Home & Garden

Open Home in Focus: Kofoid House at 2616 Etna St. for Sale

By Steven Finacom
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 10:19:00 AM
From the street 2616 Etna sits solid and shingled, with the second floor under a gambrel roof.
Steven Finacom
From the street 2616 Etna sits solid and shingled, with the second floor under a gambrel roof.
Beyond the living room lies Professor Kofoid’s old home study, with numerous built-ins and a grass mat ceiling.
Steven Finacom
Beyond the living room lies Professor Kofoid’s old home study, with numerous built-ins and a grass mat ceiling.

There aren’t many houses in Berkeley over a century old that have never been sold on the open market. When one comes up for sale, it’s worth taking note, especially if it’s an original Julia Morgan design, relatively unaltered, and the family home of a renowned UC scientist. 

From the outside, the gambrel-roofed, shingled, home at 2616 Etna St. isn’t the grandest house on its block. Inside, however, it’s a jewel box of good design, Arts & Crafts character, and whispering history. 

Charles Atwood Kofoid, a long time professor of zoology, built the house with his wife in 1905 and four decades later passed it on to the son of one of his former graduate students. That family, the Micheners, has owned and used the house ever since. 

Let’s visit the house first, and then learn more about the residents. 

The main entrance is centered on the long south façade. Enter the downstairs hall, paneled floor to ceiling in redwood with pocket doors to either side, and turn right. Here’s a comfortable formal dining room with fireplace and southeast facing windows. 

North of, and beyond, the dining room is the kitchen, which can also be entered from the downstairs hall. Beyond the kitchen is a little room Mrs. Kofoid used for laundry, a half bath tucked under the stairs, and what was originally a screened porch on the north side of the house. 

The kitchen is substantially unchanged from its early years. The adjacent pantry retains a pie safe in the north wall. Pat Talbert, one of the realtors representing the sellers, flings open the windows over a wide sill, facing the front garden; “doesn’t this make you just want to run into the kitchen and bake something?” she says to a visitor. 

On the other side of the entry hall is the living room running the width of the house, with built-in bookcases. A fireplace is centered in the west wall, flanked by French doors that lead to a porch on the south side, and Dr. Kofoid’s study on the north. 

The study is the historic heart of the house, with its own corner fireplace, numerous built in book cases and cabinets, and windows facing north and southwest. 

A huge wooden partner’s desk hand built by Kofoid’s father, a Danish immigrant carpenter, stood in this room until a few months ago, and books and keepsakes from decades of research and travel were arranged on the cabinets and shelves. After Kofoid died “another layer of artifacts” was added by the Michener family, current co-owner Frances Michener says. 

Although the furnishings and books are now removed, the beamed ceiling of the study is still covered with woven “Lauhalo mat,” brought by Mrs. Kofoid from Hawaii. 

A Dutch door opens from the study to the large south-facing porch with a redwood pergola. Family lore has it that the Dutch door was included so Professor Kofoid could have a dog on the porch while he worked inside; his wife, however, “refused to share her home with a dog,” researcher Joellen Arnold wrote in 1975. 

Upstairs, the large southeast bedroom was originally used by Mrs. Kofoid’s mother. The northeast has two curious smaller rooms, each with its own door to the hallway but internally connected by a large sliding door. The architectural plans describe this arrangement as “Bed Room” and “Alcove.” 

Family accounts note these small rooms were rented to Cal students over the years. But the Kofoids “had planned to have a family,” Frances Michener says. “I think it was extremely disappointing to them that they couldn’t have children.” 

The bathroom opposite the top of the stairs retains period character with traditional fixtures and wood wainscoting and built-ins. Peek in the bathroom closet at its floor to ceiling stack of built-in wooden cabinets; this space once connected through to the master bedroom. 

The two bedrooms at the back end of the house were partitioned from the original master bedroom; a bookcase wall built in front of a fireplace divides them. Beyond the master bedroom is a now enclosed porch, originally open air, which the Kofoids used for sleeping. It’s perched atop the downstairs study and, like it, entered through double French doors. 

Like the old St. John’s Presbyterian Church sanctuary nearby on College Avenue (now the Julia Morgan Theater) this room displays Julia Morgan’s virtuosity at making simple structural materials sing. The open trusses, diagonal ceiling boards, wall framing and floor, and slanted, sliding windows make the room feel like a sculptural composition. 

The house has a marvelous number of built-ins, including drawers and dressers, and cabinets beneath windows and below bookshelves, and hundreds of linear feet of bookshelves themselves. On the staircase, the panel at the bottom facing the front door is cleverly removable so furniture can be more easily carried up and down. On the landing there’s a cabinet that was equipped with a fire hose; the water spigot is still there. Nearly every window in the house has a deep sill. 

All the numerous casement windows originally opened inward. In preparation for sale most of the upstairs windows have been replaced in kind and now swing outwards, but the downstairs windows retain the original design. 

Out back, the slightly sloping yard has a towering redwood in one corner, a gnarled oak, and a bay laurel rising from a formidable buttressed base. 

Charles Atwood Kofoid who selected this site and commissioned the house, was born in Illinois in 1865. He attended Oberlin College where he met Carrie Prudence Winter, daughter of a Congregational minister from Connecticut. “They fell in love at Oberlin,” Frances Michener says, “but they thought they could not get married because he wasn’t making enough money.” 

Carrie taught, first in Connecticut, then in a missionary school in Honolulu from 1890 to 1893, all the while exchanging letters with Kofoid, who was studying at Harvard. 

In 1894 she returned to Connecticut and they married. He taught for a year at Michigan, then supervised a pioneering biological survey of the Illinois River. She earned her M.A. in history at the University of Illinois, studied Russian (to be able to translate research papers for her husband), and began a writing career. Throughout their marriage they traveled extensively in Europe, the Pacific, South Asia, Africa, and even contemplating moving to India at one point. 

In 1903 a faculty position at the University of California opened, and the Kofoids moved to Berkeley. During 1904-05, Kofoid spent six months aboard the USFS “Albatross,” sailing on a research and collecting mission through the eastern tropical Pacific. 

In 1905 the Kofoids also hired Julia Morgan to design the Etna Street house, along with the house next door to the south intended as a residence for Professor Kofoid’s father. Ultimately pere Kofoid returned to Illinois, and the second house became auxiliary storage for Kofoid’s expanding book collection, which also spilled over into the in-law unit above the garage that he built in 1926 in the back yard of 2618 Etna. 

Kofoid collected an estimated 100,000 books over more than 60 years, specializing in the biological sciences. He started early; one book of poetry I found at the estate sale earlier this year was dated 1887, when he was just 22, and labeled #353 in his collection. 

After his death most of his best books went to institutional collections—some 40,000 to UC Berkeley alone—but thousands remained in the house for decades, supplemented by the Michener's own books, often on similar topics including environmental issues and natural science. 

One fascinating piece of Kofoid memorabilia is his elaborate bookplate, drawn by Bertha Mitchell Clute, a noted illustrator who settled in Berkeley after 1915. The centerpiece is a drawing of the north wall and crowded bookshelves of Kofoid’s study at 2616 Etna with the Campanile visible out the window, as the Micheners report it could be seen before the block was fully developed. 

At the bottom, a sailing ship drags a collecting net of Kofoid’s design through the deep ocean, seining up plankton. To the sides are irises of the type he planted in the Etna Street garden, and below are drawings of microscopic creatures and sea life. 

Kofoid made important contributions to science. He was “co-founder of the oldest and largest oceanographic institution in the United States” and “inventor of important oceanographic instruments,” says Deborah Day, archivist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography which Kofoid helped established. 

His work on the Illinois River Biological Survey put him in the forefront of early environmental science and, as chair of the Department of Zoology at Berkeley from 1910 to 1936, he “taught the new generation of biologists.” He did everything from discovering new marine organisms in the field to leading research on how to best preserve pier pilings in San Francisco Bay. 

Kofoid also applied his intellectual energies to reconcile religion and science. Evolution “never threatened his religious feelings; it was never an either/or situation for him,” Frances Michener says. “That seems especially pertinent right now. He loved nature, and it had a lot of meaning for him.” 

The Kofoids were active in the Congregational Church, both locally and nationally. Kofoid reportedly donated a memorial window and a grand piano to a local church. 

Perhaps because of their extensive travels and stints living overseas, the Kofoids were also racially open-minded in an era when even Berkeley could be xenophobic. “At a time when there was a lot of racial bigotry he was very in favor of bringing in students (to UC) of various racial backgrounds,” says Frances Michener, and “he had a lot of Japanese friends.” The Micheners, Frances says, continued the Kofoid tradition, renting rooms at the house to a number of foreign students. 

The Kofoids “were both great outdoors people,” says Deborah Day. They “spent a lot of time camping and tramping the Sierras, Yosemite, and the great open spaces of the West. They were prodigious travelers.” 

“He lived in an era when biology was being defined, when there were two directions to go: to the lab or outside. He chose outside,” writes Michener family member, Kim Gazzaniga. That tradition continued with the Micheners. Frances Michener says David and Pat Michener, her parents, were both very active in the Sierra Club and its local chapters. 

Professor Kofoid met Julia Morgan, Deborah Day says, when she was a summer student at a marine laboratory run by his colleague William Ritter. The houses were a Morgan design but Kofoid’s father and brother, both skilled carpenters, worked on the construction and added their own touches and flourishes. 

Joleen Arnold, writing about the houses in 1975, noted “the house at 2618 Etna has a Mid-western air about it,” while 2616 Etna was “strikingly different,” with its English–style gambrel roof. 

2616 Etna cost about $4,500 to build; Morgan charged $200 for her architectural services. Redwood was the primary raw material, but the house also incorporated wood salvaged from a demolition project on the UC campus. 

Most of the original features remain, the interior woodwork is largely unpainted, and the few modifications (such as the partitioning of the master bedroom) are small and easily reversed. The realtors have had the battered floors refinished, rooms painted, and repairs made to damaged plaster and other worn elements, but the house still has the look and feel of its century-ago origins. 

Carrie Kofoid died of a heart attack Nov. 4, 1942. After 48 years of marriage Dr. Kofoid was alone, and turned to the Michener family. Josephine “Effie” Ridgen Michener had been one of his students and a laboratory assistant and scientific illustrator for his research projects. 

“Over the years, Effie maintained a working relationship with Kofoid and became a family friend,” says Kim Gazzaniga, her great-granddaughter. She had been married in the Kofoid living room. Her son David worked at Scripps, where he met Edna “Pat” Caney in 1939. They would have four children. 

“After Mrs. Kofoid died, my father (David Michener) had just gotten a job doing research at the USDA lab in Albany, and Dr. Kofoid asked them to move in with him,” Frances Michener recalls. Although her parents were initially skeptical they agreed and “it worked out to be wonderful.” 

The childless Kofoid became a devoted “Uncle Charley” to the Micheners, a term even family members born after his death use today. He “just loved the kids. It worked out to be a really good arrangement for everyone,” says Frances. 

When he died in 1947 his estate was largely divided between the University of California and the Pacific School of Religion. But he also provided for the Micheners to buy the two Etna Street houses at an affordable price; their family became residents and custodians for the next six decades. 

Finally, more than a century after the Kofoids built the house, the Michener descendents began to sort the memorabilia and furnishings in preparation for sale. Up in the attic they found a treasure; trunks and trunks of correspondence, photographs, and records left by Professor Kofoid, documenting not only his research career but family life. Most of these have now gone to swell the impressive Kofoid research archives at Scripps Institution. 

2616 Etna stands in an enclave I’ve written about a bit before in the Daily Planet, when the nearby Gester House on Piedmont Avenue was for sale. Although just south of a densely populated student residential district, two-block long Etna is a lushly planted, quiet, street. 

This is a house with an important pedigree and part of a coherent, tangible fabric of the past; a Berkeley treasure that should be treated well by any future owner. 

2616 Etna St. will go on the market for $1,115,000. At least one open house is planned—for date, details, and time, check the real estate website of Tarpoff and Talbert at http://www.tarpoffandtalbert.com