiforia (Flaxleaf Paperbark) street trees. In June they turn, in her imagery, to giant cauliflower, covered with thousands of tiny white blossoms. 

If you visit 2206 Jefferson, take some time to walk or drive around the neighborhood and admire the modest, interesting, houses, many of them quite eclectically remodeled and gardened. One neighbor I talked to when she was out raking her leaves paused to say “it’s a great neighborhood. You’re near everything. You could live here without a car.” 

A few other neighborhood houses are currently on the market. The house just north of 2206 Jefferson will soon be for sale, too. 

The neighborhood has an active history research group. You can find a neighborhood history on City Councilmember Dona Spring’s website at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/council4/ 




Suggested captions, and credits: 


Photo A. An undated, but early 20th century, view of the house shows the prominent window bays and patterned shingles on the roof. This is before division into separate units, and the old parlor windows are visible between the two bays on the left.  


Photo Credit: Courtesy, Ormsby Donogh Collection, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. 


Photo C. The living room of the back unit is probably the original dining room, and contains a period fireplace. (Credit, Steven Finacom)