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Landmarks Commission Recognizes Dwight Way Victorian

By Steven Finacom
Monday August 09, 2010 - 10:20:00 PM
The newly landmarked Fish-Clark House stands on the north side of Dwight
            Way, west of California Street.
Steven Finacom
The newly landmarked Fish-Clark House stands on the north side of Dwight Way, west of California Street.
Steven Finacom

Berkeley has one new historic landmark—a 127 year old Victorian house familiar to those who travel through the central part of town—as the result of efforts of a neighborhood history group and favorable action at the August 5, 2010, regular meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

After taking public hearing testimony the Commission, unanimously voted to designate 1545 Dwight Way as a City Landmark. The large yellow painted wooden house sits on a wide lot with a Canary Island date palm in the front yard, and is a well-known sight on the north side of Dwight between Spaulding Avenue and California Street. 

The building was formally identified in the landmark application as the “Fish-Clark” house. It’s a standard historical usage to call a property by the name of its earliest owner(s) or resident(s). In this case, San Franciscan A.C. Fish, said to be a retired sea captain, commissioned the house in 1883.  

The house was constructed by A.H. Broad, who was also one of Berkeley’s first elected Town Trustees. Several other Broad-designed buildings, including the childhood home of David Brower and Broad’s own house on Kittredge Street, are City of Berkeley landmarks. 

The Fish-Clark house stands near the southeast corner of the Spaulding Tract, a central Berkeley subdivision originally laid out in the 1870s.  

The landmark application was prepared by members of the McGee / Spaulding / Hardy Historic Interest Group, a volunteer organization that has researched the history of the neighborhood west of Downtown Berkeley, led walking tours, developed historic plaques, and written historical summaries of the neighborhood.  

Two members of the group, Pat Edwards and Lynne Davis, are the authors of record of the landmark application. 

Mr. Fish only lived at 1545 Dwight for a short period, and then sold the house to William and Lillie Clark, the former a mattress and furniture manufacturer. The house remained a single-family home through 1919, when it was converted to six apartments.  

In the 1960s a series of associations began that connected the house to emerging cultural and social movements in Berkeley. 

It successively housed: a group that promoted alternative energy; one of the founders of the Community Memory Project (which, in 1973, developed the first “public-access bulletin board” on a computer system); an ecumenical religious group residence called “The Ark”; and a transitional residence for “ ‘addicts/alcoholics’ in recovery.” 

There were four speakers at the Commission’s public hearing regarding the property. 

J. Michael (Mike) Edwards noted that although the nomination was submitted in the name of two individuals it was a “collective application” representing the work of several people.  

The fact that the house was built 127 years ago “makes it pretty old by Berkeley standards” he said, adding that the prominent residence had both historic and educational value. 

“This house really helps to define the character of the neighborhood. It would not be the same without it.” The history of the house embodies “the history of land use in the Spaulding Tract”, Edwards said.  

The property began as a four-acre, Victorian “mini-farm” carved out of a subdivision, then was further subdivided and built up as development intensified in central Berkeley. It once stood alone on the street frontage of Dwight between California and Spaulding.  

John English also spoke in favor of the landmark nomination, noting there were additional designated City landmarks—including the Brower family houses on Haste Street—built by A.H. Broad. 

This author also spoke in favor of the nomination, noting that Berkeley has lost most of its large, 19th century, Victorian-era homes and 1545 Dwight is both a rare survivor and a visual landmark already along Dwight Way. 

The fourth speaker, a Mr. Davis, introduced himself to the Commission by saying “I am the agent representing the property owners.” He said “they acquired the property through foreclosure in September of 2009,” and the owner’s intent “is to sell the real estate.”  

(There is currently a large “For Sale” signboard in the front yard of the house, and a “No Trespassing” sign mounted on the front gate.) 

Davis said that the owners would support having the first 40 foot depth designated a landmark, but asked that the portion of the building further back than 40 feet be only “selectively landmarked”.  

(Note: it was unclear to this writer whether the request was for the first 40 feet of the house itself, or the first 40 feet of the property, which includes the front of the house). 

“The house now consists of approximately 25 rooms”, Davis said, including 17 bedrooms. “This property has been difficult to market.” “The intent is to sell it to a party that would work with adaptive reuse.”  

“Landmarking the back of the building is going to make it extremely difficult to get a prospective buyer in there,” Davis said. “The owners are ready to submit blueprints to make the third floor habitable.” 

His comments about landmarking only the front portion of the house led to a dialogue with members of the Commission.  

Commissioner Robert Johnson said, “It’s not our procedure to landmark part of a building. What we do to accommodate changes is we call out features to be preserved.” 

“A landmarking is a parcel”, said Commissioner Carrie Olson. “But on that parcel there are things you want to preserve and things that shouldn’t be preserved.” She noted, as an example, a garage door that had been inserted into the front façade of the house at the basement level.  

“In general, what we care about a lot is what can be seen from the public right of way”, she added.  

“It’s not the case that the building gets landmarked and then it’s cast in stone,” Commission Chair Gary Parsons said. “There’s a lot of expertise in this Commission and we try to help you.” 

Davis said he was worried that landmarking would reduce the possible resale price of the house. He said in today’s market prospective buyers “are looking for anything that will drop the price, and landmarking can.”  

Olson replied, “I can tell you without a doubt that landmarking does not decrease value, it increases value.” 

Edwards, who spoke after Davis, said, “We have no disagreement with what Mr. Davis is saying” about emphasizing preservation of the front of the house. “We’d be happy to see the house standing with its elegant façade intact.” 

It appeared from initial comments that there was no serious opposition to landmarking the house among the eight Commissioners present (Commissioner Antoinette Peitras was absent from the meeting).  

“I walk in Berkeley a lot, and when I come around the corner and see this building, it’s ‘Wow’!” said Commissioner Robert Johnson. “It’s a very striking building. It’s very worthy.” 

Discussion focused on the elements of the building to call out in the designation language.  

Commissioners initially discussed postponing action for a month while a detailed written list was refined, but then found sufficient material among their handouts to craft a designation motion that was introduced by Commissioner Olson and seconded by Commissioner Anne Wagley. 

The motion noted the significance of the building as the first known Berkeley structure built by A.H. Broad, as an example of the stick era of Victorian-style construction, and because of the various people and cultural movements associated with the structure. 

The motion passed with no dissent. “The owners are ready to work with you”, Mr. Davis said, before leaving the meeting. 

The Fish-Clark House will become City of Berkeley Landmark # 310. Berkeley has an estimated 40,000 buildings. 

The Fish-Clark House is only the second building landmarked in Berkeley in 2010. Five structures were designated Landmarks in 2009, two in 2008, and three in 2007, for a total of 12 Landmark designations in the last three and a half years.  

The remainder of the Commission agenda was relatively brief.  

A second public hearing had been scheduled at the meeting to discuss alterations to the landmark building at 2134 Allston Way, which houses Cancun Restaurant on the ground floor.  

However, when only one comment card was submitted—by a speaker on behalf of the applicant—the Commission decided, at Olson’s suggestion, to move the non-controversial item to the Consent Calendar and approve the alterations without further discussion. 

Comments were also made by individual Commissioners about subcommittee meetings they had attended. LPC subcommittees generally focus on a single landmark building or project.  

Three Commissioners had participated in a subcommittee discussion of changes to the North Branch Berkeley Public Library. In their comments they alternated praise for some of the redesign and renovation plans with concerns about certain other elements. 

They said they had suggested that the original light fixture in the library lobby not be encircled by a new modern hanging fixture, asked that a proposed exterior garbage storage area be moved under the building and away from the large chimney on the façade, opposed making the main entrance door asymmetrical on the façade, and asked that any newly created functional artwork be incorporated in the new addition to the building, rather than attached to the older structure. 

Commissioner Wagley said that her understanding was that the City had mistakenly not included the City’s requirement that 1.5 % of project budget be spent on public art in the ballot wording for the bond issue that funded the branch library renovations.  

As a result the City is now rushing to incorporate some public art into the North Branch Library, but also requiring that the art be functional.  

Subcommittee Commissioners said they were skeptical of a suggestion that an ornamental railing on front of the old building be created, and suggested instead that a trellis or other features on the rear addition be targeted for the art funding. 

Commissioners Parsons and Olson reported their subcommittee had a positive impact working with a contractor at the landmark Grace North Church.  

“We’ve taken some builders who were not preservationist by inclination and made them more sensitive to what’s there”, Olson said. The subcommittee had met with the contractors to discuss proposed window replacements, repairs to deteriorated exterior beams, and other alternations. 

Commissioner Robert Johnson requested that staff look into asking the owners of the landmark Tupper & Reed building on Shattuck Avenue to trim back an overgrowth of ivy on the ornate façade. 

In Commission member comments, Commissioner Olson expressed concern that the Cheese Board on Shattuck Avenue had begun an extensive façade renovation without any City staff reviewing that project sending any information to the LPC. The Cheese Board itself is not in a landmark building, but the structure immediately adjacent to the north is a landmark.  

Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne reported that the proposed demolition of the historic West Branch Library is undergoing environmental review.  

He discussed having the Commission establish a subcommittee to review public infrastructure projects. This issue arose in recent months when City staff began a repair project on the deteriorated and historic Bancroft Steps southeast of International House. Specifics of a subcommittee will be discussed by the Commission at a later meeting.  

Claiborne said he was working to develop a one-time training session for the Commission, probably in September, with a focus on the process of creating and defining historic districts.  

He also noted that he receives calls from members of the public asking for advice on renovating historic houses, or asking if the City can regulate people making changes—such as unusual paint colors—on other historic structures that are not necessarily landmarked.  

Claiborne said, “Ideally we’d have guidelines, we’d have a ‘Rehab Right’ sort of program,” that could help respond to questions of that sort.  

He was referring to a popular 1970s publication written by two Berkeley residents, architect Blair Prentice and landscape architect and historic preservation planner Helaine Kaplan Prentice.  

The book provides practical dos and don’ts for the renovation and restoration of older homes in Oakland and is still in use (in fact, this author gave a copy of it just this weekend to a friend with an Oakland house). 

“Rehab Right” did not focus on designated landmark properties but more broadly addressed sensitive treatment of specific types of older homes. 

Following some other small items of business the Commission adjourned until its September meeting, scheduled for Thursday, September 2. The LPC generally meets at the North Berkeley Senior Center on the first Thursday evening of the month. 

The City of Berkeley has a web site for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with agenda and minutes. 

A pdf of the Fish-Clark House landmark nomination is here. 

A pdf history of the McGee-Spaulding neighborhood can be found here.