Home & Garden

Local House is Precursor to Pre-Fab Age

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:29:00 PM

On Jan. 30 in the Daily Planet, columnist Matt Cantor wrote thoughtfully about the past and potential of prefabricated dwellings. Although most of Berkeley is “custom made,” as Cantor noted, pre-fabricated structures can have a place here.  

And at least one such local dwelling survives from the days of our great great, grandparents, a special, and quite possibly unique, authentically Berkeley precursor of the prefabrication age.  

Community groups have been working to find a permanent home for the landmark Elizabeth Kenney Cottage, a five-room, one-story, 1887 “portable house” manufactured in Berkeley to a patented design. Remarkably, it has weathered more than twelve decades and two moves (one in 1906, one in 2003) that took it halfway across town, as well as the indignity of serving as a stucco-covered storeroom for half a century.  

Saved in 2003 from a development site, it now sits temporarily up on timbers on a vacant lot along University Avenue, awaiting a new home, restoration, and a permanent reuse.  

This weekend a newly organized neighborhood group is hosting a yard sale to help raise money to bring the Cottage to a West Berkeley lot owned by Berkeley’s Redevelopment Agency where it could be renovated and operated as a historic community center, surrounded by a garden.  

The yard sale is the idea and project of Patty Marcks, an energetic and long time Fifth Street resident and a founder of the new “Friends of the Kenney Cottage Garden” group. For years she’s held themed yard sales at her home after “discovering a modest flair” for organizing the events. She even met her husband at a sale. This past December, she decided that the next one should raise money for the Kenney Cottage project proposed for her block. 

The event, entitled “Colors of Love” because of the proximity to Valentine’s Day, takes place this Saturday through next Tuesday, February 7-10, at 1629 Fifth St., just north of Virginia. The sale runs 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Marcks forecasts “hundreds of items for sale, mostly small and inexpensive, and having to do in some way with love and romance.”  

She has been assembling “items in romantic red, passionate purple, and pretty pink,” and “romantic items, including the four elements of a romantic dinner; candles, music, wine glasses and accessories, and flower vases.” Her stock for sale—most items priced at just a few dollars—includes red or purple towels, pink bed sheets, stuffed bears, “lacy lingerie, night gowns and robes,” heart-shaped philodendrons and even “small, heart-shaped, rocks.” 

“Many people spend a lifetime collecting stuff,” Marcks says, “but then at a certain point you realize that’s all it is—stuff—which not only takes up space, but, with a few exceptions, can easily be replaced. I think it’s good to continually let things flow through our lives, and be owned by many different people.” 

She is still collecting items for the sale and can be contacted with donation offers at redbud53@juno.com, or 526-7828. 

Proceeds will benefit the non-profit effort to preserve the Kenney Cottage. 

The simple building is almost entirely redwood, held together with bolts. There are no nails, and the structural parts were cut to a pre-existing design and slotted into each other; they constitute a building that can move from site to site, rather than one custom built for a single, fixed, location. 

On Fifth Street—on a quiet block where restored Victorians stand side by side with light-industrial uses, all emblematic of the original mid-19th century character of west Berkeley—the idea is that the Cottage would be renovated as a small community gathering space, probably with regular arts related use, and the surrounding level lot would be used as a community garden. 

There’s also a big potential element of sustainability to the proposal. Just as Elizabeth Kenney wouldn’t have necessarily completely tied in her modest home to a still poorly developed 19th century network of utilities (water, sewer, electric, gas), the present day promoters of the Kenney Cottage project envision a structure that could be partially or entirely “off-grid,” utilizing rain water collection, photovoltaic’s, perhaps a residential wind turbine—to show how low impact, low carbon urban living can take place in urban environments today. 

If the name Kenney sounds familiar, it is because the James Kenney recreation center and park in West Berkeley is named for James Kenney, nephew of Elizabeth Kenney, and Berkeley’s first fire chief. He grew up in his aunt’s home when it stood on Addison Street near Oxford, next to a volunteer fire station. Remarkably, Berkeley’s second fire chief also grew up in the house as a member of the Meinheit family that bought the home in 1898 and moved it to University Avenue in 1906. 


Steven Finacom is active on behalf of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association in the Kenney Cottage project. 



The “Colors of Love” yard sale is at 1629 Fifth St., north of Virginia, this Saturday through next Tuesday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. each day. 


For more about the history of the Kenney Cottage, and a photo of it being moved by horses in 1906, see this article from 2003: