There are more Julia Morgan-designed homes in Berkeley than anywhere else, but it’s rare when one comes on the market. Right now, one of her early commissions, a brown-shingle Bay Tradition house, is for sale at 1220 Spruce St. The 2,968-square-foot house, with five bedrooms and four baths, is offered by the Ratoosh Group at Marvin Gardens Real Estate. The price has just been dropped to $1.475 million.
Julia Morgan designed about 120 residential buildings in Berkeley, mostly private homes, according to Dr. Karen McNeill, a historian and leading expert on Morgan. About 80 of these buildings remain, although many have been turned into multi-unit houses, collective housing (including several coops), and non-residential units, McNeill said.
The Spruce house was designed in 1911, and has had two owners, both with deep connections to UC Berkeley. The first was a dentist and Cal professor, Robert Keys, who commissioned the house for himself and his wife, Annie. The second owners, Paul and Willa Baum, moved in in 1957.
“This is pretty typical for an early Julia Morgan house,” McNeill said. “She is known for creating the space that functioned best for her clients’ needs. Her houses are fantastic for circulation.”
Not all of Morgan’s clients were wealthy, McNeill said. Many, like the Keys, were academics and professionals. “It’s a fine house, but it doesn’t have the level of finishes and details that a wealthier person would have,” McNeill said. “A lot of her early houses were relatively modest.” She estimates that the house might have cost $10,000 to build, and Morgan usually charged 6% (in this case around $600) as her fee.
The house retains much of Morgan’s design, but it has been changed over the years. The kitchen was updated by the Baums around 1970, and therefore looks somewhat dated now. A bathroom was added on the first floor, and a screened-in porch on the side of the house was enclosed. The lower level was originally unfinished, but the Baums added a bathroom and kitchen and converted it into an in-law suite with a separate entrance. None of the bathrooms have been updated. The second owners built a two-story redwood deck along the back of the house, so the living room now opens onto a deck. Other modifications have also been made over the past century, but the house still retains the feel of an old Berkeley home.
The Baums bought the house at a foreclosure auction in 1957. Paul was a psychologist in private practice, and Willa was “the godmother of modern oral history,” McNeill said. Willa worked at Cal for more than 46 years, and was the director of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) for most of that time.
“She had a unique ability to persuade people from all walks of life, including some of the Bay Area’s most important movers and shakers, to sit still for … interviews and to draw from them significant details of their lives,” former Bancroft Library director Charles Faulhaber told SFGate . Willa interviewed nearly all of the governors of California, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and thousands of others.
“Every Monday night, my mother would have a family dinner where she would invite the most esoteric bunch of people, from someone she met at the store to the president of the university,” said Marc Baum, one of the couple’s six children. “We always had an interesting Monday night.”
Baum said that when he was growing up, he had no sense that he was living in a Julia Morgan house. “My parents just bought it because they got a great deal on it,” he said. The house had foundation problems at the time, and was in foreclosure. The Baums bought it for $10,000. “I think a lot of people were intimidated by the scope of the problem, but my father had a friend who was an engineer, and they got all the permits, and we haven’t had a problem with it since.” The house has had no seismic upgrades since then, Baum said.
The house features an entry hall, living room, formal dining room and kitchen on the first floor. There is also a small office and bathroom in what had been a screened-in porch. Several pieces of original stained glass remain in the house, but several look as though they have been moved to new locations or new cabinetry. Many of the original lighting fixtures remain as well.
There are four large bedrooms, spacious closets and two full baths on the second floor. There is one balcony with Bay views, and a sunny alcove attached to one of the bedrooms. (Probably an addition, according to McNeill.)
The lower level consists of an in-law unit with kitchen and bath, and has a separate entrance. The washer and drier are on that level, as well as a large storage room. The spacious back yard is accessible from this level, and from the living room via the deck.
The house is located in the Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood, and has a walk and bike score of 74, and a transit score of 50.
McNeill said she did not know the Baums had lived in that house, but she did have a memory of Willa. “She came to my very first public presentation, when I was a grad student working on Julia Morgan,” McNeill said. “I had never presented in public before, and I was totally nervous. Willa walked up to me and said, ‘Good talk, but you really should consider speech lessons’.”
Julia Morgan would have liked Willa Baum.