When people say that Berkeley is a weird and wacky town, they are usually referring to our politics, or our street people, or our “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade. But when they talk about our town’s “charm”, they are usually referring to our houses built between 1906-1930’s.
A house that embodies both charm and a bit of that Berkeley wackiness (aka eccentricity) is 958 Hilldale. It is listed for sale for $950,000 with Grubb Co. agents David Hill and Candice Economides.
The public record shows the house was built in 1928. According to Candice, the microfiche at the City Building department, as well as records with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) indicates that house was designed and built by one Bryant Paul, a “building designer”, not an architect. He is also credited with the house next door, at 956 Hilldale.
At first glance, one would call the house style “Normandy Storybook”. But look a little closer and I’d think you’d have to include the word “eccentric” and “one of a kind.”
Entering the house requires one to descend from street level on a brick path and enter the base of a turret. Turn right to enter the 1Br/1Ba apartment, or ascend the spiral stair to the main level. The turret now has aluminum windows, but one wonders if originally these were just open portals.
Once in, you find yourself in a swirl of undulating plaster walls, balconies, high ceilings, a huge south facing arched “eyebrow” window, a tiny curved-wall reading room with fireplace, a spiral stair with very custom mahogany top rail, and multiple curving platforms to step up or down on mahogany floors. Just about everywhere you look, the house offers some delightful custom detail. This is “house as sculpture” in the very best sense.
But aside from the aesthetic details, the floor plan is….strange. The huge light- filled living room is on the main level, but then you go upstairs to a very small kitchen, an even smaller “pass through” with custom built-in wall cabinet, to a small round dining room (placed on the top-level of the turret). All the bedrooms are small as well, with one on the main level and two upstairs.
I showed the house to a friend I went to architecture school with, and she felt that the house was designed by someone clearly very talented, but not, she intuited, a “real” architect. The tipoff, she felt, was that for all the interesting individual spaces, the house seemed to lack a real master plan, something that tied it all together. For instance, why all the one-step up multiple levels? And why is the kitchen upstairs, away from the main living areas? And what is up with the tiny room with the fireplace. The stager smartly shows this as a very cozy reading room, but was this the original use?
Aside from the architecture, there is the fact that the current owners have made their own mark upon the house during their 70 years of ownership! The fake slate roof made of tin isn’t so bad, but the aluminum windows and the exposed fluorescent light fixtures don’t exactly blend well with the Storybook aesthetic. My favorite quirk is the ceiling in one of the bedrooms. It's covered in stainless-steel sheets! Go figure.
See it yourself by making an appointment with a local Realtor.
Brett Weinstein is broker and co-founder of Realty Advocates, a full-service lower commission brokerage serving Berkeley since 1986. Brett is also a Berkeley mural hunter, and has found over 100 examples within City limits. Click here to see his collection.