Home & Garden Columns

Open Home in Focus: Elegant and Cozy North Berkeley House on View

By Steven Finacom
Friday October 26, 2007

Around a North Berkeley bend, quickly by-passed by those busily headed someplace else, there’s a gem of a creek side house. The architecture and setting embody much of what gives residential Berkeley a special sense of place. 

1214 The Alameda is a three bedroom, two-story home currently on the market for $799,000. Terry Pedersen of Marvin Gardens Real Estate is the listing agent, and information on the house is available at www.1214TheAlameda.com  

An Open House will be held 2-4:30 p.m., this coming Sunday, Oct. 28. 

The real estate listing describes this as a “Hansel and Gretel” house. It also has an English Cottage feel, with more than a touch of Berkeley Craftsman on the interior. 

The street side (east) elevation of the house is dominated by a large, two-story, gable and a dormer projecting from the steep roof. A quirky garage is off to the left; more about that later.  

Walk the narrow porch lengthwise to the front door, which turns left through a vestibule into the living room. Three casement windows look out on the porch and a bay window faces south. A working fireplace of clinker brick is centered on the west wall. Box beam ceilings, redwood paneling, and diamond-paned windows establish an Arts and Crafts character.  

The living room is in the southeast corner. Southwest, entered from the living room on either side of the fireplace, is a tile-floored sun-porch. Northwest, diagonal from the living room, is a formal dining room also with a bay window, but here modified into a west-facing window seat.  

The kitchen is at the northeast corner of the house, reached from the dining room. Like the living room it looks out to the east through diamond casement windows. Turn the corner into a small pantry/laundry/half-bath area. 

A stairway ascends to the second floor from the far northwest corner of the dining room. Although this is curiously far from the front door it gives the upstairs a welcome, private, feel. Square wooden balusters, rising from stair tread to ceiling, screen the stairwell from the dining room.  

Upstairs a short central hall runs at right angles to the stair. Straight ahead, the master bedroom is underneath the south gable of the house. Like the living room below it has a fireplace and French doors open to a balcony, perched above the front porch.  

Right, off the hall, there’s a second bedroom above the dining room, facing west. A pair of interior French doors connects it on the south to a sleeping porch which has another door to the master bedroom, linking the three rooms in an “L” shaped circuit.  

The bathroom tucks into the eastern gable, off the hall. Open the low door to the right of the shower to a closet neatly outfitted with its own built-in chest of drawers. Bathroom and bedrooms have sloping ceilings in parts and angled corners where the dormer and gable roofs meet. The feeling is more cozy than claustrophobic, but watch your head as you walk about. 

Listed at a little less than 1,500 square feet this is not an especially large house and it could easily become crowded with several residents or a McMansion load of possessions. But it also feels instinctively comfortable and has a lot of versatility if you think of it as two-bedroom, with two generous “plus” rooms. The current owner, the realtor reports, raised two children here and has owned the house for about 17 years. 

Scattered through the house are several handcrafted Sue Johnson lamps. Some built-in fixtures—including a butterfly-decorated wall sconce in the upstairs hall, and a ceiling fixture with a dragonfly motif over the dining table—were designed for the house and stay with it, according to the realtor.  

The diamond-paned windows—true divided lites, with sturdy mullions—set much of the character of the house inside and out. The living room and dining room bays have a larger, undivided “picture window” in the middle to frame the view, flanked by the smaller-paned windows. 

Hardwood floors are found in most rooms, cork floors (perhaps from a mid-century remodel?) in the second bedroom and sleeping porch upstairs.  

The unpainted woodwork is nut brown or tan, lighter in color than you might expect for an old Craftsman house. The realtor says the present owner was told by earlier residents that it was once darker, but the original finish was removed and the walls—and, my guess is, the box beams downstairs—lightened with a wash.  

The exterior of the house is now painted a light cream yellow with white trim. The first story is shingled, while the gable ends above have a sort of English-Tudor false work timber pattern. Deep eaves give the house a sheltered feel. From the window box outside the second story bathroom window an immensely long tubular succulent trails like some topiary Rapunzel’s hair, all the way to the ground. 

The only early photographs that can be readily found—black and white, from 1951, and 1971—show a dark exterior, probably unpainted wood.  

Behind and below the house an open stretch of Codornices Creek—burbling, not roaring, this time of year—loops through the property. A small wooden footbridge crosses to a surprisingly spacious rear yard. Two light-standards with large glass shades stand on each side of the creek. They look rather like salvaged early Berkeley street lamps to me.  

Much of the garden is under the canopy of an immense, thick-trunked, California live oak. Most is informally landscaped, with a light covering of ground covers and shrubs. Large, tropic-looking crinums with white flowers punctuate the landscape as do an interesting variety of unusual shrubs and perennials. 

“That site is California pastoral!” says Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s Lesley Emmington. Rustic house, huge oak, embracing creek, and artfully informal plantings front and back come together for a quintessentially Berkeley “living with nature” feel. 

Adjacent to the house a one-car garage, tilting a bit, perches on wooden supports above the steeply sloping creek bank. Notice how it’s “inside out”, with visible exterior framing and interior board siding.  

It angles towards a similar freestanding garage that juts out from the property just south of the creek. Garages show up on the 1929 Sanborn map, and in the 1951 photograph, although whether the present day ones are modified originals or later “rebuilds” is not entirely apparent at first look. 

Who designed and created this house and placed it so? 

It seems to have been built in the early 1910s. The Ormsby Donogh file at Berkeley Architectural Heritage notes for 1913 that the house was owned by, or perhaps had a mortgage through, the Berkeley Bank of Savings, and was valued at $1,900. The 1951 real estate listing says it was then-38 years old (which equates to around 1913) and it was certainly there by 1929 when the Sanborn map for that year shows the house footprint and detached garage. 

When former BAHA President JoAnn Price interviewed one Frederick Peake nearly 40 years ago, he told her—according to an entry in Dave Bohn’s 1971 book, From East of This Golden Shores—“he had built the entire block. I asked if Maybeck had been involved and he replied ‘Oh no’.”  

“However, he said he had employed a draughtsman for the house who had been an employee of Maybeck. He also said he and Maybeck had been charter members of the Hillside Club, which was a social club for residents of Northeast Berkeley.” 

A 1951 real estate listing notation preserved at BAHA says the house had “Maybeck design” and “Style: Maybeck,” according to BAHA Executive Director Anthony Bruce. Not firm evidence that Maybeck was the architect, especially given Peake’s contrary statement.  

And maybe it’s not even a relevant question. The Maybeck influence was strong in this neighborhood without Berkeley’s best-remembered architect being professionally involved in every project. 

The Maybeck family lived just a block to the south of this lot in what’s now a much altered house, and a City Landmark, on the southwest corner of Berryman and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. It was there in the 1890s that Bernard Maybeck, a drawing instructor at the University, invited some of his UC engineering students for extracurricular talks about architecture. 

“I think that neighborhood has more unknown influences by him than he’s been given credit for,” says Emmington of BAHA. “There’s a lot between 1892 (when the Maybeck’s moved here) and when they went uptown, that they were doing in that neighborhood.”  

“An important part of his legacy is his effect as a catalyst who changed the world round him, not only through his own buildings, but through his persuasiveness in converting others to pursue his visions,” a BAHA brochure from 1986 notes. “He encouraged friends to design their own homes and worked with them on drawing the plans…Maybeck’s ideas are a source of communal inspiration…”  

And “architecture” was not back then the codified, licensed, practice it is now. Many people in Berkeley who had no formal training came up with their own ideas for houses and capably had them built without ever employing a “design professional.” Skilled contractors and builders also executed what, today, are often misinterpreted as architect-designed homes. 

In sum, there’s no good reason to feel that a house like 1214 The Alameda had to have had plans done by a formal architect or had to have been directly associated with someone like Maybeck in order to end up the way it did. 

The house is on the southern fringe of the Northbrae subdivision, one of Berkeley’s early 20th century “streetcar suburbs.” Stately landmark stone gateway pillars are just half a block north of the house.  

To the south, southwest, and east, the neighborhoods are somewhat older and eclectic with Victorians, cottages, Colonial Revival houses, modest bungalows, and architecturally unclassifiable homes. Walk through some of the surrounding blocks if you can and enjoy them house by house. For a long time this area was near the northern fringes of urban settlement in the inner East Bay. The natural topography and creek-carved landscape are evident in the dips and rises of the district.  

Nearby community fixtures include Martin Luther King, Jr. Junior High a few blocks to the southwest and the elegant North Berkeley Library one block north at an extensive angled intersection where The Alameda meets Hopkins. A tiny street island south of the Library grew into a landscaped pedestrian park after neighbors gathered there for post 9-11 memorials. 

The Monterey Market district, beloved by North Berkeley shoppers, is a left turn and several blocks down Hopkins to the west, and the “Gourmet Ghetto” and North Shattuck shopping district are uphill to the east, along with Live Oak Park through which Codornices Creek also flows. The Solano Avenue shopping district is a bit further to the north along The Alameda, and Downtown Berkeley and the UC campus are a long walk or short drive southeast.  

One change between Maybeckian days and the present. The Alameda and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (once Grove Street) have turned into a busy commute route and cross-town thoroughfare. The block where 1214 The Alameda is located curves northwest to south, as The Alameda narrows from a broad boulevard to a narrow two-lane street headed towards Downtown Berkeley.  

The house sits back and downhill a bit from the street and inside it seems fairly quiet, while the bulk of the building may shield much of the rear garden from street noise. Still, traffic is a factor to consider.  

Those hunting for a home in a setting like this should also make sure to become familiar with Berkeley’s ordinances detailing the rights and obligations of those whose property includes a creek, along with city regulations concerning heritage oak trees on private property.