100 Years of Houses- Walking Panoramic Hill

One of the conundrums of life during the pandemic has been getting meaningful exercise, something more than a neighborhood walk. Fortunately, in Berkeley, there are some very steep hills, and these walks have provided the necessary heart rate elevation. In fact, one in particular, at Claremont Canyon, is so steep that on several occasions I thought I might need to leverage my watch’s emergency function. But then my heart started again.

After surviving the ascent, I would often enjoy a slow descent through the adjacent Panoramic Hill neighborhood, which features a marvelous collection of homes built over the last 100 years. Walking through these streets , you essentially are taking a class in Bay Area Residential History 101, as you follow the development of the Bay Area chronologically, decade by decade. And work up a sweat.

Panoramic Hill sits aside the University of California campus, literally hovering over it. In the late 19th century, Panoramic Way was platted up the then barren hill, and gradually, the hill saw the construction of a scattering of homes. At the time, the University of California had become well established in Berkeley, and so there was a confluence of an educated population, some skilled newly arrived Architects, and an extraordinary topography. Led by Architects such as Bernard Maybeck and Ernest Coxhead, designers exploited the unique opportunity presented by development in this part of Berkeley, an opportunity to create a setting for the “rustic urban life”. Steps from the city and the campus, yet retaining a rural prospect:

The route one can take starts just south of the University’s Memorial Stadium, where you can ascend through the neighborhood proper. At the top of the hill, one can continue into the wilds beyond, or descend through the adjacent open spaces that offer tremendous views of the Bay Area. Here is the route:

Early 20th Century

Starting along the base of the hill, adjacent to the campus, one is quickly absorbed by a thick forest of oak and bay laurel. Walking down Canyon Road, you are mere steps from the University’s mammoth Memorial Stadium, but worlds away. Here , one sees the woodsy Bay Area Regional style of the early 20th century in full flower with these humble little cottages- redwood siding, shingles, and ornamental wood railings threaded through the woods. . The Garage cottages in particular both look back to the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, and look forward to the increasing need to accommodate the automobile, stuffed in Garages often barely large enough for the car.

Just around the bend , at 23 Panoramic, sits one of the first houses, Bernard Maybeck’s Boke House from 1901. Its carved balustrades, cross-leg corners, and half timber siding give it a Swiss Chalet feel, an apt language for this new urbane rustique. I believe this would have been one of the earliest of Maybeck’s Berkeley houses.

The actual ascent begins back at 1 Panoramic Way. Here is another lovely Garage with Cottage on top, designed by Walter Steilberg in 1921. Stielberg designed a whole compound of structures here, a larger house, and a studio sitting adjacent to this structure. The garages were, a ,uhh, snug. The assemblage serves an apt gateway to the neighborhood.

Like many hillside neighborhoods in Berkeley, the roads that run parallel to the hillside are bisected by steep stairs and paths, offering more direct routes up and down for residents. At 1 Panoramic, a stair leads you up into the forest , and a more magnificent stair. This is Orchard Lane, and its as magnificent a stair as there is in Berkeley. Here you are completely submerged by the now mature forest and its marvelously complete collection of 100 year old cottages and grander homes. Taken together, those garage cottages, larger homes, this stair, the forest, all form a complete in-tact 100 year old neighborhood.

Heading left from the base of this stair, a narrow path takes you up to Mosswood, and at the end of this street sits 37 Mosswood , designed by Walter Ratcliff and completed in 1911. Ratcliff was less prone to the whimsies of Coxhead and Maybeck, but his work was impeccable. Ratcliff’s firm is still in existence, now led by his grandson (I worked there for several years !).This house sits at the edge of the wilds to the east, and hovers over Strawberry Canyon to the north. The sounds of Cal Football games echo through the trees here, a reminder just how close one still is to the campus. The setting is magical.

This part of the hill is filled with so many charming moments, whether it be another delightful Garage /Cottage combo:

Or tiny stairs that seem more suitable for a cat, but have been repurposed as a miniature library/neighborhood bazaar.

Many of the homes in this first part of the walk expressed their unique place in the forested landscape through ample use of wood, with the placement of rooms with modest windows to enjoy the nearer views of the woods. But it is on the next tier , with homes built in the 40s and later, that we we see the home itself organized around more distant prospects.


Along Mosswood, we begin to see the next era of homes in the neighborhood, and first up is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Feldman House. The home was designed in 1939 for a client in Malibu, but was adapted for this site many years later, in 1974. It was executed by the Taliesen Foundation. The house is a prelude to Wright’s later Usonian Homes, smaller homes designed for the masses. It is hard to glean much from walking around the house, other than its signature horizontality.

A few online photos show a generous wrap-around terrace, and inside, Wright’s mid-century penchant for hexagonal space planning, which ensured the resident would need to sell all those dated orthagonal shaker tables.

Back at the end of Mosswood, take a deep breath and climb a particularly steep set of stairs and arrive at Arden.

On Arden, we have mostly left the early 20th century behind, as seen at 70 Arden. William Wurster was a leading practitioner of what became known as the Second Bay Region Style of this era. In this modest home completed in 1939, the home is organized to take full advantage of a more expansive view. In scale, this is simply an updated version of the Garage /Cottage seen on the lower blocks. But in this era, homes were marked by more horizontal gestures- large unbroken walls of glass, projecting balconies, sunshades, yet at the same time employing a liberal use of some of the same materials , in this case the same redwood.

The final home of note from this era is the most significant, the Havens House at 255 Panoramic. Designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris in 1940 , the client was a philanthropist by the name of Weston Havens, a decendent of Francis Shattuck, one of the founders of Berkeley. It features three extraordinary cantilevers- 2 balconies and a roof. The photograph below was taken by the surrealist photographer Man Ray in 1942. (Man Ray!)

It is interesting that it bears some affinity to Wright’s Falling Water, though Wright here is represented by a much more modest home. I found a lovely cross section that illustrates the home beautifully.:

The Havens House is currently owned by the University of California, and there are some wonderful photos on line.

One of the challenges for the walker in settings like this is the difficulty in actually seeing the homes, as they often sit far above or below the street. (That view of the Havens house is now impossible). It got me thinking as to which is preferable, to live above the road, and ascend to your living areas upon arrival, , or below the road, and descend to your living areas. As we moved into the 50s and beyond , the hill pitched more steeply, and those contrasts became more dramatic. I noted for the homes that sit below the road, a premium is placed on a tidy Garage. Despite an undoubtedly splendid 60’s spread below, and a Tesla in the Garage, no home can overcome the first impression of a Garage in such disarray. Open cans of varnish aren’t exactly a welcome mat.

50s and 60s

As the street winds through the woods, one sees more homes from the 50s and 60s, and the Second Bay Area Regional Style. A iconic example of this style hovers over the street- Warren Callister’s House at 3456 Dwight Way. A key characteristic of the this era was plenty of glass and exposed wood members arranged often in a post and beam layout, which dovetails nicely with traditional Japanese Architecture seen here .

As the walk continues, you begin to rise above the forest. The hills , more exposed, reveal dramatic housing lots with panoramic views of the entire Bay Area. These homes are often fully glazed, with wrap-around balconies offering the owner the ultimate in a celebration of California’s indoor/outdoor lifestyle, hovering gently above the hill below. Further up the the hill, an absolutely incredible site at 511 Dwight Place, finds this home from 1958, designed by John Hans Ostwald

The interior view of the home above is spectacular, and is as full expression as one can find of the mid-century Bay Region style. The city at your feet.

The 80s, and Leaving The City Behind

As we rise further, we enter the 80s . The homes now are few, as the landscape begins to take over. But one passes a final few estates. At 701 Panoramic, the Baum Residence, a home by Mark Mack from 1987, departs decidedly from the sensibilities below. The home is broken into distinct brightly colored forms, with a minimalist/industrial approach to detail

At this point though, the houses are secondary, as we are gifted with a stupendous view of the Bay Area across the street. No guardrail, save the flimsy orange stanchions, which seem to call out to the orange of the Golden Gate Bridge on the distant horizon.

From here, the road turns inward, away from the view. It is now a walk down a quiet country road. No cars, and urban clatter is replaced the by the sound of birds and rustle of squirrels or the occasional deer.

The road finally ends , and gives way to trails, and from here one can travel up and down the Bay Area Ridge, deep into the East Bay wilds. I still marvel at how quick this transition can occur in the Bay Area, and how extraordinary it is that these sorts of transitions are so close at hand.

Finally, into the wilds:

On this day, I returned from the peaks, descending with the sun to a popular spot to catch the sunset . Appropriately, its mostly Cal students who make the trip up. Its a stunning spectacle this time of year, the sun setting nearly on top of the Golden Gate.

Passing the many homes on the walk, I am of course envious, imagining life inside, often imagining this exact moment on one of those balconies, walking through the open glass doors with the cocktail tray , congratulating myself at the good fortune to own such a home. But alas, we live down there, on those flats far below, and this will have to do. A seat on a marvelous urban hillside at the confluence of two worlds, the wild forest behind to the east, and the city at your foot to the west. A bit of the rustic urban life for all.