Gifford McGrew House

Steven Finacom

McGrew House, 2601 Derby Street at Hillegass Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

23 June 2007

One of Berkeley’s most important and historic brown-shingle homes—with Maybeck connections, too—stands at 2601 Derby Street in the Willard neighborhood.

The residence—the five-bedroom, three-story Gifford McGrew House—embodies both a remarkable design history and character, and more than a century of Berkeley history.

Prominently situated on the corner of Derby Street and Hillegass Avenue, across from Willard Park, it was on the market for $1,595,000 in June 2007; it had last been marketed for $1,300,000 in 2004.

Although it’s by no means the only important Brown Shingle in its neighborhood and it’s far from what’s traditionally known as “Maybeck country” on the opposite, north, side of the U.C. Berkeley campus, this is a very significant structure from the Arts & Crafts era, in large part because of the collaboration between great minds represented by the design. It also appears remarkably unchanged and well-kept, despite being over a century old.

The house as it looked in its early years, seen from Derby Street (Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

The house was “designed by Maybeck and the owner with ideas contributed bytheir common friend, Charles Keeler” Maybeck’s biographer, Kenneth Cardwell, writes in Bernard Maybeck: Artisan, Architect, Artist.

And Leslie Freudenheim in Building with Nature characterizes the house as “designed by Bernard Maybeck, possibly executed by Charles Keeler, with advice from McGrew’s friend (Reverend) Joseph Worcester.”

There you have connections to three of the most important apostles—Maybeck, Keeler, and Worcester—of the architectural and cultural movement that brought Berkeley a distinctive brown-shingle aesthetic and still resonates today, well down the decades from their time.

Derby Street fa�ade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The contractor of record was A.H. Broad, one of Berkeley’s first elected town trustees, an artist, and a busy builder who left distinctive homes and early school buildings all over town, some of them now City Landmarks.

Cardwell writes that “The McGrew house and its predecessors became the examples of a ‘movement towards a simpler, a truer, a more vital art expression’ when, a few years later, Charles Keeler assumed the spokesman’s role for the modest house and ‘the simple life.’ ”

In 1895 Maybeck had designed the Keeler family home on Highland Place in a steep-roofed style very similar to the McGrew House. Keeler would publish his influential treatise The Simple Home in 1904, thus placing the McGrew house midway in time between Maybeck’s first brown-shingle commissions in Berkeley and the popularization of his design philosophy in Keeler’s book.

Charles Keeler House in 1902 (Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

The house was built for Gifford Horace Greeley McGrew (1851–1915) but he wasn’t, as some real-estate listings imply, “University Librarian,” although he was recorded in the 1910 U.S. census as a librarian at the University.

A 1978 obituary for McGrew’s daughter, Mary Edith, refers to her father as becoming “assistant librarian” at U.C. when the family arrived from Massachusetts in 1899. Joseph C. Rowell reigned then as University Librarian, and would not retire until 1919.

University directories from the era provide a listing of University “Officers” and their titles, including most faculty and staff. In his early years in Berkeley, the directory entries for McGrew don’t mention his title but do indicate that he was located in the Bacon Library, which was then the main library building on campus.

Later directories identify McGrew variously as an “Assistant to the Recorder” and “Clerk in the Recorder’s Office.” The Recorder of the Faculty was James Sutton, who held the position from 1891 to 1929. The Recorder’s Office was then responsible for various functions such as overseeing the admissions process and keeping track of student grades and academic credits.

From this fragmentary information it appears that McGrew held various University positions, working initially in the Library but later serving on what we would now call the administrative staff of the University. Full details of his University employment await further research.

The mistaking of University titles is a common failing in Berkeley real-estate advertising and in some historical accounts. Often some fragmentary history or family recollection is relied on to state that the previous owner of a house was a leading professor, or dean, head of a department or some other campus dignitary. Sometimes this is true, but often furtherresearch reveals that the titles weren’t as exalted or the individual wasn’t even in the department or academic discipline claimed.

I would encourage anyone preparing such listings to consult the University directories—you can find many of them in the reading room of the Bancroft Library—to learn the exact title(s) of a given individual over the years. Detailed obituaries of most University faculty and leading staff can also be found online as part of the “In Memoriam” section of the University of California History Digital Archives, where you can search by last name.

First Unitarian Church, currently U.C. Dance Facility (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The McGrews were Unitarians, so their social lives intersected at Berkeley’s First Unitarian Church—itself a Craftsman masterpiece still standing at Dana Street and Bancroft Way, now used as the University’s Dance Facility—with a number of other local families, including the Maybecks, the Keelers, the Moodys, and the Freemans, who were all involved in the “building with nature” movement.

Mary Edith McGrew (1882–1978) attended Cal and, upon graduation in 1903, won the University Medal, awarded to the most distinguished graduate of the year. U.S. census records listed her as a teacher in a girls’ college in 1910 and a mathematics teacher at the University in 1920. For 36 years she was principal of Berkeley’s then-prominent private college prep, the A-to-Zed School. She died at 96.

There have been several owners and some remodeling and structural upgrades at the house since then.

A tour of the house is a step back into Berkeley’s end-of-the-19th-century era, when Craftsman design was new and innovative, and the community was still growing up—and, not least, when a staff member at the University could afford to buy a lot and build what was then a three-story, four-bedroom, house seven blocks from the campus. (Before the house was completed, the McGrews boarded a block away, at 2601 Parker Street.)

Front entrance (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The front door is off Derby Street, midway on the side of the long ground floor and indented beneath a substantial overhang. In some buildings this arrangement would look awkward, with the mass of the second floor jutting out over the entry and supported on a corner post that descends to the ground. In this house, however, it forms an handsome entry, bracketed with window boxes, and gives the approach to the house a sense of seclusion, although the front door is only a few steps off the public sidewalk.

Entry hall (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The spacious entry hall frames a wonderful, gleaming staircase that ascends to a landing, then doubles back and up to the second floor.

Living room (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

To the left is the long, rectangular, living room said to be 27 feet long. A fireplace is on the long north wall, near one end, forming a cosy corner for sitting, as opposed to many similar houses where the fireplace and mantle are primarily visual set-pieces centered on a main wall.

A quadruple casement window runs across the west end of the room, and there are smaller windows on the long, Derby Street, side.

Off-center, clinker-brick fireplace in the living room (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

There are wall sconces and, some of the ceiling beams are punctuated by bare light bulbs, often seen in Maybeck designs. The exaltation of the light bulb may seem odd, but remember that houses like this were built in an era when electricity was first being adapted to residences to replace gas lighting, and a globe of glass that magically glowed with light was not simply utilitarian, but a decorative object.

Dining room (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Turn in the other direction, and there’s an ample dining room with a brick fireplace and built-in cabinetry. As in the living room, the space is asymmetrical but pleasant. Windows look out to the east towards the secluded “back” yard (really a side yard, the way the house is oriented). The fireplace is centered on the north wall, with a set of glass and wood fronted cabinets tucked in the corner to its left. A vaguely medieval amberishlight fixture hangs over the dining table.

Dining room cabinets & fireplace (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The kitchen, at the rear of the ground floor beyond the stairwell, and connected to the dining room by a door past the fireplace, is the one major disappointment in the house.

The floor is covered with big, square, terra cotta pavers more suitable to a suburban hacienda, and the cabinets and counters have a Home Depot-ish air completely at odds with the rest of the house. Although the wood of the walls and ceiling can be seen, it has been painted—perhaps many times—bright white.

The kitchen's breakfast alcove and garden door (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

This is a change since 1996, when the house was featured on a BAHA tour. At that time (so the tour brochure tells us), the kitchen was “fairly original—enameled paneled walls, deep ceiling beams, plank floor...” That original floor, alas, has since disappeared (but may still lie concealed) beneath the clunky tiles.

Off the kitchen in one direction there’s a narrow room for laundry, also painted white, tucked in under the main staircase. On the other side of the kitchen a little, generously windowed, breakfast nook opens to the garden, and a passage leads to what one real-estate listing described as a cottage but is more of a single, rustic room connected to the house and adjoined by a little kitchen and a bathroom with shower. French doors open from the “cottage” to a secluded patio.

Cottage garden entrance

The cottage has a fenced private courtyard. (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Cottage kitchen (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Cottage interior (photo: Sam Sargeant, courtesy of Tricia Swift, Grubb Co.)

Cottage kitchen (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The eastern yard is not that large, but a little more extensive than it seems from the street. Fence, trees, and a clambering red trumpet vine wall the garden off from the Derby Street sidewalk. It’s a green space with a little lawn, weathered wooden fences, and panels of greenery.

East fa�ade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The opposite, west yard used to be the front garden extending out to the Hillegass Ave. sidewalk. Years ago, the house was complemented by a gem-like, perfectly tended lawn on this side. Earlier pictures show the lawn was once framed by low, clipped hedges along the sidewalk.

Later, however, the space was fenced in along the Hillegass frontage. There’s a gate for cars, and the garden is a part-graveled parking area. There’s also a little Craftsman-like pergola or roofed entry gate. Perched near the front corner of the lot, it was presumably designed to fit in with the house but looks out of place, as a sentry box can sometimes seem outside a palace.

Gate to west yard (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

West fa�ade from yard (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Back inside the house, the main stairs pause at a wide, windowed landing, where a side door conceals a tiny, handsome half-bathroom with gleaming wood floors and walls.

Stair landing (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)
  A short side-stair off the other side of the landing leads up to the only full bathroom on the second floor, which also communicates with one of the four bedrooms on that level. This bathroom arrangement is rather awkward, since to use the bathroom, occupants of three of the four bedrooms on the floor have to walk down the hall and part-way down the main staircase, then back up the short side-stair to the bathroom door. One imagines that future owners will alter this somehow—probably with another bathroom carved out of closets or parts of bedrooms—hopefully not to the detriment of the character of the house.
Bathroom seen from stair landing (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Second floor hallway (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The staircase debouches into the ample second-floor hall, surrounded by bedrooms. The northeast one at the rear is situated directly above the kitchen and takes advantage of the plumbing in being adjacent to the bathroom. It is a large room but narrow, having lost some space to its front neighbor on the southeast. That one is currently set up as a study or library and is the only room in the house whose ceiling joists are paneled over. The paneling may have been done at the same time that storage space for this room was carved out of the rear bedroom.

East bedrooms. The room on the right gained storage space at the expense of the one on the left. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Northeast bedroom, facing east

Southeast bedroom or library

Northeast bedroom, facing west. Bathroom is to to the right.

Bedroom over the front entrance (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The smallest bedroom, directly across from the stairs, overhangs the entrance and is unaltered with the exception of its front window, now a double casement but originally a diamond-paned triple. Miss McGrew, whose bedroom it was, told BAHA’s Anthony Bruce that the diamond-paned window didn’t bring in sufficient light and was replaced early on.

The fourth bedroom at the west end, apparently the original master bedroom, is extremely large, with a corner fireplace and a door that opens onto a wide, west-facing balcony with massive ornamental railing and balusters, all of it supported on the extended end of the living room below.

The master bedroom opens out to the west balcony via the door on the right. (photo: Sam Sargeant, courtesy of Tricia Swift, Grubb Co.)

The master bedroom’s fireplace shares a chimney with the living room below. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Master bedroom fireplace (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Stairs to attic (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)
  From the second floor hall, a smaller staircase behind a door ascends to the attic, which is almost a full residence in itself. The steep roofs allow for high, vaulted ceilings, the structure of two roof gables perpendicular to each other subdivides the space into separate volumes, and an interesting, partially open bathroom is tucked away in one corner (one acquaintance who explored it during an Open House told me he bumped his head on the ceiling when getting up off the toilet).

Attic sitting area (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

I don’t imagine this attic space is as it was when built—although it has some small original windows in the end gables, it was probably a much more utilitarian storage area, not a living space. But the remodels have made it into a remarkable, comfortable area—one of those unexpected treasures it’s a delight to come across in a Berkeley house.

Here the 1996 BAHA tour brochure is again of help in identifying areas of change, noting the attic “was finished in character with the rest of the house by the second owner in about 1984. Mahagony plywood was used as a present-day substitute for redwood—as paneling, to form box beams, and in layers for half-timber-like ornament in the gable ends...”

Attic bedroom

(photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Skylights, a freestanding stove on a masonry hearth, and a huge west-facing window and small balcony complete this impressive level. The segmented window on the west was added in the 1980s if I remember correctly and is, from the outside, the most visible change to the house, since it adds a huge dormer to what Maybeck had designed as an steeply pitched, uninterrupted, roof.

Although it altered a primary fa�ade, it was done quite contextually and helps create a wonderful space inside. Although the casement windows are as big as doors and open, one actually steps up a bit to the small balcony outside.

Attic stove (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

From top to bottom—in most areas save the kitchen and laundry room—theMcGrew House is a treasury of unpainted and original woodwork: polished floors and old-growth redwood paneling, exposed beams, and trim.

Wide, vertical boards with narrow battens cover most of the interior walls, the structure of the ceiling is creatively exposed, and there are several clever built-ins at various levels. The ceilings are especially remarkable. Maybeck (or Keeler, McGrew, or Worcester) left the structural joists exposed in most places to form a sort of “honest” beamed ceiling, rather than hiding the joists behind a layer of plaster or wood paneling and attaching fake, boxed beams to the underside. It sounds awkward, but it really works in this house, particularly given the level of craftsmanship in the woodwork.

Exposed ceiling structure in the stairwell (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

In some spaces, what might be considered very simple but still decorative approaches were applied to the ceiling. In the living room, for instance, the open structure was altered with “a ceiling of interwoven large and far larger hollow box beams,” as the 1996 tour brochure notes. The same type of treatment may be observed in the dining room ceiling. The effect is one of increased luxury, while still being similar to the rest of the house.

It’s possible to honestly mourn the ancient trees felled over a century ago to supply this much clear-heart redwood while still admiring the house as a wonderful human artifact.

Most of the windows are finely crafted and appear original. Some have casements with true divided lights, while others are divided into tiny, diamond panes, giving parts of the house, inside and out, the air of an old, Northern European home—something that the designers no doubt intended.

A view toward Derby St. from the northeast bedroom (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

There are three intentionally simple red brick fireplaces (living room, dining room, master bedroom) and period light fixtures—or at least good facsimiles—in most key locations.

This is a magnificent, complex, beautiful house and a Berkeley treasure. It also, sadly, has no landmark protection as of this writing in June 2007.

Some modifications will probably be made as the house is sold and resold over the years. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a new owner paying $1.6 million and not wanting more than one bathroom on the second floor.

But a new owner insensitive to character and history could also drastically alter this house, as was recently done in 2006 to another corner brown shingle a few blocks away on Regent Street. That house, meticulously restored by a previous owner, lost most of its garden and its brown-shingle exterior in a remodel by new owners with quite a different taste.

It would be a national architectural loss and a severe visual and cultural tragedy for Berkeley if the McGrew House ended up in a similar state on the exterior, or was drastically altered on the inside or insensitively expanded. One imagines what damage a new resident who likes “bright” rooms could do to all that original redwood with a brush, roller, and several gallons of white paint.

The McGrew House is a remarkable piece of local heritage and should be not only a City of Berkeley Landmark, but nominated to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the early evolution of “Bay Region” architecture.

Ceiling beams catch the afternoon sun. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

An interesting sampling of older interior and exterior photos of the house, taken years ago by Kenneth Cardwell, can be found at the U.C. Slide and Photograph Image Retrieval Online by doing a keyword search on McGrew and House.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 22 June 2007.

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