It is rare for an investor to bid 17 times the minimum asking price at a house auction, especially when a condition of sale is moving the house to a different location. Yet that is exactly what Tom White and Dmitri Belser did when they purchased the Cheney Cottage from UC Berkeley in 2009. That house, along with a second house which shares the same lot, at 1632-34 62nd St., is now for sale, offered at $1.295 million by Thornwall Properties.
“The minimum bid on the house was one dollar, but I took a class in college called ’17’: 17 is an amazing number,” said Belser. “Also, we didn’t want to look cheap.”
The couple — who have made a business of buying and restoring old Berkeley homes to create affordable housing — were the only bidders on the historic cottage, which had been advertised on eBay and Craigslist. “I thought the bid amount was symbolic, but when we came to the closing, the university wanted their $17,” Belser said. “Luckily, we happened to have the cash on us.”
As it turns out, purchasing the house was the easy part. It took Belser and White about a year to secure the permits from Berkeley to move the house to its present location. The house had been cut in two when it was moved from the Cal campus to the university’s Gill Tract in Albany. It sat there, exposed to the elements, while the owners ran the gauntlet of the Berkeley permitting process. (Berkeleyside’s coverage of the Cheney Cottage’s move is here.)
And now the 1902 Cheney Cottage —which was landmarked when it was at its original location on College Avenue — sits next to the 1881 Delaney House, which is one of the oldest houses in South Berkeley. Both houses have been freshly painted in bright New Orleans colors which are quite distinctive on the quiet street. The owners found purple and green paint when they stripped the original lead paint off Cheney Cottage, and decided to celebrate the past when giving the house a new lease on life. The Delaney house also had a New Orleans vibe, as the family that bought the house in 1948 was from Louisiana and Texas.
The 1,600 square feet Cheney Cottage has three bedrooms, with a full bath upstairs and a half bath downstairs. Belser and White stripped all the paint from the extensive redwood trim of this house, which was designed by architect Carl Ericsson to resemble the Boke House on Panoramic Way. They re-shellacked the woodwork to capture the glow of the original finish. (See here for more on the Boke House, along with a photo of the Cheney Cottage in its previous incarnation at Cal in 2004.)
The 2,200 square foot Delaney House has four-plus bedrooms and two full baths, one upstairs and one down. Since the house had to be moved further back onto the large lot to accommodate the Cheney Cottage, Belser and White lifted the original house and built a new first floor in order to double its size. All the rooms of the original house have been converted into three-plus bedrooms upstairs, while the downstairs features an open plan living space with kitchen, master bedroom, and bath.
The Cheney Cottage was originally built by Warren and May Cheney as a rental house on their property, and was later sold to Cal and used as office space. The Delaney House always served as a single family home before the couple purchased it and turned it into a rental.
Both houses have all new electrical and plumbing; new seismic foundations; radiant heat; new (Cheney) and partially new (Delaney) roof; and re-imagined 40s-era metal kitchen cabinetry with new appliances.
There is a definite This Old House aesthetic to the entire project. “The Delaney House sat empty for 20 years before we bought it,” Belser said. “It was a wreck. There had been a squatter living in it, and it was all boarded up. There wasn’t even a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. Our agent thought we were nuts, and the seller’s agent said, ‘The house is free, but you are paying $285,000 for the land.’ Most people would have demolished this house, but we wouldn’t do it. We love old houses, and we were committed no matter what.”
Belser chuckled as he recounted the motto of the agent who sold them the Delaney House: “Making my client’s dreams come true.” We told him, “I bet you never thought that this house would make anyone’s dreams come true!”
Even though Belser and White both have full-time jobs, they love spending every spare waking moment working on old houses that others have given up on. These two homes are their fifth and sixth projects, Belser said. They hadn’t intended to sell the homes, but they need money for their next project, a brown shingle building that was moved from behind the Ace Hardware shop that used to be at 2145 University. (See Berkeleyside story on the move of that building.)
“We are committed to restoring old houses and creating affordable housing in Berkeley,” Belser said. “Not subsidized housing, just housing that’s affordable.” The two houses that are being sold are considered a “golden duplex,” Belser said, which means the new owner does not have to keep the current tenants now living in the Delaney House. (The Cheney Cottage is vacant.) Belser said he hopes the tenants can stay, though. “I believe that if you give people a beautiful house to live in, they take really good care of it. The tenants who had lived in the Chaney Cottage treated it like a museum, like the landmark house that it is,” he said.
Each of these two houses come with an unusual amount of Berkeley history. Belser and White documented some of this history in a blog. The next chapter of these historic buildings remains to be written.