Home & Garden

Berkeley's Historic Thorsen House, Now A Fraternity, Open To View on Saturday

By Steven Finacom
Monday August 09, 2010 - 10:55:00 PM
The Thorsen House main façade faces Piedmont Avenue.
Steven Finacom
The Thorsen House main façade faces Piedmont Avenue.
The main entrance features intricately crafted wood and art class windows.
Steven Finacom
The main entrance features intricately crafted wood and art class windows.
The original front facade of the Wall House, today at 2234 Piedmont, which
            was built around the same time as the Thorsen House and just two lots to the north.
Steven Finacom
The original front facade of the Wall House, today at 2234 Piedmont, which was built around the same time as the Thorsen House and just two lots to the north.

Though far apart geographically, Berkeley and Pasadena have some interesting commonalities. Both are home to gigantic early 20th century football stadiums where UC teams play, both have a long history of distinguished community theater, and are known for the quality of their residential neighborhoods. 

In addition, each town has a lavish Arts & Crafts home, a so-called “ultimate bungalow”, designed by the Greene Brothers in the early 20th century. Although Pasadena’s bungalow, the Gamble House, is better known, Berkeley’s counterpart, the Thorsen House, is pretty darn nice on its own and is also the larger of the two. 

The brown shingle Thorsen House stands at 2307 Piedmont Avenue at Bancroft Way, right across the street from International House.  

This coming Saturday, August 14, 2010, from 5 to 9 pm, a fundraising event gives the public the opportunity to see the inside of this remarkable structure and hear two leading Arts & Crafts scholars speak about the history and context. There will be wine and food and the opportunity to look around the house.  

The event is coordinated with the 16th Annual San Francisco Arts & Crafts Exposition, taking place the same weekend. 

The Thorsen House was designed and built in 1908 by Henry Mather Greene and Charles Summer Greene who had a Southern California design firm famous for its lavish interpretation and execution of the Arts & Crafts aesthetic.  

The clients, wealthy lumberman William Thorsen and his wife, selected a site on Piedmont Way (now Avenue) in what was then a fashionable district of large private homes interspersed with privately operated student residences. When the Thorsen House was built, the neighborhood was a relatively quiet upscale enclave. 

Piedmont ended a block north of the house—Gayley Road did not yet directly extend across the UC campus to Northside—the campus itself was a block to the northwest, and Memorial Stadium and International House had not yet been built. There were no UC residence halls, and the fraternities and sororities which now densely populate the neighborhood were, in that era, more dispersed and intermixed with family homes on both north and south sides of the campus. 

For years the Thorsens were prominent in local civic and social affairs. Their home was a setting for receptions, weddings, and club meetings, and the Society pages of the local papers were full of the memberships, activities, affiliations, and doings of the Thorsens. 

The Thorsen House still exudes a single-family residential feel, with a manicured landscape, two iron entry arches, and curved brick staircases ascending through the front garden to a wide front porch and what may be the most magnificent door ensemble in Berkeley, an intricate mix of art glass and glowing wood. 

The interior of the house also gleams with beautiful woodwork, built with the skill and detail usually devoted to a fine piece of hand-made furniture. There are Japanesque overtones in both the style and execution of the woodwork. The large rooms spill into each other and out into a rear garden enfolded by the “L” shaped structure.  

It is one of the most beautiful and impressive residential interiors in Berkeley. 

The Sigma Phi fraternity—originally located a half block down Bancroft Way, where the Law School complex now stands—bought the Thorsen House in 1942 and has used the house ever since. The fraternity chapter is closely attached to the building; members regularly work on restoration projects, and the building is kept in immaculate condition inside and out. 

Many upgrades have been accomplished in recent years. There are, however, major renovations still needed, including seismic strengthening.  

The event this Saturday—described as an “open house and evening social”—will raise some immediate funds for those future projects and also launch what Sigma Phi hopes will be a successful “Save The Thorsen House” restoration campaign. 

The event features two speakers, who will start their remarks around 6:00 PM.  

Robert Judson Clark is a gem of an architectural scholar. Retired from the faculty at Princeton University and a long time resident of the Bay Area, he’s a font of information on art as well as California architectural movements and an expert at relating our local trends—from Berkeley brown shingle to Beaux Arts UC campus buildings--to broader traditions. 

Edward “Ted” Bosley is the Director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, and thus one of the more experienced and knowledgeable experts on Greene & Greene. He’s also closely connected to the Thorsen House. He discovered the Greenes when he was a student at Cal and lived in the building.  

In 1996 he organized a summer exhibit at the Thorsen House that temporarily brought back some of the original, custom-designed furnishings, now owned by USC, and displayed them in situ for visitors. 

There are a limited number of tickets available for this Saturday’s event. The minimum donation requested is $30 per person. View the invitation and the instructions for purchasing a ticket here . The Thorsen House also has a general website .  

As of Monday, spaces were still available but James Dong, one of the organizers, tells me that people should sign up soon. You can do so through the website. 

If you are driving, Sunday parking is free at street meters and curbside in the vicinity, but the streets are usually parked up. The closest parking in UC lots is two blocks down Bancroft Way beneath tennis courts across from the Art Museum, or further uphill, behind the Law School.  

Access the latter by driving to the north end of Piedmont Avenue adjacent to Memorial Stadium, making a “U” turn around the median island then a sharp right turn into the campus, and another immediate left turn into a downhill roadway past a cylindrical building (Calvin Laboratory).  

In both UC lots make sure to watch for special parking signs and restrictions and purchase a parking pass at one of the pedestal ticket vending machines. 

If you come to the event on Saturday and park in that lot behind the Law School, you’ll probably walk by a nearby brown shingle house—now 2234 Piedmont—that has a curious relationship to the Thorsen House. 

About the same time the Thorsen House was being designed and built, William C. Hays, a member of the Architecture faculty at Cal, was designing a shingle-style home for Dr. Benjamin P. Wall just two doors north of it on the same side of Piedmont Avenue.  

The Wall House stood where the front steps and lobby of International House are located today, just a stone’s throw north of the corner where the Thorsen House stands. While I-House now occupies the site, the Wall House itself survives, half a block north and on the other side of the street on what is now the central campus of the University.  

When the University bought the I-House site for development in the late 1920s Dr. Wall apparently negotiated an intriguing solution to the pending loss of his home. His house was not demolished but, instead, moved up the street and onto a vacant lot at the 2234 address; he seems to have continued living there until his death. 

Perhaps because it was a long narrow structure being moved along a curved street, or maybe to spare the cost of building a large new basement under the ‘wrong’ end of the house on the sloping site, the Wall House was not turned around when it reached its new lot but inserted “backwards”. That is, the west façade that once faced Piedmont Avenue and the magnificent view down Bancroft Way now faces downhill into the UC campus. The old dining room and kitchen, once at the rear of the house, now adjoin the street. 

After Dr. Wall died, the house served as the home and studio of Mrs. Florida Parrish Moyle, a noted music teacher. After she died, her daughter moved to the house with her husband, William Denny, a Cal music professor. They lived there with their family, renting from the University, until 1958 until they were asked to leave and the building was converted to office uses; it remains University offices today. 

The Thorsen House and Wall House have several similarities: both two stories but still largely horizontal / linear in character, both intricately shingled and with extensive interior woodwork, both resolutely Arts & Crafts in style, and both with distinctive second floor bedroom balconies perched on top of first floor window bays. 

Did Hays and the Greene Brothers have any interaction during the design process for the two houses? Or were they simply talented designers working coincidently near each other in a then-popular style? Did the Thorsens know Dr. Wall, their neighbor on Piedmont? Intriguing questions that add some texture to the already rich story of the Thorsen House. 


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