Home & Garden
Two local houses, both currently for sale, provide an enticing glimpse into the Bay Area’s Arts and Crafts past.
Neither is a famous or well-known house, but both of these nearly-century old properties are genuine gems from an era when talented local builders were busily turning out simple and gracious family homes in the burgeoning green suburban districts of the inner East Bay.
They also reflect the intelligent way successive generations of owners have appreciated the best built features of the past, rather than tearing out and rebuilding to suit new architectural fads.
One house is at 584 61st St. in North Oakland, close to Shattuck Avenue. The other is at 2512 Russell St. in Berkeley, just a few blocks down from the Elmwood shopping district.
Both are open for viewing this coming Sunday, June 29.
The two are surprising similar from the street, almost architectural siblings; if you glance quickly at the line drawings on the advertising flyers, you might easily mistake one for the other.
Each has a wood exterior (horizontal siding in the first case, recently painted shingles in the other), a steeply gabled roof facing the street end on, and an entrance slipped around to the left side to maximize both picturesque curb appeal and inside circulation efficiency. Both have elegant divided light windows and a handsome chimney set asymmetrically on the street façade.
Inside, each has a wealth of spaces with handcrafted dark redwood, including original wainscoting, built-ins, trim, and flooring.
Let’s visit Oakland first. 61st Street runs parallel to—and several blocks south of Alcatraz Avenue, in a residential neighborhood shaped like a slice of pie, widest at the Berkeley end, and narrowing down to the old Idora Park district just north of Highway 24.
Most Berkeleyans probably speed past on Telegraph or Shattuck with barely a thought for this district, but it’s an area with interesting and handsome homes and quiet enclaves.
The 500 block of 61st Street is lined with one and two story houses facing the north side of the old Washington School, now Sankofa Academy, an Oakland magnet school. Beyond that is Bushrod Park, with its recently refurbished Don Budge tennis courts and the East Bay’s own Mystery Spot, a point near the Shattuck sidewalk is where a large, still unexplained, block of clear ice plunged like a meteor into the park lawn, April 8, 2006.
584 61st St. appears to have been constructed in 1912, although a building permit was initially issued in 1907—understandable timing, given the vast need for new housing, and residential appeal of the East Bay, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
The front door is midway on the west sidewall of the house. It opens to a generous hallway that bisects the house, with the staircase straight ahead. To the left, there’s a large dining room, through pocket doors. To the right, the living room is divided from the hall by a half wall with wooden columns. A turn left through the living room and a second set of pocket doors finds a surprisingly large study.
Living room, dining room, stair hall, and study form one spacious L-shaped commons, or can be subdivided by the pocket doors for more sequestered uses. With pocket doors open, the study extends the living room to the entire width of the house; with the doors closed, it functions as a self-contained room, via a second door to the stair hall.
Under the first run of the stairs and landing there’s a half bath and a little storage closet floored with colorful vintage linoleum. The stairs are screened from the downstairs hall by a picket of tread-to-ceiling posts.
Upstairs there’s a full bath under a shed dormer and two bedrooms under the gable ends of the main roof, each with a closet. The hardwood floors continue upstairs, and the original unpainted wood trim also flows up to the second floor hall, where its built-in stacked linen cabinet.
The kitchen is simple, with a gleaming older range and not much counter space. A buyer with extra funds will probably want to do an upgrade here—hopefully in keeping with the character of the house. There are two doors direct into the dining room, one from the kitchen proper the other from the adjacent pantry, so a free flowing layout could be achieved without altering the walls of the dining room.
The pantry opens to the back yard and it’s not hard to envision a modest, well-windowed, pop-out/eat-in addition here to extend the kitchen further and make the most of the indoor—outdoor potential.
The dining room has a heroically massive and mirrored sideboard with glass-fronted cabinets above. There’s a built in desk unit of similar character in the corner of the study, adjacent to a long built in window seat along two walls, big enough to serve either as casual seating for the owners and any six or eight of their friends who happen to be around, or a sunny napping zone for at least a dozen house cats.
The fireplace in the living room is picturesque, arched and of clinker brick, with a smallish firebox, probably sized to burn coal. Some light fixtures in the house are contextual replacements while others appear to be original, including several intriguing little fixtures that look like upside down candle holders starred to the ceiling of the dining room.
Flame-like light bulbs punctuate the box-beam intersections of the living room ceiling. This is a house from an age when built in electric lighting was still novel, even magical.
The downstairs rooms are “Arts and Crafts classics” says listing agent Arlene Baxter, and she’s not exaggerating. They feel like the ground floor of a much larger and grander house. If you have any interest in craftsman interiors, go see these simple, spacious, dark wood-paneled common spaces in their current pristine condition, lightly and sympathetically staged.
The property is also a genuine piece of local cultural history. The seller of the house is Nigerian-born musician Baba Ken Okulolo, and the freestanding garage and the brick outdoor patio adjacent have hosted practice sessions and musical gatherings for nearly 40 years.
Artists Bob Marley, Taj Mahal, and Hugh Masekela are among those who have been guests here since the current owners purchased the house in 1970.
The detached garage is a humble piece of East Bay vernacular, but also a shrine of a sort. It doubled as a musical practice space and the walls even talk via colorful posters for scores of musical events at which Baba Ken has performed. Baxter shows visitors an album cover with musician Taj Mahal jamming under the large redwood tree that punctuates the level yard between garage and house.
Further north, back in Berkeley, 2512 Russell St. is a somewhat larger, also two-story, circa 1910 home. It’s just up from the angled Russell/Hillegass intersection where the streetcar turned, eras ago, on its way to the Claremont Hotel vicinity.
This house sits in an early 20th century subdivision that was the focus of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s annual Spring House tour this past May.
The deep front porch slips under the northeast corner of the house and opens to a stair hall. To the right, there’s a living room with large fireplace flanked by light-filled floor to ceiling windows. To the left of the hall is an elaborate dining room with a second fireplace, completely surrounded by glass-fronted cabinets in dark wood.
Many original architectural details appear intact. There are some good replacement light fixtures, as well as a few oddities such as acoustic tile between the box beams in the living room ceiling.
The dining room connects, by door and large pass-through, to an extensive kitchen remodeled with built-ins in an Arts and Crafts motif.
While this isn’t an authentic bungalow kitchen—the original would have been smaller, and probably painted hygienic white—it’s a handsome example of how a modern kitchen can be sympathetically designed to match the character of an old house, rather than looking like it belongs at the nearest loft condo or Home Depot.
A breakfast area at the end of the kitchen, and a bright, white-painted, room beyond the dining room add useable space and face south to the wide yard.
There’s a half bath with a great old corner sink with brass fittings, beneath the staircase that winds up to the second floor. A master bedroom with attached private bath spans the entire front of the house. Two bedrooms and a second bath are further back, then an “L” shaped genuine sleeping porch walled with windows, and looking down into the green yard.
Off to one side of the lot is a fairly large garage, the type that says early 20th century Berkeley, when automobile ownership was spreading into the middle class. In another corner there’s a solid-walled but clear-roofed little structure that could be a greenhouse, potting shed, or (after remodel and repair), “garden retreat.”
A picturesque box elder tree shades the center of the yard, there’s a hedge of black bamboo to one side, a deck behind the kitchen, and a vine covered arbor that creatively cantilevers out from two posts like an awning.
IF YOU GO…
Both realtors are planning second open houses this coming Sunday, June 29 in the afternoon.
To reach 584 61st St., Oakland, head south on Shattuck, past Alcatraz, and turn left onto 61st Street. The house is several doors up on the left side. More information at www.584-61st.com. Arlene Baxter of Berkeley Hills Realty is the listing agent. The house is currently priced at $629,500.
To reach 2512 Russell St., go east (uphill) on Russell from Telegraph Avenue, just north of Ashby, or north one block on Hillegass Avenue from Ashby. More information at www.realtyadvocates.com/2512.html. Hal Feiger of Realty Advocates is the listing agent. The house is currently priced at $975,000.
If you purchase a house like this—or simply admire the type—you can’t go wrong getting a set of the superb history and how-to books of Oakland author Jane Powell (Bungalow Kitchens, Bungalow Details: Interior, etc.) to help understand their design, and intelligently guide thinking about further remodels or repairs.