Home & Garden
High on Panoramic Hill, overlooking Berkeley and the bay, stands a pre-World War II house that became both a public architectural spectacle and a secret aerie. Next week, a scholar offers an illustrated lecture exploring some of the hidden dimensions and character of this striking structure.
The Weston Havens House, designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris and completed in 1941, has gained increasingly iconic status among fans of modern architecture since it passed into the ownership of the University of California following the death of its owner earlier this decade.
Nearly invisible from the street on which it stands, seen from below it projects from the hillside with tall window walls facing the view and a dramatic “V” form to the roof. Intensely modern for its time, it was the purpose-built home of one of Berkeley’s more wealthy and enigmatic native sons.
In recent years, occasional tours have offered the public brief peeks inside the house where the décor and furnishings seem frozen in time from two generations past.
The talk on the Havens House, provocatively entitled “Sex and the Single Building” will be given the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 15, by Professor Annmarie Adams.
Adams, a visiting scholar who taught an architecture seminar with the same title at Berkeley last spring, will analyze the social dimensions and origins of the Havens House, examining it not just as an early modern design but as a product of the desires of its life-long owner, as interpreted by the designer.
“The premise,” Adams says, “is that a concentrated focus on the plan highlights the home’s role in shaping the lived experience of real people as the negotiated social positions inflected by—among other things—gender, race, class, ethnicity, and age.”
Adams is the William C. Macdonald Professor of Architecture at Montreal’s McGill University, and earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her research concentrates on domestic architecture, hospital architecture, and “gendered space”—that is, the way that the social and cultural roles of men and women influence the way buildings are designed and put to use.
In spring 2008, she was the first scholar-in-residence at Berkeley for the Arcus Endowment, a gift-funded program in the College of Environmental Design which “seeks to foster an awareness of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer communities in the history of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and the built environment disciplines.”
The Weston Havens house proves a perfect analytical subject for the sort of scholarship that interests Adams. It was the home of a wealthy, well-traveled, lifelong bachelor, built specifically to his tastes, with features such as a secluded on-site badminton court, magnificent bay views that could be enjoyed in complete privacy, and a kitchen concealed behind a screen painted with a map of the world.
This was clearly a home built entirely to the fixed tastes of a man who could afford to live as he wished, at least behind walls.
There’s a dearth of detailed biographical information about Havens. Despite that fact that he grew up in Berkeley and had his home—or, at least, a home—here for almost a century, he seems to have kept a very low profile.
“I think he just enjoyed socializing and traveling,” says Anthony Bruce, Executive Director of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, whose family would occasionally cross paths with Havens shopping at the Star Grocery on Claremont. “He always seemed like a mysterious legend to me.”
Havens appears to have been carefully reclusive with all but a close circle of friends. “I lived next door to him for 50 years and I never saw the interior of that house,” Doris Maslach once told me. She and her husband George, later dean of engineering and a vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, built their own modernist home adjacent to Havens on Panoramic Hill.
Haven’s father, John Weston Havens was the nephew of Francis Kittredge Shattuck, one of Berkeley’s early American Era settlers and major landowners. According to writer Daniella Thompson, who described the house for the 2005 Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association Panoramic Hill House tour, “the childless Shattuck invited his nephew to live with him in Berkeley and made him his heir. John’s only child was John Weston Havens, Jr.”
Reportedly born in the family mansion on eponymous Shattuck Avenue, downtown, Havens lost his mother at a young age. He grew up with his father and servants in a large home at 2631 Benvenue Ave.
Bruce says his own mother grew up across the street and was friends with the Havens governess. Havens lived a privileged life, driven to and from school by a private chauffeur. He later attended UC Berkeley.
He appears to have pursued adult life in a pleasant way, traveling, collecting, and socializing, supported by income from the extensive Shattuck investments and property holdings. Bruce says Havens seems to have divided his time between Berkeley and Santa Barbara, as well as traveling extensively.
In the late 1930s, Thompson writes, “following a trip to Europe, where he purchased modern furniture by Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, and other Scandinavian designers, Havens arranged for a meeting” with Harwell Hamilton Harris.
“He was collecting modern furniture and he needed a house for it,” Bruce surmises. Havens, then living at the foot of Panoramic Hill in the celebrated brown shingle Rieber House, showed Harris a steep lot he had purchased high on the slope. The house that Harris would later call “Havens Above” was the result.
Havens is recalled by some short descriptions as an art “patron”—a broadly elusive term—but I couldn’t find any references to leadership or prominence in local cultural causes, clubs, organizations, or activities.
Havens did commission one visible public philanthropy in Berkeley; a series of fountains in the middle of Shattuck Avenue, downtown, also designed by Hamilton Harwell Harris. The “Havens Fountains” survived only a few years until destroyed by construction of the underground BART tube.
After he died in 2001, the liquidation and dispersal of his estate—to Stanford, the University of California, and a new Weston Havens Foundation that endows medical and scientific research—sent ripples through Berkeley’s propertied world. I can think of at least three local development and land use controversies that resulted from sale and/or development of former Havens properties.
What about his private life? Adams describes him as “purportedly gay,” and that’s certainly the persistent impression and rumor. Havens grew up in an era when almost any gay man would have prudently remained very private and discreet.
“He supposedly always had a ‘steady girlfriend’,” Bruce says, but wonders whether that was a social front of convenience for the man who remained unmarried. A collateral relative once told Bruce, “He’s my own cousin and I don’t know.”
With wealth and leisure he would have been able to organize his life to avoid notice and maximize privacy. The house, Adams will explain, reflects that desire. She calls it “secret architecture … all about discreet obstacles,” a structure in which “the sleeping spaces were opaque and controlled (while) the house was also a carefully choreographed public spectacle.”
Screened from the street by a high fence and entered across a “V” shaped bridge with sidewalls that block sightlines down onto the property, the Havens House opens itself only to the magnificent western view.
It also seems clearly built for a bachelor. The sleeping quarters read as a series of master bedroom spaces, rather than the traditionally hierarchy of rooms for parents and children. Adams will draw comparisons to the internal arrangements of other famous modern era homes elsewhere in the country—some built for gay clients—as well as a house built earlier in the century in Berkeley for two women doctors who were apparently a couple.
The lecture includes numerous period photographs of the house—which was extensively documented for magazine articles—and draws on correspondence of Harris, the architect, and admirers who visited Havens to see the house, and wrote to him about both their enjoyment of his home, and some of the enigmas it represented.
The free lecture takes place from 7-8:30 p.m. at 112 Wurster Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
See www.ced.berkeley.edu/events and click on “Calendar” for a listing of College of Environmental Design October activities, including the Adams talk.
Website of Professor Adams: www.mcgill.ca/architecture/faculty/adams/
Website of the Spring 2008 class she taught at Berkeley: web.mac.com/annmarieadams/Seminar/Arcus.html