Payson House. Photon: Alon Danino/City of Berkeley

A 132-year-old brown shingle house in North Berkeley bears an interesting history, but doesn’t warrant landmark preservation status under the city’s preservation laws, the City Council decided on Thursday.

The decision clears the way for the Payson House at 1915 Berryman St. to become a residential townhouse development with 10 units.

In making the ruling, the council upheld the August decision of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission denying protective status for the house. The city staff report for the appeal also recommended upholding the commission’s decision.

Payson House blocked by trees
The front of the Payson House is blocked by several live oak trees. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

About 70 Berkeley residents appealed the decision of the landmarks commission to the City Council. The January 21 appeal hearing was held remotely.

“I’m very, very sympathetic to the neighbors who are trying to preserve this structure,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who once served on the landmarks commission. “The lot is charming. The house itself does not speak to the standard I have for landmarking. It’s had many, many, many additions and alterations.”

Wengraf joined council members Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson, Ben Bartlett, Terry Taplin and Lori Droste in voting against the appeal. Councilmember Sophie Hahn, whose district includes the property, abstained. Councilmember Kate Harrison voted against the motion to deny the appeal. Mayor Jesse Arreguín was absent.

The appeal hearing started with confusion around the video link of the landmarks commission’s August meeting, which was provided by city staff to some council members but not others. Hahn hadn’t received the link and was upset, saying that all council members should have access to the same preparatory materials. “This is a really big problem,” she said.

Acting Planning Director Jordan Klein apologized and said the department was still adjusting to conducting business by Zoom, and didn’t have a system in place for sending commission meeting videos routinely to council members. All public meeting videos posted online must first be captioned, which takes time and money, Klein said, so the practice for commission meetings has been to do this only when receiving a public records request. This hasn’t routinely been done for council members, he said.

Klein said he was committed to a solution.

Hahn said she appreciated the explanation but it didn’t help with the matter at hand. “I’m going to note my concern that this doesn’t constitute a fair hearing for the appeal,” she said.

In her comments later, Hahn was supportive of some protection for the house. “It is rare for its time. It’s an example of a tradition from a very ornate Victorian style to a more honest and simple style that’s reflected in craftsman,” Hahn said. “A lot of houses built after copied it.”

She added: “This is the first brown shingle house in Berkeley, what is more endemic or iconic?

The house on Berryman Street was built in 1889 by the construction firm Lord & Boynton for William Payson, the co-founder of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley. It’s since been converted into multiple units through various renovations. Last fall, the house was sold to a Sunnyvale developer who wants to turn the 10,500 sq. ft. lot into a residential development called Bonita Row, with six townhouses containing 10 units.

Those supporting landmarking said it is historically significant as an architectural transition from Victorians to cottage-like Berkeley homes; one of the few remaining buildings of  Berkeley master builders, Lord & Boynton; and home to an influential historical figure, Payson, who was a lifelong Unitarian Church leader and Bay Area progressive political activist.

In the landmark application, architectural historian Daniella Thompson, wrote: “The Payson House is the oldest surviving building north of Rose Street and south of Hopkins Street between Shattuck and San Pablo avenues. . .  The Payson House retains integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association. Despite some exterior alterations carried out in 1925 and the mid-1940s, anyone who knew the house in its early days would still recognize it today.”

A presentation by supporters at the appeal hearing said: “The Payton House is a rare rustic Victorian built when most new houses were designed in the ornate Queen Ann style.” Supporters maintained that city landmarking isn’t reserved for structures that are beautiful, grand, or unblemished.

Many council members expressed sympathy for residents expressing their affection for the home, but the majority agreed with the landmarks commission and city staff in finding it simply didn’t rise to the significance needed for city landmark protection.

“In making its decision, the LPC found that the subject property and extant main building lack architectural merit and the necessary aspects of integrity, or direct connections to potentially significant individuals, organizations, and events that are important to Berkeley’s history or culture,” said the staff report for the appeal hearing.

They noted that there are more significant examples of buildings by Lord & Boyton in Berkeley, including Bonita House at 1401 Bonita St., and that the city landmarked the First Unitarian Church on Bancroft Way. It was built in 1898 and honors the Unitarian history in the city. The church is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

One issue of contention at the appeal was whether the residence of someone famous or notable is enough of a reason for preserving a structure. The staff report said:  “. . . as a best practice in the field of historic preservation, properties that are potentially significant as examples of professional design or engineering skill should be evaluated for architectural merit rather than historic value or significant persons.”

The report also cited a discussion of this issue at the landmarks commission’s August meeting.

“During the hearing, staff was asked to explain further why they did not recommend designation based on the property’s association with Payson given that LPC has previously designated the private residences of persons found to be significant to history. Referring to the report, staff cited the guiding practice from the National Park Service and California Historic Preservation Officer that would establish a direct link between the activities found to be significant to history and the location where they occurred,” the report said.

The landmarked Unitarian Church on Bancroft represents historical activities of the church more than Payson’s home, staff said.

But Harrison took issue with this interpretation of the city’s landmarking law. Otherwise, Harrison said, the city won’t be able to landmark Vice President Kamala Harris’s house “when it comes to us in a few months. .  She did not do what she did when she was eight years old,” Harris said.

Robinson, however, said he supports being cautious about landmarking based on who once lived there. “Berkeley is a city rich with significant people who history will remember, we’re lucky for that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we should landmark all of their homes. From Secretary Bob Reich to Rita Moreno who played Anita in West Side Story, who I adore so much, I worry about setting a precedent that will lead future LPC’s or future councils to landmarking a house just because they were once inhabited by Bob or Rita.”

“That doesn’t diminish their significance,” he added.

Former Secretary of Labor and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich lives near the Berryman property and was one of the neighbors who signed a letter in support of the landmark application.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...