At some point every day, I go for a walk in my neighborhood in Berkeley. It is a modest neighborhood of mostly one-story bungalows , an occasional apartment building, and a scrappy commercial district . But every few blocks, there is a larger house or building that isn’t part of the pattern. And I am fascinated with these exceptions to the rule.
The Fish-Clark House
The first of these homes I pass sits on Dwight Way. It immediately catches your eye, primarily because it so much bigger than the homes around it. It sits on a bigger lot, and is surrounding by the classic trimmings of a Northern California rural farmhouse, vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and one colossal palm tree. These rural trimmings make sense, because its origins WERE in fact a farmhouse. And now it sits in the middle of the city.
This part of Berkeley was part of the 44,800-acre Rancho San Antonio granted to Luís María Peralta for his services to the Spanish Crown. In 1842, Peralta divided the lands among his four sons, and José Domingo Peralta (1795–1865) received the portion that today comprises much of Berkeley and Albany. Many years before it would be filled in with bungalows, this spacious plain between Bay and Hill was dotted with farms such as the Fish-Clark House.The home was built in the 1880s, a 4-acre “mini-farm” , and the house is a classic Victorian , popular in the day. A large gracious front porch , terrace above, and entry stair are particularly welcoming.
What struck me in walking by was how many different people I would see going in and out. And after some research, I discovered why. The larger than-it appears house has 16 bedrooms and a cottage out back, and is currently a co-living building, known as the “The Farmhouse”. 17 people live there, and rents run about $1,000/month for a room. Not minding room-mates is imperative:
As I dug further, I realized that this was the latest iteration in this home’s colorful history of communal living. The original owner sold the house after a few years, and by the 1920s it had been converted to 6 apartments. In the 1960s, as this neighborhood became a center for tectonic cultural and social change in Berkeley, it housed one “commune” after another. Among them, one that focused on the new concept of “solar energy”, another on the beginnings of computer science, a religious group, then a recovery organization. Here is a photo from the early 70s, the commune centered around the development of early computer bulletin boards and communication , “The Community Memory Project”. Berkeley!
There is a long tradition in the Bay Area of large homes hosting large communities. They still exist , but probably fewer in number. The Haight Ashbury and Mission Districts in San Francisco have been home to many of these types of set-ups, in no small part due to the often huge house itself. They were, and are, one answer to providing affordable rental housing. After moving to San Francisco and living in a studio apartment for a year, I entertained moving into one of these houses in the Haight to save money. I was “interviewed”by residents , who grilled me on my politics, and told me the Tuesday night drum circle, while not mandatory, would be good to join in on occasion. I found another studio. But home feels warm and welcoming, is clearly well taken care of, complete with chickens out front and plenty of chard out back.
The Leuders House
The second home I pass was born in the same era, but has had a completely different life. As the population of Berkeley slowly grew, the land became attractive to land speculators . and Jose Peralta sold most of his share to developers. And this was born “Peralta Park” , an elegant subdivision anchored by the luxurious, multi-turreted Peralta Park Hotel. The hotel was to be surrounded by large houses on spacious lots, circled in turn by medium-sized houses on standard lots. An early master planned community! The hotel looks almost menacing in this old photo:
The hotel became a boarding school, and eventually was part St. Mary’s High School, before finally burning to the ground years later. As for the “large houses on spacious lots”, one large home survives in its original location, the extraordinary “Lueders House” at 1311 Albina Street, that I pass weekly.
Julius A. Lueders, born in Germany, arrived with his family in San Francisco in 1877. He was in the perfume business, prospered, and moved his family from San Francisco to the new development in Peralta Park because his wife wanted to live in the country, and Peralta Park filled the bill. The Lueders house cost $4,900 to build and was likely from a pattern book. In addition to ten rooms on the first and second floors, there was a third-story attic with four rooms and surmounted with a bell-shaped cupola.
Julius and Anna Lueders had four children: Hilda, Frieda, Walter, and Edgar. Unlike the original Owner of the Fish-Clark , the Leuders family owned the home for many years. After Julius’s death, wife Anna continued to live in the large rambling home with the two sons, who never married. One of them, Edgar, then went on to live there til his death in 1971.
From the outside, the house is a bit mysterious. It towers over its neighbors, and is surrounded by an absolutely extraordinary thicket of tropical planting. Approaching, I often wonder what it must be like to live in the modest little bungalow to its left.
A gentleman by the name of Tom Roe , a local designer , builder, and collector specializing in home restoration, bought the home in 1972, and together with his partner, began 40 years of extraordinary restoration , a true labor of love. The home survived several small fires during the early years of his work, but he eventually realized his dream . It changed hands after his death 10 years ago. a few views from Realtor.com
The grounds are lavishly planted and have an exotic air, and when I walk by, I sometimes pause, half expecting to see a peacock or several brightly hued parrots. The house is in absolutely pristeen condition, and the grounds impeccable. There is literally not a palm frond out of place.
John Brennan House
The last story is about a house a couple of blocks away, one passed every few days. This home, like the previous two, was built in the same era, in 1885. A Canadian, John Brennan was a farmer and businessman, and one of the first trustees for the town of Berkeley. An early grainy photo from just after this home was built, shows the wide open spaces at the time. The house in question is at the left of the photo. The mountains of Marin in the distance. Imagine this landscape stuffed full of houses today.
Unlike the other two homes, the name associated with this house,Brennan, has lived on in Berkeley. John opened a saloon at the turn of the century, and many years later, a descendant opened Brennan’s Hofbrau on 4th and University in 1959. Brennan’s became an institution, one that I discovered and found, (as it sat right across from the train stop), a welcome respite from the day- a corned beef platter washed down with plenty of beer, and maybe a whiskey. Nothing better.
But this house has had a different life. Born at the same time as the others, and almost as large , its past is more mysterious. What isn’t a mystery, is that it has fallen into disrepair. Badly in need of maintenance, its’ lot is overgrown with unruly trees and weeds, with tattered curtains in the windows. I first thought it was abandoned.
I have never seen anyone there. One day a ladder was leaning precariously on the side of the house. The next day it was gone. There are several lights that come on outside at night. One October evening, not too long ago, as Halloween decorations started materializing on the street, I passed at dusk, and saw a shadowy figure moving slowly in front of a window. The curtains rustled. I paused, me a peeper, hoping to see who lived there.
But then quickly the heavy drapes were drawn shut. As it is Halloween, my imagination ran with it, convincing me I had seen an apparition- the house is haunted. Who lives in that house?
I find myself reflecting often on these three homes I pass on neighborhood walks. Born around the same time, about the same size, but with such different lives. One home to a revolving door of occupants , at times deeply connected to Berkeley’s periods of social change. The second , a huge old home occupied for years by a single immigrant family, and then home to an extraordinary craftsman who devotes his life to its restoration. And the third, a forgotten , and maybe haunted, legacy of one the most prominent names in Berkeley history.
Finally, in my digging up some history on these houses , I came across an interesting detail. John Brennan opened a saloon at the corner of University and San Pablo, and right next door, the daughter of Julius Leuders, Hilda, the one who didn’t live on in that big house, oversaw her husband’s hardware store. They must have know one another, Julius and Hilda, as members of two prominent early Berkeley families, working side by side by day, and returning to their luxurious victorian homes in the evening- the Leuders Home and the Brennan Home. Two homes that, unbeknownst to them, had very different futures in store.