Arts & Crafts on the fire’s edge

Daniella Thompson

6 February 2006

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005

Rounding the bend from La Loma Avenue onto Le Conte Avenue on Berkeley’s Northside, the eye can’t miss a large brown-shingle structure in mid-block. Crowned by cascades of steep overlapping gables, this quintessentially Arts & Crafts building sports a curious appendage on its southeast corner: an octagonal turret with a domed roof previously covered with mosaics but now bare.

The story of the house at 2667–2669 Le Conte Avenue is full of twists and turns, as is the case with so many other historic houses in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract just north of the U.C. campus. Built 95 years ago, the house’s fortunes have faithfully mirrored those of the near-century of its existence.

The house was designed in 1911 as a duplex by the eclectic architect John Hudson Thomas. A student of John Galen Howard’s and Bernard Maybeck’s, Thomas drew inspiration for his idiosyncratic style from early 20th-century European and American avant-garde architecture, and especially from the Glasgow School (Charles Rennie Mackintosh), the Vienna Secession (Otto Wagner), and the Prairie School (Frank Lloyd Wright).

Thomas’ client was Laura Belle Marsh Kluegel, a widow who had lived in the neighborhood since 1905 and had close ties to the Maybeck-Keeler circle. With Maybeck as their guru and Charles Keeler as their spokesman, the residents of Daley’s Scenic Park were determined to build their homes in harmony with nature. They founded the Hillside Club in 1898 “to protect the hills of Berkeley from unsightly grading and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses; to do all in our power to beautify these hills and above all to create and encourage a decided public opinion on these subjects.”

The Kluegel House when new (Architect & Engineer, July 1913, courtesy of Jim Stetson)

The new houses that went up in this district were clad in unpainted shingled, and their steep roofs echoed the contours of the surrounding hills and trees. The style that evolved here is known as the First Bay Region Tradition and is widely considered to be Berkeley’s most significant contribution to architecture.

The Hillside Club also took charge of surveying and laying out the neighborhood streets with “an artistic treatment of grades and retaining walls, which would take into consideration the preservation of the live-oaks and involve as little alteration as possible of the present topography.” At the time, several large Coast Live Oaks grew in the center of Le Conte Avenue. When city workers removed one of these oaks in 1919, the neighbors dispatched a stern letter to the City Council, decrying this “high-handed measure” and stressing that the native trees are “the most prized asset of [the] district and are absolutely invaluable, in that they can never be replaced.”

Mrs. Kluegel—the younger sister of Mrs. Allen G. Freeman of Allanoke—owned an art furnishing and interior design store on Telegraph Avenue and was a longtime member of the Cooper Ornithological Club. The preference for a shingled home was probably hers, since John Hudson Thomas designed primarily in stucco, and his original working drawings specified a stucco exterior. Of all the original commissions Thomas designed during his solo career (1911–1945), the Kluegel house appears to be the only fully shingled one.

The Kluegel House in 1923 (published in “The Berkeley Fire, Memoirs and Mementos”)

Around 1919, Mrs. Kluegel moved to Carmel, where she was one of the founding members of the Carmel Art Association. She rented her former Berkeley residence to Robert Sibley, professor of mechanical engineering and future executive manager of the U.C. Alumni Association, who would lead the movement that resulted in the 1933 legislation establishing the East Bay Regional Park District on EBMUD surplus watershed lands. Sibley, who would later inherit the Freemans’ Allanoke, was still in residence in the Kluegel house when the great Berkeley Fire of 1923 ravaged Daley’s Scenic Park. The Kluegel house has the distinction of being the westernmost house on its block to have survived the fire, which passed between it and the adjacent house.

Subsequent resident-owners of the duplex rented some of their rooms to students; during World War II, even shipyard workers are reported to have roomed there. After the war, the two dwellings were owned and occupied by the families of two young professors—Charles Richard Grau and Sigurd Burckhardt—the former a future world expert in avian science and the latter a distinguished literary critic.

Kluegel House fašade in 1972 (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

From 1950 to 1976, the Kluegel house was a rooming house serving University of California co-eds. In 1976, at a time when many American were looking toward East Asia for spiritual renewal, the house was purchased by the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation of Sikh Dharma. For the next twenty years, it was a Sikh ashram, Kundalini yoga center, and residential commune. The Sikhs needed a place to house their religious shrine, and that’s how the domed turret came into being.

Happily, the building is large enough so that this peculiar addition (also shingled) does not significantly affect its overall appearance. Sufficient historic fabric and character-defining features remain to convey its historic significance.

The Kluegel House was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 6 April 2006. Additional information and images are provided in the landmark application.

A former version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet, 3 March 2006, under the title “Arts & Crafts on the Fire’s Edge.”



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